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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.

Another year, another wave of headlines about 'gay Catholics' losing their teaching jobs

Another year, another wave of headlines about 'gay Catholics' losing their teaching jobs

School years close with graduation ceremonies, which are now followed by a painful rite for Catholic educators and some bishops -- headlines about teachers losing their jobs after celebrating same-sex marriages.

Catholic school leaders in Indianapolis recently refused to extend a teacher's contract after people saw social-media notes about his marriage. A nearby Jesuit school's leaders, however, refused to remove that same teacher's husband from its faculty.

A CNN headline said this teacher was fired for "being gay." Reports at The New York Times and National Public Radio referred to a "fired gay teacher." A Washington Post headline was more specific, stating that the teacher was "fired for his same-sex marriage."

At issue are canon laws requiring Catholic schools to offer education "based on the principles of Catholic doctrine," taught by teachers "outstanding in true doctrine." Church leaders, usually local bishops, are charged with finding teachers who are "outstanding … in the witness of their Christian life," including "non-Catholic ones."

It's hard to have constructive discussions of these cases since they are surrounded by so much scandal, secrecy and confusion, with standards varying greatly across the country, said Eve Tushnet, a gay Catholic writer who accepts the church's teachings on sex and marriage. Most of the "gay celibate Christians I know have lost or been denied" jobs in Christian institutions, she said.

The Catholic Catechism, citing scripture and centuries of tradition, states that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered" and contrary to "natural law." However, it also says those "who experience "deep-seated homosexual tendencies," must be "accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity."

Far too often, argued Tushnet, "gay sins are treated as serious sins in a way that heresy or other non-gay sins aren't. I can think of reasons you might, as a Catholic school, hire Protestants, but fire someone in a same-sex marriage. But … when one already-marginalized group is so often singled out for penalties it seems more like targeting than like prudence." Far too many church leaders, she added, will "fire you if you marry," but they "otherwise look the other way."

One thing is clear: the term "gay Catholic" -- as used in news reports -- is too simplistic, if the goal is to understand the doctrinal issues driving these debates.

Karen Swallow Prior reflects on patience, suffering and books -- after being hit by a bus

Karen Swallow Prior reflects on patience, suffering and books -- after being hit by a bus

While finishing her book, "On Reading Well," Karen Swallow Prior wrote a reflection on patience, suffering and the virtues of one of literature's less celebrated heroines -- Anne Elliot of Jane Austen's final novel, "Persuasion."

The link between patience and suffering, she noted, can be seen in the word "patient," as in someone who is under medical care.

"Suffering is not something that we do well in the modern age," wrote Prior. "It's certainly not something I do well. … Since suffering is inevitable in this world, it might seem silly to consider the willingness to endure it as a virtue. But while suffering is inevitable, we can choose how we bear it. Patient character has everything to do with our will, as opposed to our circumstances."

Days after finishing that book, the Liberty University English professor visited Nashville for work on another project. At the same time, she was involved in a national news story, speaking out as a Southern Baptist on #ChurchToo controversies swirling around Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

Walking to an editorial meeting, Prior stepped into a Nashville crosswalk and was hit by a bus. That was a year ago.

This wasn't a story about a fictional character, with mental images and lessons that could be filed away. This suffering was real, with stabbing pains and scars linked to fractures in her spine, shoulder, ribs and pelvis -- now steadied by a large titanium screw.

But the point of "On Reading Well" -- including her meditation on patience and suffering -- is that great books soak deep into readers, providing wisdom and strength during life's twists and turns. In that book, Prior linked specific books to specific virtues. Prudence, temperance, justice and courage are "cardinal" virtues, while faith, hope and love are "theological" virtues. Finally, there are the seven "heavenly" virtues -- charity, temperance, chastity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility.

"Reading well adds to our life -- not in the way a tool from the hardware store adds to our life," she wrote, but "in the way a friendship adds to our life, altering us forever."

This is why Prior remains convinced that -- in an age of noise, confusion and intolerance -- it's more important than ever for families and congregations to help believers learn to enjoy and absorb great stories from great books.

Southern Baptists facing hard truths behind the red ink in their great book of numbers

Southern Baptists facing hard truths behind the red ink in their great book of numbers

It was the rare Billy Graham Evangelistic Association event in which Graham was in the audience -- incognito in a hat and dark glasses -- and his brother-in-law Leighton Ford was in the pulpit.

Graham was set to preach the next day, noted Ford, who told this story many times. At the altar call, Graham saw that the man seated in front of him was struggling. Leaning forward, but remaining anonymous, Graham asked if he wanted to go forward and accept Jesus as his Savior.

No, the man replied, "I'll just wait 'til the big gun preaches tomorrow night."

