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Are ashes to go a Protestant no-no?: Get Religion, February 14, 2013 February 14, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion.
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This week’s celebration of Ash Wednesday has prompted several stories built around the theme of “ashes to go” — a recent phenomena of liturgical Protestant church ministers — (I’ve seen reports of Methodist, Episcopal and Lutheran clergy involved) imposing ashes on the foreheads of individuals in public places outside of the confines of worship.

(Yes, “imposing” is the correct verb to describe the act of a cleric daubing an ash covered thumb on the forehead of a penitent. The rite is called the imposition of ashes.)

Theses stories from the Dallas Morning News entitled “Doughnuts, coffee and Ashes to Go?” is typical of the genre, as is the Baltimore Sun’s “Lenten observers take their Ashes to Go,” and the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s “Modern-day Lent: Ashes to Go”. Each conforms to the general pattern of a description of what took place; an explanation of what the ashes symbolize, a quote from someone receiving the ashes and an explanation from one of the clergy explaining why they do it. Some stories go a bit deeper and note that this practice began in St Louis in 2007 and has slowly spread amongst mainline churches.

What I have not seen in this year’s crop (though I have not made an exhaustive search of today’s newspapers) is a contrary voice saying this practice is improper. Happy voices predominate and no hard questions are asked. Compare these stories to Cathy Lynn Grossman’s 2012 piece entitled “For some, ashes in a flash for Lent”. While it includes the elements of the stories cited above, the USA Today story also asks a spokesman for the Catholic Church what they think of the idea.

Catholic priests won’t be dishing out ashes at bus stops. The Catholic Church teaches ashes should be received within a church, during a service with Scripture, prayer and calls for repentance, says Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

USA Today also asked the Episcopal priest who began “ashes to go” in 2007 what her theological reasons were for taking the imposition of ashes outside of the church building.

The Rev. Emily Mellott of Calvary Church in Lombard, Ill., and author of AshesToGo.org, describes the simple sign as a profound experience. “The ashes are an invitation, opening the door for us to the practices of Lent, a first step, a reminder of our mortality and God’s creative power,” says Mellott, who plans to stand at a commuter train stop today. “We take that invitation and that core truth out into places where people really need that. People who come to church already get the forgiveness thing.”

Anyone can accept the ashes, although non-Christians tend not to seek them. If they do, Mellott says, “we view it as an act of evangelism, and we make it clear this is a part of the Christian tradition.”

By seeking contrary voices and offering a theological explanation, USA Today wins best in show for the ashes to go stories.

I should wrap the story up at this point. I’ve identified why one particular story works best and highlighted the religion ghosts in others. However, I am going to break the fourth wall in GetReligion and offer my own views on this point. This will not come as a surprise to those who comment that every story I post displays my partisan views — but at GR we seek not to speak to the issues in the story but the journalism.

But I cannot help me self on this one — as I am a working Episcopal priest as well as a journalist, and I presided over an Ash Wednesday service yesterday. I think it is a terrible idea to separate the penitential rite that proceeds the imposition of ashes. The ashes are not a sacrament that exist independently of the worship service — they are not akin to the bread and wine of the Eucharist. In the Orthodox and Roman Catholic tradition ashes are sacramentals, (as is the Brown Scapular, Miraculous Medal and Holy Water), which the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1670) states:

do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do, but by the Church’s prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it.

I do not presume to speak for all Protestants, but can say with some confidence that the Church of England and its sister churches has no common doctrine of sacramentals — and rejected the doctrine that underlay these devotional practices. Why liberal mainline Protestants would take up the belief in sacramentals for Ash Wednesday escapes me. Offering the outward show of contrition that the ashes signify as an evangelism tool makes no theological sense to me sense to me either. The Gospel reading found in the Revised Common Lectionary used by most liturgical Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church on Ash Wednesday comes from Sixth Chapter of the Gospel of Matthew and states in part:

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

… “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

What is the imposition of ashes in a public place that allows the busy commuter to show the world his piety on Ash Wednesday other than the practicing of piety before others “in order to be seen by them”? I will grant you that my experiences or views should not be the norm against which others should measure their churchmanship, (though I must say I swing a mean incense pot and I do the best Anglican plainchant south of Disney World)  but the arguments put forth in support of this practice I find unpersuasive.

N.b., if you are offended by my excursus into naked partisanship, write to the editor to complain. Blame my colleagues at GetReligion. They gave me the short straw.

First printed in GetReligion.


USA Today’s Islam-free 9/11: Get Religion, May 29, 2012 May 30, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Islam, Press criticism.
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She was dead.

Dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell, was dead.

