Web/tech

Union seminary holds another interfaith rite, causing an explosion that rocked Twitter-verse

Union seminary holds another interfaith rite, causing an explosion that rocked Twitter-verse

When describing the life and work of St. Francis of Assisi, his admirers -- environmentalists as well as theologians -- usually quote his "Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon."

It begins with the Catholic mystic stressing that to God alone belong "all glory, all honor and all blessings."

Then St. Francis, who died in 1226, proclaims: "Praised be You my Lord with all Your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun. … Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars, in the heavens you have made them bright, precious and fair. Praised be You, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air."

This famous hymn teaches that God is Creator and that Francis is thankful for all of creation -- rain, wind, fire, plants, humanity and even "Sister Death."

That wasn't the doctrinal equation many Twitter users saw in a recent message from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. The seminary tweet described a chapel service linked to a class -- "Extractivism: A Ritual/Liturgical Response" -- taught by the Rev. Claudio Carvalhaes, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) theologian from Brazil.

"Today in chapel, we confessed to plants," said the seminary statement. "Together, we held our grief, joy, regret, hope, guilt and sorrow in prayer; offering them to the beings who sustain us but whose gift we too often fail to honor. What do you confess to the plants in your life?" The tweet showed a student facing potted ferns, palms, cattails, a lily and other houseplants.

"The prayers were said to the plants," confirmed Carvalhaes, reached by telephone. "The way we understand this, we are not praying to the plants as God. … We were seeing the plants in a way that the indigenous peoples see them -- as living things with lives of their own. …

"We were speaking to the plants as part of the 'we' of God. We are all part of God's creation -- both mankind and the rest of creation."

The Rev. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary heard a different message. "If you do not worship the Creator, you will inevitably worship the creation, in one way or another. That is the primal form of idolatry," he said, in a podcast from the Louisville campus, which has 1,731 full-time students.

The Union rite created a furor because of this seminary's fame as a center for progressive theology and its academic association with nearby Columbia University on Manhattan's West Side.

Are many religious flocks simply too afraid to help depressed, suffering people?

Are many religious flocks simply too afraid to help depressed, suffering people?

Week after week, the Rev. Todd Peperkorn listens as pastors talk -- in private -- about people wrestling with loneliness, depression and urges to commit suicide.

Most ministers believe they know their own people and their struggles. Then things start happening that reveal dark secrets and pain in the lives of members of their parishes, said Peperkorn, senior pastor at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Rocklin, Calif.

"What I hear pastors saying is, 'I didn't know. I didn't see it. Now I see it everywhere and I can't stop seeing it,' " he said. "Pastors want to help. They want to do the right thing. Most of all, they are scared that they will do something wrong and make a situation worse. …

"At some point, you can get so involved in the details of people's problems and their needs that you feel like you don't have the time or the energy to pray for them and carry on with all the other things that pastors need to do."

There's a reason that Peperkorn ends up on the other side of these conversations over coffee or on the telephone. He has openly discussed his own experiences as a patient diagnosed with clinical depression.

A decade ago, he shared what he has learned in a book entitled "I Trust When Dark My Road: A Lutheran View of Depression." Here's one unforgettable image from his story: During one busy Holy Week, he found himself writing an Easter sermon -- while, at the same time, pondering how he could commit suicide.

Right now, many pastors -- especially evangelical Protestants -- have been shaken by the death of the Rev. Jarrid Wilson, associate pastor at the Harvest Christian Fellowship megachurch in Riverside, Calif. He was best known as the co-founder of Anthem of Hope, a mental-health ministry dedicated to helping people struggling with depression, addiction and suicide.

On Sept. 9, Wilson appealed to his Twitter followers for prayer as he prepared to lead the funeral of a "Jesus-Loving Woman" who took her own life. A few hours after that service, Wilson sent out a poignant tweet.

"Loving Jesus Doesn't Always Cure Suicidal Thoughts.

