Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Graham makes 'Most Admired' list for 57th time

At 95 years old, evangelist Billy Graham is still one of the 10 men most admired by Americans.

So say the folks at the Gallup Poll, whose latest annual ranking of the "Most Admired" men and women was released this week.

In 2013, the Charlotte-born Graham actually finished in the Top 5, along with President Barack Obama (No. 1, mentioned by 16 percent); former President George W. Bush and Pope Francis (both mentioned by 4 percent); and former President Bill Clinton (like Graham, he was mentioned by 2 percent).

It's the 57th time that Graham has made the list. That is, by far, more times than any other man -- or any woman -- since Gallup began asking Americans the "Most Admired" question in 1948.

The woman with the most Top 10 finishes over the years: Queen Elizabeth II of England, who made the list for the 46th time in 2013.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the woman Americans said they admired most in 2013, according to Gallup. The former first lady and U.S. senator was mentioned by 14 percent of those surveyed.

Clinton, who's a possible 2016 presidential candidate, has now made the list 22 times, and was No. 1 the last 12 years in a row. Obama has been the most admired man every year since 2008, when he was elected the country's 44th president.

The closest runners-up in Gallup's 2013 "Most Admired Women" list: TV host-actress Oprah Winfrey (No. 2, mentioned by 6 percent); and First Lady Michelle Obama and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (both mentioned by 5 percent).

In the poll, taken in early December, former South African president Nelson Mandela was mentioned by 7 percent of those surveyed. That would have landed him in the No. 2 spot among the men most admired by Americans. But Gallup only lists living men and women, so Mandela, who died Dec. 5, was not included in the Top 10 released by the polling organization.

Here is a complete list of the men and women most admired by Americans as 2013 drew to a close.

-- Tim Funk

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Franklin Graham asks prayers for father's recovery

Franklin Graham is asking for prayers that his father, Billy Graham, regain the strength he's lost since his 95th birthday party last month.

In a letter posted Tuesday on the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's Website, the younger Graham said a recent bout with a respiratory infection has left the Charlotte-born evangelist "extremely weak but his vitals are good. Our family would appreciate your prayers for him that the Lord would strengthen him."

Though Billy Graham spent two days in the hospital late last month, he is now resting in his Montreat home.

Franklin Graham also wrote in his letter that his father was encouraged by the release of his recent book, "The Reason for My Hope -- Salvation," and has already begun work on another one "about a subject that he feels that God has laid on his heart."

Here is the full letter.

-- Tim Funk 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Pittenger gives Billy Graham video to reps, senators

Just in time for Christmas, each member of Congress has received a gift from U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C.

Namely, a copy of "The Cross," a widely televised video featuring what may well be 95-year-old Billy Graham's final public message.

The 9th District Republican asked the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to send him 535 copies of "The Cross" DVD -- one for every House member and every senator.

Pittenger "more than covered the costs with a generous contribution to the ministry," the BGEA's Ken Barun said in an email.

In the video, much of it filmed at Graham's mountaintop home in Montreat, the Charlotte-born evangelist speaks into a camera. He calls for a spiritual reawakening in America and says that the cross of Jesus Christ "demands . . . a new lifestyle in all of us."

"With all my heart, I want to leave you with the truth," the elderly Graham says about God. "He loves you, willing to forgive you of all your sins."

Pittenger was among the guests at Graham's private 95th birthday party last month at Asheville's Omni Grove Park Inn, where the video was shown to the 800 or so guests.

"After watching the video, Congressman Pittenger felt Dr. Graham's timely, powerful message would be helpful and relevant for his colleagues, as well as of interest to many of their constituents," said Pittenger spokesman Jamie Bowers. "Washington is a tough town. Just (recently), a member of Congress (Rep. Trey Radel, R-Fla.) was charged with cocaine possession."

Bowers said non-Christian House members and senators got a copy of the video because they, too, have many constituents who may have seen and been talking about Graham in "The Cross." It's been televised on Fox News and on many local TV stations.

The video gift, Bowers said, came with a note from Pittenger to his colleagues that "The Cross" was of interest to many of their constituents, "so I thought you'd like to see it for yourself."

Bowers said Pittenger has already heard "many positive comments and 'Thanks'" from members of Congress.

At Graham's Nov. 7 birthday party, Pittenger told reporters he first met Graham when he was 22 and caddying for the evangelist at the 1971 Byron Nelson Golf Classic. "He was playing with Bob Hope and Arnold Palmer, and there were golf balls flying everywhere," Pittenger said.

Years before embarking on a political career, Pittenger was a Christian activist. After college, he went to work for Campus Crusade for Christ, serving for 10 years as an assistant and advance man for Bill Bright, the group's founder. In that capacity, the young Pittenger also helped launch a ministry for elected officials and staff on Capitol Hill.

