Monday, October 29, 2018

Canada's First-Ever National Faith and the Media Conference: 20 Years Later

Cover of the spring, 1998 issue of Media, the
magazine of the Canadian Association of Journalists.

Twenty years ago, it was a different world for the media.

The Internet was in its infancy. E-mail was a brand-new technology. Most people got their news from the traditional media—print newspapers, TV and radio news. Magazines were strong.

And most, if not all, major Canadian daily newspapers had full-time religion beats and robust faith pages.

That was the world the first-ever national Faith and the Media conference took place in.

The conference, which was created and organized by a small interfaith group in Winnipeg, was held June 7-9 at Carleton University in Ottawa.

It was an audacious enterprise; nothing like it had ever been done before.

But the small interfaith group believed the time was right to challenge the media to do a better job of reporting about religion, audaciously setting out to raise funds, gather sponsors, invite speakers and plan the event.

The Winnipeg Free Press was one of the earliest sponsors, helping to get the process moving.

Soon, other media came on board: The Globe and Mail, Ottawa Citizen, Abbotsford News, Vancouver Sun and the CBC.

Altogether, there were about 50 sponsors from the media, foundations, businesses and individuals.

Another important sponsor was the Canadian Association of Journalists, which dedicated an issue of its magazine, Media, to the issue.

Major faith groups and organizations also joined on, from the Christian, Jewish, Ba'hai, Hindu and Muslim communities, along with the Carleton University School of Journalism, which hosted the conference.

A major coup occurred when Canadian-born Peter Jennings, anchor of ABC World News Tonight, agreed to be the keynote speaker. His acceptance put the event on the map.

It was Jennings who put faith forward at ABC, prompting it to hire Peggy Wehmeyer as the first full-time national TV news religion reporter in the U.S.

Jennings subsequently had to beg off, sending Wehmeyer in his stead. It was a tremendous choice; she did a masterful job based on her experience of reporting about faith in that country.

Altogether, a total of 270 people from across the country attended the conference, coming from the media and faith groups.

They heard keynote addresses from people such as Aloysius Cardinal Ambrozic, Archbishop of Toronto; Reginald Bibby, a sociologist of religion in Canada; Nicholas Hirst, editor of the Winnipeg Free Press; Peter Desbarats, former dean of journalism at the University of Western Ontario; Neil Reynolds, editor of the Ottawa Citizen; Kirk Lapointe, at the time the former editor of the Hamilton Spectator and soon-to-be the editor of the new National Post; and John Stackhouse, then a professor at Regent College.

The conference also included a presentation by Andrew Grenville, then Senior Vice-President for the Global Research division of the Angus Reid, based on research about religion in Canada done by the pollster.

Another feature was the report about a newspaper scan of religion reporting in 20 newspapers over a one-month period. The report was commissioned by the conference, and presented by researcher Joyce Smith.

Along with the major addresses, the conference addressed topics such as whether a reporter could be a person of faith and still be a good reporter; tips on covering faith; what faith groups wished the media knew about faith; and what the media wished faith groups knew about how the media works.

As a result of the conference, the issue of faith and the media was put on the media map. Many articles and other reports appeared in newspapers, magazines, and on TV and radio.

The CBC did a live panel from the conference during its signature evening news program, as well as an edition of Cross Country Check Up from the event.

At the same time, the conference encouraged reporters covering the faith beat in Canada, and empowered and encouraged faith groups to do a better job of telling their stories to the media.

The event led to the creation of the Centre for Faith and Media, based in Calgary and headed, at first, by former Calgary Herald religion reporter Gordon Legge, and later by Richelle Wiseman.

Before it Centre closed in 2010, it held another conference in Ottawa, worked with local Muslim communities to help them with their media relations, and also produced guides for reporters about Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and the Ba’hai faith.

Looking back, I wonder if such an event could be held today.

Traditional media is on the ropes. Many Canadians today get their news from social media. As for faith coverage, there are no full-time religion reporters at any newspaper in the country.

At the same time, faith groups are struggling, with many downsizing and cutting back on communications. A number of church publications have closed.

And yet, faith is just as important today as it ever was.

