Religious MeFites: help educate a nonbeliever.
September 12, 2008 5:25 AM   Subscribe

After living most of my life in a secular bubble, I've been asked to fill in as a producer for a religion-focused public radio show. Religious folk: please help me to do the best job I possibly can. What's going on in your religion or faith community right now? And what should I, as a secular humanist journalist, know in order to broadcast respectfully about your faith? (anonymous because my question relates to my job and employer, which could be identified from my posting history)

The show I'll be working on isn't quite religious broadcasting - it's journalism directed in the general direction of all religions and their effects on society. I have a decent grasp of comparative religion and philosophy, but I have no personal experience of religious faith and my knowledge of current religious issues could use a boost.

So please, educate me.

What is it like to be religious where you live? What are members of your religion discussing amongst themselves? What are they concerned about, arguing over, celebrating or commemorating? What mistakes do you wish dumb journalists would stop making about your faith?

I don't want this question to devolve into chatfilter, so let's try to stick to identifying current religious issues rather than actually debating them. I'm interested in everything from the biggest of church schisms to the smallest of local initiatives. Atheists are welcome to chip in, but I'm most interested in hearing the personal experiences of religious people.

I'd also rather not discuss whether I should be doing this at all - I've taken it on as a responsibility and I intend to make sure I do a damn good job.
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (27 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
To get a comprehensive idea about what is going on in the Judaic community from a religious, political, contemporary and historical perspective, Chabad's site will fill you in.
posted by watercarrier at 5:46 AM on September 12, 2008

My (Roman Catholic) family is currently debating in earnest about married priests. My mother is convinced that the church won't let priests get married because they don't want to pay priests an amount that would allow them to adequately provide for a family; my dad says it's biblical tradition (or some such). I think it's pretty interesting because with the priest shortage likely to hit crisis level soon, something has to be done. Also of interest: whether and to what extent religious leaders do/should/might take political positions (obviously not just a RC issue).

As for what it's like to be religious where I live..... there's a large Catholic population here, but we attend a Lutheran (ELCA) church. It's because of the immediate sense of community we felt there. It's been an incredibly supportive congregation. I think that's an interesting topic -- how communities of faith (an, other types too, but, those are relevant here) take are of people. For instance, there was someone at our church who had gone to jail after injuring someone in a drunk driving accident. The congregation sent him letters while he was in jail (for several years, I believe), and welcomed him back with open arms. We weren't in the congregation when he left, so it was all sort of odd, but a very interesting look at the way people forgive (or don't) and the way they walk their talk (or don't).

There's the large debate about homosexuality/same sex marriage -- that seems to be an issue many religions are struggling with.

The ELCA has lots of social statements/messages issued here. Things currently under discussion are Genetics, human sexuality, and criminal justice.

Hunger relief, and our personal responsibility related to it, are also a current debate in our particular congregation.

I'm happy to say more about any of these things if you'd like.
posted by dpx.mfx at 5:55 AM on September 12, 2008

*are of people = care of people.
posted by dpx.mfx at 5:57 AM on September 12, 2008

Mod note: Note from anonymous

"One thing I forgot to mention: I'm interested in religious issues globally. So please chime in, wherever you are and however local or global your issue may be. "
posted by cortex (staff) at 6:10 AM on September 12, 2008

Whew. Quite a large question. First of all, though you said not to discuss it, please, do this. The church in all its forms desperately needs dedicated analysts from a non-partisan perspective. Your observations will be inherently affected by your lack of personal experience, but that may make them more valuable, not less.

Here's a list of some of the major discussion points among the major Christian traditions currently active in the US. I'll leave non-Christian traditions for others.

First, Roman Catholicism. The American church is considered to be significantly more "liberal" than its Old World (and especially Third World) counterparts, and this shows itself in the following major debates:
- Contraception. Still officially discouraged by the Roman hierarchy, including the bulk of the priesthood in the US, a significant percentage of US Catholics simply choose to ignore this. This is actually part of an ongoing struggle within the Catholic church against so-called "cultural Catholicism," where a large number--probably a majority in the US--of self-described "Catholics" fail to attend services with any regularity, profess beliefs which are contrary to official church teachings, and regularly do things which are forbidden.
- Abortion. Similar to the above description, though a larger percentage of Catholics are pro-life than are anti-contraception.
- Social issues. Liberation Theology, a Marxist-influenced theological movement that originated in Latin America about 30 years ago, pushes for a fairly radical social justice stance on a wide range of issues, especially economic equality. This has been more influential in Catholic academic circles than elsewhere, and though officially discouraged, continues to survive.

