Watch this space in 2011

The old year is almost over, and so is a kind of self-imposed sabbatical from the blogosphere.

In January 2011, this old blog will get a new name (well, it already has one), new content and a new focus. To play with the new name, the blog will be revving up in the new year.

RPM is Religion, Politics, Media — three topics that frequently meet and sometimes collide. I hope this blog contributes to the thinking and talking that happens around that intersection. I’ll post new reporting, brief articles, comments, links and other information at least twice a week, and will of course welcome your comments. I hope you’ll come back and visit often. Feel free to spread the word to friends, acquaintances, relatives and anyone else you think might be interested.

Bookmark the address:

The planned launch date: Jan. 17, 2011. (Advance comments, suggestions, ideas and dire warnings are welcome.)

See you soon. In the meantime, a happy Christmas and blessed new year to you.

More mouths to feed: ‘Food insecurity’ grows to record numbers

Dorothea Lange, "Migrant Mother" (1936)

One of the benefits for which we can give thanks this year is that a growing number of signs say we’re pulling out of our deep economic recession.

But it’s no secret that recovery is a slow train coming for millions of Americans. Last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that record numbers of people in the U.S. had trouble getting enough food in 2008.

“Seventeen million households, or 14.6 percent, were food insecure,” meaning they “lacked consistent access to adequate amounts of nutritious food,” according to the USDA Economic Research Service. That’s an increase of more than 1.5 million homes in one year and the highest figure since such statistics started in 1995.

Tennessee’s food insecurity for 2008 was slightly below the national average, at 13.5 percent of households. But if history is any guide, the Appalachian counties are likely to show above-average rates when detailed figures are released in January. Poverty is typically more prevalent in Appalachia than in other regions, and the lack of enough resources to obtain basic needs is “the fundamental cause of food insecurity and hunger in the United States,” according to the USDA.

Children are especially vulnerable. Virtually every measure of poverty or food insecurity reveals that children fare worse than adults. For instance, while Tennessee’s overall food insecurity rate in 2007 was 12.8 percent, the rate was 20.5 percent among children. The general poverty rate was 14.8 percent; for children it was 20.2 percent.

In the eight counties of Northeast Tennessee, 52 percent of schoolchildren were considered “economically disadvantaged” in 2008, according to the Tennessee State Report Card. That is, more than 37,000 schoolchildren were eligible to participate in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program or other public assistance.

Of the 49.1 million people in the U.S. who lived in food-insecure households in 2008, more than one-third – 16.7 million – were children.

Such numbers are almost overwhelming, obviously too big for even the most generous individual to make a dent. The good news is that we have ways to work together to feed neighbors in need.

In this area, more than 200 nonprofit organizations work with Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Tennessee. This nonprofit clearinghouse, part of a nationwide network of food banks known as Feeding America, gathers food in bulk directly from manufacturers, grocery stores and restaurants – which helps keep costs down – and distributes it to congregations, food pantries and other nonprofits. Second Harvest distributed 6.5 million tons of food last year.

The organization itself isn’t faith based, but 75 percent of the organizations that work with it are, according to Communications Director Kathy Smith. The biggest partners for Second Harvest in at least six of the region’s eight counties are churches or church-related ministries.

Certainly we’re in the best season for food banks. The message of Thanksgiving and the warmth of Christmastime apparently make people feel more generous than other times of the year. Just this week, listeners of WCQR, a Christian radio station, donated $27,000 to Second Harvest in one of several food drives this season.

Still, the gap between supply and need is never far away.

“We’ve been able to keep up with the increased need at this point,” Smith reported on Wednesday. “But it appears to be an ever-growing need. Donations are up compared to last year, but not significantly. The food is going out the door as fast as it comes in.”

Food banks like Second Harvest welcome and rely on the extra efforts at Thanksgiving and Christmas. But then comes January. Then February, March and April. The Second Harvest Web site lists at least 17 events in November and December. But between January and April 2010? Five.

