Dec 28, 2015

15 notable religious leaders who died in 2015

To get a visceral sense of the real diversity of religion in America, we can look to the obituaries. Every year, people who gave their lives to one vision or another of transcendent reality and of the next life leave this one.

These 15 religious leaders, all of whom passed away this year, moved many in one way or another. They inspired Americans—and terrified them. They sang and organized, converted and advertised, prayed and preached and, for some, set an example.

And then, in 2015, they were gone.

They were each, in their own way, witnesses. Taken together, they testify to something true about America and about this moment.

Read the rest of the essay at the Washington Post: Andraé Crouch, Wayne Dyer, Clementa Pinckney and 12 other religious figures who died in 2015

Dec 18, 2015

Evangelical-indie Christmas music

More than a half dozen evangelical Christian music groups have released Christmas music on the site NoiseTrade, where they can be downloaded for a donation.

John Mark McMillian has done a version of "Joy to the World." McMillan, best known for the song "How He Loves." His 2015 EP, co-written with his wife, debuted as the number one iTunes download in the Christian & Gospel category.

He's making this Christmas song available for a suggested donation of $2:

Port Harbor, a Harrisonburg, Va., group, also has a Christmas single out on NoiseTrade. They've followed up their first full-length album in 2014 with a modern take on "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."

Josh Wright -- a former Baptist worship leader and American Idol contestant trying to make it in music -- has a released one new Christmas song every year for the last three years. The trio of compositions are available together as a seasonal EP titled "Christmas Dream."

Another EP is by LCBC Worship, the worship band of a multisite Pennsylvania megachurch. LCBC, which stands for Lives Changed By Christ, has weekly attendance of more than 14,000 at its seven locations. Its band has put out "Christmas at LCBC," with four Christmas songs. Each of these compositions is both familiar and new.

The Many, a group based in a Chicago church, has released a whole album, called Christmas & Advent 2015. The album offers a mix of traditional hymns and new material. According to the group, the new songs "came out of reflection on The Magnificat, Mary's song from Luke 1, and the story of Jesus' birth, and how those words from so long ago resonate with our current headlines."

Shoreline, a Knoxville, Tenn. church has chosen to stick with the classics. "Christmas with Shoreline" features the Baptist church's worship team performing four hymns:  "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus," "O Come O Come Emanuel," "Emanuel Has Come," and "Joy to the World." The church hopes making its music available will focus people on "the redemption that only comes through Jesus."

The old Christmas songs sound new on "A Christmas Sing-A-Long." This is the Christmas album from the Gospel Song Union, a group made up of members of five evangelical bands, including Kings Kaleidoscope and Citizens & Saints, two bands that started in Mark Driscoll's Mars Hill Church. The Christmas sampler reportedly is the start of a sustained project.

Dec 17, 2015

Baby Jesus theft

An $80 Baby Jesus figurine has been stolen from a front yard nativity in New Jersey.

According to police, "witnesses reported a black vehicle driven by a male." That isn't much of a lead. The Christmastime crime will likely go unsolved.

Across American, there is a rash of these thefts. Christ child figurines are being stolen from nativity scenes in residential neighborhoods, public parks and church lawns. It's that time of year again.

Peace on earth. Joy to the world. Baby Jesuses getting jacked.

In Pennsylvania, a life-sized papier-mâché baby Jesus was stolen out of a park. That Jesus has been stolen multiple times over the years. The town is looking into new security measures. The council of churches -- the owners of the display -- might pay to have a security camera installed. They have ruled out a padlock and chain, however.

According to the police chief, "Jesus in restraints isn't good."

Washington state has had a lot of baby Jesus thefts. One town, Port Angeles, Wash., had five in a year. A Presbyterian church in Seattle hasn't replaced it's Christ child from 2014, so they can't have the nativity scene this year.

"We can't put out Mary and Joseph," the pastor said, "cause that just looks kind of sad."

On the other side of the state, a man was arrested in Walla Walla, Wash. swiping a sheep from a nativity. He posted video of his own crime on Facebook. The 20-year-old claims he was on meth at the time. He has been charged with theft and he also broke a flower pot and was charged for that too. His bail was set at $5,500.

In California, a Christmas stable was stolen from a Congregationalist church before the church even had the chance to put Jesus in the manger. The pastor speculates someone might use the structure for firewood.

"It is just a sign of the times," he told the Modesto Bee. "It seems there are so many people that feel that it's all about them and they have a right to anything and everything and have no sense of moral or ethics."

A couple in Indiana were not so clear on the motives of the baby Jesus thieves. Their Christ was heisted from in front of their home, apparently while they were away. They put up the nativity because they "believe in the real meaning of Christmas." So do the thieves steal because they don't?

"You know we heard stories about people taking Jesus out of the yard," the Indiana man said. "We wonder does that mean you just don't believe and you don't want us to have it or what?"

My own theory is that it isn't unbelief that underlies this act. It's just a prank. But what makes the prank interesting is what it reveals:
Baby Jesus thieves literally take the Christ out of Christmas. When they do, it becomes apparent that the sacred object is also a piece of property, protected by the law that protects property and this whole apparatus that defends Christmas: fences and lights, tracking devices and private security companies, patrolling police and the courts. The commercialization of Christmas is visible here in a way it might not be, otherwise. That’s the power of the joke. 
Stealing the baby Jesus can seen as a protest against the commercialization of Christmas, which is to say against Christmas, since the theft, as a theft, shows how indistinguishable the commercial and religious aspects of this American holiday really are.

Dec 13, 2015



Dec 4, 2015

Mission hymns in 1941

In the daily struggles of the Great Depression, people gathered at 400 Crawford Street in Portsmouth, Va., at the Helping Hand Mission. They sang hymns. John Vachon, a photographer working for the United States Farm Security Administration to document American life in the, was there in March 1941, capturing the images:

These photos are some of more than 8,000 Vachon took. Many of these photos are made publicly available by Yale.