Starting Year Nine: Notes and Quotes

Every day, journalists who cover religion face waves of letters, press releases, magazines, books and, now, Internet versions of all of the above.

Some of this is news. Most of it isn't. But many items fall somewhere in between and create drifts of paper in my office. As of this week, I have written this column for eight years and I'd like to start another year by sharing some tidbits I couldn't trash.

* An interesting Newsweek report last summer described an emergency operation that saved a woman's life on a flight out of Hong Kong. The story ended with a dose of foggy faith: "Our lives depend on ... tiny miracles. Physicists say that the universe had to surmount vast odds to exist at all. ... No one stops to think about that, ordinarily, until an event like this one brings it into focus. Thousands of planes take off every day WITHOUT a surgeon on board. But there was a surgeon on Flight 32."

There but by the grace of -- uh -- the universe go we.

* At an Episcopal conference on church growth, New York Bishop Richard Grein criticized those who, to woo the unchurched, may sacrifice "Anglican style." This from a bishop who led a 1993 service in his own cathedral that included a whale-song Sanctus, preaching by skeptic Carl Sagan and prayers to Ra and Ausar.

* A thought for the Rev. Bill Hybels, the superstar pastor of Willowcreek Community Church outside Chicago: Bill Hybels is to Bill Clinton as Billy Graham was to Richard Nixon?

* No joke -- an actual Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) news release began: "The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) has upheld a decision of the Synod of the Northwest Permanent Judicial Commission, sustaining Long Island Presbytery's decision not to respond to a request from Central Presbyterian Church in Huntington, N.Y., to investigate the alleged ordinations of a homosexual elder and deacon at First Presbyterian Church of Sag Harbor, N.Y." The PJC noted that "dialogue attempted in an atmosphere where one side or the other faces immediate potential remedial or disciplinary actions is not likely to be productive. ... Unprotected dialogue leads inexorably to wholly unproductive monologue."

No translation was offered for the church-lingo impaired. And, please, no jokes about "unprotected dialogue" among Presbyterians.

  • The 1994 document "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" angered many on the left, who called it a GOP tract. On the right, some Protestants said it conceded too much to Catholics. Wait until folks see Catholic scholar Peter Kreeft's new book, "Ecumenical Jihad." It urges Christians, Jews and Muslims to unite in fighting the "common enemies" of secularism, materialism and immorality.
  • Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., has threatened to excommunicate members of 12 groups that reject current church teachings. Question: Will he be excommunicated from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops?
  • Here's a memorable politics-and-religion quote from House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt: "In the Republican version of Christmas, you only get your stocking stuffed if it's a SILK stocking. ... Gone are the notions of decency, charity and compassion that were the hallmarks of the man whose birth we celebrate each December 25th."
  • Expect the following to surface in debates about National Public Radio. Referring to Christians who await Jesus' second coming, commentator Andrei Codrescu said: "The evaporation of four million (people) who believe in this crap would leave the world a better place." NPR apologized, after airing the commentary.
  • On the Tonight show, Howard Stern waved a Bible and said the Gideons are now putting his books in hotels instead of Bibles. Jay Leno's response: "Howard, ... this (Bible) will strike you down as you go down the road. It will go through the windshield and pierce your heart. I am sounding like an evangelist now. ... Suddenly, all that is in this book is making perfect sense to me."
  • Every field has its ruts. New York Times reporter Peter Steinfels said any list of generic religion news stories would include: "Ancient faith struggles to adjust," "Scholars challenge long-standing beliefs," "Interfaith harmony overcomes inherited enmity," "New translation of sacred scripture sounds funny" and "Devoted members of a zealous religious group turn out to be warm, ordinary folk."