He also traveled to several Eastern European countries, including the Soviet Union, to support persecuted Christians and underground churches.

And over the years, Bowers said, Pittenger has gone on mission trips to Malaysia, Thailand, The Philippines, India, Egypt, Kenya, South Africa, and Guatemala.

Pittenger was in China on a mission trip in February 2012 when then-U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., announced she would not run that year for a 10th term. Pittenger, who got the news even though he was halfway around the world, was subsequently elected to succeed Myrick.

He has attended Central Church of God, a Pentecostal church in Charlotte, for 17 years. But because of frequent Sunday obligations, Pittenger and his wife now regularly attend Saturday evening services at Forest Hill Church, a non-denominational evangelical church that's also in Charlotte.

-- Tim Funk

Friday, December 6, 2013

Lovely prayer collection, but it lacks diversity

Two Charlotte pastors – but no clergy of color – are among 16 religious leaders who have penned prayers for North Carolina in the December edition of Our State magazine.

The Rev. David Chadwick of Forest Hill Church, one of Charlotte’s multi-campus megachurches, counts among “the goodnesses of the the Lord” North Carolina’s weather, its faith, its schools and its people.

The 6-foot-7 Chadwick, who was once a member of the Tar Heel basketball team (1967-71), also manages to slip in thankful references to former Coach Dean Smith and Carolina blue.

He writes in his prayer that North Carolinians admire Smith for integrating the ACC in the 1960s by adding Charlie Scott, an African-American, to his team.

And Chadwick writes this: “God must love the Tar Heel State, for he made its sky Carolina blue! Lord, you are good!”

A few pages later, the Rev. John Cleghorn of Caldwell Memorial Presbyterian relates the history of his own growing, diverse church to the hope Christians embrace during this season of Advent.

Once the Belk family’s neighborhood church in Elizabeth, Caldwell Memorial Presbyterian had dwindled from a flock of 1,100 in its heyday to about 12 elderly members in 2006.

I’ll let Cleghorn tell the rest of the story, which he does in his prayer: “This sturdy remnant clung to its faith, believing the end for Caldwell Presbyterian Church had yet to arrive. They were right. In the fall of 2006, the old, white, traditional Presbyterians were joined by a group of people who looked very different but shared the same fundamental faith. Caldwell Presbyterian came back to life as a place of hope for others.”

You can read all 16 prayer essays – including one from Charlotte-born Billy Graham here. You can also listen  to Chadwick, Cleghorn and all of the others (except Graham) read their own prayers. And you’ll find some breathtaking pictures of North Carolina.

The Greensboro-based magazine, which was launched in 1933 and publishes 220,000 copies per month, managed geographical diversity in its choice of ministers. The clergy-writers live all over the state.

But the religious diversity isn’t there – within Christianity, yes, there’s Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Quaker, Moravian, Episcopalian and nondenominational evangelical. But other than one Jewish rabbi, there are no non-Christians. No Muslims, no Buddhists, no Hindus.

And shockingly, all 16 of the clergy-writers are white (and only two are women).

Certainly one of the great blessings of North Carolina is its diversity. And its robust faith community includes not only African-American churches, but also an increasing number of Latino and Asian congregations.

Our State editor-in-chief Elizabeth Hudson told me the omission of clergy of color was not intentional. She said she invited 23 people to write prayers, including three African-Americans. She got 16 submissions, none of them from the black ministers.

She also said this in an email: “While the response to the message of our story has been largely positive, I have to say I concur with the criticism about our lack of diversity in this story. We can and will do better in reflecting North Carolina going forward.”

-- Tim Funk

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Furtick gives prayer at Cannon swearing-in

Charlotte politicians and pastors in Charlotte have long had close ties.

When he was Charlotte mayor, Republican Pat McCrory looked to the Rev. David Chadwick of Forest Hill Church as a personal pastor.

Democrats Anthony Foxx and Harvey Gantt, two other former mayors, are prominent members of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. Its pastor, the Rev. Clifford Jones Sr., has long been a local mover and shaker, and definitely had the mayors' ear.

And now Charlotte has a new mayor, Democrat Patrick Cannon. He's been a longtime member of The Park Church (formerly University Park Baptist), whose pastor, Bishop Claude Alexander, is also connected and once thought of running for mayor himself.

But when Cannon was sworn in this week, the ceremony's closing prayer was given by the Rev. Steven Furtick of rapidly-growing Elevation Church. Cannon's wife and children and sometimes the mayor himself attend the multi-campus Southern Baptist church, which has a multiracial, mostly young congregation.