The need for food doesn’t end when the holidays are over and, as the USDA reports, more Americans are hungry now than in any recent time.

But individuals, families and small groups can help feed hungry people year-round.

“They can organize food drives through their churches, businesses or in their neighborhoods,” Smith suggested. “They can consider holding a fundraising drive on our behalf, like a dinner. And of course they can volunteer with Second Harvest. We have various opportunities through the year.”

And of course, we can donate money. The Web sites for Second Harvest  and Feeding America even include secure links for making donations online.

That’s something to chew on, all year long.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 28 Nov 2009.

A new road leading to Rome, via Canterbury

welcome matAccording to the Gospel of John, Jesus prayed intensely on the night before his crucifixion that his followers, present and future, would “be one.”

After 2,000 years, it’s obvious why he needed to pray like that. Unity is difficult, a stubborn fact reaffirmed last month when Pope Benedict XVI cleared a new path for Anglicans to enter the Roman Catholic Church.

The relationship between Rome and Canterbury has always been complex, to put it mildly.

The Anglican tradition was born 475 years ago when, in a messy mix of personal desire, European politics and theological disputes during the Protestant Reformation, King Henry VIII challenged the pope’s authority in England and, with the first Supremacy Act, the government in effect declared churchly independence. The monarch was deemed “the only supreme head on earth of the Church in England,” with the archbishop of Canterbury its primary leader.

Canterbury Cathedral

That rough beginning has evolved into the global Anglican Communion, which today claims 77 million members, making it the world’s third largest church body, after the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.  Most Anglicans in the U.S. are in the Episcopal Church.

The dispute over papal authority turned out to be only the beginning. Inevitably, Catholics and Anglicans grew apart theologically as well as structurally. Among other issues, today they differ over women in ministry, over married clergy, and, depending on which part of the globe you’re in, over gay priests and bishops. (North American and British Anglicans tend to be more liberal about such things than their spiritual siblings in the southern hemisphere.)

Even so, many Anglicans and Catholics have long yearned for reconciliation, recognizing their churches’ special if strained relationship. Church leaders have constantly talked about cooperation for almost a half century, working together when theological differences weren’t at issue. There’s even been speculation about eventual reunification. Leaders in both churches regularly express a desire for unity.

But last month’s directive from the pope indicates how far apart the two churches remain.  Benedict will establish “personal ordinariates,” bodies similar to dioceses, to oversee the pastoral care of those who want to be received into the Catholic Church and bring elements of their Anglican identity with them. (The arrangement isn’t unique, even if the situation is. The Catholic Church already includes various groups with different rites, such as the Melkite and Maronite churches, living under similar structures.)

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

The Vatican

insists it still seeks unity, according to church leaders. Rather, the pope was responding to “many requests” submitted by individual Anglicans and Anglican groups, including “20 to 30 bishops,” asking to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church.

East Tennessee has not yet felt any impact. Neither the Roman Catholic Knoxville Diocese nor the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee knows of any Episcopalians seeking to join Catholic churches since the Vatican’s announcement.

“No one from the Episcopal Church has come at the parish level,” said Anietie Akata, head pastor at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Johnson City. “A few members have read what the Vatican issued, and there’s been only positive acceptance expressed to me.”

Hal Hutchison, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, doesn’t know of any members in that parish heading toward Rome. He doesn’t foresee a large migration at all.

“I don’t anticipate it being a significant number in any provinces of the Anglican community,” he said. “Part of the reason they like being Anglican is they don’t have a pope. Those who are unhappy with the Episcopal Church have sought to align themselves in other ways.”

The move may have other effects, however. While high-ranking Catholic and Anglican officials talk about their desire for unity, their words may sound like whistling in the dark.

Cardinal William J. Levada, who directs the Vatican’s chief body for overseeing theological consistency, has noted that with “recent changes” within many Anglican provinces – probably a reference to the ordination of an openly gay bishop in the U.S. and other controversies about sexuality – the prospect of full unity “seemed to recede.” So instead of holding out hope for full reconciliation, the Vatican opened a road to Rome for Anglicans who no longer feel at home with Canterbury. 

