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Tweeting Mohammad: Get Religion, February 3, 2014 February 3, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Islam, Press criticism.
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The Mohammad cartoon controversy has resurfaced over the past week with a flutter over a tweet.

The British press appears to have come down on the side of Maajid Nawaz. Newspaper articles, opinion pieces and television chat shows have defended his right to share a cartoon depicting Jesus and Mohammad. But they have also ceded the moral high ground to his opponents — Islamist extremists — by declining to publish a copy of the cartoon that has led to death threats and calls for Nawaz to be blacklisted by the Liberal Democratic Party for Islamophobia.

What we are seeing in the British media — newspapers and television (this has not been a problem for radio) — in the Jesus and Mo controversy is a replay of past disputes over Danish and French cartoons. Freedom of speech and courage in the face of religious intolerance is championed by the press — up to a point.

The point appears to be whether being courageous could get you killed or even worse, earn the displeasure of the bien pensant chattering classes.

The Telegraph gives a good overview of the affair.

A Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate has received death threats after posting a cartoon image of Jesus and the Prophet Mohammed on Twitter. Muslim politician Maajid Nawaz tweeted a picture of a t-shirt with a crudely-drawn cartoon entitled ‘Jesus and Mo’ which he describes as an “innocuous” and inoffensive.

However the image has caused fury among some members of the Islamic community who believe images of the prophet Muhammed are forbidden. More than 7,000 people have now signed a petition calling for the Liberal Democrats to suspend Mr Nawaz. Some have even suggested a fatwa should be placed on him while others have threatened they would be “glad to cut your neck off”.

The Guardian summarized Nawaz’s motives in this subtitle to their story:

Lib Dem candidate says he aimed to defend his religion ‘against those who have hijacked it because they shout the loudest’

It explained:

The row blew up after Nawaz took part in a BBC debate where two students were wearing t-shirts depicting a stick figures of stick figure of Jesus saying “Hi” to a stick figure called Mo, who replied: “How you doin’?”

The politician, who is founder of the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremist think-tank, tweeted what he believes is a “bland” image and stated that “as a Muslim, I did not feel threatened by it. My God is greater than that”.

Both stories are sympathetic and are topped by striking photos of Nawaz, who is  running to be an MP for Hampstead and Kilburn. But neither article reproduces the cartoon that has led to the threats against his life. In their defence, it could be argued that a photo of Nawaz, rather than the offending cartoon was more appropriate as the article focused on the politician’s travails over the cartoon, not on the cartoon itself. A week argument but an argument none the less.

Television was not blessed with this excuse. During the debate on The Big Questions which sparked the row, the BBC declined to show members of the audience who were wearing “Jesus and Mo” t-shirts. This censorship, avoidance, prudence (take your pick) led Nawaz to tweet a photo of the cartoon — leading to twitter threats to cut off his head.
Newsnight discussed the controversy over censorship, but decided not to show a copy of the cartoon. Newswatch also discussed the “Jesus and Mo” controversy, noting that complaints had been raised by viewers over its failure to show the cartoon. But Newswatch also declined to show the cartoon. Zero for three for the BBC.

The best (from a cognoscenti  of hypocrisy’s point of view) was Channel 4′s handling of the subject. It broadcast the cartoon, sans Mo. This prompted the popular British blogger, Archbishop Cranmer to write:

[This] censoring images of Mohammed establishes a narrow Sunni-sharia compliance: it is, effectively, a blasphemy code adopted by the state broadcasters.

The columnist for The Times, Janice Turner, excoriated the BBC and Channel 4 in an excellent piece entitled “Show us Jesus & Mo. It’s the price of freedom”. It was:

hard to watch Wednesday’s Newsnight without concluding that Britain has become a very strange place. We saw an artist so frightened for his life that his face and even his voice were disguised. We saw his hand sketching the Christian prophet in a crown of thorns, but forbidden to draw the Muslim one. An 11-minute film debated a drawing at the heart of a national controversy but at no point could we see it.

Turner further reported:

When challenged, Newsnight’s editor, Ian Katz, said that there was “no clear journalistic case to use” the cartoon, and that “describing” it was sufficient. (TV news will get a whole lot cheaper if we needn’t send a camera crew to war-ravaged Damascus: let’s just have it described by Jeremy Bowen.) Any depiction of Muhammad, Katz argued, “causes great offence to many, not just extremists” and to run it would be “journalistic machismo”.

She aptly summarized the journalistic and moral issues at play.

Mr Nawaz’s frustration is understandable. In banning the image, the BBC cast him as the faux-Muslim, his opponents as the rational, majority voice that must be heeded.

How can moderate Muslims be expected to speak out, if they are cast as apostates by national TV? Those who have not yet made up their minds will see angry offence as the default position. They hear it proclaimed by the deceptively reasonable Mohammed Shafiq, the Lib Dem, whose Ramadhan Foundation hosts homophobic speakers, and that hot-air balloon Mo Ansar, who argues that gender-divided public meetings are just like BBQs where guys cluster around the grill while wives chat with the kids. No biggie.

The BBC and Channel 4 are guilty of cant and hypocrisy. They are daring when it is safe to be daring, but cowards when it comes to militant Islam. Are the Guardian and Telegraph guilty of cant as well? They preach freedom of speech, but by refusing to show the Jesus and Mo cartoon are they not also ceding the moral high ground to the enemies of free speech?

First printed in Get Religion.

Unforced Anglican errors from the Telegraph: Get Religion, October 7, 2013 October 7, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Church of England, GAFCON, Get Religion, Press criticism.
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The Telegraph has waded into the waters of international Anglican affairs — and I’m afraid someone should toss a life line as it is about to go under. The article on the forthcoming meeting in Nairobi of Anglican leaders entitled “Challenge to Welby as traditionalist Anglicans stage ‘fragmentation’ summit” is not up to the newspaper’s usual standard. It has the story backwards.

As TMatt, the editor here at Get Religion, tells me, I sometimes wander off topic. — In my misspent youth I served my time in the salt mines of Wall Street. My first job out of college was as a floor clerk at the Commodities Exchange for Drexel Burham Lambert. It was the 1980′s, God was in his heaven, Reagan in the White House, greed was good and all was right with the world.

One of the memories I still have of those golden days was the Time cover theory of investing. In a nutshell, when Time magazine ran a cover story on the market or the economy, a smart investor would bet the other way. Paul Montgomery, an analyst with Legg Mason Wood Walker, had compared market returns to Time magazine covers going back to the early Twentieth century and found the trend profiled by Time would last on average for about a month, but a year after the cover story hit the streets the opposite conditions would prevail.

Montgomery’s theory held true (at least when I was playing the markets). Every time in the 1980′s Time featured Fed Chairman Paul Volcker on its cover, interest rates subsequently moved contrary to the sentiment of the story. On 4 July 1988 Time ran a story entitled “The Big Dry” that predicted higher bean prices as a result of a drought in the Midwest.  Bean prices had been rising sharply through May and June, but the rally died the week the magazine hit the newsstands. (The second story about the super future of Japan in that issue is just as off base.) But I digress.

These memories of a distant past led me to wonder if we are seeing the start of a trend in Anglican affairs. Bet against the predictions made by the daily newspapers and you are likely to come out the winner.

I should also add a disclaimer. I have written for the Telegraph as a freelancer, providing stories from overseas Anglican jamborees in years past. That having been said; the article is quite extraordinary. Below the headline and above the photo comes this statement:

The Archbishop of Canterbury is facing what could be the biggest challenge to his leadership so far as a more than 1,000 traditionalist clerics stage a summit expected to formalise the “fragmentation” of the of the worldwide Anglican church.

The story does not state its source for this claim. This may be due to this assertion not being true. The conference scheduled for 21-26 Oct 2013 at All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi is the second Global Anglican Futures Conference (GAFCON). The claim that this will be Archbishop Welby’s “biggest challenge” and may “formalise the ‘fragmentation’” of the Anglican Communion is ludicrous.