Monday night's ceremony also included the swearing-in of Charlotte City Council members. And Furtick, a registered Republican, prayed for both the mayor and the council in his three-minute prayer, which can be seen here.

The 33-year-old pastor also spoke a lot about Charlotte itself -- especially its future.

"Lord, we thank you tonight that as you look upon our city, you look upon us and see potential and possibility," he began. "And we thank you that your are for the city of Charlotte. We thank you that you have great plans for the city of Charlotte and that greater things are still to be done in this city."

About Cannon, he prayed: "We thank you for our new mayor, that you will bless him with 10,000 blessings. We pray that when he wakes up in the morning that he will feel and sense a surrounding strength and peace that only you can give."

After the ceremony, Furtick posted this on Instagram:

For me it was a privilege to pray for our new Mayor, Patrick Cannon & our city council tonight. I love the city of Charlotte, I am so thankful God planted us here.

-- Tim Funk

Monday, December 2, 2013

Scholar will speak about Jesus and Judaism

Vanderbilt University professor Amy-Jill Levine, a noted scholar of the New Testament and Jewish Studies, will give two free public lectures in Charlotte this week.

On Tuesday, Dec. 3, she will speak on “The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus.” (That's also the name of one of her books). That lecture will begin at 7 p.m. at Myers Park Presbyterian Church, 2501 Oxford Place (just off Providence Road).

On Thursday, Dec. 5, at 7 p.m., Levine will address “Jesus, Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations” at Unity Place-St. Stephens AME Zion Church, 201 Franklin Blvd., in Gastonia.

Levine, who has appeared on several TV specials focusing on the time of Jesus, is also scheduled to be interviewed Thursday at 9 a.m. on "Charlotte Talks," with Mike Collins on WFAE (90.7 FM).

Levine has described herself as a "Yankee Jewish feminist who teaches in a predominantly Christian divinity school in the buckle of the Bible Belt" (Vanderbilt is in Nashville, Tenn.).

She has edited "The Historical Jesus in Context"; co-edited the Jewish Annotated New Testament; and co-written "The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and the Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us."

Temple Emanuel is bringing Levine to the Charlotte area as part of its 100th anniversary in Gastonia. Other sponsors of the lectures: UNC Charlotte, Belmont Abbey, the Jewish Federation of Greater Charlotte, First Presbyterian Church of Gastonia and the Glenn Foundation.

-- Tim Funk 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Palin will sign books at Billy Graham Library

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will be at Charlotte's Billy Graham Library on Dec. 6 to sign copies of her new book about Christmas.

She'll autograph books from 10 a.m. to noon. The library is at 4330 Westmont Drive.

Palin's book, "Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas," is a call to defend and openly celebrate Jesus' birth in public displays and in school pageants.

The 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate and frequent guest on the Fox News network also calls in her book for people to say "Merry Christmas" at a time when many, noting the growing religious diversity of the country, prefer "Happy Holidays."

Those who want to reserve a signed book must come to the library's book store, Ruth's Attic, and purchase up to four books there. They will be given receipts and wristbands, which they will need to bring to the book signing to gain access and get a book. No books purchased elsewhere will be signed.

Details: 704-401-3200. Click here for the library's Web site.

Palin was among the celebrities who attended Billy Graham's 95th birthday party on Nov. 7 at the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville. She also spoke, recounting how her mother was influenced by televised Graham Crusades to bring the family to evangelical Christianity.

IN OTHER NEWS: The Billy Graham Library will, for the sixth consecutive year, host a nearly month-long "Christmas at the Library" celebration.

Starting Dec. 2 and continuing through Dec. 23, from 5 p.m. on each day, the library will treat visitors to a live Nativity, horse-drawn carriage rides, live music from carolers, Christmas story time for children, a lights display and a large Christmas tree with ornaments.

The library's operating hours in December will be extended, from 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. It will remain closed on Sundays.

Admission to the library is free. But there will be a $10 parking fee per vehicle after 3 p.m.. And there will costs for the carriage rides and for a Christmas dinner that will be available at the adjacent Billy Graham Evangelistic Association headquarters, Thursday through Saturday.

ONE FINAL NEWSY NOTE: The library will be closed Jan. 6-11 for maintenance and updates. It will reopen Jan. 13.

-- Tim Funk  

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Charlotte churches starring in 'Homeland'

I never miss TV’s “Homeland.”

Showtime’s CIA drama, shot in Charlotte, offers suspense, complex characters – and the thrill of watching the Queen City pass as Our Nation’s Capital.

So I’m watching it Sunday night, riveted by the cleverly plotted doings of Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) and Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) and then – Whoa! Wait! CIA agent Carrie is holding her clandestine meeting with a shady go-between for Iran in … Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral!

