Orthodox

Defending older truths: Rod Dreher, Albert Mohler and St. Benedict in conversation

Defending older truths: Rod Dreher, Albert Mohler and St. Benedict in conversation

Journalist Rod Dreher used to find comfort when seeing rows of churches along roads in his home state of Louisiana.

The world might be going crazy in places like New York City and Washington, D.C. -- where Dreher had worked as a journalist -- but it felt good to know the Bible Belt still existed.

But that changed as the popular digital scribe -- his weblog at The American Conservative gets a million-plus hits a month -- kept digging into research about life inside most of those churches. The bottom line: There's a reason so many young Americans say they have zero ties to any faith tradition.

"God is not the center of American culture or of Western civilization anymore. But it's easy to think that this is alarmist when you look around you, especially if you live in the South as I do and see churches everywhere," said Dreher, during a podcast with R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ken. Mohler is an influential voice at all levels of the Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest Protestant flock.

"Go inside those churches," stressed Dreher. "Talk to the people about what they know about the historic Christian faith. You'll often find it's very, very thin. … And I think that the loss of faith among the elites in society is huge. Christianity is now a minority position and in many places at the highest levels of our society … orthodox Christianity is considered bigotry. This is not going to get any better."

It's easy for conservatives to bemoan public trends, such as amoral Hollywood sermons, the U.S. Supreme Court's same-sex marriage decision and corporate giants backing the gender-blending of bathrooms and showers. However, some of the most sobering remarks by Mohler and Dreher were about Christian homes, schools and sanctuaries.

At the center of the conversation was Dreher's new book, "The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation," which debuted at No. 7 on the New York Times bestseller list, while sparking fierce debates online.

The often overlooked Christian holy day that is precisely nine months before Christmas

The often overlooked Christian holy day that is precisely nine months before Christmas

Anyone who can do basic math knows that something mysterious happened to a young Jewish girl named Mary nine months before Christmas.

On the early Christian calendar, March 25 was designated as the Feast of the Annunciation -- one of Christianity's great holy days. This feast centers on the passage in the Gospel of Luke in which the Archangel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary, announcing that she will conceive and bear a son.

"You have to think this through," said the Rev. Rudy Gray, a veteran Southern Baptist pastor in South Carolina who now leads the state's Baptist Courier newspaper. "If there is no conception, there is no virgin birth of Jesus. Without that you have no sinless life that leads to the crucifixion. Without the cross you don't have the resurrection and the resurrection is the heart of the Christian faith."

In St. Luke's Gospel, Mary responds with a poetic song that begins: "My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed."

The Latin translation became known as "The Magnificat," a text familiar to all Catholics who follow the church's holidays. The Annunciation is a major feast in Eastern Orthodoxy and this holy day is observed, to some degree, in other Christian bodies that use the ancient church calendar.

However, in many churches this holy day has vanished. The bottom line is that many Protestants are clear when it comes to knowing what they don't believe about Mary, but not at all sure about what they do believe about this crucial biblical character.

A married priest parses latest sound bite -- about married priests -- from Pope Francis

A married priest parses latest sound bite -- about married priests -- from Pope Francis

Every now and then, a typical Catholic asks Father Dwight Longenecker for his take on whether Rome will ever ordain more married men as priests. 

This is logical, since Longenecker is a former Anglican priest who is married and has four children. He was raised as a fundamentalist Protestant, graduating from Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., and now leads Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in that same city.

These conversations begin with the layperson cheering for married priests. Then Longenecker mentions the "elephant in the room" -- the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae defending church doctrines forbidding artificial contraception. Surely bishops would strive to ordain men who, with their wives, would defend these teachings. Right?

"They might have a dozen kids," says Longenecker. "Who's going to pay for them?"

The typical Catholic assumes the bishop will do that. Actually, parishes are responsible for their priest's pay, even when his children go to Catholic schools and off to college. That might require parishioners to put more than $5 in offering plates.

The typical Catholic then says: "I don't think having married priests is such a good idea."

Longenecker is ready for more chats -- in person and at his "Standing on my Head" website -- after recent Pope Francis remarks to the German newsweekly Die Zeit.

Asked about the global shortage of priests, Francis expressed a willingness to consider ordaining "viri probati" (tested men), such as married men already ordained as deacons. While "voluntary celibacy is not a solution," he added: "We need to consider if viri probati could be a possibility. … We would need to determine what duties they could undertake, for example, in remote communities."

