By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

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COVID Diary #6: Three discouraging updates on religious gatherings

We’re living through a historic moment. Following the lead of many others, I’ve decided to start keeping a COVID-19 diary. Don’t expect anything startling — just a few observations from someone stuck at home, lucky to be working and healthy.

Rather than writing a personal essay, I thought I’d follow up Diary #5 with some updates on religious gatherings during the pandemic. The early returns are discouraging.

In Mendocino County, California, a church that was apparently doing everything right has ended up fostering an outbreak of COVID-19. According to The Mendocino Voice, only three or four people were at the Redwood Valley Assembly of God Church for a live-streamed service that took place on May 10. Three, including the pastor, have been hospitalized, and the service has now been implicated in the infection of six people.

Ironically, the day after the service Pastor Jack McMilin posted on Facebook a photo of someone holding a sign reading “Why Can We Go to Walmart but Not to Church!??” Still, McMilin can’t be blamed for what happened. Live-streaming is the responsible way to hold religious gatherings these days, and we’ll be tuning in to our church’s service in a few minutes.

• Today’s New York Times — which has published a dramatic front page commemorating the nearly 100,000 Americans who have died — reports that 40 people who attended a service at a Baptist church in Frankfurt have become infected despite practicing social-distancing.

“We followed all the rules,” said a church leader, Wladimir Pritzkau. Ironically, the service was held on May 10, the same day as the Redwood Valley service. Based on the photo accompanying the story, the German service looks as safe as anyone could expect. But it wasn’t — something to think about as religious gatherings resume in Massachusetts.

• Finally, I don’t want to overlook White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s despicable performance at a briefing on Friday. Pressed repeatedly on President Trump’s demand that churches be allowed to reopen, she said, “Boy, it is interesting to be in a room that desperately wants to seem to see these churches and houses of worship stay closed.” Oh, those godless commies in the media.

Fortunately, Reuters reporter Jeff Mason pushed back, saying:

I object to that. I go to church. I’m dying to go back to church. The question we are asking you and would have liked to have asked the president and Dr. [Deborah] Birx is, is it safe? If it is not safe, is the president trying to encourage that, or does the president agree with Dr. Birx that people should wait.

Talk about this post on Facebook.


For John Allen, a smart, unconventional debut

Today marks the Boston Globe print debut of John Allen, the longtime Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter who was recently hired by the Globe to beef up its coverage of the Catholic Church.

The piece — a news analysis that was posted online Wednesday — examines a United Nations report on the church’s pedophile-clergy crisis and finds it wanting. The problem, Allen writes, is that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child threw in gratuitous criticism of the church’s stands on abortion rights, same-sex marriage and birth control. Allen explains:

Not only are those bits of advice most unlikely to be adopted, they may actually strengthen the hand of those still in denial in the church about the enormity of the abuse scandals by allowing them to style the UN report as an all-too-familiar secular criticism driven by politics.

That could overshadow the fact that there are, in truth, many child protection recommendations in the report that the church’s own reform wing has long championed.

Overall: smart, authoritative and unconventional. Like many, I am accustomed to reading (and agreeing with) criticism of the Catholic Church’s stands on cultural issues. So I found it refreshing and unusual to read a piece arguing that, sometimes, such criticism can be counterproductive.

Myth, reality and Jay Parini’s life of Jesus

Jesus-FinalCover-Hi-ResOn a long drive over the holidays, I listened to the podcast of “On Point” host Tom Ashbrook’s recent interview with the poet and author Jay Parini. The subject was Parini’s new book, “Jesus: The Human Face of God” (Icons).

I was fascinated. Here was someone who described himself as a believer — an Episcopalian, the denomination of my youth, no less — who spoke of Jesus and Christianity in terms of myth and metaphor rather than as some sort of rigid, literal reality. I wanted to see how he brought the seeming contradictions of belief and mythology together.