Let me put it another way — it is simply untrue. The article admits as much when it goes on to say the Anglican Communion has been fragmented for over five years.

I have been reporting on the preparations for this conference for over a year and if what the Telegraph says is true then half a dozen archbishops have been lying to me, or they are being misled by their staffers.The article starts of in high snark mode.

More than 1,000 bishops, archbishops and senior clergy, claiming to represent around 40 million Anglicans, are due to gather in Kenya later this month to discuss what they see as a liberal drift within the Church of England and other western branches of the church.

“Claiming”? The clergy and lay leaders representing churches that comprise over two-thirds of Anglicans will be present at the meeting. How is that a claim? “What they see as a liberal drift”? Way to telegraph your sentiments. These hot headed Africans and their knuckle-dragging troglodyte American allies see reds under the bed. The next line offers more assertions.

It comes five years after more than 200 bishops boycotted the once-in-a-decade Lambeth Conference, openly defying the then Archbishop Dr Rowan Williams over what they saw as his liberal stance on homosexuality. They staged a rival gathering in Jerusalem – the so-called Global Anglican Future Conference (Gafcon) – forming what has been widely characterised as a “church within a church”.

Now, the group is staging a second gathering, this time in Nairobi, where leaders from Africa, the Americas, Asia and Australasia hope to establish new, more permanent organisational structures, rejecting the existing Anglican Communion arrangements as a “colonial” relic.

The event is timed to mark 10 years since the consecration of the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion, the Rt Rev Gene Robinson of New Hampshire in the US – the catalyst for the crisis which has divided the 77 million-strong Anglican Communion ever since.

Where to begin. Yes “more than 200 bishops” did not show up at Lambeth 2008. The exact number was 214 but there was no official statement from the Conference or the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office. How do we know this? I counted.

In 2008 the conference press officers declined to tell me how many bishops had skipped the meeting. With a straight face they said they were prevented by the “Data Protection Act” from saying who was at the meeting and who was not. (A creative way to avoid admitting to a fiasco.) So I counted heads and reported:

Of those identified as absent by CEN, 214 bishops from 10 provinces made an affirmative decision not to accept Dr. Williams’ invitation due to reasons of conscience: Australia 7; Southern Cone 1; Episcopal Church 1; Church of England 3; Uganda 30; Nigeria 137; Kenya 25; Rwanda 8; South East Asia 1; and Jerusalem and the Middle East 1. From Africa’s 324 dioceses, 200 diocesan bishops (61 percent) were identified as having refused Dr. Williams’ invitation.

The organizers of the 2008 conference were at great pains to stress theirs was not a rival to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s shindig — and many of the bishops present at the Gafcon conference went on to Canterbury.

And, the timing of the current meeting has nothing to do with the anniversary of Gene Robinson’s consecration — the conference organizers have been trying to put a conference together for some time and at the midpoint between the 2008 and the forthcoming 2018 Lambeth Conference finally have the money in hand to meet.

And, no, Gafcon II is not going to set up a parallel church. It has no authority or ability to do so. Some within the conservative movement may wish to see the existing structures reformed or removed, but no one is seriously suggesting what the Telegraph has implied. For one, the African-led churches do not have the money.

The article states the conference will draw up an “action plan” on marriage and sexuality, “which will be an uncompromising reassertion of a traditionalist interpretation of the Bible.” And then the Telegraph goes on to speculate:

That is likely to set them on a collision course with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, who has openly signalled that he is reassessing his own views on the subject.

Although Archbishop Welby comes from the born-again evangelical wing of the Church and voted against David Cameron’s Same-Sex Marriage Bill, he has recently spoken about wanting to get his “mind clear” on the issue.

He told a meeting in August that the Church needed to face up to the fact that most young people, including Christians, thought that its stance on gay marriage was “wicked”.

The problem with this assertion is that the archbishop has subsequently clarified his remarks, and is not climbing down or backing away from his traditional views. His signal flags are now flying the other way.

The story then notes:

Although Archbishop Welby was invited, he has signalled that he will not be attending because of a prior commitment meeting European church leaders.

Again we have a problem. The archbishop will be in Iceland for a meeting of Northern European Anglican and Lutheran archbishops on the first day of the conference, but he has a second conflict as well on the Wednesday — the little matter of the baptism of Prince George of Cambridge at the Chapel Royal at St James Palace. Christening the future King of England is an excuse to miss just about any engagement. He will, however, be addressing the gathering via video and will attend a private meeting with the archbishops organizing the meeting the day before the conference kick off.

The bottom line with this story is that it is repackaged conventional wisdom. There is no reporting here, only opinions. And dodgy ones at that.

And yes, wish me safe travels as I head on down to Nairobi for the fun.

First printed in Get Religion.

Gosnell fog blankets Britain: Get Religion, April 19, 2013 April 19, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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Last week my colleague at GetReligion Mollie Hemingway broke the American media blockade surrounding the Kermit Gosnell trial. Mollie, and Kirsten Powers writing in USA Today, reported on the absence of national press coverage of the trial of the Philadelphia abortionist — questioning why reporters who never tired of Sandra Flake or Komen Foundation stories shied away from this national news item.

Some members of the press and newspapers have sought to repair their damaged credibility and are now playing catch up, while others have retreated into the bunker (Nixonian allusions spring to mind but would likely be lost on the miscreants).

However, the British press appears not to have received the memo. As of the date of this post, the BBC has yet to air a story on the Gosnell affair (though it did run one web piece on 15 April after the Hemingway storm broke and the American media mea culpa.) ITV and Channel 4 have yet to report.

The newspapers have not raised the average. The Times ran one story on 13 April, but the Guardian and Independent have remained silent. The Telegraph does a little better — it had one news article dated 12 April entitled “Kermit Gosnell: US abortion doctor could be put to death over ‘baby charnel house’”. Op-Ed writers Damian Thompson and Tim Stanley weighed in on the Gosnell story as well as the media blackout. On 12 April Thompson wrote:

But British readers must know about the case of Dr Kermit Gosnell, which has been played down in the American media – possibly because the allegations of a homicidal abortion doctor don’t fit into their pro-choice narrative.

Well, Philadelphia is very far away after all. And a story about an abortionist on trial for infanticide in Philadelphia may not be interesting to the British newspaper reading public. American newspapers are notorious for their lack of in-depth overseas reporting due to the perception that  its readers don’t care about the outside world.

Perhaps the Daily Mail is an outlier — it has published 26 stories since 2011 on the Kermit Gosnell case — a number greater than all the news stories of the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, ABC, CBS, NBS, and CNN combined. It must be due to the large number of transplanted Philadelphians residing in Surrey.

The popular British blog Archbishop Cranmer explains the reticence stating:

This low-key response is almost certainly because Dr Gosnell’s case takes us to the question of what it means to be human and humane, and this is why it is so important. What he was doing crossed a fundamental line in law and morality between abortion and infanticide. Abortion prioritises the health of the mother. Dr Gosnell is accused of killing babies after the child was outside of the mother, at a time when the risks of childbirth were passed, though they were now entering the risk-laden world of Dr Gosnell’s post-operative care.

He sees a political explanation in all this. The same news outlets who pushed Barack Obama into the Oval Office are protecting their investment.

There is a political reason behind the silence amongst a media that subjected President Obama to as little scrutiny as Dr Gosnell. There have been efforts to legislate for doctors to be required to provide full medical treatment to babies who survive abortion procedures. Three times the President has voted against it, imperiously ignoring the possibility that men like Dr Gosnell exist. The US Federal Government provides 45% of the $1billion budget of Planned Parenthood, the US major abortion provider.

They, like the President, are very equivocal about this issue of infanticide as this video demonstrates. The lady struggling to answer the clear and direct questions is Alisa Lapolt Snow, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood giving evidence to a committee of Florida legislators. Dr Gosnell’s trial puts the inconvenient truth of abortion and infanticide plainly into the public domain. It puts the brutal bloody facts to the sanitised language and could prove to be the tipping point in the public debate as ordinary people see for the first time how far the pro-abortion lobby are prepared to go in defending their industry.

