COMMENTARY: Looking back at 640,000 words

(RNS) I salute New York Yankee Derek Jeter, who recently recorded his 3,000th base hit. But I also have an eye on another statistic: my own. Since 1991, I have written nearly a thousand Religion News Service columns, numbering about 640,000 words. While that may represent lots of verbiage, crafting 700-word columns is like squeezing into tight clothes. Everything has to fit and look good.

Wednesday’s Religion News Roundup

The “Bell of Hope,” a gift from London to NYC after 9/11, will toll at historic St. Paul’s Chapel at noon today in remembrance of Norway’s massacre victims. Meanwhile, the debate rages on about whether Anders Breivik is a “Christian” terrorist, or a “fundamentalist nationalist,” or some other “-ist.” Norwegian Muslims are hoping the atrocities lead to improved interfaith and race relations. Norway’s small Jewish community is worried that Breivik’s pro-Zionist views will spur antagonism toward Israel. The legacy media is catching up with the “Circle of Protection” folks who for months have been advocating against cuts that would harm the poor in the budget/debt-ceiling deal.

Hill hearing again targets radicalized Muslims

WASHINGTON (RNS) The third in a controversial series of congressional hearings on the “radicalization” of American Muslims showcased on Wednesday (July 27) a militant Somali group that some experts say poses a serious risk to the United States. Al-Shabab has recruited more than 40 Americans and 20 Canadians, said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. “Not al-Qaida, nor any of its other affiliates, have come close to drawing so many Muslim Americans and Westerners to jihad,” said King. Committee Democrats, as they have previously, said King’s hearings unfairly single out the religious group, and called on him to hold no more. Civil rights groups and Muslim leaders have also criticized the hearings.

Is Anders Breivik a `Christian’ terrorist?

(RNS) The mass murders in Oslo have raised a host of agonizing questions, but few have such an ancient lineage and contemporary resonance as whether Anders Behring Breivik, the right-wing extremist behind the attacks that killed 76 Norwegians last Friday (July 22), is a Christian. Breivik claimed that he is a Christian in various forums, but most explicitly and in greatest detail in the 1,500-page manifesto he compiled over several months and posted on the Internet. “At the age of 15 I chose to be baptised [sic] and confirmed in the Norwegian State Church,” the 32-year-old Breivik wrote. “I consider myself to be 100 percent Christian.” But he also fiercely disagrees with the politics of most Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church.

Tuesday’s Godbytes

Like much of the world, the blogosphere is fixated on the tragic killings in Norway today, with the folks over at Religious Dispatches ruminating on the idea that “Christian Terrorism” is embodied in the suspected Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh: “Both were good-looking young Caucasians, self-enlisted soldiers in an imagined cosmic war to save Christendom. Both thought their acts of mass destruction would trigger a great battle to rescue society from the liberal forces of multiculturalism that allowed non-Christians and non-whites positions of acceptability. Both regretted the loss of life but thought their actions were “necessary.” For that they were staunchly unapologetic. And both were Christian terrorists.”

Faith-healing parents lose custody of daughter

OREGON CITY, Ore. (RNS) State officials will retain legal custody of a 19-month-old girl whose devoutly religious parents treated the girl’s vision-threatening medical condition with prayer instead of taking her to a doctor. Timothy and Rebecca Wyland were convicted in June of first-degree criminal mistreatment and sentenced to 90 days in jail and three years probation for failing to seek treatment for their daughter, Alayna. Circuit Judge Douglas Van Dyk said he was concerned the Wylands would not continue necessary long-term medical treatment once off probation. He denied a motion to return custody of the girl to the Wylands, and will review the matter in July 2012.

Episcopalians turn to social media for growth

(RNS) The Episcopal Church is urging congregations to embrace social media websites like Facebook and Twitter in a push to highlight the Internet as a tool for church growth. The church released a 12-page white paper, or instruction guide, last week, (July 20) listing “best practices” for how congregations can make use of social media. The release comes after church leaders grew concerned that some congregations were still mystified by the Internet. “Episcopal congregations already know they need to be online and active in creating local excitement about their mission and ministries. …

Church-state groups slam Obama on hiring issue

WASHINGTON (RNS) President Obama’s status-quo stance on the controversial issue of faith-based hiring has drawn criticism from atheists and church-state watchdogs. Responding to an atheist at a town hall last week at the University of Maryland, College Park, the president discussed whether religious groups receiving government funds should be permitted to make religion-related hiring decisions. “I think that the balance we’ve tried to strike is to say that … if you have set up a nonprofit that is disassociated from your core religious functions and is out there in the public doing all kinds of work, then you have to abide generally with the nondiscrimination hiring practices,” he said Friday (July 22). “If, on the other hand, it is closer to your core functions as a synagogue or a mosque or a church, then there may be more leeway for you to hire somebody who is a believer of that particular religious faith.”