Protestantism. Hard to give a comprehensive overview here, as there are so many different Protestant traditions, but here's a start. The old, traditional, mainline denominations--Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Lutherans (ELCA)--are steadily, if not rapidly, graying and losing members. These churches tend to be reliably Blue: pro-homosexuality, pro-abortion, pro-womens' ordination. Many of these have experienced major denominational splits in the past few decades, significantly along these lines.
- The Presbyterian Church USA lost several hundred thousand members who started the Presbyterian Church in America in the 1970s, a conservative denomination that has continued to grow.
- The Lutheran ELCA spawned the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod a while back, for similar reasons and with similar results.
- The Christian Reformed Church (Dutch Calvinist roots) was expelled from a relatively conservative organization of Reformed churches in the 1990s; hundreds of congregations left the denomination, some to other denominations, some coming together to form their own or remaining independent.
- The Episcopal Church is in the midst of a massive controversy sparked by the confirmation of the denomination's first openly-gay bishop--Gene Robinson--a few years ago. It looks quite likely that the church will be expelled from the Worldwide Anglican Communion, the mother organization headquartered in Canterbury, England and headed by the Archbishop, and if it isn't, the vast majority of other countries in the Communion will leave and start their own. Look for this in the next few years.
- Evangelical churches--belonging to a number of smaller denominations or simply independent--are in the news somewhat these days, and are a growing, if not particularly organized, force in the church and culture at large. They're broadly Christian, without many noticeable distinctives except possibly for their size, but look a lot like Baptist churches.
- The Baptists aren't really "dividing" as such, but only because they weren't ever really unified to begin with. The tradition emphasizes complete congregational independence, so larger organizations are loose associations at best. The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the country, is moving in the direction of more serious, Reformed/Calvinist theology, a trend which can also be seen in some Evangelical churches. The more fundamentalist wing of the Baptist tradition--and the only people to self-describe as Fundamentalists tend to be Baptist in overwhelming numbers--is losing ground culturally and numerically.

It may seem that these divides are simply along cultural or political lines. From a superficial level, that's true, but the debates reflect far more fundamental differences about the interpretation of Scripture and its authority. Liberal churches, speaking broadly, are far more comfortable viewing Scripture as culturally antiquated and non-binding. Conservatives, again broadly speaking, view Scripture as having the authority to dictate cultural norms. Liberal churches are quite likely not to believe major aspects of the Christian faith, e.g. those found in the Nicene Creed.

Pentacostal churches are technically Protestant, though they wouldn't recognize the affiliation and are kind of a breed apart. Still, they're growing exceptionally rapidly, particularly among those of lower socio-economic status and Spanish speakers. Globally, Pentecostalism is growing faster than any other tradition, possibly even faster than all of them combined. It's hard to get good numbers out of China, but they're huge. The tradition doesn't really participate in more intellectual or cultural debates with other denominations; they're pretty insular on that front.

Eastern Orthodox churches--Greek and Russian especially--are receiving increased interest from well-educated Protestants who are dissatisfied with the intellectual tradition of their native denominations yet unwilling to convert to Catholicism. This is a real trend, but the numbers are still very small.

Overall, across Christian denominations, there is something of a generational shift. Speaking very broadly, the Boomer generation has given us vapid mega-churches, but their children are far more interested in serious theology, cultural relevance, and social issues. This is a quite promising development, but as the Boomers still occupy positions of leadership, change is slow in coming.
posted by valkyryn at 6:16 AM on September 12, 2008 [3 favorites]

An issue I have been hearing more about in religious circles is what some call "creation care" or "stewardship of the environment" and what people of faith should be doing about environmental issues.

As an Episcopalian in the American South, I'm frustrated when people paint all Christians - or all Southernern Christians- with the same brush. There are a lot of differences between denominations.

