World Religions

Evil, sin, reality and life as a 'Son of God': What Marianne Williamson is saying isn't new

Evil, sin, reality and life as a 'Son of God': What Marianne Williamson is saying isn't new

Early in the 1990s, I made the leap from full-time reporting in a mainstream newsroom — the Rocky Mountain News (RIP) — to teaching at Denver Seminary.

My goal was to pull “signals” from mainstream media into the world of people preparing for various ministries (key summary document here), helping them to face the ideas, symbols and stories that were shaping ordinary Americans, in pews and outside traditional religious groups. I wanted to pay attention to valid questions, even if traditional believers couldn’t embrace the media world’s answers.

In my main class, I needed a book that could open a door into what I called “Oprah America.” Thus, in 1992, I required my students to read “A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles,” by Marianne Williamson. Some of these evangelical students were not amused.

This, of course, leads us to that massive New York Times feature that ran the other day:

The Curious Mystical Text Behind Marianne Williamson’s Presidential Bid

The New Age author was drawn to an esoteric bible in the 1970s. It made her a self-help megastar. And now it has gone mainstream.

To my shock, the world’s newspaper of record dedicated large chunks of newsprint to the religious content — the doctrine, even — at the heart of Williamson’s life, ministry and her politics. I would say this story gets the equation about 75 percent right, but the Times team needed to back up a bit further in order to understand why so many Americans will — if told the roots of her thought — find her beliefs disturbing.

Hold that thought. Here’s the key question: How would the Times, and other elite media, have handled a feature about the beliefs of a Oneness Pentecostal or a faith-healing preacher who sought the presidency as a Republican? With this light a touch?

Now, here is a crucial chunk of that Times feature, which comes after a brief discussion of her remarks in the recent debates featuring a flock of Democratic candidates:

She was … drawing directly from a homegrown American holy book called “A Course in Miracles,” a curious New York scripture that arose during the heady metaphysical counterculture of the 1960s.

This is not some homey book of feel-good bromides. Rather, it is taken by its readers as a genuine gospel, produced by a Manhattan doctor who believed she was channeling new revelations from Jesus Christ himself.

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This is not funny: Does the state have the right to call some faiths 'real' and others 'fakes'?

This is not funny: Does the state have the right to call some faiths 'real' and others 'fakes'?

Back in my Denver dedace, I turned into a solid Denver Broncos fan.

That’s normal, of course, in Colorado. Following the Broncos was like, well, a RELIGION or something.

That’s precisely what I argued in a memo to the editor in 1988, when I argued that I should be part of the Rocky Mountain News team that was sent to cover the Broncos at the Super Bowl. I made a kind of sociological argument that, if Bronco fans were not practicing a religion of some kind, then the Denver area didn’t have a religion.

I didn’t win that argument. Then, during the media-fest preceding the game, this happened (as covered by the New York Times):

Most of the Denver Broncos and the Washington Redskins will join Saturday in a prayer meeting that is believed to be the first to bring together National Football League players from opposing teams on the eve of any game - much less a Super Bowl.

The meeting has created a sensitive situation. Front-office executives of both clubs are reportedly against the joint meeting, which they feel could diminish the competitive fervor the teams should take into such an important game.

John Beake, the Broncos' normally expansive general manager, was abrupt when asked about it this morning. 'Can't Say Anything'

''I can't say anything about it,'' he said, and told the caller to speak to the club's news media relations director, Jim Saccomano.

Yes, the editor asked me (still back in Denver) to dive in an help with coverage of this controversy.

In a way, this subject — broadly defined — is what host Todd Wilken and I talked about during this week’s Crossroads podcast. (Click here to tune that in.) What is a “religion”? Who gets to decide what is a ”real” religion and what is a “fake” religion?

The news hook for this discussion was Gannett Tennessee Network coverage of a new state law that would ban wedding ceremonies being conducted by people who have been ordained through online sites that hand out ordination certificates after a few clicks of a mouse. Here’s the GetReligion post on that.

