mass media

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.

Faith-based colleges and real news? Gossip is not more Christian than journalism

Faith-based colleges and real news? Gossip is not more Christian than journalism

Journalism professors at Christian colleges and universities know the drill all too well.

Semi-official reports spread that something terrible has happened on or near campus. It may be an accident that was said to have involved alcohol and a student driver. It may be rumors about a sexual assault. It may be a suicide or attempted suicide.

At the student newspaper, students are sure they know what happened and want to run the story. When they contact administrators -- as they should -- they are told that no one can comment because, first and foremost, this is a private school, student-discipline issues are involved and officials cannot comment because of privacy laws.

What next? After decades in Christian higher education, here is the question that I teach students to ask: Did this event lead to a public police report?

The goal is to get past the "everyone knows what happened" stage. Rumors are not enough. Gossip is not more Christian than journalism.

Truth is, journalism educators have to understand that concerns about privacy laws are very real for leaders at private schools and universities. And if administrators cannot comment about campus discipline issues -- including faculty cases -- then it's hard for students to provide accurate, balanced, fair reports about these stories. 

At the moment, debates about journalism and faith have been stirred up -- yet again -- by a Washington Post essay by Will Young, former editor of the student newspaper at Liberty University. 

Readers should focus on this passage: "In my first week as editor in chief of the Champion ... our faculty adviser, Deborah Huff, ordered me to apologize. I'd noticed that our evangelical school's police department didn't publish its daily crime log online, as many other private university forces do, so I searched elsewhere for crime information I might use in an article. I called the Virginia Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators to find out what the law required Liberty to disclose. But the public affairs worker there told the Liberty University Police Department, which complained to Huff. ... Huff and Chief Richard Hinkley convened a meeting inside a police department conference room, and Huff sat next to me while I proffered the forced apology to Hinkley -- for asking questions. Huff, too, was contrite, assuring the police chief that it wouldn't happen again, because she'd keep a better eye on me."

It's safe to assume -- during the President Donald Trump era -- that there are other journalism-related conflicts at Liberty.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."