News Seeking: Religion and Spirituality in the Media

End of the Road?

Posted in Miscellaneous by Brent Wittmeier on November 17, 2010

Hi folks, with my new life as an actual working journalist, I’m finding it difficult to even post anything on my own website.

I am, however, finding ways to write about religion. I’ve been doing some consulting and media writing for a group with an interest in religion, and I’ve just joined the board of directors of an Edmonton-based charity.

This means, however, that I have made a decision: there will be no further posts here for the foreseeable future.

Thanks for reading.

Tough Times on the Religion Beat

Posted in Canada's Religion Beat by Brent Wittmeier on January 21, 2010

You know it’s when the religion beat gets the attention of Freakonomics author.

Steven Dubner’s latest post on his New York Times blog notes (in quiet solemnity) the God beat’s recent losses: Eric Gorski (AP), Peter Steinfels (New York Times), Michael Paulson (Boston Globe), and Cathleen Falsani (Chicago Sun-Times). The losses come as newsrooms across the continent desperately try to stop bleeding ink. No newsroom, or department, has been spared, but the faith and ethics beat has been hit especially hard. As Ted Olsen, managing editor of news at Christianity Today, tweeted last week: “Last one on religion beat please turn out the lights!”

Gorski and Paulson are taking on new positions in their organizations, while Steinfels bi-weekly column is in addition to his work as a professor at Fordham.  Falsani will continue working on books, such as her very cool looking volume on The Dude.

Sometimes you eat the bear…

Wanna know what Prague’s Catholic cardinal REALLY thinks?

Posted in Canada's Religion Beat by Brent Wittmeier on January 7, 2010

“Context is everything.”

I remember seeing that pithy little maxim on a Globe and Mail bus shelter poster not long after 9/11. The ad featured a shot of the Statue of Liberty with an AK-47 slung over her shoulder, as if to taunt passersby to shout out, “Lady Liberty, how dare you!”

Istanbul (javier.losa flickr cc)

The ad made it’s point well. It also didn’t hurt to make that kind of visual statement on the corner of Dunbar and 16th Avenue – the posh west side of Vancouver – where a comfortable anti-Americanism abides as close to the surface as a passion for German automotive engineering.

As a journalist with a background in theology, I often find myself thinking back to that poster, and how context really is everything. It’s why religion is inherently difficult to cover in the news. Difficult, abstruse histories and scriptural squabbles don’t really lend themselves to quick graphs and catchy phrases. To a person on the street, it doesn’t really make a lick of sense that a word like filioque could divide Christendom East and West, or how a 1300+ year-old succession story could separate Sunni and Shia. How do you really explain those kinds of things?

It’s also why I bristle whenever I see words like “Vatican” or “Islamic extremism” in the world pages of a local paper. Today’s Vancouver Sun features a Daily Telegraph story by Simon Caldwell, “Europe’s secular society gives Muslims the upper hand, Catholic cardinal says.”

There’s nothing wrong with the story, as I can see it, but it makes me wonder what it means to Vancouverites to have a British journalist condensing an interview with a Czech archbishop reflecting on recent trends for two major world religions in an evolving European society. That’s a LOT of necessary context, and less than 400 words. Perhaps something gets lost along the way to Lotus land?

After all, context is everything.

Famous students of divinity

Posted in Miscellaneous by Brent Wittmeier on November 12, 2009

“One man’s theology is another man’s belly laugh.” Scifi guy Robert Heinlein said it. Or so says QuoteDaddy.com.

Having studied a little divinity and chuckled a few times myself, I am often fascinated to find out so and so studied to be a priest, a pastor, for piety or out of pacifism.

Some famous folks profess to having given thought to wearing a clerical collar. Charles Darwin and Sting, for example. Others had clerical parents, which led them most decidedly away from divinity. Friedrich Nietzsche, I’m looking at you.

So here’s a quick and dirty list of notable students of divinity (know of others? let me know):

Tommy Douglas — father of Canadian healthcare, “Greatest Canadian,” and ordained Baptist minister.