Needless to say, the lawyers linked to the Universal Life Church Monastery website are not to crazy about that and they are saying that this law violates their First Amendment-protected freedom to practice their religious convictions.

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As I head out the door: Online ordinations fight in Tennessee raises old church-state question

As I head out the door: Online ordinations fight in Tennessee raises old church-state question

If you have read GetReligion for a while — several years at least — you know that when you see images of mountains in East Tennessee and North Carolina, that means that it’s finally vacation season at this here weblog.

Well, “VACATION” doesn’t mean that we close down. It just means that people come and go — not to be confused with Bobby Ross, Jr., heading to Texas Ranger games — so you may see business days with one or two posts instead of the usual three. But the cyber doors will never close. I’m about to leave my home office in one set of mountains (the Cumberlands) to hide away (near a WIFI cafe) for a couple of days in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

But before I go, let me point readers to a very interesting church-state story developing here in the Volunteer State, a story that raises a very important question that shows up in religion news every now and then. The headline: “Internet church sues Tennessee over law banning weddings by online-ordained ministers.”

That question is: What — in legal, not theological terms — is a “church”? Here is the overture, care of the Knoxville News-Sentinel:

A Seattle-based online church is suing the state of Tennessee over a new law that bars online-ordained ministers from performing weddings.

Universal Life Church Ministries filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. … The law, which states that "persons receiving online ordinations may not solemnize the rite of matrimony" was to go into effect July 1. But Chief District Judge Waverly Crenshaw scheduled a July 3 hearing in Nashville on the restraining order requested by ULCM attorneys. …

ULCM describes itself as a "non-denominational, non-profit religious organization famous worldwide for its provision of free, legal ordinations to its vast membership over the internet." It has ordained more than 20 million people, including singer-actress Lady Gaga, talk show host Stephen Colbert and actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

The bottom line is right here:

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Grab a company charge card: What religion reference works belong in newsroom libraries?

Grab a company charge card: What religion reference works belong in newsroom libraries?

My May 30 Memo proclaimed the third edition of the “World Christian Encyclopedia," due next year, as a “must-buy” for media organizations because it will provide current overviews and statistics about each religious group in each country on earth, and much else.

This time around, The Guy proposes other religion works media shops savvy enough to maintain reference libraries should have on hand for unexpected breaking news as well as timeless features. Writers might want some items in their personal collections. The following covers print, but some e-editions are available.

Basics

The first essential is a couple comprehensive one-volume encyclopedias or dictionaries describing all world religions, as issued by several reliable publishers. You’ll also want the hefty ($215!) “Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.”

Save money by using a good public or college library for the multi-volume encyclopedias on religion, Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaica, Islam, etc. However, via amazon.com you could get the 1987 “Encyclopedia of Religion” for only $275. (Publishers: We really need a 21st Century equivalent of James Hastings’ less abstract “Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics” from 1913!)  

Acquire similar one-volume reference books on Catholicism and Judaism, which on some matters can be supplemented by century-old, multi-volume encyclopedias online here and here. For Protestantism, there’s the latest “Handbook of Denominations in the United States” and more comprehensive one-volume “Encyclopedia of Protestantism.” For Islam, get John Esposito’s dictionary and/or Cyril Glasse’s one-volume encyclopedia. For other world faiths, if those overview volumes do not suffice  tap experts as needed.  

 Baylor professor Gordon Melton compiles the remarkable “Encyclopedia of American Religions,” pretty much mandatory for describing gazillion offbeat sects you’ve never heard of.

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Sky-high journalism: A new look at old, old story of whether we're alone in the universe?

Sky-high journalism: A new look at old, old story of whether we're alone in the universe?

Are there other intelligent beings somewhere out there in the cosmos? Forget science fiction. Recent news said level-headed U.S. Navy pilots reported seeing what seemed like UFOs, so classified military protocol deals with how to handle such incidents. Meanwhile, scientists, aided by new technology, have spent decades seeking to contact alien life.