Has there really been a 'truce' in all those bitter Protestant worship wars?

Has there really been a 'truce' in all those bitter Protestant worship wars?

If newcomers walk into a Protestant church on Sunday and hear an organ playing, and see hymnals, the odds are good that between 50 and 250 people will be in the pews.

If a church's attendance is larger than 250 -- especially if it's 1,000-plus -- visitors will usually see pop-rock "praise musicians" on stage, including a drummer. The hall will feature concert-level lighting and video screens displaying song lyrics. 

But here's a news flash from the front lines of what church leaders have, for several decades, called the "worship wars." According to a LifeWay Research survey, there's evidence of a "truce" between the "contemporary" and "traditional" worship forces. Then again, it's possible that church leaders have made up their minds and old debates inside many congregations have calmed down.

"We're not really talking about two enemies negotiating a cease fire," said Mike Harland, director of the LifeWay Worship team. "What I've seen happen in the 20 years that I've been part of this story is that the distance between the traditional and the contemporary churches has narrowed a bit. … People on each side of the divide have become more willing to compromise with the other."

This survey (.pdf here) was built on random telephone surveys of clergy in a variety of Protestant traditions during 2018, with the results weighted by church size and region, seeking balance.

A key finding was that only 15% of these American clergy said the biggest challenge they face linked to music and ministry was "navigating the varying preferences of members." A higher percentage (21%) said it was a bigger challenge to find vocalists and musicians to handle essential roles in worship.

When talking with individual pastors and worship leaders, Harland said he frequently hears them admit that their flocks simply don't contain members with the talents necessary to create a pop-rock band or "praise team" that can, week after week, perform contemporary Christian music at semi-professional levels. Thus, in many Protestant settings, individual talents -- not church tradition -- help shape a local congregation's worship "style."

Many pastors voice variations on this theme, he said. "We would love to sing all those new songs, but we don't have anyone who is talented on guitar and we don't have a drummer."

There is no question that, in addition to denominational worship traditions, some musical "style" questions are linked to church size.

Fake news or satire? The Babylon Bee wrestles with reality in a tense age

Fake news or satire? The Babylon Bee wrestles with reality in a tense age

When it comes to mainstream journalism, it's hard to imagine a stronger brand than The New Yorker.

This prestigious magazine is, of course, also known for humor and cartoons. A recent satire feature proclaimed: "Chick-fil-A Introduces New Hate Sauce."

"Customers across the nation who turned out for Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day were in for a surprise, as the chicken restaurant chose today to launch a new product, Hate Sauce," wrote Andy Borowitz.

"Delighted customers mobbed the restaurants to try the zesty new sauce, with many chicken fanciers ordering their sandwiches with extra hate. 'It's so spicy it makes your mouth feel like it's on fire -- like a gay couple in hell,' said Harland Dorrinson, who sampled the sauce at a Chick-fil-A in Orlando."

Could readers see a short Facebook item about that feature and think it was real? 

How about this headline? "House Democrats Draft Legislation That Would Make It A Hate Crime To Eat At Chick-fil-A."

Is that Babylon Bee bulletin fake news or satire? Then there was this headline at that same Christian satire website: "Trump Announces He Was Born Of A Virgin And Will Bring Balance To The Force."

Babylon Bee writers could -- day after day -- grab "low-hanging fruit" offered by President Donald Trump, noted publisher Seth Dillon, who bought the Bee in 2018.

"All this stuff keeps happening that is soooo outrageous that we just couldn't make it up," he said. "People keep seeing headlines that make them stop and say, 'Wait a minute. Did that really happen?' "

Bizarre twists in the news inspired this recent Bee headline: "Reality Criticized For Not More Clearly Distinguishing Itself From Satire."

That was also a shot at claims by Snopes.com researchers that The Babylon Bee was linked to numerous "fake news" claims in which readers confused satire with reality. They said the Bee's work was more problematic than The Onion, a secular satire site. The Bee calls itself, "Your Trusted Source For Christian News Satire." The Onion's motto is, "America's Finest News Source" -- without the word "satire."