Her little bird — a poor slight thing the pressure of a finger would have crushed — was stirring nimbly in its cage; and the strong heart of its child-mistress was mute and motionless for ever.

Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop (1841)

The Anglo-Irish playwright and bon vivant, Oscar Wilde, once observed that “one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”

On the surface, Wilde’s aphorism is wicked. Laughing at the death of an impossibly good child is a heartless act. Yet the strength of Wilde’s remarks — and their repetition to this day — comes not from the discovery that Little Nell’s death was funny. Rather it is the realization that Dicken’s depiction of Little Nell’s death was aesthetically flawed. So over the top, so one-dimensional that the power of the narrative collapsed under the weight of its treacly sentiment. It was bad art.

Reading an article in USA Today entitled: “Mosque projects face resistance in some U.S. communities” elicited the same response from me as Little Nell’s death did for Wilde.

One must have a heart of stone not to laugh at the persecution of Muslims in America as depicted by USA Today. This article is so bad, so one-sided, so inept that its ham-handed attempt to elicit sympathy by condemning prejudice felt by some Muslims in America brought me to tears — of laughter.

The article begins:

CHICAGO – Mohammed Labadi has a lot at stake when the DeKalb City Council votes Tuesday on a request from the Islamic Society of Northern Illinois University to build a two-story mosque.

Labadi, a businessman and Islamic Society board member, wants a bigger mosque to replace the small house where local Muslims now worship. He also hopes for affirmation that his neighbors and city officials have no fear of the Muslim community.

The article offers a protestation by Mr. Labadi of his American credentials — and then notes the zoning commission has approved the request for a new mosque. An inaspicious beginning for an article on prejudice against Muslims — but USA Today has a narrative arc in mind that will not be deflected by the facts in its lede.

The article then takes a bizarre turn. Starting with the plea by Mr. Labadi not to “look at me just as a Muslim, look at me as an American” and to “take the unfortunate stereotypes about Muslims out of the picture” the article then removes Islam from 9/11. It states:

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which were carried out by hijackers from Arab countries, animosity toward Muslims sometimes has taken the form of opposition to construction of mosques and other Islamic facilities.

What is the author trying to say? Is it that 9/11 was really an Arab affair that has spawned unfortunate repercussions against Muslims? That Islam has nothing to do with it?

The article reports on “anti-mosque activity” in more than 25 states since 9/11, citing the ACLU as its source of information, and then quotes the director of the ACLU’s freedom of religion program as saying that some mosque opponents raise concerns about traffic and parking.

A lawyer for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) then enters the story, claiming prejudice — not zoning issues — lay behind the decision by DuPage County, Ill., to block a construction permit for a mosque.

Some DuPage County residents who objected to the permit “raised allegations of terrorism,” Vodak says. “The post-9/11 atmosphere has created a lot of fear and hysteria about Muslim institutions.”

The article does offer the voice of a neighbor to the proposed mosque, objecting to the building being located in a residential area — and then offers anecdotes of zoning concerns over proposed mosques in Connecticut and a successful zoning application in Wisconsin. The article then ends with comments from two Muslims a la Rodney King — “Why can’t we all get along”.

Still, says Othman Atta, the Islamic Society’s executive director, some opponents said the mosque would teach violence and impose Islamic law. “The level of knowledge about Muslims is pretty abysmal,” he says. “People, if they don’t understand something, they tend to fear it.”

Ebrahim Moosa, a Duke University professor of religion and Islamic studies, worries that discrimination against Muslims is growing. “Opposition to mosques,” he says, “is not a misunderstanding, because reasonable people can talk and mutually educate.”

Why the laughter? Why the sniggering? Because this is a mess of an article.

The news reported in this story is that two mosques have received zoning approval and two mosques have been denied zoning approval. The expert commentary offered in this story, however, comes only from those condemning anti-Muslim prejudice and ignorance — nothing from experts on religion and zoning.

A further problem with the story structure is that the article fails to offer any proven examples of prejudice and ignorance. We are offered a few factual crumbs courtesy of the ACLU, but they are not placed in any sort of context. How many mosques have been vandalized? Are Muslim hate crimes on the increase or decrease? Are hate crimes against Jews, Sikhs, Buddhist, Christians on the increase or decrease as well? What sort of Muslims are we talking about? Sunni, Shia, Ismaili, Ahmadiyya? Are mosques backed by Saudi money being built, but not those of other schools?

And CAIR? In an article complaining about the linkage between Islam and terrorism it is a bit much to have a group some members of Congress believe is a terrorist front organization put forward as a source without having any sort of context explaining from whom we are hearing.

