What was the biggest religion story of ’11?

Happy Hanukkah. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year.

My old friends at the Religion Newswriters Association just voted for the top 10 religon news stories of the year. I miss participating in the vote. I used to take it very seriously, shifting around my top stories until I came up with a solid top 10 (or so I thought).

Anyway, here the top 10 for 2011 (I’ll comment a bit at the end):

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1. The death of Osama bin Laden spurs discussions among people of faith on issues of forgiveness, peace,  justice and retribution.

2. Lively congressional hearings are held on the civil rights of American Muslims. In the House hearings focus on alleged radicalism and in the Senate on crimes reported against Muslims.

3. Catholic Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City. Mo. is charged with failure to report the suspected abuse of a child, becoming the first active bishop in the country to face criminal prosecution in such a case.

4. The Catholic Church introduces a new translation of the Roman Missal throughout the English–speaking world, making the first significant change to a liturgy since 1973.

5. Presbyterian Church (USA) allows local option on ordination of partnered gay people. Church defections over the issue continue among mainline Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians. 

6. Pope John Paul II is beatified—the last step before sainthood—in a May ceremony attended by more than million people in Rome.

7. California evangelist Harold Camping attracts attention with his predictions that the world would end in May and again in October.

8. A book by Michigan megachurch pastor Rob Bell, “Love Wins,” presenting a much less harsh picture of hell than is traditional, stirs discussion in evangelical circles.  Messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention rebut it.

9. The Personhood Initiative, designed to outlaw abortion by declaring a fetus a person, fails on Election Day in Mississippi, but advocates plan to try in other states. Meanwhile, reports show the number of restrictions adopted throughout the country against abortion during the year are far more than in any previous year.

10. Bible translations make news, with celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the King James Version; criticism, notably by Southern Baptists, about gender usage in the newest New International Version; and completion of the Common English Bible.

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 The first thing that strikes me is that it was a pretty quiet year for religion news. Yes, the death of bin Laden spurred a very interesting and unexpected debate about many things, including the right way to “celebrate” the death of a really bad guy.

But the only other story that really captured public attention — the only story I heard people talking about — was the Harold Camping “End of the World” prediction. For most people, it was a goof, a laugh, a distraction from the economy and everything else.

A few of the other stories were certainly important. The new Catholic liturgy affects a lot of people, although I haven’t heard many complaints about it or praise for it (a priest did tell me that a group of priests are getting together after New Year’s to voice their concerns). PCUSA’s decision to allow the ordination of gays and lesbians seemed inevitable. Ditto Pope JPII’s beatification.

The “Love Wins” book, which didn’t rule out salvation for non-Christians, didn’t get much attention around here, where most people already felt that way.

The congressional hearings on American Muslims — the number 2 story  of the year — stirred less talk than the question of whether they should have been held at all.

The criminal prosecution of Kansas City’s Catholic bishop, a significant story in obvious ways, also got little attention that I could see. It certainly wasn’t the sex-abuse story of the year.

I don’t have any better ideas for the top religion stories of ’11. I think RNA got it right. It was just a quiet year.

RNA, by the way, did not named a Religion Newsmaker of the Year, as it normally does. The vote was too close between Harold Camping, Pope Benedict and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

It wasn’t a good year for Camping, prediction-wise. But at least he was one of the top newsmakers!

 

 

 

A new chapter for Reform Judaism (starring Scarsdale’s Rick Jacobs)

The Union for Reform Judaism — the largest Jewish “denomination” in the U.S. — opened its big Biennial conference today in Washington, D.C.

6,000 delegates. Five days. President Obama to speak. Big stuff.

To top it off, Rabbi Eric Yoffie will end his 16-year tenure as president. He will be replaced by none other than Rabbi Rick Jacobs (that’s him), the longtime spiritual leader of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale.

The Reform movement is, of course, Judaism’s liberal wing.  The URJ represents something like 900 congregations and over 300,000 households, but there has long been concern over how “connected” to Judaism many of those households are. A lot of teens basically drop out after their bar and bat mitzvahs and many of the interfaith families that belong to Reform congregations are not terribly active in Jewish life.

Yoffie will be remembered for pushing tradition in a Reform context. He was big on Torah study and Jewish education and on the need for Reform Jews to stay connected to Israel.

Jacobs — well known in these parts as an energetic and personable leader — has been talking a lot about change and transformation and making new connections with Jews on the fringes. These are big, broad issues so it will be mighty interesting to see what Jacobs suggests for the Reform future.

The Jewish Week’s Gary Rosenblatt has a typically thoughtful and comprehensive analysis of what the URJ conference is facing. He writes:

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Indeed, Rabbi Jacobs, a tall, ruggedly handsome man of 56, says the future of Reform Jewry is “all about transformation,” invoking the mantra of Billy Beane, the baseball executive portrayed in the film “Moneyball”: “adapt or die.” The rabbi wants to see Reform Jewry seek out “the unaffiliated and the uninspired,” beyond the walls of the synagogue.

Despite economic woes, he says this is not the time to “scale back” but to reach out more aggressively. Congregations can no longer “sit back and wait” for young adults who drifted away from Jewish life come back and join as young parents, as happened in the past.

This generation is distrustful of denominations and institutions, the rabbi said, and will respond to relationships more than programming. The job of Reform leaders is to reach young people where they are and connect them to the values of the movement, emphasizing ritual and observance, community, social action and moving tradition into modernity, Rabbi Jacobs says, all “rooted in serious Jewish learning at the core.”

 

Wanted: A few good chaplains

I got two interesting releases today about the need for military chaplains.

First I got a mass email from Father James Joslyn, a retired Navy captain and chaplain, explaining that there aren’t enough Catholic priests these days to fill the needs of the military services.

So the Archdiocese for Military Services is actively recruiting “contract priests,” civilian priests who can help out for stretches as chaplains.  “The word has to get out to bishops, religious superiors and priests that contracting is a way to serve without committing to a twenty year military career and without having to meet the rigorous age and physical requirements for active duty service,” Joslyn wrote.

Many priests don’t know that the opportunity is even there to serve the military in this way, he wrote. He urges all Catholics to become a contract priest recruiter by referring priests to the archdiocese website or the website for Federal Business Opportunities.

“Together we can meet the needs of our Catholic service men and women and their families,” Joslyn writes.

Not long after, I got a release from the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic sect trumpeting the news that a Chabad rabbi has won a lawsuit and can become a chaplain — despite having a beard.

The release explained: “In keeping with Jewish teachings regarding preserving a man’s facial hair, Stern does not cut or trim his beard. This previously stood him in opposition to official military codes for dress and appearance. Back in 2009, he had received preliminary approval for a reserve commission in the U.S. Army, but he was twice contacted about errors that would delay his swearing-in because the issue of his facial hair was not resolved.”

Rabbi Menachem Stern filed a federal lawsuit in December, contending that the Army violated his Constitutional rights to religious freedom and equal protection under the law. But the Army has settled the case.

After his commission, Stern wants to request active duty. Chabad rabbis and their families travel the world to serve Jews in many capacities, so Stern is ready to head out.

He said: “A soldier, whether they’re Jewish or not, will see someone who is serious and standing by his faith without compromise. They’ll respect that person and come to trust him.”