Richard Ostling

Israel faces a possible turning point on 17th of September, with religion at the heart of it

Israel faces a possible turning point on 17th of September, with religion at the heart of it

While rehashing the Miftah-inspired — www.miftah.org — feud between U.S. Muslim Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib and Israel, U.S. and international media should also be focusing on Israel’s September 17 elections. Vivian Bercovici, Canada’s former ambassador to Israel (in 2014-16), sees a dangerous internal split perhaps unmatched since modern Israel was founded in 1948 – or even since the 1st Century.

Media without bureaus in Israel (and that’s most of them) should be planning coverage by in-house staffers or freelance experts before and/or after the vote. They will benefit from Bercovici’s opinion piece in the summer issue of Commentary magazine and Marcy Oster’s objective roundup on the tangled parties and pols for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Israel, of course, faces endless conflict with Palestinians. But there’s an increasingly troublesome internal struggle involving a minority of “ultra-Orthodox” Haredim (a term meaning those who “tremble” before God), currently 12 percent of the population and growing steadily. (They are distinct from the equally devout Hasidim and the less rigorist modern Orthodox.)

The conflict centers on exemption from the military draft for 130,000 Haredi men who study Torah and Talmud full-time. Bercovici, an attorney living in Tel Aviv, contends that the resulting burden on the national population is divisive, unfair and has become ‘financially and ethically unsustainable.”

Journalists must note: There is no way to escape the religious issues linked to these conflicts.

The system dates from a compromise by the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who exempted the tiny band of 400 such students to soften resistance by the Orthodox who believed modern Israel should not be founded before the Messiah appeared (as depicted in Chaim Potok’s classic 1967 novel “The Chosen”).

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The church vs. the Sexual Revolution: What is 'purity culture' and why is it in the news?

The church vs. the Sexual Revolution: What is 'purity culture' and why is it in the news?

THE QUESTION:

What is “purity culture,” and why is it in the news?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

A particular U.S. Protestant campaign born in the 1990s sought to urge teens and young adults to follow the age-old Christian (also Jewish, Muslim, etc.) teaching against sexual relations before marriage. Outsiders and opponents called this the “purity culture” movement, and it’s currently in the news and the subject of intense online debate.

That “purity” label is confusing because critics of the phenomenon are not just secularists or those who scoff at old-fashioned morality. Conservatives who likewise advocate the sexual “purity’ taught in Christian tradition raise some of the most pointed objections to this movement’s specific theology, techniques, and claims.

The cause originated in 1993 with sex education materials under the “True Love Waits’ banner issued by the publishing arm of America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Within just one year of existence a Washington, D.C. rally drew 25,000 youths and displayed 210,000 sexual abstinence pledge cards on the National Mall.

The movement appealed to many moms and dads who were wounded by the sexual libertinism that began in the 1960s and wanted more wholesome relationships for their own children, fretting over increases in sexually transmitted disease, unwed pregnancy and divorce. The pledges of abstinence until marriage were reinforced by wearing rings popularized from 1995 onward by The Silver Ring Thing organization, reconfigured last year as Unaltered Ministries. Instead of high school proms, some churches held “purity balls” where dads escorted daughters.

The movement is back in the news due to its primary celebrity guru, Joshua Harris, who at a tender age 21 wrote “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.”

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Will everybody reach heaven? Are fights over hell about to grab some more headlines?

Will everybody reach heaven? Are fights over hell about to grab some more headlines?

Chances are churches frequented by your readers and listeners rarely if ever offer sermons about hell and damnation these days. And yet this rather unpleasant topic is eternally (so to speak) fascinating, and may be about to grab some headlines. That’s due to Eastern Orthodox lay theologian David Bentley Hart's acerbic Sep. 24 release from Yale University Press “That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, & Universal Salvation.”

Sample sentences: “No one, logically speaking, could merit eternal punishment.”

Also this: “If Christianity is in any way true, Christians dare not doubt the salvation of all,”

Yes, Hart is a Hitler-in-heaven sort of guy (see page 38), and your sources will have interesting responses. Lest Hart seem a rank heretic, the Very Rev. John Behr of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary blurbs that this book presents “the promise that, in the end, all will indeed be saved, and exposing the inadequacy — above all moral — of claims to the contrary.”

Heretofore Hart was better known for ridiculing non-belief, as in “Atheist Delusions.” The prolific author has held a succession of university appointments, most recently as a University of Notre Dame fellow. Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths (in the news when he resigned over Duke University’s “diversity” policy) proclaims Hart “the most eminent” theologian in the English-speaking world.