Good luck!
posted by pointystick at 6:34 AM on September 12, 2008

Do lifestyle issues based around local religious people. A day in the life, etc. What their faith means to them. Perhaps go a little educational about their personal philiophies. Do 'behind the curtain' on ceremonies that people would never normally attend (openly obviously, not undercover).
posted by biffa at 6:43 AM on September 12, 2008

How about globalization, new media, and religion. Is the internet changing religion? Is it bringing together people across national borders to discuss religion in ways that weren't done previously? Is it fostering cross-denominational discussion or just allowing people to splinter off into little groups? Is there anything different about the religious experiences of young people who have grown up using the internet?

I'm teaching religious education to teenagers, and I'm hearing a lot about the "boy problem" and the fact that girls are more religiously engaged than boys. I happen to know that this is an old, old issue, but it seems to have been given new life by secular concerns about schools shortchanging boys. I'm getting some pressure to tailor my classes to the (supposed) learning styles and interests of boys, at the expense of the girls in the class. So that raises some issues for me, not just about gender and religion, but also about the relationship between secular and religious pedagogy and the ways in which secular pedagogical concerns are influencing religious education. I'm actually seeing a ton of that, although it might just be that my particular program prides itself on being pedagogically up-to-date.
posted by craichead at 7:04 AM on September 12, 2008

I'm a member of a conservative church that belongs to a liberal denomination. Tension is high because we don't agree with the things they're doing. Some local churches have actually left the denomination. We're concerned that if we leave, does our pastor lose his pension? Do we lose our building? This is not specific to our church or our denomination.

The portrayal of Christians in some media as a goose-stepping hivemind troubles me, as other posters have mentioned.
posted by DWRoelands at 7:19 AM on September 12, 2008

On the American/Christian front (need to get more non-Christians/Americans in here) you also might want to consider the growing non-church affiliated movement. These are people who have prayer meetings and such, usually fill up on the videos and books of individual preachers but don't actually attend what would normally be considered "church". John Ankerberg is an example of someone these kinds of Christians would listen to, if you want to look him up. They are usually mistaken for Baptists or evangelicals and tend to have a scholarly approach to religion.
posted by cimbrog at 7:35 AM on September 12, 2008

I'm not really personally cognizant of any religious issues where I am (I'm sure there ARE some -- I live in New York City -- it's more a matter of, which of the many I'm aware of do I think is newsworthy), but I have a web site you should bookmark pronto: the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. They're a volunteer organization based in Canada (obviously), and founded the web site to basically do exactly what your program is trying to do -- provide impartial and factual information on essentially every single religion that exists, and also commentary on how religion impacts specific current events.

It's INCREDIBLY exhaustive, and they do try very hard to remain impartial.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:36 AM on September 12, 2008

WHOA - totally non-nthing watercarrier's suggestion about judaism from the chabad house.. thats like learning about christianity from jehovah's witnesses. lubavitchers are pretty much fringe in the jewish community and although they are, on the spectrum, as religious as orthdoox, even the orthodox find their approach offputting.

anyway, you want to learn the history of religion from askmefi or about how to be generally religiously sensitive? for the former, i'd read something like karen armstrong's history of god; for the latter, i'd just follow general advice on being respectful and listening to people...
posted by yonation at 7:38 AM on September 12, 2008

Unitarian Universalists are getting ready to elect a new president of the denomination. This is a figurehead role, largely, but he or she will be the public face of UUism and will help set the agenda (eg., how importance is growth vs. maintenance vs. justice projects, etc.). Also, some of the most important denominational bylaws are being rewritten. UUs have no creed or sacred scripture, but the principles and sources are the heart of our covenant with each other. No fundamental changes are being made, but the rewrite is pretty nice, and it's interesting that they are updated periodically rather than canonical. Of course, we were all shaken by the shooting in Knoxville, and it will be interesting to see how this will affect day-to-day security. Congregations have long been encouraged to go through a Safe Sanctuaries program, deciding who (particularly of what age) can be in what parts of the building with what supervision.