This latest Pope Francis sound bite was not surprising, since Vatican officials have often discussed ordaining more married men, said Longenecker, author of 15 books on Catholic faith and apologetics.

Conspiring to keep some Advent spirit alive, while waiting for the real Christmas

Conspiring to keep some Advent spirit alive, while waiting for the real Christmas

The children kept asking a logical question in Sunday school, one linked to those "Whose birthday is it?" appeals voiced by "Put Christ back in Christmas" activists.

Leaders of Ecclesia Church in Houston were trying to find ways to encourage members to observe the four solemn weeks of Advent (Latin for "toward the coming"), which precede the Christmas season, which begins on Dec. 25 and then lasts for 12 days.

"The children pushed this thing to another level," said the Rev. Chris Seay, pastor of this nondenominational flock in the trendy Montrose neighborhood near downtown. The church, which draws around 3,000 each weekend, was created by a coalition of Baptists, Presbyterians and others.

The question the children asked, he said, was this: " 'If Christmas is Jesus' birthday, then he should get the best gifts. Right?' … Once you ask that, it has to affect what we do as a church and what we do as families. If you start thinking that way, it changes just about everything we do at Christmas."

That shift led to efforts -- part of a national "Advent Conspiracy" campaign -- to raise money to provide safe water for suffering people around the world. The basic equation: If Americans spent $450 billion a year on Christmas, then why can't believers funnel some of this gift-giving into efforts to save others?

Ecclesia, an urban flock that includes poor and rich, is trying to raise about $1 million. That would be 30 percent of its annual budget, noted Seay, a total that will require major changes for many church members. The bottom line: "Advent Conspiracy" pastors are asking people to find ways to use the four weeks of Advent to prepare for Christmas as a holy day, rather than queuing up for America's blitz of holiday shopping, partying and decorating -- starting around Halloween.

This also means paying attention to ancient traditions that have shaped the church calendar, if not the shopping mall calendar.

Methodist theologian Tom Oden and his journey into ancient Christianity

Methodist theologian Tom Oden and his journey into ancient Christianity

It was a blunt, personal comment, the kind of intellectual elbow in the ribs that scholars share in the faculty lounge.

The Jewish sociologist of religion Will Herberg asked his Drew University colleague Tom Oden how he could call himself a theologian if he kept focusing his work on modern trends -- period.

Herberg told Oden that "he was a parasite on the ancient Christian tradition," who had "never taken seriously the great Christian minds of the past," noted theologian Stephen Seamands, who studied under Oden and uses many of his works while teaching at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky.

This Herberg challenge radically affected Oden's life in the 1970s, as he evolved from backing an edgy liberalism to spreading, in shelves of books, an ecumenical approach to orthodoxy. Oden kept publishing into the final years of his life, until his December 8th death at the age of 85.

"Here was a guy who -- until his mid '40s -- had been a success on that career track in the contemporary academy," said Seamands. Oden had a Yale University doctorate and thrived in an era "built on the idea that new is better and that you looked down on anything old. You were supposed to idealize whatever people called the latest thing. That's how you got ahead."

In the 1950s, Oden embraced Marxism, existentialism and the demythologization of scripture. He was an early leader among Christians supporting abortion rights. In the 1960s he plunged into Transactional Analysis, Gestalt therapy, parapsychology and what, in one of my first encounters with him, he called "mild forms of the occult."

As he dug into early church writings, from the ancient East and West, Oden came to the conclusion that "I had been in love with heresy."

A problem with deep roots: Why so many men think church is for women (Part I)

A problem with deep roots: Why so many men think church is for women (Part I)

It was conventional wisdom, in the Middle Ages, that women were more pious than men and that women went to Confession and took Communion during great church feasts "while few men do," as a Dominican priest observed.

Austrian theologian Johann B. Hafen saw this trend in 1843: "During the year who surrounds most frequently and willingly the confessional? The wives and maidens! Who kneels most devoutly before our altars? Again, the female sex!"

Early YMCA leaders found that one out of 20 young men claimed church membership and that 75 percent of men "never attend church" at all. A Church News study in 1902 found that, in Manhattan, the ratio of Catholic women to men was 3 to 1.

What about today? To see what is happening in Catholic sanctuaries worshippers just have look around.

"You may have noticed that in many Catholic churches everyone in the sanctuary except the priest is female and sometimes the masculinity of the priest is doubtful. I remember a 50-year-old priest with a page-boy haircut," observed author Leon J. Podles, speaking at Mount Calvary Catholic Church in downtown Baltimore.