St. Mary’s parish continues to pray for the unity of the church, according to Pastor Akata, “which has always been the ambition and goal for the church.”

He’s right about that. Jesus himself prayed for such unity, probably knowing how difficult it would be.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 7 Nov 2009.

Vive la Revolution! (parenting, that is)

meet parents posterBeing a parent is so important to George Barna that he, his wife and their young daughters left their conventional church and, with a small group of other families, started a house church four years ago. It is centered on a simple, salient idea: that their main task as a church body is to rear godly children.

“It’s what we needed to do,” Barna said in a phone interview this week. “From God’s perspective, parenting is one of the most important things we do, maybe the most important thing. This is Job One.”

Barna makes no claims as a professional parenting expert. But he is indeed a parent – and also a researcher.

In the 1980s he launched the Barna Group, a California-based research company that specializes in exploring “cultural transformation and faith dynamics,” as company literature says. Out of his organization’s studies and polls, which often draw national attention, he has written more than 40 books that describe the changing American cultural and religious landscape and sometimes offer strategies for shaping it. Roughly speaking, Barna puts research on a Christian mission.

Over the past five years, he’s applied his organization’s expertise to issues of family life, parenting and spiritual development, which were the topics he addressed at First Christian Church in Johnson City on Sept. 10.

“Our research shows that children’s moral and spiritual foundations are pretty much in place by the age of 13,” according to Barna. “The second key thing we learned is how important it is for parents to take control of the spiritual development of their children.”

And that’s the problem, he said, because vast numbers of parents, religious or not, virtually abdicate their parental roles, allowing anything, from sometimes erratic educational systems to decadent video games, carry greater influence in their children’s thinking than they do. Even churches contribute to the problem by allowing – or encouraging – parents to hand off responsibility for their children’s spiritual nurture.

“We’ve twisted things around in our culture to treat children as a kind of add-on,” he said this week.

The results can be catastrophic, visible in rising obesity rates or declining educational performance. Stunted spiritual growth is part of the picture.

George Barna
George Barna

“By their own admission, our children are confused theologically,” Barna wrote in 2007. A national survey the previous year found that most 8- to 12-year-olds are “biblically illiterate.” Fewer than half – 46 percent – say their religious faith is very important in their lives. Most American teens say they are Christians, but only one-third of them “ardently contend that Jesus Christ returned to physical life after His crucifixion and death.”

Barna considers this “crisis” – his word – the almost inevitable result of what he calls “default parenting” and “experimental parenting.” In effect, most parents let popular assumptions or faddish theories dictate what they should do with their children and expect from them. Most child-rearing, in other words, goes too much with the flow.

Barna’s solution is what he calls “revolutionary parenting,” the title of his 2007 book that described his organization’s findings when it looked for the traits of effective parents. Revolutionary Parenting has mushroomed into church-based curricula and seminars like the one he presented last week.

The research identified six characteristics common to effective parents, made up of intentional attitudes and practices. These “critical dimensions” include the parents’ priorities in life, how well they mentally connect with their children, the non-negotiable boundaries they establish for children, the importance of behaving like a parent, the crucial values and beliefs needed by children, and the “transformational goals” the parents want for their children.

This list isn’t a cafeteria menu, Barna said. It’s more like a list of ingredients that must be combined into a recipe for all parts of the family’s life.

rev parenting cover“Some elements have to do with realizing that (parenting) is my priority in life,” he said. “Look at your values and beliefs. What are you trying to build in the child? What are the goals you set, and how are you measuring them? Part of it is just wrapping your head around what it means to be a parent. The ability to bring life into this world is a privilege, but it comes with a huge responsibility.”

Such words should be obvious statements, but in these days and times they can sound insightful, profound and challenging. Some people might even say revolutionary.

 Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 19 Sept 2009.

Worth a look: Stanley Fish on Palin and Sanford

Go ahead and insert the perfunctory “I don’t always agree with …” disclaimer, because it’s true with Stanley Fish, who regularly writes/blogs (wrogs? blites?) for the New York Times. But I find myself nodding agreeably fairly often. And today he’s posted a thoughtful piece about why Sarah Palin and Mark Sanford said what they said: Maybe they were being genuine.

What Fish is actually writing about is — to use Palin’s words — the “‘superficial political blood–sport’ politics has become,” and particularly the pundits who join in the game by speculating about every explanation except the ones offered by Palin and Sanford.

Like Fish, I didn’t vote for Palin in November. I don’t know enough about Sanford’s politics to know how I’d feel about him if I lived in South Carolina. But maybe it’s true that they’re human beings first and politicians second. You just never know.

Take a moment to read Fish’s piece.

The mixed history of Cherokees and Christians

Tobacco was a sacrament in the old Cherokee religion, the smoke a messenger carrying prayers to the spirit world.

Wine is part of a sacrament in the Christian tradition, signifying the blood of Jesus.

Dr. R. Michael Abram sees a rich irony here. Abram and his wife, Susan, are the owners and curators of the Cherokee Heritage Museum and Gallery in Cherokee, N.C. He is a keynote speaker at the Native American Festival at Sycamore Shoals State Park in Elizabethton this weekend.

“Take those two items and put them in each other’s culture with no religious meaning,” he said in a phone interview, “and both get into trouble.”

Millions of American Indians have struggled with alcoholism, and millions of other Americans – descendents of Europeans who brought Christianity – became addicted to tobacco.

That’s not a bad metaphor for the uneasy history between whites and Indians, which has been punctuated by conflict, ignorance and suspicion.

When he teaches about Cherokee heritage, Abram finds that religion is a popular topic.

The Cherokee belief system embraced a complex collection of legends, rituals, symbolic colors and numerology. While scholars can identify several common ideas, such as a reverence for fire and water, other specifics are hard to pin down. Scholars disagree, for example, on Cherokee thinking about a single, ultimate creator.

“It depends what century you’re talking about,” Abram said. “It was always evolving.”

But one constant was how Cherokee beliefs saturated daily life.

“You can’t just tease apart Cherokee culture and the old religion,” he said. “The religion is interwoven with daily life – medicine, government, all aspects of Cherokee life. I like to think of Cherokee life as a basket, with all the strands woven with one another.”

The Cherokee culture, once spread over thousands of miles in the Southeast, started changing dramatically as European settlers pushed westward in the 1700s. Christian missionaries, notably from the Moravian Church, lived and worked among the Cherokee and were strong advocates for their rights. The first conversions to Christianity came before the American Revolution, and by the early 1800s a number of prominent leaders were devout Christians.

But there was a dark side as well: European settlers, often misreading or ignoring the teachings of their Christian faith, systematically and violently drove out the Indians.

To this day, many Cherokee revile President Andrew Jackson because of his removal policies, which Abram compared to the Nazi Holocaust. Even faced with fierce opposition from other white leaders, including Davy Crockett, Jackson rammed through his policies bent on Cherokee removal.

According to Abram, Jackson used the Cherokees’ trust of clergymen against them, appointing the Rev. John F. Schermerhorn as his treaty commissioner to settle the now-infamous 1835 New Echota Treaty, which led to the expulsion of the Cherokee nation from the eastern United States. In 1838, the remaining 17,000 Cherokee people were force-marched over 1,200 miles to what is now Oklahoma. Starvation, sickness and exhaustion on this “Trail of Tears” took between 4,000 and 8,000 lives.

Today, few Cherokee practice the traditional religion. Many are fervent Christians who consider the old ways “pagan.” Others are what Abram calls “mixers,” combining ideas from Cherokee religion with Christian teachings.