Martin Luther King Jr. — The doctor was a PhD in systematic theology from Boston University!

Picture 1John Long — American rock climber went to Claremont School of Theology.

Gram Parsons — Ur-Creator of Alt-Country music — studied divinity at Harvard for a semester.

Albert Schweitzer — musician, medical humanitarian, Nobel Peace prize winner — Theology PhD from Tubingen.

Joseph Stalin — kicked out of a Georgian Orthodox seminary for not paying his tuition.

Rudy Wiebe — Western Canadian Mennonite writer — studied at Tubingen for a year.

Vaccines and Jesus: A less than serious homily

Posted in Canada's Religion Beat by Brent Wittmeier on November 1, 2009

WWJD = “What would Jesus do?”

It’s a pithy maxim Christians (mostly of the low church variety) have been asking, wearing, or at least repeating, for the 120 or so years since Charles Sheldon’s folksy Christian socialist novel, In His Steps. Picture 1

The first time I saw a WWJD bracelet on someone’s wrist, I swear I thought it was a website.

Whatever you think of it, WWJD has inspired much good, and much much bad writing. The acronym, you see, is supremely malleable for instructive variation or parody. Thus, the pious might answer the question with another WWJD: “Walk with Jesus Daily.” But as my impious seminarian roommate was apt to ask, “When will Jordan dunk?” Or more irreverently, “Who wants Jack Daniels?”

Listen Up TV’s Jeff Groenewald asks his own version in his “Would Jesus get vaccinated?” post at the National Post’s religion blog, the Holy Post (that’s three posts – no, four – in one sentence!). The implied answer, of course, is yes. Chalk one up for the greater good, etc., etc. Picture 2

But I’m not so sure. It’s not that I’m a conspiracy theorist or anti-vaccination guy. In fact, I grant Groenewald his argument and am amazed folks avoid vaccines on religious grounds. But I’m just trying to picture it: would a first-century Jew in a kind of pushy Roman empire really be the first guy allowed in line for a vaccine?

Stephen Nichols, Getting the Blues: A Review

Posted in Evangelicalism, Music by Brent Wittmeier on October 29, 2009

Check out my review of Stephen Nichols’ Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us About Suffering and Salvation (Part 1Part 2), published last spring in Crux, Regent College’s quarterly journal. I had almost completely forgotten about the review, which explains why I’m putting it on the site a year after I wrote it. Picture 1

The review was actually in the can long before spring. I had pitched the idea to a receptive editor at a fairly large religion and culture website. When the economic downturn left him on the outside, there was nobody available to read my finished review (despite trying for months!!). Frustrated, I finally sent it to the good folks at Crux, who quickly gave it a home.

Publishers Weekly calls Getting the Blues “a splendid little book,” and I would have to agree. The blues, in all their variegated splendour, have a lot to teach us, and Nichols is an excellent guide to the genre. There are no prerequisites required. Nichols packs his little book with information, a veritable who’s who of the blues.

Like many evangelical academics, Nichols self-consciously reflects on evangelical identity in a pretty honest way, and says the blues has much to teach Wheaton and Colorado Springs.

It’s one of the facets of the evangelical subculture that might surprise outside observers. Mark Noll might be right, there’s not much of an evangelical mind, but you can still find some pretty sharp ones if you care to look (for instance, at Noll himself). Nichols has written other books along these lines, including Jesus Made in America, a cultural history of American Jesuses.

For all of that, my review stops short of unqualified endorsement. Any book on the blues might do well to take stock of black theology, which has already tread upon these grounds a quarter century ago. Nichols stops short of really engaging with black theology, admittedly not an easy task. He also has a tendency to push the blues into a systematic theological frame, where it doesn’t quite fit.

But read this book for yourself.

Habitat for Honduras

Posted in Evangelicalism, Politics, Technology by Brent Wittmeier on October 26, 2009

Placing a ladle in a large steaming bowl of pho this August, Dave Hubert served me an extra helping of prawns, as well as an explanation for his latest endeavour.Picture 1

“I guess I’m a starter,” said the 68-year-old Mennonite with a self-deprecating shrug and characteristic chuckle.

