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Old fault lines can be seen in the 'seven churches' of divided Methodism (Part I)

Old fault lines can be seen in the 'seven churches' of divided Methodism (Part I)

It was one of those General Conference debates in which the regional accents of the United Methodists at the microphones were part of the drama.

Times were tough and national leaders had struggled to raise enough money to cover the Church World Services budget. Thus, a delegate from the Bible Belt requested a budget increase smaller than the one sought by agency leaders.

Then someone from the urban Northeast "rose and spoke against his motion in a fervent, angry plea for more commitment and compassion for the needs of the poor and downtrodden. Her enthusiasm carried the day," noted "The Seven Churches of Methodism," an influential report on regional divisions in the United Methodist Church.

"Later, the delegate whose motion was defeated noted that his opponent's enthusiasm for the poor would be better exerted in her own annual conference, which had paid only part of its World Service apportionment."

That was in the early 1980s, just before decades of acidic battles over the Bible, sex and marriage began making headlines.

Methodists were already struggling with this reality: There's no painless way to cut a smaller pie. And it already mattered that conferences in the most liberal parts of the United Methodist Church were shrinking, while numbers were relatively steady or rising in more conservative regions.

Cracks detailed in that 1985 report are even more relevant today after repeated General Conference wins by a coalition of U.S. evangelicals and growing UMC flocks in the Global South, especially Africa. The denomination's top court has approved parts of a recently passed "Traditional Plan" that would strengthen enforcement of existing church disciplines banning same-sex weddings and the ordination of "self-avowed practicing" LGBTQ clergy. It also approved an "exit plan" for congregations seeking a way out.

"The Seven Churches of Methodism" was written by the famous Duke University sociologist Robert L. Wilson, who died in 1991, and William Willimon, now a retired bishop. It focused on life in seven U.S. regions between 1970-82, including church-school statistics that suggested future problems with active members and the young.

Hey preachers: Can you spot the God-shaped hole at heart of the 'Avengers' universe?

Hey preachers: Can you spot the God-shaped hole at heart of the 'Avengers' universe?

As most occupants of Planet Earth know, last year's "Avengers: Infinity War" ended with the genocidal demigod Thanos using six "infinity stones" to erase half of all life in the universe.

It would have been logical to assume the sequel, "Avengers: Endgame" would start with lots of funerals, with pastors, priests, rabbis, imams and other shepherds working overtime to answer tough, ancient questions.

That assumption would be wrong.

"People are mourning, but they're going to therapy and support groups," said film critic Steven Greydanus of DecentFilms.com, also a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark. "What we don't see are grieving people in church or even at funerals. … We don't hear anyone asking, 'Where is God in all of this?' "

It's rare to hear the theological term "theodicy" in movies, but people who frequent multiplexes often hear characters suffer tragic losses and then ask, "Why did God let this happen?" The American Heritage Dictionary defines "theodicy" as a "vindication of God's goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil."

This God-shaped hole at a pivotal moment in the "Avengers" series offers a window into the soul of the Marvel Comics universe and the minds of executives who shaped most of the 22 movies in this giant pop-culture mythology, said Greydanus.

"We are talking about a major fail, and not just from an artistic point of view," he said. "This shows a stunted view of how most people on Earth live their lives. Even people who are not religious tend to cry out and ask the big spiritual questions when faced with tragedy and loss. That's part of what it means to be human."

Not that many consumers are complaining. In it's first 11 days, "Avengers: Endgame" pulled in $2.19 billion at the global box office -- the fastest a film has reached $2 billion. Many insiders now assume it will eventually break the $3 billion barrier, passing the current No. 1 movie, the environmental-fantasy epic "Avatar," at $2.78 billion.

Truth is, global-market realities now affect how many blockbusters handle explicitly religious and even vaguely spiritual questions.

Painful question for Catholic bishops: Why assume that parishes will decline and die?

Painful question for Catholic bishops: Why assume that parishes will decline and die?

The headlines keep appearing in Catholic newspapers, before the news migrates into the real-estate coverage in mainstream media.

The bottom line is the bottom line. Catholic shepherds decide that they have to pull the plug and close parishes in which declining and aging flocks of believers have struggled to pay their bills. These aging sanctuaries are often located on valuable pieces of urban real estate.

Some parishes vanish. Others are merged into one facility to make efficient use of space, as well as the crowded schedules of a steadily declining number of priests.

"On one level, it makes sense. You close a parish -- I understand that many parishes are in financial trouble -- and then in a few years you get to tear it down and someone moves in and builds condos," said Philip F. Lawler, editor of Catholic World News, an independent online news service.

"The questions that I think we have to ask our bishops are, 'Why is defeat inevitable? Why do we assume that all of these parishes are going to decline and close? … What if you put someone in there who offered a brand of Catholic faith that had some evangelical zeal? What if we still believed that Catholic churches could grow?' "

Do the math, he said. Growing urban flocks would need places to worship. But once these historic Catholic sanctuaries are gone -- they're gone. The cost of building replacements would be astronomical.

All of these real-estate decisions, he said, hinge on management assumptions that are profoundly spiritual.