This article is full of cliches and stock metaphors and uses these trite devices as well as an appeal to sentiment to advance an argument that it does neglects to support with facts.

Which takes me back to the death of Little Nell.  The Old Curiosity Shop presented an unrealistic picture of death. Dickens offered the reader a child who on its death bed is uncomplaining — who as death approaches only increases in earnestness and gratitude for the little she has received in this life. There is no suffering, no pain, no loss. The only action found in the pages describing the death of Little Nell is the fluttering of an innocent bird hoping about its cage as life slips away.

Dickens depiction of death was so unconvincing, so trite and contrived that it was funny. Wilde’s bon mot was not heartless but an apt judgment on aesthetic failure — on the failure of Dickens as an artist in this passage from The Old Curiosity Shop.

While I concede that this article has no pretensions to being art, it too is an aesthetic failure. It is also a professional (journalistic) failure and a moral failure. It seeks not to establish the truth but to prove a point. All it succeeds in doing, however, is to glorify sentiment.

Oscar Wilde in a letter to Lord Alfred Douglas described the sentimentalist as one who

desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it … Even the finest and most self-sacrificing emotions have to be paid for. Strangely enough, that is what makes them fine. The intellectual and emotional life of ordinary people is a very contemptible affair …. And remember that the sentimentalist is always a cynic at heart. Indeed sentimentality is merely the bank holiday of cynicism.

By crafting the story on a foundation of sentiment rather than fact, USA Today fell short in its reporting. There is a story to be told on the acculturation of Muslims in America in the wake of 9/11. What say you GetReligion readers, does this article help tell this story?

Mosque image courtesy of Shutterstock.

First printed in GetReligion.

Cats, dogs, contraception and Rick Warren: Get Religion, April 12, 2012 April 13, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Marriage, Politics, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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Do all dogs go to heaven? Rick Warren thinks so, and he believes cats will enter paradise too according to an interview the mega-church pastor gave to ABC’s Jake Tapper for This Week on Easter Sunday. The influential pastor of Southern California’s Saddleback Churchoffered his views on the immortality of animal souls as well as comments on a wide range of issues including the implications of the Obama Administration’s HHS mandate.

While the ‘doggies in heaven’ angle provided a light touch to the interview, it also opened the door to a potential discussion of the theological and moral questions animating the contraception fight waged by the Catholic Church against the Obama Administration HHS mandate. However, the opportunity was lost to push Rick Warren on the coherency of his theological and political arguments as ABC treated the issue as a joke.

Yes, you heard me right — all ‘dogs go to heaven’ has a bearing on the question of the morality of artificial contraception. But ABC missed it.

Which leads me to ask two questions. Why did they miss it? And even if they were aware of the issue, where they wise to let it go?

Why did they miss it? One reason might be that given by New York Times columnist Mark Oppenheimer. In a recent GetReligion post by my colleague Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Oppenheimer responded to a question about media coverage of religion by saying in part:

It’s not skeptical enough. … We either treat religion with reverence, or we treat is as a human-interest curiosity … the truth is that the mainstream media is not critical enough. It misunderstands religion, sure — but is still oddly hands-off and reverent.

Oppenheimer is right about the media’s treatment of religion as being too soft and too reverent. But it is not for the reason he suggests. Most reporters do not know what questions to ask when speaking to faith leaders, and when they do hear something they often as not do not appreciate its importance.

We can see this in the This Week interview. In a segment entitled “Rick Warren: Contraception Debate About ‘Greater Principle’ of Religious Freedom” Tapper asked Warren several strong questions about his advocacy against the mandate. Warren encapsulated his opposition to the mandate stating that while he had no objections to contraception, he did believe:

There is a greater principle, and that is do you have a right to decide what your faith practices? I would be just as opposed to someone making a law that says every Jewish deli now has to serve pork. Well, I would be — I would protest that. Why? There are 100 other delis  you can get pork at. Why do I have to insist that the Jewish delis also serve pork? There’s plenty of places to get contraceptives.

Tapper’s political radar, skills and experience were evident when he questioned Warren. At one point Warren stated:

… Most or many religious organizations insure themselves. We insure ourselves here at Saddleback Church. I have 350 staff. We have a self-insurance program, where we do our own insurance. So we’re basically robbing from ourselves to pay for ourselves.

TAPPER: But weren’t you already required to do this under California law?

WARREN: That’s not the issue. The issue is on a national level, on a national level, to start limiting churches and their organizations, the church and organizations — or any organizations, whether it’s Christian or not, in what they believe that that limits what they do with their school or their health care, that is a violation of the First Amendment, in my opinion.