Whether its politics in the U.S.; war and conflict around the world; the rise of nationalism in various countries; gay marriage and same-sex relations almost everywhere; crackdown on religious groups in Russia and China; the scandals rocking the Catholic church; the #MeToo movement; climate change; and human rights—there is a religious angle.

But how will those stories be told without any resources dedicated to that beat? Without people who are knowledgeable about different faiths?

That’s a big—and important—question.

Twenty years later, some people in Winnipeg are creatively working on a new and audacious idea to help address that question.

Time will tell if this effort will be as successful as the previous one.

Stay tuned . . . .

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Healthy Churches Need Healthy Church-Related Colleges and Universities

What’s the state of Christian higher education in Canada today?

Nationally, enrollment at church-related colleges and universities is in slight decline, according to Christian Higher Education Canada (CHEC), the umbrella body for 34 Christian colleges and universities, including four in Manitoba.

Last year, just over 16,000 students were enrolled in CHEC schools, down from about 17,000 in 2013.

What about this province—how are the four church-related schools in this province doing?

Things here are mostly stable, with one school reporting an increase this year.

Altogether, a total of 2,617 students are enrolled at Canadian Mennonite University (CMU), Providence University College, Booth University College and Steinbach Bible College this fall.

The largest of the four is CMU, with 1,589 students. Of that total, 739 are at its Shaftesbury campus, including 41 in its service, learning and adventure program, called Outtatown.

An additional 850 are at its downtown campus, Menno Simons College, located at the University of Winnipeg.

The story of CMU since 2000 is “growth for 10 years, a relative steady state for six years, and slow growth for the last two years,” says President Cheryl Pauls.

This includes growth of 4% over last year among undergraduate students, while programs at MSC show steady enrollment.

At Booth University College, which is owned by The Salvation Army, there are 476 students, including those in continuing studies. Two hundred and eighty-eight are at the Winnipeg campus.

According to Communications Specialist Chris Albi, this total is similar to last year, following several years of approximately 8-10% growth per year.

Steinbach Bible College, the smallest of the four, has 100 students—about the same number as during the past decade, says President Rob Reimer.

Most of those students, he says, come from rural Manitoba, and from within a two-hour drive of Steinbach.

Providence University College, an evangelical school in Otterburne, has a total of 452 students, including 272 in undergrad courses and 165 in its seminary. Nine are enrolled in Mile Two, its service, learning and adventure program, and six in its English Language Institute.

That total is below the ten-year average of 473, says President David Johnson.

I asked the four schools about the challenges they face. Foremost among them is the health of the church in Canada.

Since churches are a main source of students for all four schools, the decline in church membership and attendance is of concern.

Other challenges include raising funds and convincing students, and their parents, that going deeper into their faith is time well spent—even if only for a year before taking other studies.

According to Justin Cooper, the executive director of CHEC, the challenges facing Manitoba schools are also felt across the country.

“There are fewer students in general, a tighter economy, and fewer young people in many churches,” he says, noting that recent research shows that churches—including evangelical churches—are facing a challenge of retaining their youth.

Looking ahead, he is optimistic about the future of church-related schools. But he thinks some will have to “re-invent themselves” to succeed. Mergers might also be necessary.

As well, schools that are “remotely located” outside of major urban centres will have a tougher time attracting students, he adds.

Leaders at the four schools in Manitoba are working creatively at the challenges. But they can only do so much. 

If a young person never hears a pastor, youth leader or older adult in their congregation recommend a year or more of study at a Christian college or university, chances are they will never see it as an option.

Which is too bad for these schools. But it will ultimately be too bad for churches as well. 

The future health and success of individual congregations, and denominations themselves, will depend on them having leaders, both clergy and lay, who have thought deeply and intelligently about their faith.

Only having access to people with a Sunday school education won’t cut it.

What they need are people who know how to apply their faith to the issues facing the church and society today—things like climate change, global poverty, the environment, reconciliation with Indigenous people, dealing with diversity, artificial intelligence, assisted suicide, and many others.

Healthy churches need healthy church-related colleges and universities, and vice versa. 

Let's hope the two can find creative ways to help each other.