Nonetheless, “perhaps humanity is truly alone,” contends Ethan Siegel, an astrophysics theorist and college teacher turned science writer, in a cover story for the June Commentary magazine. This old, old story is ever new, and perhaps it’s time for journalists to run it past some quotable theologians for an off-the-news if not off-the-wall feature.

Siegel himself offers no insights on the obvious religious implications. That’s not surprising, since he’s an atheist, albeit a Jewish one, who preaches that “everything that has ever happened in this universe requires nothing more than the laws of nature to explain them.”

Still, the questions nag. Did God, or intelligent design's Designer, create beings like us on Earth and nowhere else?

If so, why? Or, if there is intelligent life in other realms, what is God’s purpose with mere earthlings? Are those extraterrestrials “sinful” and “fallen” like us? What would this mean for Christianity’s belief that God was uniquely incarnated on Earth in Jesus Christ? And so forth.

Darwin’s theory of evolution becomes probable when vast stretches of time allow vast accumulations of genetic mutations that can undergo vast selection to yield the origin of vast species. (The Guy, no science whiz, senses that the sudden emergence of countless advanced life forms during the “Cambrian Explosion” half a billion years ago is hard to fully comprehend in such simple terms).

Probabilities also seem to tell us there just have to be many forms of intelligent life beyond those on Earth.

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When reporters have time for a big think: Where is world religion heading, anyway?

When reporters have time for a big think: Where is world religion heading, anyway?

Baylor University historian and Christian Century columnist Philip Jenkins set forth 21st Century prospects in his book “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity” (Oxford University Press, 2002, updated 3rd edition 2011). His work underscores a theme that has become familiar to all religion specialists, the shift of Christianity’s center of population and power away from traditional Western Europe and North America toward the “Global South,” especially in Africa and Asia.

When time permits, journalists should consider updating that scenario — with accompanying graphics. If you need a local or regional news angle, check out the links to tensions inside the United Methodist Church.

Then, for a fresh global angle, focus on the implications if Christianity is supplanted by Islam as the world’s largest religion. That brings us to data recently posted by Pew Research Center’s Jeff Diamant (a former colleague covering the religion beat).

Pew estimates that as of 2015 there were 2,276,250,000 Christians globally, compared with 1,752,620,000 Muslims. Its projection for 2060 is that the totals will be nearly even, 3,054,460,000 versus 2,987,390,000. Flip that a couple percentage points and Islam would take the lead, and current trend lines suggest Islam could become number one at some point in our century. Birth rates play a key role in this drama.

Hold that thought.

Pew is one of two major players in world religion statistics. Another, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, projects for 2050 (not 2060) a slightly lower 2.7 billion for Muslims and significantly higher 3.4 billion for Christians. This even though CSGC figures that in this century’s first decade Islam was growing faster than Christianity, at 1.86 percent per year, as opposed to Christianity’s 1.31 percent (and a world population rate of 1.2 percent).

These two agencies of number-crunchers are friendly partners in some ventures but have some differences on method.

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Friday Five: Remembering RHE, exiting Catholics, Pakistani Christian trafficking, fact-checking satire

Friday Five: Remembering RHE, exiting Catholics, Pakistani Christian trafficking, fact-checking satire

This is one of those weeks when I’m putting together Friday Five after not paying a whole lot of attention to the news.

So if I miss something really crucial, blame it on my “bucket list” baseball trip to see my beloved Texas Rangers play the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Pittsburgh’s PNC Park is the 23rd major-league stadium where I’ve seen a game. Of course, four of those ballparks (old Atlanta, New York Mets, St. Louis and Texas) no longer exist, so I have 11 left on my bucket list. The new Rangers stadium next year will make that 12. 

OK, that’s enough for now, but feel free to tweet me at @bobbyross for more baseball talk.

In the meantime, let’s dive into the (distracted) Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Rachel Held Evans’ untimely death at age 37 was the major headline of the week.

The Washington Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey, the New York Times’ Elizabeth Dias, The Atlantic’s Emma Green, Religion News Service’s Emily McFarlan Miller and Slate’s Ruth Graham all covered the sad, sad news of Evans’ passing.