There was a time when Baptists and other evangelicals could count on ordinary people -- unbelievers even -- showing up at crusades and local "revivals" for a variety of reasons. Some were worried about heaven, hell and the state of their souls. Some were impressed by strong local churches and figured they had little to lose, and maybe something to gain, by walking the aisle and getting baptized.

That was then. Anyone who has studied Southern Baptist Convention statistics knows that times have changed. That will be a big subject looming in the background when America's largest Protestant flock gathers next week (June 11-12) in Birmingham, Ala., for its annual national convention.

For decades, Southern Baptists have "relied on revivalism" as an evangelistic engine that would deliver church growth, noted the Rev. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ken.

"The problem is that revivalism only works when Christianity is triumphant or on the rise," he said, reached by telephone. "Revivalism … it isn't going to be as effective when Christianity is seen to be in eclipse -- like it is in American culture at this point."

Southern Baptist membership hit 14.8 million last year, down from 16.3 million in 2006 -- falling 8 percent in that era. That reality cannot be ignored, even if it isn't has stunning as the 30-50 percent declines seen in mainline Protestant churches since the 1960s. The most telling statistics point to declines in baptisms, which fell 3 percent in 2018 -- 246,442 baptisms -- following a 9 percent drop in 2017.

Dramatic protest prayer offers info on a good old Baylor line in the doctrinal sand

Dramatic protest prayer offers info on a good old Baylor line in the doctrinal sand

Like all historic private universities, Baylor University -- chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas -- has its share of beloved traditions.

One of them is that public prayers during graduation ceremonies are given by Baylor staff members, faculty and, when possible, ministers who are the parents of graduating seniors. That's why the Rev. Dan Freemyer of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth stepped to the microphone on May 18 to deliver the benediction at one of Baylor's spring graduation rites.

God is doing new things in today's world, he said, while offering blunt prayer requests on behalf of the graduates.

"God, give them the moral imagination to reject the old keys that we're trying to give them to a planet that we're poisoning by running it on fossil fuels and misplaced priorities -- a planet with too many straight, white men like me behind the steering wheel while others have been expected to sit quietly at the back of the bus," said Freemyer.

It's crucial to know that Freemyer serves as the "missional engagement" pastor at Broadway Baptist, a progressive congregation that in 2010 voted to leave the Baptist General Convention of Texas in a dispute over the moral status of homosexual behavior. Baylor retains BGCT ties, but -- for many decades -- has had many connections to Broadway Baptist.

Ending his prayer, Freemyer stated: "God, you are doing a new thing. Praise be! … It springs forth and we can feel it."

This prayer drew scattered applause, in part because it came days after Baylor regents declined to meet with leaders of the campus LGBTQ group Gamma Alpha Upsilon, which has been seeking formal recognition from school administrators. This policy change would give the group, once known as the Sexual Identity Forum, access to student-fee funds and, more importantly, this would indicate that Baylor leaders believe its work is in accord with the school's "unapologetically Christian" mission.

The Freemyer prayer yanked years of conflicts back into the open, igniting debates during graduation events and then on the Internet.

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."

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.

The Vatican sexual-abuse summit: Sister Veronica of Nigeria faces the men in black

The Vatican sexual-abuse summit: Sister Veronica of Nigeria faces the men in black

At the end of the movie "Spotlight," the screen went black before a message appeared noting that The Boston Globe's investigative reporting team published nearly 600 stories, in 2002 alone, about sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

 The next screen noted, "249 priests and brothers were publicly accused of sexual abuse within the Boston Archdiocese."

 But there was more. The first time Sister Veronica Openibo of Nigeria saw this film -- which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2016 -- she was stunned to see four screens packed with the names of 223 American dioceses and nations in which major abuse scandals had been uncovered.

 "Tears of sorrow flowed," she said, speaking at the Vatican's global summit on clergy sexual abuse. "How could the clerical church have kept silent, covering these atrocities? The silence, the carrying of the secrets in the hearts of the perpetrators, the length of the abuses and the constant transfers of perpetrators are unimaginable."

Didn't any of these priests and bishops, she asked, go to confession? Didn't they wrestle with their sins while talking with the spiritual directors who guide their lives? Later, she went further, asking why these clergy were allowed to remain in ministry after committing these atrocities. Why weren't they defrocked?

"We proclaim the Ten Commandments and parade ourselves as being the custodians of moral standards, values and good behavior in society," said Openibo, who on several occasions turned to speak to Pope Francis, seated nearby. She is the first African to lead the Society of the Holy Child Jesus and one of three women who addressed the nearly 200 bishops at the recent summit. Openibo was the only person from Africa's booming churches chosen to speak.

"Hypocrites at times? Yes," she asked. "Why did we keep silent for so long? How can we turn this around for a time to evangelize, catechize and educate all the members of the church, including clergy and religious? Is it true that most bishops did nothing about the sexual abuse of children? Some did and some did not, out of fear or cover-up."