Unfortunately, the book itself does not quite live up to the promise of Parini’s conversation with Ashbrook, mainly because he tries to have it too many ways — starting with what it means to be a believer. “In its Greek and Latin roots,” he writes, “the word ‘believe’ simply means ‘giving one’s deepest self to’ something.” And he quotes St. Anselm: “For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand.” To my way of thinking, that is putting the metaphorical cart before the metaphorical horse.

My principal unease with Parini, though, is that he writes about “remythologizing” Jesus without quite doing so. On the one hand, he suggests that the miracles Jesus performed and his resurrection are not meant to be taken literally. On the other, he does not rule out the possibility that they actually did happen. Parini doesn’t seem to think it matters all that much whether Jesus came back from the dead metaphorically or materially. Yet to me that’s the most important question.

I say that in full awareness of my own intellectual limitations. Like most people who were educated in a Western context, my thinking tends to be binary. My attitude toward religion is that it’s either literally true or it isn’t; and since it almost certainly isn’t, then it’s something I needn’t trouble myself with. Mind you, I have no patience for Christopher Hitchens-style atheism, and I’m intrigued enough by the whole notion of spirituality to attend a Unitarian Universalist church. But belief to me is a state of mind, based on provable facts, and not something I would give my “deepest self” to in the absence of such facts.

Still, there is much to recommend in Parini’s short biography. Parini is a warm and humane guide to the life of Jesus and the early roots of Christianity. He is especially valuable in explaining Jesus “the religious genius” who synthesized Jewish, Greek and Eastern ideas, especially in the Sermon on the Mount. Parini’s learned exploration of Jesus’ moral and spiritual teachings transcends the reality-versus-metaphor divide.

If you’re looking for answers, then “Jesus” is not for you. There are none, and Parini doesn’t pretend otherwise. But if you’re interested in a different way of thinking about Christianity, then Parini’s brief guide is a good place to start.

Ross Douthat and the politics of self-pity

The Passion of the Douthat

Those of us who are non-Christians would like to apologize to New York Times columnist Ross Douthat for our continued existence.

In a piece remarkable for its self-pity, Douthat declares, “Christmas is hard for everyone. But it’s particularly hard for people who actually believe in it.” Among other things, Douthat declares that Christians feel “embattled” by “Christmukkwanzaa multiculturalism.”

But according to a survey by Trinity College, about 76 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians, which surely makes them our largest oppressed minority group, both proportionately and by sheer numbers.

Douthat is slick enough to poke fun at bozos on the right who rail about the “war” against Christmas. Yet he’s essentially engaging in the same tactic. Since Barry Goldwater, if not before, the conservative movement has been fueled in large measure by whipping up a sense of resentment. The laughable idea that it’s somehow difficult to be a Christian in this country has become a big part of that.

When Douthat was hired to replace William Kristol on the Times op-ed page, he was supposed to represent something new, different and better: a younger, more analytical thinker who might not persuade liberals but who would at least be worth reading for the strength of his arguments.

Instead, he’s proved to be a hack who offers neither entertainment nor insight.

Michelangelo’s “Martyrdom” via Wikimedia Commons. Click here or on image for a larger view.

The Republican God Squad

In my latest for the Guardian, I take a look at the theocratic threat posed by Tim Pawlenty (“God’s in charge”), Mitt Romney and other potential 2012 Republican presidential candidates.

Garrison Keillor’s base attack on his base

I have long detested Garrison Keillor, host of the faux-populist program “Prairie Home Companion” on public radio (not, I should note, National Public Radio). I have practically injured myself in my haste to change the station so as not to have to listen to his voice, oozing with smug insincerity. So I’m happy to report that, at long last, Keillor is returning my dislike.

Recently Keillor wrote a column attacking (are you ready?) Unitarians, for the sin of rewriting the words to “Silent Night” to make them less Christian. (For the record, we sing “Silent Night” to close the Christmas Eve service at our Unitarian Universalist church, and we don’t change the words, even though few of us are believing Christians.) Keillor has a few unkind words for the Jews as well. He writes:

If you don’t believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn “Silent Night” and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism and we Christians have stood for it long enough. And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write “Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we’ll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah”? No, we didn’t.