Here at GetReligion, Terry Mattingly wrote a post on the importance of focusing on doctrines, not political choices, in coverage of Evans’ legacy. And Julia Duin voiced her opinion that Evans’ death offered “a rare look at journalistic grief.”

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Does Islam require stoning to death for adultery and gay sex, and amputation for larceny?

Does Islam require stoning to death for adultery and gay sex, and amputation for larceny?

THE QUESTION:

This month, the Muslim nation of Brunei cited religious grounds for prescribing execution by stoning for those guilty of adultery or gay sex, and amputation of hands to punish convicted thieves. Does Islam require these penalties?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

In the Muslim world there’s no consensus that the faith requires these traditional punishments in modern times, but a handful of the 57 member nations in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation have such legislation. One is the small East Asian sultanate officially named Brunei Darusslam (“Brunei, Abode of Peace”), which proclaimed these penalties six years ago. Due to the resulting uproar, the law did not go into effect until this month. When it did, the foreign minister responded to another round of international denunciations by stating that “strong religious values” form “the very foundation of the unique Bruneian identity.”

The punishments were commanded by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Brunei’s hereditary monarch, who wields absolute political and religious powers and is devoted to strict interpretation and application of shariah (Muslim law). At the same time, fabled oil revenues provide the sultan  eyebrow-raising personal wealth of some $20 billion, the world’s largest home (1,788 rooms), and largest collection of rare automobiles including a gold-plated Rolls Royce.

Regarding punishment for sexual sins, Muslims point out that long before Islam arose the Bible’s Old Testament law named execution as the penalty for adultery (Leviticus 20:10) and for same-sex relations between men (Leviticus 20:13), as well as other sins. Those passages did not state what method was to be used for execution, but rabbinic law later compiled in the Talmud specified stoning for gay relationships. Stoning was also commonly cited for adulterers.

Jewish scholars say the Bible’s various laws on execution were meant to signify and proclaim the seriousness of the misdeeds but were rarely applied in practice.

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A day after Lilly Endowment news, Associated Press posts job opening ads for seven religion journalists

A day after Lilly Endowment news, Associated Press posts job opening ads for seven religion journalists

We shared the big news Wednesday about the 18-month, $4.9 million Lilly Endowment Inc. grant that will fund 13 religion journalists at The Associated Press, Religion News Service and The Conversation.

We had a few questions, too, about the specifics of the Global Religion Journalism Initiative, which RNS CEO and Publisher Tom Gallagher calls a “transformative and historic grant by Lilly.”

A few of the answers — such as the specific descriptions of the positions and where they will be based — began emerging today.

AP posted job opening ads on its careers website for seven Global Religion positions, including:

New York-based Global Editor: “an experienced journalist and news leader to lead its new Global Religion team and direct the cooperative’s coverage of religion around the world in all media formats, with a focus on explanatory and accountability reporting.”

New York- or Washington-based news editor: “this senior producer will help lead a team of journalists who cover religion around the world and will have direct responsibility for crafting video news report on religion that is rich in exclusive spot news, compelling live video and distinct, deeply reported enterprise.”

New York- or Washington-based newsperson: “a talented multiformat journalist to join its new Global Religion team and report on the intersection of politics and religion as a newsperson.”

New York-based newsperson: “a talented multiformat journalist to join its new Global Religion team and report on youth and faith as a newsperson.”

New York-based newsperson: “a talented text and digital presentation editor to join its new Global Religion team as a newsperson. … (T)his editor will direct and edit breaking news coverage, working closely with news managers and journalists worldwide to ensure AP content about religion is accurate, fast, distinctive and packaged creatively for audiences around the world.”

Cairo-based newsperson: “a talented multiformat journalist to join its new Global Religion team and report on Islamic faith and culture as a newsperson.”

Washington-based videojournalist: “a videojournalist with a history of successful television and online video storytelling to join its new Global Religion team as a videojournalist in Washington.”

As you may recall, Wednesday’s news release noted:

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