That's a huge issue that cuts across ALL denominations. Security vs. hospitality. Churches are often targets of sexual predators, and now we see other predators, too. How can we welcome the stranger and convey a sense of communal trust while still protecting our members? That is a very difficult issue in any church, and these days it's being driven by the insurance companies, who in my opinion, force unchristian policies on christian churches (and unUU policies on UU congregations). No one wants another priest abuse situation, but insurance companies don't seem to care that the Catholic church has histories and policies that make it riper for that abuse than many other denominations.
posted by rikschell at 7:55 AM on September 12, 2008

The show sounds like American Public Media's Speaking of Faith, which is very well done. If it is, congrats to anonymous.

anyway, you want to learn the history of religion from askmefi or about how to be generally religiously sensitive?

I think anon wants trends more than anything ("What's going on in your religion or faith community right now?"), but also "how to broadcast respectfully about your faith." The history of religion isn't relevant.
posted by beagle at 8:00 AM on September 12, 2008

I'd just like to note that valkryn has a very well-written, thorough explanation of a lot of denominations. However, I just wanted to avoid any confusion and point out that some of the denominations that he/she listed as "reliably blue," are quite the opposite. I have been a member of both Christian Reformed and Presbyterian USA communities and they proved to be quite conservative. The CRC may be more liberal compared to other Reformed denominations, but only slightly and is still one of the strictest denominations in my region (upper Midwest). The PCUSA community that I was involved with in North Carolina was very similar in belief. The outlook on issues was solidly pro-life with a general disapproval of homosexual practices. The role of women varies from congregation to congregation.

Not surprisingly, these are the same issues that continue to be on the forefront of the minds of most members of each congregation.
posted by bristolcat at 8:38 AM on September 12, 2008

Eastern Orthodox churches--Greek and Russian especially--are receiving increased interest from well-educated Protestants who are dissatisfied with the intellectual tradition of their native denominations yet unwilling to convert to Catholicism. This is a real trend, but the numbers are still very small.

And an extremely annoying one, speaking as an ethnic Greek Orthodox American. Protestant/Catholic converts to Orthodoxy are much (MUCH) more theologically, socially, and politically conservative than the ethnic Orthodox congregations they want to join. Which would be fine, except these individuals are so excited about their new religion that they want to take a lead role in these congregations and make them more "rigorously Orthodox" (according to their definition). This "more Orthodox than thou" attitude is not only offensive, but worrisome, as it is making the Orthodox churches in America much more rigid, doctrinal, and less open to interfaith dialog and cooperative effort. I don't want the insanity of Protestant and Catholic evangelicals to infect Orthodoxy (we have more than enough of our own home-grown bigots, thank you).
posted by longdaysjourney at 8:50 AM on September 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

You could ask parmanparman via mefimail for any suggestions, he used to do an NPR religious show..
posted by By The Grace of God at 10:12 AM on September 12, 2008

If it's Speaking of Faith, the genius of that show, to me, is not so much that it focuses on issues within religions, but on issues of religion that impact public life and civil society. So you might want to do your daily news browse with an eye toward current events stories in which religion is playing a role - the stem-cell conversations, fair trade and globalization, torture, perceptions of Islam, how religion is represented in museums, brain research related to belief and morality, preservation of religions traditions in a homegenizing world, roles for LGBT members, and so on. If it's not SOF, definitely take a look at their program archive. It is a fantastic show, one of the best things on public radio. It is very broadly conceived, and I think of it as a show about the human search for meaning in all its forms.

In a more specific answer to your question: the faith communities I'm involved with are concerned with stewardship and environmental sustainability. We are in fact helping to host an Interfaith Sustainability Conference in October which will create a platform for discussing management of the earth's resources as it's taught in several faith traditions,a nd we hope identify projects that we can collaborate on. Social justice missions have always been big, and we're involved in the affordable housing and homelessness issues in our city, as well.
posted by Miko at 11:53 AM on September 12, 2008

The Lutheran ELCA spawned the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod a while back, for similar reasons and with similar results.
I believe this is incorrect. A split off group from the LC-MS was actually involeved in forming the ELCA. But for the most part they're groups that have always been independent of each other in the U.S.

posted by Jahaza at 12:04 PM on September 12, 2008

My small Unitarian congregation has many discussions on environmentalism, and actions based on those talks. David Koren's The Great Changing has been inspirational for many of us.