A 'disruptive' new leader takes a powerful job in the Southern Baptist Convention

A 'disruptive' new leader takes a powerful job in the Southern Baptist Convention

It's a long way from Storyline Fellowship in Denver's western suburbs to downtown Nashville and a publishing-and-ministry operation the locals have long called the "Baptist Vatican."

That's 1,165 miles, on a map. The cultural gap between the Colorado Rockies and Tennessee seems bigger than that.

Storyline Fellowship is the congregation that the Rev. Ben Mandrell and his wife, Lynley, started in their living room in 2014, helping it grow into a modern evangelical flock with 1,600 members in a revamped Walmart facility. That's the kind of challenge church planters accept when working as missionaries outside the Southern Baptist Convention's heartland in the Bible Belt.

Now the 42-year-old Mandrell has jumped from the SBC frontier into one of the most high-profile jobs in America's largest Protestant flock -- serving as the new president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. That's the complex publishing, research and media company, with about 4,000 employees, that in simpler times as called the Sunday School Board.

Bible classes remain on the agenda, stressed Mandrell. But so are many other ministries that symbolize a new reality that all religious leaders will have grasp, one way are the other: The good old days of safe, predictable church work are gone.

"Not that we're not doing what we used to do" in terms of publishing materials used for Sunday Bible classes and other familiar forms of outreach, said Mandrell, in a telephone interview.

"But we're have to do so much more because America is getting so complex and diverse. … We have to keep asking our church leaders, 'What do you need us to provide for your tool boxes to do the work that you now know that you have to do?' "

This era of rapid change led to obvious changes -- including the series of explosions on January 6, 2018, that leveled the 12-story LifeWay tower, with its iconic giant stone crosses, that loomed over one corner of downtown Nashville. LifeWay moved to smaller, modernized facilities close to the Tennessee State Capitol.

A Pentecost season rant channels the anger swirling out in Catholic pews

A Pentecost season rant channels the anger swirling out in Catholic pews

Elizabeth Scalia woke up furious, thinking about scandals in the Church of Rome, Pentecost and a famous courtroom rant in the movie "… And Justice for All."

"It was like Al Pacino was inside my head screaming, 'You're out of order! You're all out of order! The whole church is out of order!' … I knew I had to write something," said Scalia, long known for online epistles using the pen name "The Anchoress."

At Pentecost, she noted, the Holy Spirit descended like fire on the apostles. "I thought: Dear God, why can't some fire fall on our bishops? What's it going to take to wake up some of these guys?"

Pentecost fell on June 9 this year, following months of news about clergy sexual abuse and the drumbeat of scandals tied to the fall of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, one of the most powerful church princes in American history.

 Then The Washington Post published a June 5 report about a lurid litany of accusations against retired West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield, whose career was linked to that of McCarrick. Investigators found that Bransfield -- in a poverty-wracked region -- spent millions of dollars on his own comforts, while handing financial gifts to various American members of the College of Cardinals and strategic church leaders. While there were no specific accusations of abuse, the church report cited a "consistent pattern of sexual innuendo, and overt suggestions and actions toward those over whom the former bishop exercised authority."

This was McCarrick 2.0, a sucker-punch that inspired Scalia to pound out a personal letter to Jesus that was published by America, a Jesuit publication. Scalia currently serves as editor at large for Word on Fire, a Catholic evangelism organization.

"Well, Lord, here we are again. This crap just never stops coming, and God, I'm getting so disgusted with it all, and if I could not find you in the Holy Eucharist, I wonder if I would find you anywhere else within this church," she wrote, in her fiery overture.

The mass-media holy wars surrounding that 'Unplanned' movie about abortion

The mass-media holy wars surrounding that 'Unplanned' movie about abortion

If "Unplanned" was an ordinary movie, its creators would be busy right now studying second-week box office numbers while starting negotiations with the digital giants that stream products to the masses.