There is a reason we talk about the ‘slippery slope’.

Why are so few people in the media, American or British, asking these questions?

First printed in Get Religion.

A Dan Brown Good Friday from the BBC: Get Religion, April 1, 2013 April 3, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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What a difference a decade makes. In 2002 the BBC broadcast a documentary on the Virgin Mary characterizing her “as a poor and downtrodden girl, who might have conceived Jesus as a result of being raped.” This Life of Brian view of the birth of Jesus prompted outrage -– letters, editorials, statements from church leaders leaders condemning the broadcast.

A documentary broadcast on Good Friday by the BBC entitled “The Mystery of Mary Magdalene” that suggests Mary Magdalene and Jesus were sexual partners has provoked a complaint from a retired bishop but little else. The Telegraph reports:

The Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, the former bishop of Rochester, said the programme, presented by Melvyn Bragg would be “hugely offensive” to devout Christians because it amounted to the “sexualisation of Christ”. He said it was all the more upsetting because it is being screened at midday on Good Friday – the moment the Bible says Jesus was put on the cross.

The article notes:

Lord Bragg, who describes himself as “no longer a believer”, argues that Mary’s close relationship with Jesus was effectively airbrushed out of the accepted Biblical account by “misogynist” Romans. He points to a series of ancient writings known as the Gnostic Gospels which were not included in the agreed list of books which became the New Testament. They include references to Mary being “kissed on the mouth” by Jesus, being his favourite and even, as one passage suggests, his wife.

Writing in the Telegraph last week, Bragg argued Mary Magdalene:

was acknowledged by other disciples as his favourite and there is one taunting scrap of record which may well lead to the conclusion that she was his wife.

Which leads Bragg to the conclusion:

What then? What then for the celibacy which has led the organised Church into so many abuses and crimes and distorted lives?

Pretty clear were Bragg is going with all this. Bishop Nazir-Ali, the Telegraph reported, accused the BBC  of being deliberately provocative and noted that they would not treat Islam in the same way.

Why is the BBC doing this on Good Friday and why is it doing it in such a provocative way. … There will be huge offence, there must be some way of putting the other point of view across.

Maybe it is true that Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus and emigrated to the South of France where her offspring founded the Merovingian Dynasty. Perhaps the Priory of Zion, Illuminati, Rosicrucians, Knights Templar and Freemasons really do rule the world? Or maybe this is a ploy to hype ratings for a film that would otherwise disappear into the limbo of the History Channel — immediately after Ancient Aliens. As an aside, it would be interesting to see a documentary on Gnosticism that discusses and explores the tenets of this faith and its influences on modern thinking.

Bishop Nazir-Ali’s complaints are on point. The BBC would no more broadcast a show that questions the historical basis of Islam at the start of Ramadan than it would surrendered its license fees. These sorts of stories are not confined to the BBC. Easter and Christmas bring all sorts of silly stories to the pages of American newspapers and magazines. But it comes amidst a change in British religious attitudes toward religion. The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey has denounced the Conservative government of Prime Minister David Cameron for deliberately alienating British Christians by its strident secularism and support for gay marriage. David Cameron is either a very poor politician, or he believes the Conservative Party will suffer no electoral consequences for dumping it traditional electoral base.

It very well may be that after 30 years of anti-Christian bias from the BCC there is not much the Corporation can do anymore to shock television viewers. I know I’m tired of these silly stories and wonder if you are too?

First printed in Get Religion.

The Pope hates Christmas: Get Religion, November 22, 2012 November 22, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Biblical Interpretation, Get Religion, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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Breaking news from the Telegraph… the newspaper’s Rome reporter reports that one Joseph Ratzinger, a.k.a. the Bishop of Rome, Pontiff of the Catholic Church alias  Benedictus PP. XVI, claims Jesus was not born December 25, in the year 1.

As I read this story, “Jesus was born years earlier than thought, claims Pope” I could envision the clatter of the teletype in the background with three bells ringing to tell the news room a major story had come across the wires. In a story datelined from Rome, we learn:

“The calculation of the beginning of our calendar – based on the birth of Jesus – was made by Dionysius Exiguus, who made a mistake in his calculations by several years,” the Pope writes in [Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives], which went on sale around the world with an initial print run of a million copies.  “The actual date of Jesus’s birth was several years before.”

The assertion that the Christian calendar is based on a false premise is not new – many historians believe that Christ was born sometime between 7BC and 2BC. But the fact that doubts over one of the keystones of Christian tradition have been raised by the leader of the world’s one billion Catholics is striking.

“Many historians believe” that Jesus was not born in the year 1, or 0? How about all historians for the past few hundred years — I’m not aware of any school of church scholarship that holds to the  contrary view. The Telegraph reports that in addition to challenging the notion that Jesus was not born in the first year of the Gregorian calendar, the pope claims the traditional church creche is all wrong:

Christ’s birth date is not the only controversy raised by the Pope in his new book – he also said that contrary to the traditional Nativity scene, there were no oxen, donkeys or other animals at Jesus’s birth. He also weighs in on the debate over Christ’s birthplace, rejecting arguments by some scholars that he was born in Nazareth rather than Bethlehem.

Well, there goes the Christmas pageant. But why is this news? Anyone with even the remotest knowledge of the issue would not be surprised by this revelation.

It could well be ignorance on the part of the reporter, who upon reading the third volume in the pope’s Jesus of Nazareth trilogy was dumbstruck by this information and had to rush to print to tell England the news. Or, it could be that the Telegraph, aware of the abysmal level of religious knowledge and practice in England, believed that this would be news to the millions of cultural Christians in England whose only relationship to the faith were hoary memories of youthful school and church pageants. Or, this could be just another story in the series of articles from the British press that paints Benedict XVI in unflattering colors.

The article closes out with an Oxford professor’s calming assurance the pope may be right as “most academics agreed with the Pope that the Christian calendar was wrong and that Jesus was born several years earlier than commonly thought, probably between 6BC and 4BC.”

Again we have the “most academics” — I would be interested to know who are the dissenters that believe in the 25 Dec 00 date.

The signs the story was rushed in to print also comes from the selection of the expert. The Professor of the Interpretation of the Holy Scripture from Oxford is quoted on the absence of any dating in the text of the Bible as to exact time of Jesus’ birth. But the professor is allowed to move out of his area of expertise — Biblical interpretation — into Patristics or Patrology (the study of the writings of the Church Fathers and the history of the early Christian Church) and in doing so, the good professor makes a mistake.

The idea that Christ was born on Dec 25 also has no basis in historical fact. “We don’t even know which season he was born in. The whole idea of celebrating his birth during the darkest part of the year is probably linked to pagan traditions and the winter solstice.”

This claim by the Old Testament scholar about the origin of the Christmas holiday is false. While the village atheist may delight in repeating this legend, it is nonetheless untrue. A non-academic rejoinder to this “pagan traditions” claim can be found in a 2003 article “Calculating Christmas” by Prof. William Tighe in Touchstone magazine.

Many Christians think that Christians celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25th because the church fathers appropriated the date of a pagan festival. Almost no one minds, except for a few groups on the fringes of American Evangelicalism, who seem to think that this makes Christmas itself a pagan festival. But it is perhaps interesting to know that the choice of December 25th is the result of attempts among the earliest Christians to figure out the date of Jesus’ birth based on calendrical calculations that had nothing to do with pagan festivals.

Rather, the pagan festival of the “Birth of the Unconquered Son” instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the “pagan origins of Christmas” is a myth without historical substance.

From this piece, should you be interested in the details you can access the academic literature. But returning to the Telegraph piece, there are some fascinating things raised in the pope’s new book — and smart fellow that he is it came out just in time for Black Friday. There is an interesting historical and religious debate mentioned by the Telegraph story, the location of Jesus’ birth: Nazareth v. Bethlehem, but that is passed over in favor of the “striking” news about the calendar question. Given the excitement over the women bishops’ vote in the Church of England the reporter may have needed to “sex-up” his story to find space in the newspaper for another religion news item. Whatever the reason, the story is a disappointment. The Telegraph is supposed to be a “quality” newspaper, but this story is worthy of the tabloids.