Terms Hart applies to centuries of traditional orthodox and Orthodox doctrines on hell and damnation include “absurd,” “ludicrous,” “nonsensical,” “incoherent,” “horrid,” “degrading,” “loathsome,” “diseased,” “perverse,” “cruel,” “wicked” and “morally repugnant.” He is mainly offended by the idea that punishment is everlasting, on grounds that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Hart is open to some sort of cleansing to make sorry souls fit for heaven, but doesn’t spell out any version of Western Catholicism’s Purgatory.

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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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Headline news: Americans’ cup of religious knowledge appears to be half empty

Headline news: Americans’ cup of religious knowledge appears to be half empty

Are old-school newswriters just too pessimistic by nature?

The Religion Guy admits he sees a cup that’s half empty, rather than half full, in pondering a new survey of Americans’ factual knowledge about religions conducted by the ubiquitous Pew Research Center.

Here’s one of the 32 multiple choice questions Pew posed to 10,971 adults in February: “According to the Gospels, who delivered the Sermon on the Mount?” A paper-thin majority (51 percent) correctly chose Jesus — not John, Paul or Peter.

Folks, this is the most celebrated religious discourse in human history. A slightly more promising 56 percent knew that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, not Bethlehem, Jericho or Jerusalem.

Less surprising, yet no less troubling given America’s increasingly diverse culture, only 60 percent knew that Islam observes the month of Ramadan (not Buddhism, Hinduism or Judaism), while 42 percent were aware that Sikhs wear turbans and small daggers (not Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists). More surprising, only 24 percent could identify Jews’ Rosh Hashana (New Year).

A generation ago, The Guy’s typical upstate New York hometown had roughly equal numbers of Protestants and Catholics, one synagogue and a couple Eastern Orthodox churches, with most residents identified with one faith or another. In that monocultural environment, most students, The Guy included, would have flunked on Buddhism or Hinduism. But it’s hard to imagine classmates wouldn’t know who led Israel’s biblical Exodus from Egypt (missed by 21 percent of Pew respondents) or what Easter celebrates (missed by 19 percent). Something happened.

Fact number one for the media to consider: American adults on average got less than half the answers right, 14.2 out of the 32, (Pew ran a similar survey in 2010, but the questions weren’t comparable so there’s no trend line.)

Religion News Service columnist Mark Silk took Pew’s online test of sample questions and candidly admitted he missed the one about Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. He then made the really important point here, reaffirming Stephen Prothero’s 2008 book “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- And Doesn't.”

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What about #MeToo 3,000 years ago: Should King David or Bathsheba get the blame?

What about #MeToo 3,000 years ago: Should King David or Bathsheba get the blame?

It’s the most notorious sexual encounter of ancient times.

In a remarkably candid account in the Bible (2d Samuel chapters 11 and 12), the great King David impregnates Bathsheba when both were married to others.

In the 21st Century, and especially with the recent rise of the #ChurchToo wing of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, there’s vigorous debate in print and online about whether Bathsheba intended to lure the king’s attentions, or the two shared equal blame for adultery, or David alone was responsible.

Last week on Patheos.com, Jonathan Aigner satirized an old-fashioned attitude (often the work of male writers) by listing this among mock themes for youngsters’ summertime Vacation Bible School: “It Was All Her Fault: How Bathsheba Trapped David.” Such was the tone of some classic paintings or Susan Hayward’s portrayal opposite Gregory Peck in Hollywood’s popular “David and Bathsheba” (1951).

Or consider reference works favored today among conservative Protestants. The “NIV Study Bible” says “Bathsheba appears to have been an unprotesting partner” in sexual sin, and Charles Ryrie’s study Bible agrees that she “evidently was not an unwilling participant.” The “ESV Study Bible” even brands Bathsheba someone of “questionable character.”

On similar lines, noted Jewish commentator Robert Alter of the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in 1999 that the Hebrew text may intimate “an element of active participation by Bathsheba in David’s sexual summons,” raising the possibility of “opportunism, not merely passive submission,” on her part.

But the “Women’s Study Bible” (2009) states that “adultery” signals mutual consent whereas this situation “was probably closer to rape.”

Other modern analysts insist it was “rape,” period. What’s going on here?

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Has this historic term -- 'fundamentalist' -- outlived its usefulness as journalistic lingo?

Has this historic term -- 'fundamentalist' -- outlived its usefulness as journalistic lingo?

Believers who perpetuate the prophet Joseph Smith’s polygamy teaching are commonly called “Mormon fundamentalists” in the media, which is, presumably, one reason President Russell Nelson wants to shed the familiar “Mormon” name for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which forbids polygamy.

Meanwhile, debate persists over the frequent term “Muslim fundamentalists” for politicized or violent groups more precisely called “Islamists” or hyper-traditionalist “Salafis.”

The Religion Guy is now wondering whether the F-word has become so problematic that the news media should drop it altogether.

I say that because of a July 21 New York Times book review of Amber Scorah’s book “Leaving the Witness,” about her experiences within, and eventual defection from, Jehovah’s Witnesses.