Let me say I am not examining the merits of Warren’s answers, but applauding Tapper’s skill in asking the right questions that served to draw out the implications of Warren’s thinking.

But a second segment, where Tapper asked questions of Warren submitted by audience members, showed the Oppenheimer effect in action. In her blog, USA Today’s Cathy Lynn Grossman commented on the theological exchange between Tapper and Warren. She wrote:

Early on in the interview, ABC invited folks to raise questions on social media and one viewer tweeted a query: if “faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven.”

Warren, a Southern Baptist, keyed in on the essentials of salvation — a personal acceptance of Jesus Christ. He told the tweeter, “I do believe that. And I believe that because Jesus said it… Jesus said ‘I am the way.’.. I’m betting my life that Jesus wasn’t a liar.”

Warren explained that God’s grace is the only ticket, that our works on earth cannot earn heavenly passage, although, he joked, “Most of us want to have enough.. good works to get into heaven, but enough bad works to be fun.”

Bottom line, says Warren, “I’m not getting to heaven on my integrity. I’m not getting to heaven on my goodness. I’m getting to heaven on what I believe Jesus said is grace…”

Grossman then stated these words were:

“evangelical gospel. But where Warren goes next may not be. Tapper relays a Facebook question: Do dogs go to heaven?

Said Warren, “Absolutely yes. I can’t imagine God not allowing my dog into heaven.”

Cats, too, Warren added. “Why not.”

The “Why not” answer Warren gave to cats in heaven could also have served as a great link back to the issue of the HHS mandate. For the theology that animates Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical that sets forth the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception, is informed by the same issue that is involved in the question about animals in heaven. While I think it safe to say that all traditional Christians, not just Evangelicals, believe in the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, I would disagree with the contention that Evangelicals on the whole object to the proposition that animals go to heaven.

Critics such as Peter Singer have held that Christianity has no moral regard for the welfare of animals. Singer prefaced his account of Christian thought regarding animals with the statement: “To end tyranny we must first understand it.”

But as Oxford theologian Andrew Linzey has noted, there is “an ambiguous tradition” about animals in Christianity. Thinkers as diverse as Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Fenelon, and Kant and have held that animals do not have rational, hence immortal souls. Descartes defended a distinction between humans and animals based on the belief that language is a necessary condition for mind and as such animals were soulless machines (Descartes, Discourse on the Method)

Others theologians, philosophers and writers as diverse as Goethe, St John of the Cross, C.S. Lewis, Bishop Butler, and John Wesley held the opposite view and believed that animals will find a place in heaven. Billy Graham is purported to have said:

I think God will have prepared everything for our perfect happiness’ in heaven. If it takes my dog being there, I believe he’ll be there.

That may be all well and good, you say, but what has any of this to do with the healthcare debate?

As Janet Smith notes in her book, Humanae Vitae: a generation later, in Catholic moral teachings one of the differences between humans and animals is that while animals engage in reproductive sexual congress to create another member of the species, humans engage in procreative sexual intercourse “wherein they cooperate with God to bring into existence a new immortal being.”

The soul of Man is immortal while the soul of an animal is mortal. Thomistic theology holds that animals possess sensate souls that can respond effectively to the environment around them. However, animals do not possess rational souls — being able to reason about reality. The sensate soul is mortal while the rational soul, created in the image of God, is immortal. And it is this distinction between mortal and immortal souls that prevents animals from going to heaven, and prohibits contraception in Catholic moral teaching.

For the Catholic Church, Dr. Smith notes:

sterlization, abortion, contraception, in vitro fertilization, and production of animals for “farming” of organs for transplantation are all permissible for animals. Yet the Church finds none 0f these actions permissible for Man. Again it is because of the nature of Man, not the nature of the  biological processes per se, that Man must not interfere with these processes.

When Rick Warren responded “why not” when asked whether there are cats in heaven, it prompted the question of what was distinctive about mankind, and closer to home, what was immoral about contraception. Why privilege one theological view of humanity or of the soul (one Warren admits not sharing) over against another?

Which leads into my second question. Had the reporter recognized the theological linkage between the two issues would it have served any useful purpose to ask this question? On a secular news show should all questions come back to a secular base? Or when interviewing a religious figure, should theological questions be asked that draw out the thinking and beliefs of the subject?

Is the Oppenheimer effect at work here? Is Rick Warren a political leader or a religious leader? Is his theology or methodology coherent? Is that even important? Am I aiming a bazooka at a fly? Should we give religious leaders a pass on their theology and hold them accountable only on their secular beliefs?

What say you GetReligion readers?

First printed in GetReligion.