As a religion reporter, I notice such things.

Two scenes were shot inside the Dilworth church – one of Charlotte’s most stunning, with its awesome icons. And viewers got to see the outside of the church on East Boulevard – site of the Yiasou Greek Festival – as Carrie waited in her car to follow said go-between down the streets of “Washington.”

Why did Holy Trinity get this shot at stardom?

“These things are all script-driven,” said Michael Klick, co-executive producer of the Emmy-winning series. “The script said, ‘Carrie meets somebody in a Coptic Orthodox church.’"

The producers settled for Greek Orthodox. “Everybody knows about Holy Trinity,” Klick said. “And it’s beautiful inside.”

Father Michael Varvarelis, the Greek-born dean at Holy Trinity, OK’d the filming – with one stipulation.
“We wanted to make sure the language was clean,” he said.

“Homeland” is on pay cable, so Carrie and other characters have been known to spout the F-word. Klick said the show made a small change in the dialogue.

And to show its gratitude, “Homeland” wrote a nice check to Holy Trinity, founded in 1923 and spiritual home to 870 families.

“It was a good donation,” Varvarelis said. And though he’s never seen the series, he was impressed with the show’s crew.

“They were very careful,” he said. “And they had all these lights outside to make sure the church looked good.”

His flock, Varvarelis said, was excited at the national exposure.

Holy Trinity is one of at least five local churches to get “Homeland” cameos.

Last year, the series shot a scene – another clandestine meeting – in the meditation garden at St. Peter Catholic uptown. That one starred the show’s other major character, Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), a Marine POW in Iraq who returns home.

In the first season, Avondale Presbyterian was used for a “funeral service,” and Sharon Presbyterian starred as the church Brody’s family attended.

And Myers Park Baptist has provided sets and production help for the "Homeland" crew since it started filming in Charlotte. The current season's premiere included several scenes shot on the church's campus, including a "congressional hearing" and some bits of romance and drama featuring Brody's troubled daughter, Dana (Morgan Saylor). See the church's "Homeland" photos here.

-- Tim Funk

Friday, November 15, 2013

On the red carpet at Billy's bash with Palin & Co.

Prior to Billy Graham’s 95th birthday party last Thursday night, we in the working press gathered, mob-like, behind a rope, waiting to shout questions at and snap photos of celebrity guests at Asheville’s grand Grove Park Inn.

Think Hollywood’s red carpet. But instead of movie stars, we got Republican politicos, Christian musicians and Sarah Palin.

“Hey, Governor,” I called out as the one-time leader of Alaska and her husband Todd strode into view, “what’s Billy Graham’s legacy?”

As the cameras click-click-clicked, she jumped right in with a 17-second answer.

“Oh, he is one who has been able to message what truth is, with the solutions to our world’s problems, our individual problems, and our nation’s challenges,” she said. “He’s been one to articulate what it is and what it will take to get everybody on the right track.”

Before Palin, we got to throw questions to Ricky Skaggs.

“It’s awesome to be at anyone’s 95th birthday, and especially Dr. Graham’s,” the bluegrass picker-singer said. “I’ve got a lot of heroes. But his picture is the biggest one I have in my studio.”

Christian music star Michael W. Smith, who would sing “Happy Birthday” to Graham at the party, had the most succinct take on the Charlotte-born evangelist as he strolled past the press.

“He’s finished well,” Smith said, echoing that first-century evangelist, Paul.

Democrats Bill and Hillary Clinton were invited to Billy’s party, but didn’t show, leaving the best seats in the ballroom – and the most time logged on the red carpet – to Republicans.

Press-shy (at least Thursday) Donald Trump and Glenn Beck stayed in their seats.

But U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., met the press, recalling when he was 22 and caddying for Billy at the 1971 Byron Nelson Golf Classic. “He was playing with Bob Hope and Arnold Palmer, and there were golf balls flying everywhere.”

And GOP Gov. Pat McCrory told us about the time in 1996 when he and Graham came into Panthers Stadium, site of the farmboy-turned-preacher’s last hometown crusade to win souls for Christ.

“There were 75,000 people cheering,” said McCrory, who was then mayor of Charlotte. “And (Graham) turned to me and said, ‘I think they’re confused – this is not about me.’”

Then, before moving along the rope, McCrory added: “Billy Graham was the one guy who knew it wasn’t about him. … And, you know, we all need a little humility in this celebrity world we have today.”

-- Tim Funk

Friday, November 1, 2013

Billy Graham's 95th birthday will be marked by party, celebs, books and TV message

Billy Graham turns 95 on Thursday.