(The Guy has not seen Scorah’s opus, but it’s hard to imagine it outclasses the superb pioneering Witnesses memoir “Visions of Glory” by the late Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, which goes unmentioned in the Times. While Scorah has left God behind, dropout Harrison turned Catholic.)

Reviewer C. E. Morgan, who teaches creative writing in Harvard Divinity School’s ministry program, repeatedly calls the Witnesses “fundamentalists,” which — historically speaking — is a religious category mistake of the first order.

Thus the question arises: If teachers at Ivy League theology schools, and copy editors at the nation’s most influential newspaper, don’t know what “fundamentalism” is (even as defined in the Associated Press Stylebook), maybe it’s time for the media to banish the word.

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Keeping up 2.0: The transgender movement continues to pose media quandaries

Keeping up 2.0: The transgender movement continues to pose media quandaries

The Religion Guy examined aspects of transgender coverage last fall, but this delicate topic continues to pose media quandaries.

We sidestep here the substantive discussion among religious groups, which is well worth attention. All of these issues will show up in coverage of debates inside and among religious groups.

For starters, should journalists apply “nonbinary” pronouns preferred by persons they cover?

The New York Times, long an arbiter of copy desk standards, has experimented with allowing the “mx” identifier. Other proposed neologisms include e.g. thon, hir, ze, zie, zir, xe, xir, xyr, xem, xer, xeir, xis, hirself and zirself. Problem is, even media that want to sidestep old male-female lingo lack substitutes that won’t perplex readers.

The purpose of copy style is to avoid confusion. We see this problem in a paywalled Times item July 5 to conclude the WorldPride celebration, under the hed “’Gay’ - ‘Femme’ - ‘Nonbinary’: How Identity Shaped These 10 New Yorkers.”

One of the spread’s three pages covered a New Yorker born male who now identifies as “nonbinary trans-femme,” but avoids female hormone therapy due to hopes of having children with the female spouse. The Times followed the subject’s insistence on using ambiguous plural pronouns (they, them, their). As a result, head-scratching readers had trouble figuring whether pronouns referred to the individual or the couple.

Given the traditions and structure of the English language, there are no easy solutions here, and copy editors can expect years of debate, agitation and flux.

Th at earlier Guy Memo noted that Facebook recognizes 50-some identities and writers need to know at least key labels beyond the older LGBT as defined by Yale Divinity School:

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Wake up, reporters: Some Muslims are calling for a boycott of their faith’s holiest festival

Wake up, reporters: Some Muslims are calling for a boycott of their faith’s holiest festival

Each adult believer in Islam is required to make the Hajj (pilgrimage) to the Prophet Muhammad’s holy city of Mecca at least once in a lifetime, unless unable physically or financially.

Some believers repeat this unique experience. The media usually relegate the annual ritual to news features, but this year’s event August 9- 14 is laden with spot news significance.

That’s because ongoing tensions in the Muslim world have produced a campaign to boycott the current Hajj — a nearly unimaginable break with tradition that has received scant coverage in the West. Western reporters should pursue reactions to this in their regions with Muslim sources and agencies that cater to pilgrims. How many believers have postponed Hajj visits till future years after things calm down?

The boycotters are protesting the devoutly Sunni host nation of Saudi Arabia and its ruler since 2017, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (“MBS”). The particular grievances are the Saudis’ prosecution of Yemen’s vicious civil war, ongoing hostilities with Iran and toward Islam’s minority Shia branch, and human rights violations, including the murder of a regime critic, The Washington Post ‘s Jamal Khashoggi.

An anti-Saudi analysis at foreignpolicy.com by Ahmed Twaij of Iraq’s Sanad for Peacebuilding notes that in April Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Ghariani, Libya’s chief Sunni authority, declared that making a repeat Hajj visit or the Umrah (voluntary pilgrimage to Mecca at other times of the year) is “an act of sin rather than a good deed.”

In June, a senior official with Tunisia’s Union of Imams joined boycott calls, saying Saudi income from Hajj visits “is used to kill and displace people,” as in Yemen, instead of helping the world’s impoverished Muslims. Twaij reports that “Sunni clerics around the world have also called for a boycott,” whereas past enmity toward the Saudi regime has come largely from Shia Muslims.

Most remarkable of all was a fatwa last August from Qatar’s Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is very influential among Mideast Sunnis through his Al Jazeera TV appearances and Internet postings. His words could be interpreted as undercutting even the obligatory once-in-a-lifetime Hajj: “Seeing Muslims feeding the hungry, treating the sick and sheltering the homeless are better viewed by Allah than spending money on the Hajj and Umrah every year.”

Some of this campaign could be payback for the recent years when Saudi Arabia barred believers from Qatar and Iran from joining the pilgrimage, or helped repress a Shia uprising in Bahrain.

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