Originally published in the Oct. 20, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Phyllis Tickle: New Book Paints Picture of a Complicated, Controversial, Compelling and Deeply Christian Woman

From the first time I interviewed Phyllis Tickle in 2009, until a couple months before she died on September 22, 2015, we stayed in touch. She never failed to respond to my e-mails or phone calls.

She made me feel not like just a reporter, but a friend.

Apparently, I was not alone. 

According to Jon M. Sweeney in his new book, Phyllis Tickle: A Life, the prolific author and speaker “was a genius at friendship, able to communicate sincerity, warmth and affection to hundreds of people, one at a time, in such a way that many people—perhaps two or three hundred—may have, at any given time, regarded themselves as one of Phyllis Tickle’s best friends.”

Uncovering the private Phyllis Tickle is Sweeney’s goal, and he does it well.

We learn about a woman who was deeply spiritual—she prayed faithfully six times a day, starting at six each morning.

He writes about how she had two miscarriages, and then how she and her husband, Sam, raised six children. We also learn of her intense grief following the death of an infant child; she cried for months when the baby died.

She was a gun owner, believing in the importance of the Second Amendment. A libertarian politically, Sweeney writes she loved living on her rural property in Tennessee, secure in knowledge “they would have guns and privacy and would provide as much as possible for themselves.”

She may have spoken in tongues. Sweeny writes she “frequently heard Jesus speak to her,” and occasionally felt God “was hovering over a place, signifying God’s blessing.”

She struggled with a difficult marriage, but never once considered divorce as an option for a Christian. “She was always faithful in a marriage that was sometimes unsatisfying and unfaithful to her,” Sweeney writes.

As revealed in the book, Sam was bisexual, and had occasional sex partners who were men. She “lived with this silent pain around her marriage for decades,” Sweeney writes.

Although she was a trailblazer for women by taking leadership in areas dominated by men, she didn’t consider herself a feminist.

She had many gay friends. She became aware of the suffering of gay men and women during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s when her husband, Sam, a doctor, treated gay patients with the disease.

Together, they were angered by how church leaders “speak uncaringly, unchristianly, on this subject.” She came to believe that these “broken and rejected and battered and publically rejected” people were exactly the people Jesus died for and accepted.

Later, she believed the Holy Spirit led her to support acceptance of LGBTQ people, and also worshipped in an affirming congregation.

However, she didn’t participate in the theological debates about the issue of homosexuality; if pressed for her opinion, she preferred to “go in sideways” through parables or stories from the Bible.

“I’m pretty sure head-on would be a wreck waiting to happen,” she stated.

According to Sweeney, Tickle said her job wasn’t to make theological or biblical arguments for gay equality in the church. “Her job, instead, was more pastoral.”

She could be blunt in her language. She once described theology as “the noise of old men farting in the wind.” When asked if she was a Christian, she replied “You bet your sweet tush I am.”

Also, she had a near death experience, while pregnant with her first child. She never spoke about it much in public, but once wrote it was like being “without a care for anything that had ever been or ever was or ever might be, I lifted toward the light . . . and it said ‘come.’”

Of that experience, she said: “For the life of me I can never be scared of death again.”

If she knew she were to die in the next five minutes, she said, “I’d be somewhere between delighted and ecstatic.”

There is, of course, much more about her private life in the book, and her public life, too. 

Sweeney writes about her groundbreaking work as the founding editor of the religion department for Publisher’s Weekly, and how she helped nurture and promote a publishing revolution for religious and spiritual books in the U.S. and beyond.

And, of course, Tickle was a prolific author herself—she wrote over three dozen books, including a number on prayer.

But for many, it was The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, published in 2008, that brought her to their attention. 

In that compelling and controversial book, she outlined the changes facing western Christianity today, using the metaphor of a garage sale to describe the upheavals facing the church in the 21st century.

The last time the church had such a sale was the Great Reformation, when reformers like Martin Luther replaced the Pope with a new source of authority—the Bible.

This time, she said, Christians are looking for new forms of authority, jettisoning things like institutional church structures, buildings, and even the Reformation view of the Bible itself.