Despite obvious differences, the two religions echo each other at certain points. The “going-to-water ceremony,” an important Cherokee initiation rite, is reminiscent of baptism, for instance. Then there’s Stone Coat, a central figure in Cherokee mythology, who sacrificed himself for his people and is “certainly a Christ-like figure,” according to Abram.

Abram, who grew up as a Pentecostal and is still a Christian, has “absolutely no qualms about that mixing.” In fact, he thinks white Christians could learn a few lessons from the Cherokee religion.

“The old religion followed ways of nature and emphasized preservation and balance. It was practiced in every aspect of life all the time,” Abram said. “The idea of establishing balance – that’s what really stands out in the old Cherokee religion.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 6 June 2009. (Parts of this column were first published on 4 June 2005.)

Christian colleges, commencements, controversy

Notre Dame, the nation’s most prestigious Roman Catholic university, walked a fine line last week when President Barack Obama, who favors abortion rights, delivered the commencement address. Critics said the school crossed a line just by inviting him. Even more complained about granting him an honorary degree.

At least two dozen graduating seniors boycotted the ceremony. At least three dozen protesters were arrested on the campus.

Starting with Dwight Eisenhower, Notre Dame has invited most presidents to speak at commencement. (One notable exception: Bill Clinton.) But this year, the invitation to Obama upset the delicate balance between Notre Dame’s Roman Catholic teaching, which strongly opposes abortion, and its academic freedom.

A 2004 statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is straightforward: “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

On the other hand, as a leading university Notre Dame is obligated to academic freedom.

While not as high profile, the dozens of church-related colleges and universities in this region struggle with the same tensions, often played out at their big, public events.

Formal criteria for choosing commencement speakers are few and far between. Generally, colleges select people of accomplishment, who are likely to present a worthwhile message, and who have contributed significantly to society or to the institution. Most church-related colleges also want their speakers to be people of faith.

 “I try to find a speaker whom I think will be challenging,” said Don Jeanes, president of Milligan College, affiliated with Christian churches and churches of Christ (and where I teach). “Secondly, we want it to be a person of strong Christian commitment … someone who is consistent with the majority of where our constituency would be in theological persuasion.”

King College in Bristol, Tenn., affiliated with the Presbyterian Church USA, considers its commencement address as part of the academic program, according to Tracy Parkinson, assistant dean of the faculty.

“Commencement is special because of the nature of the school,” Parkinson said. “At the same time, if you’re going to bring folks from a wide variety of perspectives, as we do during the year, there will be people on campus who agree and some don’t. It’s an important part of what we consider the academic integrity of what we do.”

Parkinson said that considering the college’s normal criteria for commencement speakers – “a professing Christian, who’s accomplished in his or her field” – then Obama would be “a reasonable candidate” as a speaker, as would people “on the other side of any number of political or social issues.”

Public figures by definition are engaged in public issues, which can make it difficult to avoid controversy, according to Dirk Moore, director of public relations at Emory and Henry College, a United Methodist school in Emory, Va.

“Often what you want to bring to a commencement address is someone who’s been engaged in public service and so has had to take certain positions,” he said. “It can be hard not to be lightning rods.”

But part of the learning process is hearing from people who have different points of views, Moore said, and that process doesn’t end at commencement.

“Ultimately what you have here is a learning opportunity,” Moore said. “It would be unwise for any educational institution to keep them out simply because we may disagree with them on particular issues. We’re here to serve and educate students, open their perspectives on the world.”

Moore thinks the Notre Dame administrators were correct to invite Obama – not in spite of the controversy but because of it.

“Controversy is never pleasant for colleges and universities, but that’s kind of expected, to have voices expressing opinions,” he said. “What are you going to do, ridicule them for having firm beliefs?”

That’s one reason Moore was impressed with the Notre Dame students who protested Obama’s presence.

“A university is doing its job,” he said, “when it’s having students who come out with convictions that are important in their lives.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 23 May 2009.