To put that in perspective: His life began in Charlotte four days before the end of World War I.

Quite a milestone, quite a life. And a lot of things are happening to mark Graham’s birthday:

-- A private party is planned for Thursday night at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville. Graham will be there, as will 600 or so others, including Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch, Rick Warren and Ricky Skaggs.

-- A DVD featuring what is likely to be Graham’s final public message will be shown in the coming days at 25,000 churches as part of a national evangelical effort called “My Hope America with Billy Graham.”

-- The program will also air Thursday night at 10 on the Fox News Network. Murdoch, the network’s owner, traded letters with Graham about showing the video of him preaching from his Montreat home. Nearly 500 local TV stations are also set to show it. In it, Graham talks about the need for a spiritual awakening in America and how the cross of Christ "demands . . . a new lifestyle."

-- And there are two new books out: Graham’s own, “The Reason for My Hope: Salvation,” and “Billy Graham: A Life in Pictures,” from former Observer religion editor Ken Garfield and a corps of Observer photographers who’ve covered Graham over the decades.

Book rich in pictures, anecdotes

But "Billy Graham: A Life in Pictures" ($19.99) is more than a photo collection. Garfield has tapped into his 12-plus years on the Billy Graham beat (1992-2005) to offer a rich supply of anecdotes and historical detail. Together, they tell you all about the Charlotte farm boy who became a globe-trotting evangelist and pastor to presidents.

“It’s meant to be an Everyman’s appreciation,” said Garfield, 60, now director of communications at Myers Park United Methodist. When he used that “Everyman” phrase with Graham aide David Bruce, Bruce replied, “That’s who Billy preached to.”

Garfield covered five Graham crusades – including in Germany, Charlotte and New York – and interviewed him a dozen times. In person or on stage, Garfield said, Graham was able to “make this connection. … His tenderness and humanity came through.”

Graham’s legacy? “His integrity,” Garfield said. “He got used by Nixon. But there was never any financial or sexual impropriety. … He figured out how to use all media. And he never really swayed from his basic message.”

Recently, in a letter from Montreat, Garfield’s book got a rave review – from Graham.

Garfield will speak and sign copies of his book at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday (Nov. 6) at Sharon Presbyterian Church, 5201 Sharon Road. Also, at 2:30 p.m. Nov. 10 at Levine Museum of the New South, 200 E. Seventh St. Reservations: rsvp@museumofthenewsouth.org.

-- Tim Funk

Friday, October 18, 2013

Cameron, Santorum talk films about faith

Not playing at a theater near you: A love story pairing up conservative Christians and Hollywood.

Evangelicals have long cast the movie industry as a factory of filth. The disdain is mutual: On the big screen, churchgoers are often portrayed as narrow-minded.

Amid that backdrop, some conservatives are releasing Christian films outside the Hollywood system.
Enter actor Kirk Cameron and former U.S. Senator – and GOP presidential candidate – Rick Santorum.

I talked with both this week about their separate but similar quests to spread the Gospel cinematically.

Cameron, 43, came to fame as a teen actor on the ABC sitcom “Growing Pains” (1985-92). Now he appears in Christian dramas and documentaries, most notably “Fireproof,” a 2008 hit movie in which he played a firefighter trying to save his marriage.

As part of a live spinoff of that movie, Cameron will be at Charlotte’s Northside Baptist Church, 333 Jeremiah Blvd., next Saturday (Oct. 26)  at 6 p.m. for “Love Worth Fighting For.”

This evening of advice, music, humor and prayer is geared to husbands and wives who want to spend a few hours “focusing on the most important relationship they have on the planet,” he said by phone. (Order tickets here.)

Santorum, meanwhile, stopped by the Observer to plug his debut film as the new CEO of Dallas-based EchoLight Studios. “The Christmas Candle,” set in Victorian England and based on a novel by evangelical writer Max Lucado, is a handsomely produced film about an Anglican pastor who recovers his lost faith and an angel-touched candle that brings a miracle every Christmas Eve. It’ll hit theaters Nov. 22. (See a trailer here).

Santorum and Cameron said they want to fill a hunger in the heartland for movies that affirm Christian values and beliefs.

“My industry is responsible for so many evils in the world,” Cameron said. “It feels like a privilege to be here (in Hollywood), making movies that are actually producing good.”

He bristled at critics who dismiss “Fireproof” and other Christian movies as earnest but didactic and amateurish: “Who made (them) king of deciding what’s a good movie?”

Santorum sees his new job as a sequel to a 2012 presidential campaign that stressed social issues – and maybe a prequel to 2016.

“It’s consistent with going out there and fighting the fight,” he said. “Having an impact on the popular culture is, to me, part of the overall effort to bring America back to its senses.”