Once upon a time, "American cities are dotted with magnificent church structures, built with the nickels and dimes that hard-pressed immigrant families could barely afford to donate," wrote Lawler, in his new book, "The Smoke of Satan," addressing several interlinking scandals in Catholic life. "Today the affluent grandchildren of those immigrants are unwilling to keep current with the parish fuel bills and, more to the point, to encourage their sons to consider a life of priestly ministry."

Yes, there are cases in which parishes serving different ethnic groups were built within blocks of each other. But Lawler is convinced that the typical church that is being closed and sold is "located in a comfortable, populous neighborhood, with no other Catholic church particularly close at hand and no special reason why the community that supported a thriving parish in 1960 cannot maintain the same parish now. … No reason, that is, except the decline of the Catholic faith. Parishes close because Catholic families don't care enough about the faith to keep them open."

Why it matters that many journalists struggle to grasp religion's role in 'Alienated America'

Why it matters that many journalists struggle to grasp religion's role in 'Alienated America'

In the spring of 2016, Wall Street Journal reporters went hunting for the heart of Make America Great Again territory and ended up in Buchanan County, Va., near the borders of Kentucky and West Virginia.

Based on a variety of political and economic factors, the Journal called this corner of coal country, "The Place That Wants Donald Trump Most."

But there was a crucial fact about this Appalachian county that didn't fit into this political parable, noted Timothy P. Carney of The Washington Examiner, in his book "Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse."

 "Out of 3,143 counties in America, Buchanan County ranks 3,028th in religious adherence," he wrote. "Economic woe, social dysfunction, family collapse and community erosion all characterized the places where Trump was strongest. … So did empty pews."

But what about the statistic that became a mantra for journalists explaining the New York billionaire's rise -- that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump?

"There has been a strong drive in the mainstream press to establish that white evangelicals don't actually have any greatly held morality," noted Carney, in a recent telephone interview. "The idea is that these evangelicals use religion as a cudgel to beat on other people. Their support for Trump is supposed to show that their beliefs are political -- not religious."

The most revealing faith-based numbers in this White House race came during the primaries, not in the "general election (when religious voters had only two choices, and the specter of Hillary Clinton hung over their heads)," wrote Carney. The question reporters need to keep asking is this: "Who gravitated immediately to Trump, and who turned to him only when the alternative was Hillary?"

Research into primary voting, he noted, revealed that the "more frequently a Republican reported going to church, the less likely he was to vote for Trump." In fact, Trump was weakest among believers who went to church the most and did twice as well among those who never went to church. "Each step DOWN in church attendance brought a step UP in Trump support," noted Carney.

Reporters could have seen this principle at work early on in Sioux County, Iowa, where half of the citizens claim Dutch ancestry.

Priest, firefighters rush into Notre Dame Cathedral to save what could not be replaced

Priest, firefighters rush into Notre Dame Cathedral to save what could not be replaced

As the flames rushed through Notre Dame Cathedral's wooden rafters -- each beam cut from an individual oak -- a squad of firefighters began a strategic mission.

Their leader was Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade. The goal was to save a crown of thorns that pilgrims have venerated for centuries as part of one worn by the crucified Jesus. King Louis IX brought the relic to Paris in 1238, after receiving it as a gift from the embattled emperor of Constantinople.

Fournier and his firefighters were, according to KTO Catholic Television, able to "save the crown of thorns and the Blessed Sacrament." Forming a human chain, they retrieved as many relics and works of sacred art as they could, until the flames won.

Meanwhile, American television networks solemnly told viewers that "art," "artifacts" and "works of art" had been retrieved from this iconic structure at the heart of Paris. In a major story about the fire, The New York Times noted that Notre Dame Cathedral had "for centuries … enshrined an evolving notion of Frenchness."

That's an interesting way to describe the world's second most famous Catholic cathedral, after St. Peter's in Rome. Then again, is a container of what Catholics believe is bread consecrated to be the Body of Christ best described as a "cultural artifact"? Is "in shock" the best way to describe Parisians praying the Rosary and singing "Ave Maria"?

For several decades, I have been asking these kinds of questions while covering religion news and studying how our mass media struggle with religion. This past week marked my 31st anniversary writing this national "On Religion" column.

Was the Notre Dame catastrophe a "religion" story or a drama linked to cultural changes in post-Christian France? I think the answer is "yes" -- to both.

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.

Striving to build the Kingdom of Heaven with timber, stucco, brick and iron

Striving to build the Kingdom of Heaven with timber, stucco, brick and iron

When Andrew Gould began designing a sanctuary for Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Charleston, S.C., he started by creating an imaginary backstory for the parish.

Instead of beginning with a circle of Orthodox families and converts in 1996, the art historian and architect imagined that a community of Russian immigrants had moved to Charleston in the mid-19th century. They looked at the city's famous mix of Southern warmth, Colonial style and coastal, Mediterranean influences and then built a church that was thoroughly Orthodox -- but fit into Charleston.