But this has never been an ordinary movie, which is why it's an important test case for religious believers trying to bend Hollywood's unwritten rules about religion and hot-button moral issues.

Backed by a company called Pure Flix, "Unplanned" was filmed in secret in Oklahoma, using the code name "Redeemed" in an attempt to postpone controversy. The filmmakers behind "God's Not Dead" and similar Christian-market projects had a $6 million budget for their take on the story of Abby Johnson, a young Planned Parenthood executive who in 2009 quit to join the protestors outside her own clinic in Bryan, Texas.

Mainstream entertainment's powers that be have made it clear that the images and themes in "Unplanned" are not acceptable, said Cary Solomon, who wrote and directed the film with Chuck Konzelman.

"We offered them money for TV advertising and they turned us down. Now Netflix doesn't want us," said Solomon, earlier this week. "We've made a good movie and people want to see it. … We'll be getting close to $20 million at the box office in another week or so. Why won't some of these companies let people see our movie?"

Most of the "Unplanned" press coverage has focused on the marketplace controversies swirling around the film, as opposed to the film itself. One of the best summaries of the fine details in the drama about this drama ran as a column in The Washington Post.

"They gave the movie an "R" rating -- which meant the trailer could only run before R-rated movies and no one younger than 17 under could see it without a parent's permission," noted Marc Thiessen, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. "A half-dozen major music labels refused producers' requests to license music for the film. Many major television networks except Fox News and the Christian Broadcasting Network refused to run ads promoting it. Then, curiously, the movie's Twitter account was suspended through no fault of its own during opening weekend. … Tens of thousands of users (myself included) mysteriously found themselves involuntarily removed from the account's followers and/or unable to follow it in the first place.

"Get the feeling someone doesn't want you to see Unplanned?"

Should busy pastors spend time and energy in the 'dumpster fire' of life in social media?

Should busy pastors spend time and energy in the 'dumpster fire' of life in social media?

If there are problems in the pews these days, most pastors will learn about them the way they learn about almost everything else -- their smartphones will blow up.

It may be a text messages, a blitz of tweets or an online post that ignites a long comments thread with the faithful trading theological jabs or making pious, passive-aggressive remarks about church life. Other messages will be specific and personal, often leaving pastors confused about the urgency of these terse signals.

"People can create online personalities that are simply not real. … A lot of what they say in social media has little to do with who they really are and all the fleshy, real stuff that's in their lives," said the Rev. John Jay Alvaro, of First Baptist Church in Pasadena, Calif.

Thus, Alvaro and the church's other clergy are committed to this strategy: Always move "one step closer" to human contact. "What we want is coffee cups and face-to-face meetings across a table. … You have to get past all the texts and emails and Facebook," he said.

In fact, Alvaro is convinced that online life has become so toxic that it's time for pastors to detox. Thus, he recently wrote an essay for Baptist News Global with this blunt headline: "Pastors and other church leaders: Give up social media. Not for Lent, but forever." His thesis is that the "dumpster fire" of social-media life is making it harder for pastors to love real people.

To quote one of Alvaro's Duke Divinity School mentors -- theologian Stanley Hauerwas -- today's plugged-in pastor has become "a quivering mass of availability."

"Any benefit you perceive social media is giving you pales when compared to the real losses of cultivating your online social presence," wrote Alvaro. "Or take it from the other direction. If everyone in your congregation got off Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., your ministry and your pastoral life would improve immediately. Well, not immediately. First there would be withdrawal, anger and other addictive reactions. Drugs don't leave your system peacefully."

After evaluating his own experiences in ministry, and talks with other pastors, Alvaro thinks that many people don't understand that social media programs are designed to amplify messages -- especially "negative emotional content" -- so that they spread as far as possible, as fast as possible.

This commercial system is "built to make you angry or sad, but with the promise that good news is one more scroll away. It is a slot machine of empty promises," he wrote.