"Most Catholic pastoral ministers in this country and elsewhere are female, so often there is not a male in sight during Communion services. ... There have been recent changes in some countries in the ratio of women to men in the church, but it has not been a result of more men, but fewer women attending."

Prayers for the Orthodox bishops of Aleppo, even if #BringBackOurBishops didn't go viral

Once again, the Orthodox bishops of Aleppo ventured into the dangerous maze of checkpoints manned by competing forces along Syria's border with Turkey.

The goal, three years ago, was for Metropolitan Paul Yazigi of the Antiochian Orthodox Church and Metropolitan Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church to help negotiate the release of two priests who had been kidnapped weeks earlier. Then, west of Aleppo, a pack of unidentified armed men attacked.

The bishops' driver was killed in the gunfire. A fourth passenger escaped and then testified -- consistent with other reports -- that the kidnappers did not speak Arabic and appeared to from Chechnya.

The bishops simply vanished. According to a new World Council of Arameans report: "No one has ever claimed responsibility for the abduction, neither has there been a clear sign of life of the bishops since April 22, 2013." Later reports were "all based on unverified rumors, hearsay and false reports which often contradicted each other."

This kidnapping never inspired global news coverage. For some reason, tweeting out #BringBackOurBishops never caught on with hashtag activists inside the Washington Beltway or in Hollywood.

But millions of Eastern Orthodox Christians -- especially those with Syrian and Lebanese roots -- are still praying for the bishops of Aleppo. These prayers escalated with the three-year anniversary of the kidnappings and then, this week, with the sobering rites of Holy Week leading to Good Friday, Holy Saturday and, finally, Pascha -- Easter ...

Pope and patriarch point to the unity found among the modern martyrs

Metropolitan Hilarion of Russia left little room for doubt about his priorities when offered a few moments to speak during the Vatican's tense Synod on the Family.

"Militant secularism" was on the rise, he said last fall. Thus, Catholics and Orthodox Christians should stand united while defending the "traditional Christian understanding of the family," "marriage as a union between a man and a woman" and the "value of human life from conception till natural death."

But most of all, Moscow's top ecumenical diplomat wanted to talk about martyrs -- new martyrs.

Consider Iraq, home to 1.5 million Christians a few years ago. Today, 150,000 remain while the "others were either exterminated or expelled," he said. Then look at Syria, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Libya and elsewhere.

"We are deeply concerned about the humanitarian catastrophe … unfolding in Syria, where militant Islamists are seeking political power," he said. Wherever jihadists "come to power, Christians are being persecuted or exterminated. Christian communities in Syria and other countries of the Middle East are crying for help, while the mass media in the West largely ignore their cries and the politicians prefer to close their eyes."

It was a foretaste of the historic "airport summit" declaration signed in Cuba by Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Orthodox Church of Moscow and all Russia.

The passion that loomed over the historic meeting between Rome and Moscow

Like all veteran journalists who cover global religion news, Robert Moynihan of "Inside the Vatican" is used to getting interesting emails from sources in interesting places.

Normally, Moynihan asks the questions. But that wasn't the case in 2006 when he heard from Russian composer Hilarion Alfeyev, who was completing a new Passion According to St. Matthew, based on scripture and prayers from the Orthodox Divine Liturgy.

It's crucial to know that, in 2006, this composer was already a Russian Orthodox bishop. Today he is known as Metropolitan Hilarion and, as chair of his church's Department of External Church Relations, he has long been a key player in behind-the-scenes talks seeking a meeting between the pope of Rome and the patriarch of Moscow.

In that email, the composer said his goal was to premiere the work in Moscow in March of 2007 -- just before Easter in a year in which Catholics (using the Gregorian calendar) and the Orthodox (on the older Julian calendar) would celebrate the Paschal feast on the same day.

Hilarion wondered "if there might be a way for this work to then be performed in Rome and if I could help organize such a concert," said Moynihan. "We both knew this would be incredibly challenging. … But we did it and that night was like a miracle."

The Moscow premiere was on March 27 and, two nights later, the exhausted Russian choir and orchestra were in Rome for a performance attended by several Catholic Cardinals, as well as numerous students, scholars and dignitaries. One Orthodox participant was Metropolitan Kirill -- now the Russian patriarch.

Anyone probing the roots of the historic encounter between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis -- the first meeting of this kind between Rome and Moscow -- must study the years of cultural and musical contacts that built a bridge to this moment, said Moynihan, in an interview days before the Cuba summit. In the end, mutual concerns about the slaughter of Christians in Iraq and Syria made such a meeting an urgent necessity.