First printed in GetReligion.

Three cheers for the Church of England: Get Religion July 10, 2012 July 11, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Church of England, Get Religion, Press criticism.
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When I’m down; when I’m blue; there is always the Church of England to perk me up. Yes, the CoE. It has never let me down or failed me as a reporter.  And special thanks for today’s blessing from the CoE must be given to the Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Rt. Rev. Peter Price.

Last night as deadlines approached, there were songs in the hearts of Britain’s religion reporters as the story they were filing from the medieval city of York would certainly find its way to the front of the newspaper — maybe, hope against hope, above the fold.  Dr. Price’s speech to the General Synod on the root causes of last summer’s urban riots was “gold, Jerry, gold!

Let me show you the sort of  story that softens the heart of the most cynical hack. Here is the lede in the Daily Mails article on Dr. Price’s speech:

A senior Church of England bishop declared yesterday that rioting could be ‘an ecstatic, spiritual experience’.

The Right Reverend Peter Price said rioters in last summer’s deadly disturbances found spiritual escape as they looted and burned.

He spoke out as the Church’s parliament, the General Synod, approved a report that blamed last August’s four days of disorder on Government spending cuts, inequality and ‘structural sin’ in the rest of society.

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’ — it really doesn’t get better than this for a religion reporter. Yet the killjoys at the Guardian managed a harumph or two.  It opened its report in this way:

A Church of England report into last year’s riots wanted to “sound a clear warning note” about the “social consequences” of austerity measures, a senior cleric said on Sunday , as he presented research highlighting the effect of government cuts on people in areas where violence broke out.

The Rt Rev Peter Price, bishop of Bath and Wells, said he had no intention of being sentimental about the rioters, who, he said, had ruined other people’s lives. But he said such disturbances could also be “a kind of spiritual escape” for people who have little else in their lives.

Just to make sure its readers did not miss the point, The Guardian printed an editorial attacking its rivals’ coverage of Dr. Price’s speech, saying the poor man had been misunderstood:

The headlines suggested a woolly minded churchman from central casting. “Bishop: Rioting’s ‘spiritual ecstasy’” was the Sun’s take. “Rioters were finding spiritual release, claims bishop” reported the Daily Telegraph. Equally glumly, a Conservative MP weighed in to condemn the Right Rev Peter Price, the bishop of Bath and Wells, and the report on the 2011 riots that he presented to the General Synod at the weekend as “complete drivel”. Actually, it wasn’t. Testing the Bridges is the sort of frank, factual report you would want a community-rooted organisation to produce after events like the riots. The bishop’s speech was clear and interesting. Anyone reading it will be struck by its reflectiveness and its appropriately religious concern. The “spiritual ecstasy” remark is in fact a quote from another priest in 1981. The riots are a serious subject. The bishop’s speech and the report should be studied thoughtfully, not caricatured.

Here is what the Neanderthals at the Telegraph wrote:

Smashing up homes, cars and shops and attacking police were a way of providing “release” and “escape” for troubled young people, according to the Bishop of Bath and Wells, the Rt Rev Peter Price.

He told the Church’s General Synod that the events of last August, which claimed five lives and devastated communities, were “evil”.

But he added that it was hardly surprising that young people had turned to mass criminality in England’s major cities because they had been “condemned” to lives with no hope in run-down areas.

While the slack-jawed troglodytes at The Sun in very large print and short sentences wrote:

Thugs who rioted last summer were having an “ecstatic spiritual experience”, according to a senior Anglican Bishop.

The Rt Revd Peter Price, Bishop of Bath and Wells, said they smashed cars and attacked police as a form of “release” and “escape”.

Let me say at the outset that I am not commenting on the news story being covered by these reports.  However, there is a touch of Dr. Spaceley-Trellis  about the Bishop of Bath & Wells. For over 50 years the late Michael Wharton populated his “Peter Simple” column in the Telegraph with characters that while outrageous, were somehow true to life. Given the recent back and forth about women bishops, my mind was drawn to this sketch.

WHO will be the first woman bishop of the Church of England? Odds-on favourite in clerical circles (writes “OLD BEADLE”) is the Rev Mantissa Shout, live-in partner of Dr E W T (“Ed”) Spacely-Trellis, go-ahead Bishop of Stretchford, trustee of Tate Modern and chairman of Football Managers for a Multi-Faith Millennium and dozens of other enlightened bodies.

Mantissa first came to notice as a militant feminist deaconess. She fought hard for the ordination of women by non-stop screaming outside Lambeth Palace and staged disruption of church services all over the country.

After being ordained and shacking up with Dr Trellis, she became vicar of Nerdley, where her well-publicised ecumenical services included Aztec sacrifice, Voodoo “alternative WI trance sessions” and Tantric Buddhist ceremonies for the young. But her habit of wearing a smart black “Muslim-type” silk headscarf at services led to a protest by Dr Mahbub Iftikharullah, chief imam of Nerdley, and several days of rioting.

Her plan is evidently to become joint bishop with Dr Trellis and succeed him on his retirement or other method of disposal. Then, who knows? Canterbury already beckons. But it will beckon in vain if the Bishop’s domestic chaplain, the Rev Peter Nordwestdeutscher, has anything to do with it.

In his subtle, incense-ridden, High Church brain, visions of death by slow poisoning, worthy of the worst days of the medieval Papacy, wreathe and coil in intricate patterns of malevolence.

I share these passages from today’s papers to show why I love the British press. There is a degree of intelligence matched with a sense of fun in the best British reporting. The Guardian, Telegraph, Daily Mail and yes, even The Sun, story are true — but each filter the truth through a specific intellectual and social lens. By reading all of the stories you have as good a picture of what happened yesterday at General Synod as is possible.

Yes, each paper has some degree of European-style advocacy reporting — the Guardian editorial and news article can almost — just almost — be swapped with one another. But when this advocacy reporting is done well — it is very good indeed. And unlike their American counterparts, the British press are not shy in proclaiming their biases.

So GetReligion readers, the bottom line is — read the British press when you can. Yes, you will encounter a great deal of junk — but also the best newspaper writing in the world.

First printed in GetReligion.

How many women priests?: Get Religion, February 20, 2012 February 20, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Church of England, Get Religion, Press criticism, Women Priests.
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The Vatican Insider section of La Stampa reports that there are now more women priests than men priests in the Church of England. This report in Italy’s largest circulation newspaper has been picked up by Catholic newspapers and blogs round the world. It has morphed into reports like that in CathNews New Zealand which states: “A first: Anglican women priests outnumber men in UK.”

The trouble is — the underlying claim is false.

However this surface error aside, the La Stampa article offers a very fine summary of the theological and historical issues at play — and reports that in the view of one Italian church historian, there were women priests and bishops in the early Catholic Church.

The La Stampa story entitled “Women outnumber men in the Anglican Church for the first time” begins:

There is a female majority for the first time in the Church of England, with more women priests joining than men. This certainly bodes well for a final “yes” vote in next July’s Synod that would allow women into the Episcopate. “Official figures show that 290 women were ordained in 2010, the most recent year for which figures are available,” says British newspaper The Telegraph. “By contrast, just 273 men entered the priesthood.”

Yes, I would say that there is a female majority among those in the pews in the Church of England — but I expect that this has been the case for several hundred years.

And yes, La Stampa accurately quotes news from the Telegraph that in 2009, 290 women were ordained as against 273 men. But the ordination of 17 more women than men in 2009 does not mean that a majority of priests are now women. The headline of the Telegraph article from 4 February 2012 could be misconstrued by someone for whom English is not their first language: “More new women priests than men for first time.”

But in the body of the article there is the statement that should remove any ambiguity:

Overall there were still more than twice as many ordained men (8,087) as women (3,535) in 2010.