Other recent concerns include voter registration, finding common ground with evangelicals, and the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:29 PM on September 12, 2008

2nding Yonation. Chabad will give you insight into the propaganda of Chabad, not what people in the Jewish community are talking about right now. Haveil Havalim (Vanity of Vanities) is the big Jewish blog carnival. Check some of those blogs out. They are a bit on the Orthodox side but many Jews are talking about these issues. I've written a bit about tattooing and Judaism and some of the issues around modesty, which happens to be a huge issue. I'd be happy to discuss any and all. Also, I happen to like reading Jewcy and Jewschool. Both ezines that are pretty worthy.
posted by Sophie1 at 3:30 PM on September 12, 2008

I'm not going to answer this directly, other than to point you towards an excellent Australia podcast that takes an irreverent look at "religion" (in the broadest possible terms).

The hosts are John Safran (a Jewish Australian journalist, who many think of as a bit of a smart-ass), and Father Bob McGuire (a rather elderly, but well known and liked Roman Catholic Priest). They both have a good chemistry going. Very entertaining.

The show is called Sunday Night Saffran, and you can also download/subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. It's broadcast by Australia's Triple J radio station; a station focused on the "youth" market. Not children, but youth; so plenty of shows/discussion on sex, drink, drugs, modern life etc.

I highly recommend this show, if only for the chit-chat between Safran and McGuire.

John Safran also hosted a couple of religious (but satirical) TV show called "John Safran vs God" and "Speaking in Tongues". Both are also recommended if you can find them.

Good luck.
posted by Mephisto at 8:00 PM on September 12, 2008

bristolcat makes a good point, but I think my overall descriptor is correct when you take into consideration DWroelands' post. Yes, absolutely there are conservative congregations that are part of broadly liberal denominations. This tension is largely responsible for the splits I described. As an example, eight Episcopalian congregations in the Diocese of Virginia recently defected from the ECUSA to join either the Nigerian or Ugandan churches. There have been quite a number of such defections in the past few years, and several African nations--Uganda, Rwanda, Nigeria, and Kenya in particular--have actually been sending missionaries to the US.

Thanks, Jahaza for the correction about the Lutherans. I've never been quite as familiar with them as with other groups, as they're one of the more insular denominations, though not as separate as the Pentecostals.
posted by valkyryn at 5:11 AM on September 13, 2008

Journalists often misunderstand the news cycle of most of the older organized religions. Doctrinal and dogmatic discussions always span generations and centuries. (For example, the RC's latest pronouncement regarding limbo.) Substantive change in these huge organizations is agonizingly slow from a contemporary point of view. To see the true trajectory of a major religion, you have to look at its path over several hundred years. So while stem-cells, contraception, gay life et al are hot topics with our generation, they're also just the latest salvos in longer running, larger debates.
posted by klarck at 5:48 AM on September 13, 2008

That's true within the religion itself, klarck, but I mentioned those debates because of the way in which public life and policy -- which moves on a much faster time schedule - is influenced by the religiously-aligned stances of citizens.
posted by Miko at 9:46 AM on September 13, 2008

Check out ABC's Religion Report.
posted by robcorr at 7:49 PM on September 13, 2008

I'm not sure whether to congratulate you or warn you! You are taking on a very large community most of which do not act very much like community. The divisions in Christianity alone are enormous (39,000 different denominations presently - 55,000 projected for 2025). The similarities (of which there are many) are overshadowed by in-fighting over political (theological) and personal (my church is better than yours) issues.

If your focus is international some interesting tags would be "emergent," "mega church," "religioius relevance" and a few personalities to research would be Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren and Andy Stanley. These men don't labor the issues but they are the targets for those that do.

A few sites that hold a very conservative line and come across abrasive would be Slice of Laodicea or Apprising Ministries.

I hope you are open and tough minded. You'll need to be both. Best of luck
posted by ThinkWrite at 12:06 AM on September 26, 2008

« Older Depression and Sexual Health   |   iPhone/OS X filter: Can the iPhone sync wirelessly... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.