The former teacher and government employee has helped start many things: the Edmonton chapter of Habitat for Humanity, the Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, the Edmonton recycle program, as well as a variety of education programs at Norquest and Portage colleges, where he spent several years as principal. He’s also not above starting a principled battle against the Canadian powers that be, withholding portions of his income tax destined for the war effort in Afghanistan.

A few years ago, Hubert started Christian Peacemakers International, a non-profit Edmonton-based organization dedicated to addressing the structural causes of conflict in Honduras and its central American neighbours. Essentially, the organization has adopted the Habitat for Humanity model, and transposed it onto undeveloped terrain of the third poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Twenty-five pre-screened candidate families receive 7.5 hectares, helping build their adobe house in the co-operative village named Tapiquilares.

But that’s not all CPI is doing… Hubert’s experience in cross-cultural and ecumenical work is combined with his passion for education and the environment (what Hubert calls “the elephant in the room”). CPI’s work in Honduras is partially funded by a tire-recycling initiative in the Maritimes, while Hubert’s played a hand in a similar small scale tire-recycling operation in Honduras.Picture 2

An educational component of their work (providing jr. high curriculum for unschooled rural Hondurans) is the subject of an article by erstwhile food critic Liane Faulder in today’s Edmonton Journal. But Faulder only scratches the surface.

Starters, you see, occasionally get stopped.

Hubert was in Honduras at the end of June, on the verge of signing a $40,000 deal with the Honduran government (using Canadian government aid) to place computers with proven junior high curriculum in rural schools. Then there was a little incident where a cowboy hat-wearing fella named Zelaya was forced to leave Honduras… Suddenly, amidst the chaos of the reassertion of oligarchical power, CPI’s meeting with the education minister to finalize things was scuttled.

But what might normally mark the dead end of a project was actually the start of something new. The organization had to change plans and raise $60,000 themselves. They’re already more than two thirds there, with just under $20,000 left to raise.

Now that’s a start… to a start.

Yes Doubt

Posted in Uncategorized by Brent Wittmeier on September 10, 2009

I just got my copy of William Lobdell’s Losing My Religion from Amazon yesterday. In advance of reading it fully, I watched an excellent presentation at fora.tv, where Lobdell reads from his book at a California bookstore.Picture 1

Lobdell underwent a dramatic evangelical conversion experience after hitting some bumps in his life. Dragged to a California megachurch, and then to a men’s retreat, Lobdell found himself a slightly embarrassed convert to the world of born-again Christianity. He had raised his hand during an alter call.

Amazed that mainstream media coverage neglected the world of faith (few knew of Rick Warren and Saddleback church then), Lobdell pitched himself as the guy to make it happen for the Los Angeles Times. He eventually became their full-time religion columnist. Meanwhile, Lobdell began finding the dynamic, slick world of seeker-sensitive evangelicalism too shallow, and headed for the historic depths of Catholicism.

But doubt began to arise. Lobdell encountered numerous sexual abuse scandals and gradually became distanced from his erstwhile faith. A crystallizing moment was when he attended meetings of survivors of clerical abuse, or as he describes them, the victims of “spiritual murder.” Many of the abusers, theologically representatives of Christ on earth, were protected within the ecclesial hierarchy.

There was also the sideshow of faith healers and televangelists. But it wasn’t the sideshow that bugged Lobdell. To his surprise, respectable Christian leaders meekly shared airtime with the manipulative faith healers of Trinity Broadcasting Network. The most vicious of these, the charlatan Benny Hinn, takes money from the terminally ill on the promise that faith will heal them.

Lobdell stopped going to church. Soon, he stopped believing.

A little known theologian I’ve written about and later met, Garrett Green, once called doubt “a necessary moment in the dialectic of faith.” That expression has stuck with me. Faith-filled uncertainty shouldn’t be denied.