In 2009 I ran a story in The Church of England Newspaper that reported that as of 2007 the number of women clergy who were incumbents — e.g., who actually were in charge of a congregation — was 15 per cent of the total number of clergy. And, in 2007 the Associated Press ran a story that reported in 2006 the Church of England added 213 women and 210 men to the priesthood. So, the claim of more women than men in total is untrue, as is the claim that 2010 was the first year that the number of female ordinands exceeded the number of male ordinands.

Putting to one side this confusion of language, the article does offer a look at this issue from a Catholic perspective. The official church position, as summarized by Giorgio Otranto, Professor of Ancient Christian History in the University of Bari is:

Thus the Magisterium returned to the traditional theories that lie behind their opposition to the ordination of women: Christ did not choose any women to join the group of 12 apostles and the entire Church tradition has remained faithful to this fact, interpreting it as the Saviour’s explicit wish for men only to receive the priestly powers of governance, teaching and sanctifying. Only man, through his natural resemblance to Christ, can embody, sacramentally, the role of Christ himself in the Eucharist.

However, Prof. Otranto noted that the historical record shows that women had been ordained in the Catholic Church.

In a letter sent in 494 to bishops of certain regions of Southern Italy … Pope Gelasius I (492-496) stated he was highly displeased to hear that the contempt towards religion was such that women were being allowed to “sacris altaribus ministrare” and that they were carrying out tasks reserved for males, which did not fall under their competence.”

In Southern Italy, women had received the Sacrament of the Order of bishops, a decision which Gelasius I had firmly condemned. … “Even outside heretical contexts, ancient Christianity seems to have sometimes elevated women to the rank of priest solely and exclusively due to certain prerogatives within the Holy Order, Otranto pointed out.

I find this fascinating. What I also find fascinating is how an unclear lede about the sexes of new Church of England priests morphed into reports about the entire Church of England priesthood. And then was used as a symbol of Church of England’s incipient collapse by some caustic commentators.

What is the moral of the story? Read past the headline? What say you?

First published in Get Religion.

Americans really are ignorant boobs: Get Religion, February 10, 2012 February 10, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Politics, Press criticism.
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Rick Santorum is not a Protestant. He has not called for public schools to teach creationism. Notwithstanding claims made by the Telegraph that the former Senator from Pennsylvania is an evangelical and a creationist — Mr. Santorum remains not guilty of these charges.

I wonder from where they get these things? This Telegraph story oozes contempt for Mr. Santorum. It paints him as a backwoods huckster who seeks to capitalize on the loathsome ignorance and cupidity of the great unwashed.

This pandering to the prejudices of the N1 chattering classes is a shame really, as the article does make a few cogent points about the weakness of Mitt Romney — but the boneheaded mistakes that lead off this article will likely cause a thoughtful reader (one who actually knows something about the candidates and wishes to learn more) to give it up as a bad job.

These mistakes about Mr. Santorum’s religion are not new, of course. And the Telegraph has already claimed the former senator pushed for the federal government to mandate the teaching of intelligent design (which is different from creationism, but I’ll get to that) as part of the No Child Left Behind Act signed by President George W. Bush in 2002. However, repetition of a false story — even by the Telegraph — does not make it true.

GetReligion reader Dr. Terry Tastard alerted me to the latest brick dropped by the Telegraph found in an 8 Feb 2012 article by the newspaper’s American political reporter entitled “US elections 2012: Rick Santorum’s triple win gives yet another twist in Republican race.”

The lede sentence in the Telegraph‘s report on Mr. Santorum’s caucus wins in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri states:

With Newt Gingrich’s second coming in South Carolina now a distant memory, Mr Santorum, a fiercely evangelical Christian, is suddenly positioning himself as the only conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, the moderate-liberal front-runner.

Yes and no. Yes, Mr. Santorum is positioning himself as the “only conservative alternative to Mitt Romney.” No, he is not a “fiercely evangelical Christian.” He is an outspoken Roman Catholic.

In his email to GetReligion, Dr. Tastard suggests this mistake by the Telegraph might be explained by the Telegraph’s reliance upon the 2005 Time magazine article that called the senator one of America’s top 25 evangelicals.

“Journalists are frequently unable to tell the difference between evangelist and evangelical,” Dr. Tastard noted. I concur. TMatt at GetReligion has waxed eloquent on this point, and I refer you to his posts as to why it is important for reporters to get this right.

Let’s return to the article. It goes on to state that:

… down-at-home Mr Santorum – who believes in creationism, reviles gay marriage, thinks global warming is a myth and wants to bomb Iran – enthuses hardcore Conservatives in a way that Mr Romney, with his corporate gloss, never will.

If I am not mistaken (apart from the creationism business) I believe just about all of the Republican candidates — leaving Ron Paul to one side — oppose gay marriage, are prepared to use military force against Iran, and are skeptical about the claims of the global warming enthusiasts.

On 4 January 2012, the Telegraph‘s assistant comments editor opined that the senator advocated the teaching of intelligent design in public school science curricula.

Mr Santorum pushed the “Santorum amendment”, an amendment to the 2001 education funding bill which attempted to push the teaching of intelligent design in science classes, and questioned the validity of evolutionary theory. He told Hardball’s Chris Matthews that he only believes in a “some amount” of evolution in a “micro sense”.

Is this a valid point? Let’s look at the amendment proposed by Senator Santorum.

It is the sense of the Senate that — (1) good science education should prepare students to distinguish the data or testable theories of science from philosophical or religious claims that are made in the name of science; and (2) where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy, and should prepare the students to be informed participants in public discussions regarding the subject.

If this was an attempt to sneak intelligent design under the edge of the tent, Mr. Santorum failed as he forgot to mention intelligent design in the amendment. Or maybe the crafty senator put one over on his colleagues through a cunning plan (which he has yet to reveal over the past ten years.) The senate adopted the amendment by a vote of 91-8. All of the Democrats voting supported the amendment, while the “no” votes came from Republicans who opposed Federal intervention in education.

While some have said the explicit mention of biological evolution as being a topic of controversy qualifies as a critique, I am not persuaded by this argument. As I read it, the amendment sought to help students understand what is, and what is not, science — t0 discern the difference between the truth claims of the scientific method against the truth claims of philosophy and religion.

The House version did not include similar language, and in conference the following language was adopted and included in Joint Explanatory Statement of the Committee of Conference in Title I, Part A, as item 78.

The Conferees recognize that a quality science education should prepare students to distinguish the data and testable theories of science from religious or philosophical claims that are made in the name of science. Where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist, why such topics may generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society.

After the compromise language was adopted, Senator Santorum spoke from the floor of the Senate thanking his colleagues for their support.

As the education bill report language makes clear, it is not proper in the science classrooms of our public schools to teach either religion or philosophy. But also, it says, just because some think that contending scientific theories may have implications for religion or philosophy, that is no reason to ignore or trivialize the scientific issues embodied in those theories. After all, there are enormous religious and philosophical questions implied by much of what science does, especially these days. Thus, it is entirely appropriate that the scientific evidence behind them is examined in science classrooms. Efforts to shut down scientific debates, as such, only serve to thwart the true purposes of education, science and law. There is a question here of academic freedom, freedom to learn, as well as to teach. The debate over origins is an excellent example.

Can we say that Senator Santorum believes in some form of intelligent design? Yes. Can we say that he does not accept every tenet of Darwinian evolution? Yes. Can we say he believes in creationism? No.

While creationism and intelligent design may be conflated in discussions about critiques of Darwinian evolution, intelligent design posits a role for the deity in the creation of the cosmos, while in the context of Christian religious conservatism creationism is the literal belief in the Genesis account of creation — God created the earth in six days and rested on the seventh.

In his email to GetReligion, Dr. Tastard wrote “Why can journalists not go beyond the cliches?”

His point is well taken. Labeling Mr. Santorum an evangelical is an error of fact while the creationist label is tendentious, if not flat out incorrect. However, these mistakes need to be heard in the context of the article as a whole, which seeks to belittle the senator. The bottom line — this article is an advocacy piece masquerading as reporting. For shame.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Democracy simply doesn’t work” are sentiments expressed by fictional news anchor Kent Brockman on The Simpsons. It is dispiriting to find the Telegraph‘s reporting on American politics follows this line of thinking. It endorses H.L. Mencken’s view that America is the land of the booboise. Unsophisticated morons fixated on guns, god and gays. The Telegraph really can do better than this.