-- Tim Funk

Monday, October 7, 2013

Popular author Anne Lamott coming to Charlotte

Celebrated author Anne Lamott, who has built a passionate following with her funny-sad novels and autobiographical musings on everything from writing to prayer, will be in Charlotte on Nov. 10 to speak at Christ Episcopal Church, 1412 Providence Road.

Tickets are $25 for the 2:30 p.m. lecture and audience Q&A, but that cost includes a copy of her new book, "Stitches: A Handbook of Meaning, Hope and Repair."

She'll sign books at 3:30 p.m.

Lamott's novels include "Hard Laughter," "Crooked Little Heart," and "Blue Shoe."

In recent years, the San Francisco-based writer with dreadlocks has also written about brokenness, joy and Christianity in "Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith" and "Help. Thanks. Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.".

My personal favorite among her books is the hilarious and incredibly helpful "Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life."

Interested in hearing Lamott? Register here. There's no deadline for registering, but the event could sell out before Nov. 10. There's online registration only. On the day of her talk, present your ticket and pick up a book, starting at 1:30 p.m. Lamott will speak in the church's All Saints' Hall.

-- Tim Funk

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Hating the sins, but loving the TV sinnners

Spoiler alert: Stop reading if you haven't yet seen last week's "Breaking Bad" finale on TV. 
Count me among those who believe we’re living in a new Golden Age of Television. 
While Hollywood caters to the tastes of teenage boys by churning out a never-ending series of superhero sagas for the big screen, complex and compelling human dramas are playing out on AMC, HBO, Showtime, FX, Sundance, and – most recently – Netflix
Producers of the best of these non-network shows have created morally murky worlds that look a lot like ours, then populated them with sinners – with a capital S. 
A Mafia chieftain in "The Sopranos." A serial adulterer in “Mad Men.” And a high school chemistry professor-turned-drug kingpin in “Breaking Bad.” 
All “Difficult Men,” which is, in fact, the title of a new book about this mostly cable TV revolution. But also very human men. Watching at home, getting inside their tangled emotional lives, we may recoil at their sins, but still feel tempted to root for these sinners. 
Our own misdeeds never rise to their levels, perhaps, but who among us can’t see a little of ourselves in the fears, the rationalizations, and the delusions of Tony Soprano, Don Draper and Walter White? 
But, alas, these TV characters live in worlds, again like ours, where crime rarely pays for long, where cheaters usually get caught, and where those who live recklessly nearly always crash and burn. 
Enter the creators of these shows, who must eventually step in and play God. 
Take last week’s “Breaking Bad” finale on AMC, which rained down more wrath on bad guys than anything since the Old Testament. 
Yes, the avenging angel in the final show was Walt, the brilliant protagonist who evolved over five seasons from Mr. Chips to Scarface, in the now famous words of the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan.

 But Gilligan wasn’t about to spare Walt, whose hubris – a sin as old as Adam and Eve – had led inexorably to the murder of his lawman brother-in-law and the alienation of the wife and son he told himself were the reasons he amassed millions in drug money. 
Clever Walt figured a way for his son and baby daughter to get their tainted inheritance. Still, for them, “Dad” will always be a dirty word. 
“If there’s a larger lesson to ‘Breaking Bad,’ it’s that actions have consequences,” the Virginia-born Gilligan told the New York Times in 2011. “It seems to me that (religion) represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished. ... I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something.” 
Walt’s story, then, qualifies as a cautionary tale: Here was an Everyman who took the wrong road and perished. 
But there’s hope for 2014! 
Don Draper, the ad man on “Mad Men,” another AMC hit, has one more season to find a right road. And it just might happen: He’s hit bottom, he’s done hiding his past, and he’s acknowledged his addictions and sins. 

Forgiveness, redemption, resurrection – those things can save wrecked lives and, just maybe, produce terrific television.
          -- Tim Funk

Friday, September 27, 2013

Graham has solid place in history

Wonder how it feels to be treated like a historical figure while you’re still alive.

President Barack Obama and his living predecessors could tell us. And civil rights legend John Lewis could, too. Ditto, Mikhail Gorbachev, the final Soviet ruler.

It’s a pretty exclusive club. And it’s clear, as his 95th birthday approaches, that Charlotte-born Billy Graham is a member.

Who else but ex-White House occupants have anything like the Billy Graham Library – a presidential-style museum filled with mementos of his decades-long career?

And this week, Wheaton College in Illinois has been hosting a four-day conference on its most famous alumnus, with speeches, roundtable discussions, and even a Billy Graham Film Festival featuring clips from some of his more famous crusades.