Doubt is a chronic condition for many modern believers, though unbelievers may experience the inverse when inclined to desire faith. Doubt, as opposed to certainty, is a moment when walking away is a real lure. Doubt is a virtue “believers” such as Benny Hinn attempt to vanquish.

Doubt is also understandable. It’s encapsulated in the writings of French Protestant philosopher Paul Ricoeur, who wrote about the search for a “second naivete” and the desire to understand “beyond the desert of criticism.”

Of course, there is a type of certainty that can masquerade as doubt. It’s found in many contemporary spiritual writers, professing faith or not, that flaunt their doubt as virtue. This boastful doubt reeks of selfishness and a disingenuous claim to authenticity.

What I especially appreciate about Lodbell is his humble doubt. I look forward to reading Losing My Religion and writing a little more about it in future weeks.

Evangelicals: Abstinence Culture vs. Later Marriage

Posted in Evangelicalism by Brent Wittmeier on August 9, 2009

Here’s a very interesting piece from Eric Gorski, the Associated Press religion writer.

In “Wait for sex and marriage? Evangelicals conflicted,” Gorski pits two “two powerful forces — evangelical Christianity’s abstinence culture, with its chastity balls and virginity pledges, and societal forces pushing average marriage ages deeper into the 20s.

For those unfamiliar with the evangelical subculture, these are powerful forces indeed. Picture 2

There’s an instinctive expectation of many parents for their kids to wait to have sex. The message (don’t do it) is drummed in at many churches and camps as possibly the worst transgression for a young Christian. Evangelical kids, committed to their faith and to honour their parents, try hard to comply. They often hold strong notions of divine providence, believing God will deliver the perfect mate at the right time.

The view of mainstream culture, on the other hand, is that premarital sex is a fait accompli. Kids don’t wait, kids can’t wait. Evangelical kids, often very romantic in outlook, are nearly as likely to give in as other kids. Not helping matters is the conflicting abstinence/sex (virgin/whore) message peddled via pop culture placeholders like Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, Lindsay Lohan or the next Disney ingenue.

Translation: Early sex and early pregnancy are predictors of poorer life chances, but biological pressures are undeniable.

Gorski’s article quickly turns to early marriage, the silver bullet for many pastors and proclaimers of the abstinence only message.

The call for young marriage raises questions: How young is too young? What if marriage is viewed as a ticket to guilt-free sex? What about the fact that marrying young is the No. 1 predictor of divorce?

In real life, silver bullets don’t work. The possibility, or even desiribility of early marriage, is often very small. Being stuck in the traditional gender roles of their parents is not attractive to many young evangelicals. The view of marriage as license for intercourse is also overly simplistic.

Gorski’s definitely on to something with this article. While the average age of marriage is gradually bumping back into the late 20s, parental and ecclesiastical expectations of abstinence remain.

Something’s gotta give.

Gorski’s article is wonderfully diverse. He cites an array of sources, including young evangelicals with different expectations and plans, pastors with different views on what should be taught, and sociologists on what’s happening and why.

But the “wait or marry” debate is just the tip of an evangelical iceberg.

Evangelicals, like many other religious movements, face enormous cultural pressure to adjust their sexual ethics on a variety of fronts. Often they are unwilling, and often they don’t know how. The biblical evidence, cited as the final arbiter of evangelical truth, does not directly address 21st century sexuality head on. Nor does church history. While some appeal to the global evangelicalism as an ally for conservative sexual ethics, there’s really no getting around the fact that sexuality is increasingly the location of evangelical identity in the 21st century.

For a faith struggling between mainstream acceptance and subculture status, the pressure to move to either extreme is great.

Meanwhile there is an unacknowledged existential and spiritual cost to young evangelicals. What role does conflicting expectations around sexual behaviour play in young people leaving the church by the back door?

How to Avoid Church

Posted in Uncategorized by Brent Wittmeier on July 31, 2009

This is must-see video footage of a 7-year old Utah boy who decided to steal his parents car rather than go to church. Awesome.

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