For good measure, Keillor does not know that people who live in Cambridge are Cantabrigians, not — as he writes, crayon firmly in hand — “Cambridgeans.”

No doubt Keillor would respond that he was trying to be humorous. And I have no problem with making fun of people’s religion, not even Unitarian Universalism. But Keillor is as humor-impaired a humorist as has ever walked among us, so when he tries to be funny, mayhem is the almost-certain outcome.

What I find especially delightful about this is that liberal, affluent, public radio-listening UUs are Keillor’s base. He has just succeeded in alienating a rather substantial percentage of his microscopic audience. At the very least, I’d like to see him grovel and deliver an apology, insincere though it would be.

Here is a response from one of his former listeners, a member of the Cambridge UU church that was the proximate cause of Keillor’s outburst.

Update: And mea culpa. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby went after Keillor yesterday. “Remember when Keillor was endearing and witty?” asks Jacoby. Uh, no, Jeff. I don’t. But nice slam.

Taunton Gazette strikes back

Taunton Gazette publisher Sean Burke accuses Taunton school superintendent Julie Hackett of stonewalling his paper on the Jesus controversy (here and here), then turning around and complaining to the Boston Globe. Burke writes:

Neither the superintendent, nor any other administration official, has as of this writing, contacted this newspaper related to charges of inaccuracies or libelous reporting. Instead, the administration has chosen to address these issues through The Boston Globe. While this is certainly the superintendent’s right, her candor with the Globe in describing the issues related to this incident not only stand in contradiction to her previous position regarding confidentiality of the student, but they appear to represent an attempt to undermine the credibility of  the Taunton Daily Gazette through The Boston Globe.

(Via Romenesko.)

More on Taunton and Jesus

I just posted a long e-mail to Media Nation from Boston Globe reporter David Abel, whose story in today’s paper did much to debunk the claim that a Taunton second-grader had been punished for drawing a picture of Jesus on the cross.

Though I still think Taunton school superintendent Julie Hackett has a disconcerting habit of invoking confidentiality whenever it’s convenient, Abel makes a number of good points about this fiasco, and I highly recommend that you read his e-mail.

I’d also like to invite Taunton Gazette reporter Gerry Tuoti and editor Dino Ciliberti to check in.

Where religion, hate and madness intersect

In my latest for the Guardian, I look back at several notorious killings inspired by religion (including the 1994 abortion-clinic attacks in Boston) — and wonder why such incidents receive so much more attention when the murderer is a Muslim.

Singling out Obama for his religion

I haven’t done any research on this, so I’m running the risk of being wrong. But it seems to me that Catholic leaders used to reserve their venom for pro-choice elected officials who were also fellow Catholics. I could point to any number of examples, but you may recall there was some buzz during the 2004 presidential campaign that John Kerry would be denied communion because of his pro-choice stance.

So it strikes me as an unfortunate escalation for Catholics who oppose abortion rights to protest Notre Dame’s decision to invite President Obama to speak at the university’s commencement and to award him an honorary degree. As the Boston Globe’s Michael Paulson reports, Harvard Law School professor Mary Ann Glendon, a well-known conservative Catholic, is the latest to take part in the protest, as she has refused to accept an award on the same platform as Obama.

Trouble is, Obama is not a Catholic, or even a conservative Protestant. Rather, he is a member of the United Church of Christ, a liberal Protestant denomination that supports abortion rights (notwithstanding the fact that he quit his UCC church over statements made by his former minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright). Indeed, the UCC is part of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which issued a statement shortly after Obama’s inauguration praising him for overturning Bush administration policy on global reproductive-health assistance.

Are Notre Dame’s critics — including Mary Ann Glendon — suggesting that a Catholic university can’t honor a non-Catholic if his religious beliefs differ from Catholic doctrine? It certainly sounds that way, doesn’t it? How far do they intend to go with this?

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