As an aside, do look at the Wikipedia entry on the Santorum amendment. Here you will see why it is foolish to rely on Wikipedia as an unbiased source for information. The Wikipedia article states the senator’s amendment sought to introduce intelligent design into school curricula and was voted down among its other dubious assertions.

Caricature courtesy of Wikipedia Commons by DonkeyHotey

First printed in GetReligion.

The Economist on birth control for nuns: Get Religion, December 12, 2011 December 12, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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He believed, he said, in birth-control. Pickerbaugh answered with theology, violence, and the example of his own eight beauties.

Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis (1924)

Christmas comes but once a year, but reporters don’t always have to wait until December 25 for their presents. Great stories, items that seem to write themselves, can appear at any time of the year. A report in the British medical journal, The Lancet, released on December 8 and entitled “The plight of nuns: hazards of nulliparity” is just such an early Christmas gift for reporters on a short deadline.

The Telegraph and the Guardian provide good examples of the first day coverage — smart and concise summaries of the claims made by the article.  Religious Affairs Editor Martin Beckford of the Telegraph (one of the best religion writers in the UK) has a wonderful lede sentence for his story entitled: “Nuns should go on the Pill, says Lancet study.”

A paper in The Lancet claims that Roman Catholic nuns pay a “terrible price for their chastity”, as not having babies puts them at greater risk of breast, ovarian and uterine tumours.

Health Editor Sarah Boseley of the Guardian covered the story equally well and opened with:

Nuns should be given the contraceptive pill to reduce the high death rates from breast, ovarian and uterine cancer that result from their childlessness, say scientists.

Each gives a straight forward, uncluttered summary of The Lancet article’s claims. Both have strong pull quotes, and their stories could well be swapped between papers. Martin writes:

“Although Humanae Vitae never mentions nuns, they should be free the use the contraceptive pill to protect against the hazards of nulliparity [never giving birth] since the document states that ‘the Church in no way regards as unlawful therapeutic means considered necessary to cure organic diseases, even though they also have a contraceptive effect’.

“If the Catholic church could make the contraceptive pill freely available to all its nuns, it would reduce the risk of those accursed pests, cancer of the ovary and uterus, and give nuns’ plight the recognition it deserves.” … It goes on: “Today, the world’s 94,790 nuns still pay a terrible price for their chastity because they have a greatly increased risk of breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers: the hazards of their nulliparity.”

The second day stories fleshed out the issues, offering scientific critiques of the research and alternative voices. A story from the Catholic News Agency that a number of other sources drew upon  cited one oncologist who said the study had more political significance than scientific value. The CNA led with this critique.

Karen Brauer, president of Pharmacists for Life International, said the argument was so poorly made that she initially thought the article was a parody.

“It’s that bad,” she told CNA on Dec. 8, adding that the claims were not only outlandish but unsupported by the evidence presented in the analysis.

However, the best of the second day stories was Katie Moisse’s piece for ABC News, “Should Nuns Take the Pill for Health Reasons?” In addition to giving a crisp recounting of the article, she did that extraordinary thing of asking a nun what she thought of all this. And by concentrating on the basics of reporting, came up with a superior story.

…  according to Sister Mary Ann Walsh of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, nuns have the same access to medical care as any other woman – and that includes access to the pill.

“They’re presuming the church has some kind of authority over the medical care of nuns, which it doesn’t,” Walsh told ABC News. “A nun goes to a doctor for her medical care, and if that medical care requires a certain kind of medicine then that medicine is prescribed.”

Oral contraceptives can increase the risk of blood clots, a risk thought to be higher in some newer versions of the pill.

“The suggestion that all nuns should take contraception is rather sweeping and almost irresponsible,” said Walsh. “There are risks with the pill just as there are risks with doing nothing with regard to uterine and ovarian cancer.”

Walsh said the benefits of the pill in reducing cancer risk must be weighed against the side effects.

“A nun’s decision needs to be worked out between the nun and her doctor,” she said.

This is a great rejoinder to The Lancet piece as Sr. Mary Ann Walsh challenges several premises of the article — that the Vatican micromanages nuns’ health care choices or that nuns are forbidden to take the pill. It further raises the question whether the pill is a contraceptive device if it is taken by those living under a vow of celibacy.

I would contrast the ABC story with the treatment by The Economist. That story, entitled “Nuns and contraception: Praying for the Pill,” strikes me as having an adolescent tone. While the Telegraph and Guardian avoided commentary and reported on the facts and ABC provided context, The Economist story seemed un-serious. It is little more than a bilious anti-Catholic rant.

It opens with a discussion of contraception, turns to politics, and opines on whether the church will give nuns the pill.

The Catholic church condemns all forms of contraception, a policy that Paul VI laid out in detail in Humanae Vitae in 1968. Over the subsequent decades it has had various brawls with secular authorities over the use of birth control pills. Most recently, America’s bishops have fought to keep Barack Obama’s health law from providing contraception free. The church has already won an exemption for women who work for a church, but it also wants to keep coverage from women who work for any Catholic institution, even if the women in question are not Catholics and the institution has a secular purpose, such as a school, say, or hospital. Given all this, it would seem unlikely that the church would want to give the Pill to its nuns.

It recounts the arguments of The Lancet story and closes with a smirk.

The Pill can help to counteract [the risks of cancer]. The overall mortality in women who use, or have used, oral contraception, is 12% lower than among those who do not. The effect on ovarian and endometrial cancer is greater: the risk of such cancers plummets by about 50%. Drs Britt and Short make a compelling medical case. But it is unlikely to sway the Church.

What was that about the Vatican not micromanaging the health care of nuns?

Yes, birth-control and the Catholic Church is a controversial issue, and the church should not be above criticism for its views. However, if you are advancing an argument supported by an attitude of condescension towards your target you had better be right. Otherwise you come off the fool — as The Economist appears to have done in this story.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock.

First printed in GetReligion.

Normalizing nihilism – Euthanasia in Holland: Get Religion, December 9, 2011. December 10, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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It has been almost ten years since the Dutch parliament voted to legalize euthanasia.  While the Netherlands became the first country to grant state sanction to a mercy killing, doctors the world over have long quietly colluded in the “good death” of the terminally ill or those in extreme suffering.  The BBC reported that the 1 April 2002 — April Fool’s Day — law set the following parameters for Dutch mercy killings:

Patients must face a future of unbearable, interminable suffering

Request to die must be voluntary and well-considered

Doctor and patient must be convinced there is no other solution

A second medical opinion must be obtained and life must be ended in a medically appropriate way

The patient facing incapacitation may leave a written agreement to their death

However, the march of progress has not stopped here.  Last month the Daily Caller reported that the Dutch Medical Association sought to “expand the definition of who may qualify for assisted suicide — including for the first time such nonmedical factors as loneliness and financial struggles.”  The article entitled “Netherlands looks to expand euthanasia grounds to include lonely, poor” printed by Washington-based news website stated:

“Many older people have various afflictions that are not actually life-threatening but do make them vulnerable,” wrote the KNMG in a ten-year study report published in October.

“Vulnerability stems not only from health problems and the ensuing limitations, but also the measure in which people have social skills, financial resources and a social network. Vulnerability has an impact on quality of life and on prospects for recovery, and can lead to unbearable and lasting suffering.”

Prior to publishing the study results, the KNMG polled its members online. More than 68 percent agreed with the statement that doctors should be “permitted to factor in vulnerability, loss of function, confinement to bed, loneliness, humiliation and loss of dignity” when determining whether a patient is a good candidate for euthanasia.