Other recent signs that Graham, who will celebrate another birthday Nov. 7, has achieved larger-than-life status: Popular Christian singer Michael W. Smith has written a song, “Take Me Home,” about Graham’s longing for heaven. And grade-schoolers can now dip into a new biography of Graham that’s tailored to young readers, 9 to 12.

The lasting influence of Graham – pastor to presidents, America’s evangelist-in-chief and preacher to millions around the globe – was the theme of many of the scheduled Wheaton lectures from scholars around the country.

Grant Wacker, a professor at Duke Divinity School, was to speak about “Billy Graham and American History.”

“Billy Graham and the Enigma of the Modern South” was the theme from Webster University’s Steven Miller, who authored a well-reviewed book about Graham’s role in the rise of the Republican Party in the Bible Belt.

One scholar’s focus was Graham’s visits to the Soviet Union – controversial at the time, but now considered part of the bigger story of communism’s collapse.

Also on the agenda: Graham’s relationship with race. He promoted integration and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s, but kept his distance from the civil rights marches in the 1960s.

And a panel scheduled for Saturday was to include not only Charlotte evangelist Leighton Ford and wife Jean Ford, Graham’s sole surviving sibling, but also Martin Marty, perhaps the country’s leading expert on American religion.

Meanwhile, Smith’s song will be out soon. It’s a conversation Graham might have with Jesus when he gets to heaven. “Hello, old friend,” it begins. “You’ve walked beside me all these miles.”

Graham’s take on his fame and his hopes for heaven are covered on the final page of the new biography for kids – “Prophet with Honor,” Christian publisher Zondervan’s adaptation of William Martin’s definitive biography.

“I want to hear one person say something nice about me, and that’s the Lord, when I face him,” Graham says on page 144. “I want him to say to me, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant.’”

-- Tim Funk

Monday, September 23, 2013

Parade of religion speakers on the way

Time to go get your calendars. Some intriguing speakers are just ahead.

Here’s the lineup:

Monday (Sept. 23) – Noted Israeli archeologist Gaby Barkay will talk at UNC Charlotte about two of the oldest fragments of a biblical text ever found.

The tiny texts include the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6:24-26) widely used in synagogues and churches and the oldest example of the divine name “Yahweh” written in paleo-Hebrew letters.

Inscribed on silver scrolls, the fragments predate the Dead Sea Scrolls by 500 years.

Barkay will speak at 7 p.m. in Cone University Center’s McKnight Hall.

Wednesday (Sept. 25) -- James Tabor, chair of UNC Charlotte’s Department of Religious Studies, will kick off the Milford Dialogue, a lecture/discussion series at Park Road Baptist Church. It’s named for the late Rev. Charlie Milford, the church’s former pastor.

A provocative author and a veteran of several archaeological digs in the Holy Land, Tabor is scheduled to consider the impact the first-century Jesus has on 21st century Christians.

Tabor’s books include “Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity,” “The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find That Reveals the Birth of Christianity” and his controversial “The Jesus Dynasty: A New Historical Investigation of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity.”

Tabor will speak at 6:30 p.m. in the Community Center of the campus of Park Road Baptist, 3900 Park Road.

Sept. 28 – CNN political anchor Wolf Blitzer will moderate a community dialogue at Lenoir-Rhyne University on “Politics, Religion and LGBT Equality.”

Also on the panel: Mitchell Gold, a Hickory business executive, gay advocate and author of “Youth in Crisis: What Everyone Should Know About Growing Up Gay”; the Rev. T. Anthony Spearman, pastor of Clinton Tabernacle Church in Hickory; and the Rev. Jack McKinney, a Baptist minister and pastoral counselor.

The event will begin at 7:30 p.m. at the university’s P.E. Monroe Auditorium, 625 Seventh Ave. S.E. in Hickory.

Sept. 30 and Oct. 21 – Myers Park United Methodist Church will host a two-part interfaith dialogue.

On Sept. 30, Rabbi Murray Ezring of Temple Israel will join the Rev. James Howell of Myers Park United Methodist for a discussion about “Christianity and Judaism.”

On Oct. 21, Imam John Ederer of the Muslim American Society of Charlotte will join Howell to explore “Christianity and Islam.”

Both presentations will begin at 7 p.m. at Myers Park United Methodist, 1501 Queens Road.

-- Tim Funk

Friday, September 13, 2013

Graham could get frosty reception in Iceland

Time for an update on the Graham family, as in Franklin, Anne and Billy.

On Sept. 28-29, world traveler Franklin Graham will headline one of his crusade-like festivals in Reykjavik, Iceland.

The president of the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association could get a frosty reception in this small (population 320,000) island country in Northern Europe.