In Tickle’s view, this has been an ongoing process over time for things like slavery, women’s ordination and divorce. With each issue, Christians found ways to change their view on those subjects, and adapt their view of the Bible.

Now, she stated, came “the last playing piece”—the full rights and inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church.

“When it is resolved—and it most surely will be—the Reformation’s understanding of Scripture as it had been taught by Protestantism for almost five centuries will be dead,” she declared.

Tickle understood this battle would be “agonizing” for many Christians who had built their lives on a certain view of the Bible, and it would prompt fierce defensive attacks—she was called a heretic more than once. 

Sweeny records one such episode in the book about her first visit to Winnipeg in 2009, writing that her presentation was met by “evangelicals protesting a wide range of what she was teaching, and what she wrote in The Great Emergence.”

What her critics didn’t know, he says, was that she was “always more sympathetic” than they imagined “to the pain and discomfort Christians felt in the face of change rocking the churches, traditional doctrine and ways of being faithful.”

Looking back, Sweeney writes that “people will debate for years to come whether Phyllis was an evangelist and catalyst for change in the American church, or simply a historian and sociologist telling of changes taking place.”

History, he says, “will tell whether or not she was correct in her reading of the signals and signs to identify a great emergence of Christianity.”

As for me, Tickle was all those things, and a friend. Sweeney's book adroitly captures Tickle's private and public personas, and leaves us with a colourful portrait of a compelling, controversial, complicated and deeply Christian woman. 

A shorter version of this column appeared in the Oct. 13, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Anti-Abortion History for Religious Conservatives not Straightforward

All eyes were on Washington the past couple of weeks, riveted by the nomination process for D.C. Circuit Court Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

For religious conservatives in the U.S., especially evangelicals, Kavanaugh’s appointment is a big step in their long-held goal of dismantling Roe v. Wade.

That was a promise made by Donald Trump when he was running for President; if elected, he would nominate judges who would end legal abortion in that country.

His promise caused many people of faith to vote for Trump, despite his moral shortcomings.

It is not certain that Kavanaugh will rule against abortion, if the opportunity arises. But even if he doesn’t, it’s clear religious conservatives will keep up the fight.

Interestingly, it wasn’t always that way—for evangelicals, at least. (Catholics had an official history of opposition to abortion going back to the later 19th century.)

As Jonathan Dudley noted in a blog post for CNN, this “uncompromising opposition to abortion” is not “a timeless feature of evangelical Christianity.”

According to Dudley, the reality is that what conservative Christians now say is the Bible’s clear teaching on the matter was not a widespread interpretation until the late 20th century.”

He notes that in 1968, Christianity Today—the flagship publication for evangelicalism in the U.S.—published a special issue on contraception and abortion where leading evangelical thinkers explained that the Bible “plainly teaches that life begins at birth.”

In the lead article in that issue, Bruce Waltke, then a professor of Old Testament at the conservative Dallas Theological Seminary, wrote that “God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed . . . the destruction of the fetus is not a capital offense.”

That same year Christianity Today and the Christian Medical Society sponsored a symposium that declined to characterize abortion as sinful, citing “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility” as justifications for ending a pregnancy. 

Three years later, in 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution affirming abortion should be legal not only to protect the life of the mother, but to protect her emotional health as well.

Today, Dudley notes, opinions and resolutions like those would be considered heretical by many evangelicals.

“Yet their positions were mainstream at the time, widely believed by born-again Christians to flow from the unambiguous teaching of Scripture,” he says.

So, what changed?

One of the key figures in the cause is conservative political activist Paul Weyrich, who co-founded the Moral Majority with televangelist Jerry Falwell.

In an article titled “The Real Origins of the Religious Right” in Politico Magazine, Randall Balmer, a historian of American religion, writes that Weyrich was looking for a way to secure evangelical support for right wing political issues.

Back then, Balmer says, American evangelicals had largely stayed out of the political arena in any organized way.

“If he could change that, Weyrich reasoned, their large numbers would constitute a formidable voting bloc—one that he could easily marshal behind conservative causes,” Balmer writes.