This was followed by an article in the 7 Dec 2011 issue of the Telegraph that reported the Dutch government was considering allowing doctors to kill patients in their homes. The article entitled “Mobile euthanasia teams being considered by Dutch government” reported:

In a written answer to questions from Christian Union MPs [Health Minister Edith Schippers] said that mobile units “for patients who meet the criteria for euthanasia but whose doctors are unwilling to carry it out” was worthy of consideration.

“If the patient thinks it desirable, the doctor can refer him or her to a mobile team or clinic,” the minister wrote.

In her written answer Ms Schippers suggested that “extra expertise” could be summoned in complicated cases involving mental health problems or an inability to consent to euthanasia because of dementia.

In the space given to the story, the Telegraph’s reporter does a nice job in raising the moral issues, providing comments from anti-euthanasia activists as well as a government promise that euthanasia will not be abused. It is disquieting though to read:

Dutch medics have been accused of practising euthanasia on demand.

A total of 21 people diagnosed as having early-stage dementia died at the hands of their doctors last year, according to the 2010 annual report on euthanasia.

The figures from last year also showed another year-on-year rise in cases with about 2,700 people choosing death by injection compared to 2,636 the year before.

This is extraordinary. A patient at home whose doctor will not kill him, will be sent another doctor by the government to put them down — and if the patient has dementia and therefore is incapable of meeting the second Dutch death criteria, the request to die must be voluntary and well-considered — an expert will decide. Added to this the Dutch doctors demand that they be allowed to kill those who are unhappy, poor or lonely — I’m very tempted to play the Nazi card.

One of the unofficial rules I have picked up over the years is that whoever plays the Nazi or Hitler card looses the argument. They are no longer making a reasonable argument but making an appeal to sentiment and horror. And when the topic is euthanasia, the murders by Nazi doctors of 75,000 people including 5000 children deemed racially, mentally or physically unfit, is apt to arise. However, I think playing the Nazi card is wrong in this case too, as it detracts from the moral issue at hand — the problem of euthanasia is not that it might be abused, but that it will be used.

By allowing the killing of people who are not considered fit to live, we are adopting a view of humanity that reduces existence to the balancing of pain and pleasure. Life is worth living when pleasure is greater than pain. This view of life makes irrelevant many of the traits and characteristics of our humanity.  Virtue, duty, courage, honor and even love play no part in this animalistic calculus. It is moral nihilism.

What struck me as I read the Daily Caller and Telegraph articles was that although the story arc and tone of the pieces evidenced a dislike of the Dutch way of death — there was little attempt at raising moral or faith objections. It was as if these issues were irrelevant to the story. I am loathe to fault these two stories for this gap in their coverage as I believe Western society is fast reaching the point where moral nihilism is the norm.

These two pieces bring to mind P.D. James 1991 novel The Children of Men — which describes a world where no children have been born for 25 years because men have become infertile. It brings home the terrible implications of this world where mankind has no future.  Violence increases as life grows meaningless. “Freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom from boredom,” these are the goals of life. Euthanasia is achieved through a paid incentive program and to the sound of violins, the aged and infirm board ferries that sink in the sea.

How did mankind come to such a place? The protagonist, Theo Faron, writes in his journal:

Much of this I can trace to the early 1990s: the search for alternative medicine, the perfumed oils, the massage, the stroking and anointing, the crystal-holding, the non-penetrative sex. Pornography and sexual violence on film, on television, in books, in life, had increased and became more explicit but less and less in the West we made love and bred children. It seemed at the time a welcome development in a world grossly polluted by over-population. As a historian I see it as the beginning of the end.

And what does  religion say to this sterile world? Faron writes:

During the mid-1990s the recognized churches, particularly the Church of England, moved from the theology of sin and redemption to a less uncompromising doctrine: corporate social responsibility coupled with a sentimental humanism. [The Churches] virtually abolished the Second Person of the Trinity together with His cross, substituting a golden orb of the sun in glory .. Even to unbelievers like myself, the cross, stigma of the barbarism of officialdom and of man’s ineluctable cruelty, has never been a comfortable symbol.

No, I am not asking for a treatment of the problem of pain from the Telegraph. I am bemoaning the state of our culture such that the world painted in James’ dystopian novel appears to be quite like our own — and that the killing of the aged, unfit and infirm by the state has become regrettable, but unremarkable.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

First printed in GetReligion.

The Devil wears Yoga: Get Religion, December 3, 2011 December 4, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Hinduism.
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The Daily Telegraph has been having a great deal of fun with a story about the former exorcist for the Diocese of Rome, Fr. Gabriele Amorth. The 86-year old priest had been invited to a film festival to speak before the screening of The Rite, a new release starring Anthony Hopkins.

In the course of his remarks, Fr. Amorth denounced yoga as Satanic and said the Harry Potter novels were tools of the devil. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! — yes, he really did say that.

The Telegraph sub-editor who came up with the title for this article, “Harry Potter and yoga are evil says Catholic Church exorcist,” should see a little extra in his pay packet this week, as this is a Google search engine dream. If he had only been able to work in Justin Bieber he could have crashed the Telegraph’s servers.

While the story is great fun and smartly written, I came away from it thinking it was not fair. It links the pope to Fr. Amorth’s over the top comments and gives the impression the exorcist’s views are those of the Catholic Church. The Telegraph also avoids the question of the spiritual roots of yoga.

It opens strongly:

Father Gabriele Amorth, who for years was the Vatican’s chief exorcist and claims to have cleansed hundreds of people of evil spirits, said yoga is Satanic because it leads to a worship of Hinduism and “all eastern religions are based on a false belief in reincarnation”.

Reading JK Rowling’s  Harry Potter books is no less dangerous, said the 86-year-old priest, who is the honorary president for life of the International Association of Exorcists, which he founded in 1990, and whose favourite film is the 1973 horror classic, The Exorcist.

This sort of thing is great fun for a reporter — no hemming and hawing nor any need to ask Fr. Amorth what he really thinks. The story then quotes the exorcist and provides some foundation for the opening lede.

The Harry Potter books, which have sold millions of copies worldwide, “seem innocuous” but in fact encourage children to believe in black magic and wizardry, Father Amorth said.

“Practising yoga is Satanic, it leads to evil just like reading Harry Potter,” he told a film festival in Umbria this week, where he was invited to introduce The Rite, a film about exorcism starring Sir Anthony Hopkins as a Jesuit priest.

“In Harry Potter the Devil acts in a crafty and covert manner, under the guise of extraordinary powers, magic spells and curses,” said the priest, who in 1986 was appointed the chief exorcist for the Diocese of Rome.

“Satan is always hidden and what he most wants is for us not to believe in his existence. He studies every one of us and our tendencies towards good and evil, and then he offers temptations.” Science was incapable of explaining evil, said Father Amorth, who has written two books on his experiences as an exorcist. “It’s not worth a jot. The scientist simply explores what God has already created.”

How about that! What a great line … yoga is Satanic and leads to evil just like reading Harry Potter. There is plenty in that sentence to upset the average Telegraph reader as she peruses the paper with her morning tea (hopefully before her yoga class.) The second half of Fr. Amorth’s quotes are less vigorous and taken by themselves do not raise any eyebrows. At this point the Telegraph seeks to place Fr. Amorth’s views in context — but it does so in a somewhat oleaginous way.

His views may seem extreme, but in fact reflect previous warnings by Pope Benedict XVI, when as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger he was the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s enforcer of doctrinal orthodoxy.

In 1999, six years before he succeeded John Paul II as Pope, he issued a document which warned Roman Catholics of the dangers of yoga, Zen, transcendental meditation and other ‘eastern’ practises.

They could “degenerate into a cult of the body” that debases Christian prayer, the document said.

Yoga poses could create a feeling of well-being in the body but it was erroneous to confuse that with “the authentic consolations of the Holy Spirit,” the document said.

The “enforcer” line was fun for a few weeks mid 2005, but is a bit stale at this point. However, this linkage between Fr. Amorth’s the devil wears yoga pants and reads Harry Potter and the Catholic Church’s warnings against the New Age won’t do. “Jesus Christ: The Bearer of the Water of Life. A Christian reflection on the New Age” lays out the church’s teaching on “some of the traditions which flow into New Age … ancient Egyptian occult practices, Cabbalism, early Christian gnosticism, Sufism, the lore of the Druids, Celtic Christianity, mediaeval alchemy, Renaissance hermeticism, Zen Buddhism, Yoga and so on.”