Working with local materials as much as possible, Gould designed a Byzantine church, but with a copper roof, plenty of exposed Heart Pine wood and stucco masonry painted in a gold-yellow tint common in historic Charleston. Then he included a unique saw-tooth cornice design, using local brownish-red brick, a pattern that had the added advantage of resembling traditions in Russia.

"I kept asking myself, 'What parts of Charleston's architecture could be baptized into Orthodoxy? What if this church had been built by Russians long ago and it's been here ever since and it looks totally at home in Charleston?", he said, describing the 2004 project that opened a new stage of his career.

"I have a kind of romanticized fantasy about the history of these churches and I have used this technique in other places. Keeping this kind of story in mind keeps me focused on what I'm trying to accomplish."

This goal shapes the work that Gould and other artisans do with his New World Byzantine Studios in Charleston, whether it's designing an entire church, one of his massive, circular ironwork chandeliers or other forms of liturgical art and church supplies. The goal is to maintain ancient forms and traditions, while blending in cultural, historical influences seen in life in a specific region.

For example, what would a Pueblo-style monastery in New Mexico look like if it were Orthodox, instead of Catholic, and featured altar cloths, carvings and icon-stand decorations influenced by Native American culture?

Spiritual journeys: Phil Keaggy and Jeff Johnson's instrumental art on strings and keys

Spiritual journeys: Phil Keaggy and Jeff Johnson's instrumental art on strings and keys

While recording his "Beyond Nature" album, Phil Keaggy spent many hours doing three things -- playing acoustic guitar, taking long walks in the woods and reading books by C.S. "Jack" Lewis.

"I took all that in and it influenced the music, which was quiet and contemplative and that fit with that moment in my life," said Keaggy, in a recent interview. "All of that was connected. … I think you can feel a spirit behind that music."

So it isn't surprising that this 1991 classic included song titles such as "Brother Jack," "Fragile Forest" and "Addison's Walk," referring to a Magdalen College footpath that Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Oxford friends often walked while discussing literature, faith and life.

While "Beyond Nature" was an instrumental recording, the liner notes included this Lewis quote: "Nature is mortal; we shall out-live her. … Nature is only the image, the symbol; but it is the symbol Scripture invites me to use. We are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendor which she fitfully reflects. And in there, and beyond Nature, we shall eat of the tree of life."

So this was a "Christian" album, one inspired by the apologetics of Lewis? That's the kind of question musicians often hear after recording instrumental music during an era in which "Christian music" debates almost always focus on lyrics.

"I just play," said Keaggy. "I don't try to analyze all that."

In recent years, Keaggy has recorded a series of instrumental albums with keyboardist Jeff Johnson, who -- like the guitarist -- has for decades mixed folk, rock, jazz, classical and Celtic music into a style that writers struggle to label. Both record most of their music in home studios on their own terms. Both draw the attention of critics outside the "contemporary Christian music" niche.

The duo's latest work, for Johnson's Ark label, is "Cappadocia" -- taking its name from an arid, volcanic region in what is now Turkey. Early Christians hid in this isolated haven during persecutions and the Apostle Peter addressed his first epistle to "exiles" in several places, including Cappadocia.

Johnson visited this region in 2017 and was stuck by remnants of Christian life, from pieces of frescos and engravings to a rose-shaped window in a sanctuary carved into a hillside. Thus, the disc includes song titles like "Chapel of Stone," "Parousia (A Presence)" and "That Which is Hidden."

Modern-day Coptic martyrs: The truly ancient faith of 'The 21' beheaded in Libya by ISIS

Modern-day Coptic martyrs: The truly ancient faith of 'The 21' beheaded in Libya by ISIS

After one trip into Libya as a migrant worker, Tawadros Youssef Tawadros reported that he had been warned that his Christian name -- "Theodore," in English -- might anger Muslim radicals.

His widow, Maleka Ayad, recalled him saying: "Anyone who starts changing his name will end up changing his faith."

Malak Ibrahim Seniut was more blunt, in a final talk with his priest. Told that Christians could be witnesses by living a long, faithful life, the young man replied: "That's not enough for me. I want to do it through death."

On Feb. 15, 2015, both were among the men beheaded by Islamic State soldiers on a beach in Libya. All 21 -- 20 Egyptian Copts and a Ghanan who professed his Christian faith -- were soon declared martyrs by the Coptic Orthodox Church. This is the latest chapter in a long drama, detailed by writer Martin Mosebach, of the German Academy of Arts.

"The Coptic Church, founded by St. Mark the Evangelist, is among the earliest manifestations of Christianity. In 1,400 years of suppression after the Islamic conquest, it has still preserved its original form and it has proven to have the most amazing vitality," he said, at an event this week in New York City, marking the release of the English edition of his book, "The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs."

"The faith found in this church was and is stronger than all of the economic and social disadvantages Christians have to suffer. The Coptic Church has never been broken by political oppression. The Christianity of the first millennium is still to be found there and is … a living reality."

After immersing himself in the village culture surrounding these new saints, the Catholic author reached this conclusion: For these men, liturgy and martyrdom were "two sides of one and the same coin."

There was something truly iconic about those 21 men in orange jumpsuits kneeling on that beach, said Coptic Archbishop Angaelos of London.