‘Instant churches’ convert public schools to worship spaces

(RNS) Praise the Lord and pass the crates with the prefab pulpit and the portable baptistery inside. The Forest Hills Community Church is moving into P.S. 144 — sort of. Every Sunday morning, the elementary school in Queens, like dozens more schools in New York City and thousands more nationwide, is transformed into a house of worship for a few hours. There’s no tally of how many churches, synagogues and mosques convert public school spaces into prayer places. But what’s clear is that there has been a steady rise in numbers as congregations find schools to be available, affordable and accessible to families they want to reach.

Building for God, or ourselves?

(RNS) Poet W.H. Auden once described cathedrals as “Luxury liners laden with souls, Holding to the east their hulls of stone.” It’s an evocative image and a reminder that a cathedral, no matter how grand, is meant to be a vehicle of sorts — elevating the souls of worshippers and transporting them to a place of transcendence and communion with God. Historically, cathedrals were often the largest, most ornate and most expensive buildings around. Accented with spires, gargoyles and flying buttresses, their grandeur was supposed to reflect the might and glory of God. They were also supposed to mirror the triumphant nature of the faith of the faithful who built them.

COMMENTARY: Time to man the defenses in class warfare

(RNS) What does a plutocracy look like? It looks like Washington 2011. Republicans want to do the impossible: balance a budget without raising revenue, specifically without reversing the tax giveaways to the rich that brought about the massive deficit they are struggling to correct. Democrats seem to feel helpless in the face of relentless lobbying by the super-wealthy, perhaps because campaign contributions are at stake for them, too. So common citizens — including Tea Party folks who can’t see how they are being sold out by their own gladiators — wait to see how much of their government benefits will be transferred to the already bulging bank accounts of the wealthy.

Tuesday’s Religion News Roundup

The World Trade Center cross should not be part of a national 9/11 memorial, say atheists who have filed suit to stop its display. The cross is two intersecting steel beams found in the towers’ wreckage, and is revered by some as a sign of God’s presence at the terror attack. Americans want their presidents to be religious, but can’t be bothered to actually ascertain candidates’ religion, according to a new PRRI/RNS poll. Just four in 10 can correcty ID Mitt Romney as a Mormon, even fewer know that President Obama is Christian. Three Muslims convicted of killing a Pakistani Christian who refused to convert to Islam have been sentenced to life in prison.

Godbytes, Helter Skelter edition

Are anti-Islamic American bloggers morally culpable for the murderous attacks in Oslo? Or are they like the Beatles, whose song “Helter Skelter” was tragically misused by Charles Manson? That question has been bouncing through the blogosphere since Anders Behring Breivik’s 1,500 anti-Muslim manifesto was posted online last Friday. (Slate has posted a video by Breivik, which functions as a trailer for the dense tract.) As the NYT notes, Breivik had closely followed the acrimonious American debate over Islam. “His manifesto, which denounced Norwegian politicians as failing to defend the country from Islamic influence, quoted Robert Spencer, who operates the Jihad Watch website, 64 times, and cited other Western writers who shared his view that Muslim immigrants pose a grave danger to Western culture.”

U.S. conservatives on the defensive after Oslo killings

(RNS) For years, many religious and political conservatives in the U.S. have sought to connect Islam to violence carried out by Muslims, and argued that Muslims often fail to denounce terrorism committed by Islamic extremists. But in the wake of the horrific attacks in Norway by a right-wing extremist who identified himself as a Christian warrior against Islam, many of those American conservatives are finding themselves on the defensive, especially after some of them prematurely portrayed the terror attacks as the works of Muslims. Mark Juergensmeyer, author “Terror in the Mind of God,” noted close parallels between the 32-year-old Norwegian man, Anders Behring Breivik, who killed at least 76 people in coordinated attacks on government buildings in Oslo and a youth rally at a nearby island, and Timothy McVeigh, the anti-government radical behind the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. “If [Osama] bin Laden is a Muslim terrorist, Breivik and McVeigh are surely Christian ones,” Juergensmeyer, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wrote at Religion Dispatches. “Breivik was fascinated with the Crusades and imagined himself to be a member of the Knights Templar, the crusader army of a thousand years ago.” “But in an imagined cosmic warfare time is suspended, and history is transcended as the activists imagine themselves to be acting out timeless roles in a sacred drama.