This has nothing to do with yoga poses, and everything to do with the spiritual practices of yoga. The Vatican document explains:

Yoga, zen, transcendental meditation and tantric exercises lead to an experience of self-fulfilment or enlightenment. Peak-experiences (reliving one’s birth, travelling to the gates of death, biofeedback, dance and even drugs – anything which can provoke an altered state of consciousness) are believed to lead to unity and enlightenment. Since there is only one Mind, some people can be channels for higher beings. Every part of this single universal being has contact with every other part. The classic approach in New Age is transpersonal psychology, whose main concepts are the Universal Mind, the Higher Self, the collective and personal unconscious and the individual ego. The Higher Self is our real identity, a bridge between God as divine Mind and humanity. Spiritual development is contact with the Higher Self, which overcomes all forms of dualism between subject and object, life and death, psyche and soma, the self and the fragmentary aspects of the self. Our limited personality is like a shadow or a dream created by the real self. The Higher Self contains the memories of earlier (re-)incarnations.

The philosophical premise then of yoga is one that profoundly conflicts with the Christian world view. However, this review is not the place for a full discussion of the church’s teachings on this point. Suffice it to say the potted explanation provided by the Telegraph is not adequate to the task of explaining why the Catholic Church is uneasy with yoga.

The article then turns to critiques of Fr. Amorth’s views, noting “Italian yoga schools said Father Amorth’s criticism was absurd.”

“It’s a theory — if one can call it a theory — that is totally without foundation. Yoga is not a religion or a spiritual practise. It doesn’t have even the slightest connection with Satanism or Satanic sects.” Giorgio Furlan, the founder of the Yoga Academy of Rome, said yoga had nothing to do with religion, “least of all Satanism.” “Whoever says that shows that they know absolutely nothing about yoga,” he said.

While yoga instructors are given a voice denying the religious nature of yoga, the Telegraph neglects to offer the views of Hindu groups or religion scholars who might hold a contrary position — not about Satanism, but yoga’s spiritual/religious nature.

My colleague at GetReligion, Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, has pointed to American examples of the sort of error the Telegraph has made, accepting without question the premise that yoga is not spiritual. My purpose, however, is not to debate these issues — nor defend Fr. Amorth from the charge that he is a nut, nor argue that he is a saintly man of God. The problem with this story, as journalism, is that the Telegraph errs in ignoring what MZ Hemingway calls the “religious dimensions of yoga and what it means, in a religious sense, to practice yoga.” The editorial voice of the Telegraph story is that an aged Catholic exorcist has gone a bit mad and said some silly things about stretching exercises. There really is more to it than that.

Is this story fair to Fr. Amorth, to yoga, to Hinduism, to the pope? I say no. Am I being fair to the Telegraph? What say you GetReligion readers?

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

First printed in GetReligion.

Twilight of the Goths: Get Religion Oct 3, 2011 October 3, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

There’s nothing like a good dose of Matthew Arnold to cheer you up on a Monday morning, especially on the religion beat. (I am employing irony here.) But I do find it a shame that the treatment of religion-related stories is so often marked by ignorance of the subject matter and a lack of intellectual or moral awareness. For many reporters the Sea of Faith has dried up. They do not hear the resonant roar of belief behind the facts in a story.

I admit that this is not always a fair criticism. I have had stories edited for space where the back end is chopped off, leaving the final piece unbalanced and shoddy. And few stories are given a life of more than 400 words. But there are times when reading an article in one of the ‘quality’ papers I experience a melancholy with what might have been.

A recent piece in the Daily Telegraph entitled “Goths banned from Dracula graveyard” managed to mangle what could have been a fun story. It misfires — quite an accomplishment in the age of Twilight.

It is October and editors are on the lookout for Halloween themed pieces. A natural for this time of year is an item from the North of England. The vicar of St Mary’s Church in Whitby has banned photography in the graveyard. The town hosts a ‘Goth’ rock festival and devotees of this musical genre have taken to frequenting the cemetery and having their pictures taken draped over its tombstones. The attraction for Goths is that the St Mary’s churchyard figured prominently in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula.

Are you clear about the setting? Now there are several ways to knock this one out. For an American paper, I would have taken a lighthearted approach — an English Gothic version of an Elvis Presley film with a Twilight twist. ‘Gee, wiz grandpa, the kids just want to have fun!’ If I were doing this for the Daily Mail, I would focus on the young layabouts overrunning the church yard with their strange music and clothing. ‘Why don’t they have jobs?’

The Sun would want it to be a photo story, with a scantily clad Goth girl on page 3. For the Guardian I would focus on the vicar’s unsympathetic approach to the Goths, with a counter current on the need to preserve England’s heritage from being despoiled by Goths. However, it might not have made the cut as it falls outside the radar of its readers as the Guardian is a:

a loathsome newspaper; a local north London morning daily for Stalinist metro libtards, perpetually arrogant, snobbish, self-righteous, humourless, dull, relentlessly middle class, cowardly and cheap … which loathes the country and the people who inhabit it beyond the rim of the north circular.

(There, I’ve had my fun quoting Rod Liddle in the Spectator — always a good read) However, what all the articles would have had, save for the Sun, is some mention of the Disneyfication of England.

Let’s turn to the Telegraph and see what they did. It begins thus:

Gothic rock fans flock to Whitby’s historic St Mary’s Church in North Yorkshire during Whitby Goth Weekend to be snapped by photographers in the graveyard.

The cemetary is the place Dracula takes his victim Lucy Westernra during the night in Bram Stoker’s classic novel, overlooked by the imposing abbey.

But now photoraphy is being banned around graves at St Mary’s Church because they say is disrespectful to the dead who are buried there.

Signs have appeared since the last Goth Weekend prohibiting photography on and near gravestones.

John Hemson, the church’s warden said: “The reason the rector did it was I had become unbearable. I sat there one day and in half an hour nine photographers walked past me.

“The Goths stand, sit or even lie on the table graves. there are people in Whitby who had families there even though it closed in 1861 and they object to it very much.”

Editor, where is thy pencil? ‘Cemetery’ is misspelled in the second sentence, as is ‘photography’ in the third. Dracula’s victim was Lucy ‘Westenra’, only one r.’ The title of Stoker’s classic novel was ‘Dracula’, not ‘overlooked by the imposing abbey.’

I laughed out loud at the church warden’s explanation that the vicar had kicked the Goths out as “I had become unbearable.” I imagine “it had become unbearable” was what the author had intended to say.

The article offers comments from two voices opposed to the vicar’s ukase.  A photographer warns that banning photography might cause the Goth festival to move to another site, and offers the philosophical observation “What’s wrong with the church being used for two days? Everyone is enjoying themselves.”

A second voice from a local resident develops these points, and the article closes with a historical note that “thousands of Goths and punks congregate in the fishing town for the weekend, which began in 1994,” and the date of the next festival.

I realize that my critique is akin to taking a shovel to a souffle and that I have expended more words in comment than are found in the story. However, the God shaped hole in this story I see is the place of Christian edifices in a non-Christian land. The photographer’s quote, “What’s wrong with the church being used for two days?” offers an opportunity for an astute journalist to develop the theme of the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of the ebbing tide of Christian belief in England. Cue Matthew Arnold once more:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, Westminster Abbey and other religious sites  have as little religious resonance for Britain as the Temple at Luxor has for Egypt. Both are memories from the past. The photographer’s question was a good one. What purpose should these buildings serve now that their religious significance is shared by a minority? How do you quantify relevance? Here was an opportunity to traverse the darkling plain of British life and set up a story that allowed the ignorant armies to clash by night.

However, we have what you see. Am I being too harsh? Criticizing the story for what it is not, rather than what it does wrong? What say you readers?

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