But this “moral majority” needed a standard around which to rally. For nearly two decades, Weyrich had been trying to find one—things like pornography, prayer in schools, the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, and abortion.

“I was trying to get these people interested in those issues and I utterly failed,” Balmer quotes Weyrich as saying.

But he was able to capitalize on growing uneasiness about abortion. 

Beginning with the 1980 Presidential election that saw Republican Ronald Reagan defeat Democrat Jimmy Carter, “leaders of the religious right hammered away at the issue, persuading many evangelicals to make support for a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion a litmus test for their votes,” Balmer says.

(Actually, Balmer maintains that racism—opposition to desegregation of whites-only schools, including the evangelical school Bob Jones University—was the real reason for evangelicals getting involved in right wing politics. Since that wouldn’t be an acceptable strategy, abortion was selected as a safer route. But you can read that in the article and decide for yourself.)

Which brings us back to the Kavanaugh nomination, and evangelical activism around abortion, today. 

There may be many good reasons to oppose abortion. But for evangelicals in the U.S., and maybe in Canada, too, one of them isn’t that they have always been against abortion, or that they have always interpreted the Bible as supporting that cause.

To put it another way, just as the issue of abortion itself isn’t simple or straightforward, apparently neither is the history of evangelical opposition to it.

A slightly different version of this column appeared in the October 6, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Settler or Indigenous: Who Owns the Land?

It’s customary today for events to begin with an acknowledgement that the gathering is occurring on the traditional land of an Indigenous group.

Universities, arts groups, public schools, city councils and even sports teams are doing it.

In religious settings, the United Church of Canada has been among the leaders in this area.

For them, “acknowledging the territory where we gather and the people who have traditionally called it home for thousands of years is a way to continue to live out the church’s Apologies to the First Peoples of North America.”

It also “supports our calls to others to pay respect to Indigenous peoples” and is a way the church can “work toward right relations” with Indigenous people, they say.

I heartily endorse the practice. But while it is good and right to openly acknowledge that the lands on which we meet were once home to Indigenous peoples, from a theological perspective it doesn’t feel like the whole story.

And why is that?

While it is good and right to acknowledge we are meeting on lands that once were home to Indigenous people, for people of faith the land—indeed, the whole planet—doesn’t belong, and never belonged, to anyone.

It belongs to God.

For Christians and Jews, the words of Psalm 24 make this clear.

The earth, it says, “is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters.”

For Muslims, the Qur’an states that "Allah created the heavens and the earth, and all that is between them.”

Hindus believe that Vishnu is the creator, sustainer, destroyer and then re-creator of the universe.

Sikhs believe the universe was made by Waheguru (God) who created the earth and all forms of life on it.

Buddhism has no concept of a creator god to explain the origin of the universe. It teaches that everything depends on everything else in the universe.

But the same idea as in the other religions is still present: People are not at the centre. There are other forces at work beyond humankind.

Without getting into a debate about how the earth was made—creation versus evolution—all the world’s major religions acknowledge it was made by, and belongs to God, or gods, or to forces and factors beyond human beings.

For these reasons, I like what my church does. 

The weekly bulletin acknowledges the historical connection between the land we are meeting on and Indigenous people. But it also affirms a broader theological perspective.

It goes like this:

“We affirm with Psalm 24 that the earth’s is the Lord and everything in it. We humbly acknowledge that our worship takes place on Treaty One land, the traditional territory of the Anishinabe, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota and Dene peoples and the homeland of the Metis Nation. We pray for justice and reconciliation.”

That works for me. But does it work for Indigenous people? 

I asked a couple of my Indigenous friends. They both found it quite acceptable. In fact, one said it is similar to Indigenous beliefs about how the creator made the earth, and how humans—Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike—are responsible to care for it.

Of course, there is much work to be done beyond acknowledgements. This includes taking seriously the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action. 

One of them invites faith groups to “develop ongoing education strategies to ensure that their respective congregations learn about their church’s role in colonization, the history and legacy of residential schools, and why apologies to former residential school students, their families, and communities were necessary.”

Acknowledgements is one small way to work towards that goal. And so is acknowledging that we all have an obligation to care for this earth we share together.