For starters, it’s not the most religious of places: A 2011 Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Icelanders considered religion to be unimportant in their daily lives.

Graham’s opposition to same-sex marriage – the BGEA ran ads promoting North Carolina’s Amendment One in 2012 – may spark protests. The country’s former prime minister (Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir), was the world’s first openly homosexual leader elected to head a national government.

According to Icelandic news reports, gay activists found a way to snap up most of the free tickets to Graham’s festival in hopes that he’d address a nearly empty arena. Organizers devised a way for churches to distribute the tickets.

Graham’s take? “My desire for this festival is to share the good news of God’s love for sinners – all sinners, which includes me – and I want anyone in search of hope to know what God has done for them in his desire for each of us to experience his peace,” Graham said in a statement to the Observer. “God’s message is for all of Iceland, whether you are rich or poor, young or old, gay or straight, church member or unchurched, believer in God or atheist.”

Meanwhile, Franklin’s older sister, Anne Graham Lotz, a Raleigh-based evangelist, has authored a new book with an intriguing title: “Wounded by God’s People.” In its pages, she writes about how Christians often inflict pain on other Christians.

“They think when they’re hurt by God’s people, they’re hurt by God,” Lotz recently told Fox News. “Don’t throw away God.”

Here’s what Lotz told Fox about her father, Billy Graham, who turns 95 in November:

 “He’s doing really well,” she said. “His mind is clear, which I’m so thankful of. It takes him a little longer to recall things. … Has a hard time seeing. Has macular degeneration. Hard time hearing, which is my biggest difficulty with him. He can’t hear my voice on the phone. … Has a hard time walking. He uses a walker or wheelchair. But his spirit is good.”

-- Tim Funk

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Jones running to head National Baptist Convention

Charlotte's Rev. Clifford Jones, Sr., will be a 2014 candidate for president of the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc.

Jones, who pastors Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, is hosting the National Baptists' 133rd annual session this week in Charlotte.

The National Baptist Convention USA is America's oldest and largest black Baptist organization, with about 7 million members.

Jones' campaign card was distributed Thursday at the Charlotte Convention Center, where nearly 20,000 black Baptists from around the country are meeting through Friday.

The election will be next year, when the National Baptists meet for their 134th annual session, Sept, 1-5, in New Orleans.

This week, Jones and his megachurch have kept a high profile: On Sunday, current National Baptist president Rev. Julius Scruggs, gave one of the morning sermons. Then, on Monday, the church hosted two concerts for conventiongoers.

Scruggs, elected in 2009, has said he will not run for another term next year.

On Thursday, U.S. Transportation Secretary -- and former Charlotte mayor -- Anthony Foxx greeted the National Baptist gathering at the Charlotte Convention Center. Foxx and another former Charlotte mayor, Harvey Gantt, both call Jones their pastor and have long attended Friendship Missionary Baptist.

On his campaign card, Jones touts his various church assignments over the years, including former president of the General Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, Inc.

-- Tim Funk

Friday, August 16, 2013

African American Baptists headed to Charlotte

A year after all those Democrats came to town, Charlotte is hosting another big convention.

More than 25,000 members of the National Baptist Convention USA will gather Sept. 2-6 at the Charlotte Convention Center for their 133rd annual session. It’s the country’s largest predominantly African-American religious denomination, with 7.5 million members. Based in Nashville and born in the 1880s, it’s also the oldest black Baptist organization in the U.S.

Participants will attend worship services, youth concerts, a golf outing, a presidential education banquet and much more. State Baptist groups will sponsor 32 breakfasts and lunches at 12 Charlotte hotels.

“There will also be great preaching and great singing throughout the day every day,” said the Rev. Marty Tipton, the convention’s media spokesman.

Presiding over the event will be the Rev. Julius Scruggs, convention president since 2009 and pastor at First Missionary Baptist in Huntsville, Ala.

The host church is Friendship Missionary Baptist, 3400 Beatties Ford Road, led by the Rev. Clifford Jones Sr.

Jesus series at MP Baptist

Myers Park Baptist continues its “Jesus the Christ in the 21st Century” series Oct. 11-13 with the Rev. Brian McLaren.

 He’s a nationally renowned leader of the “emerging church,” a mostly evangelical movement. It emphasizes youth and small communities, is frustrated with traditional church structures and wants to make Christianity relevant in a changing 21st century world.

McLaren will speak all three days at the church, 1900 Queens Road, including giving the Sunday sermon. His topic that morning: “What Difference Does the Christian Message Make?” Hint: His answer will be found in the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostle, 16:11-40.

Past speakers in the church’s sometimes provocative, always compelling series have included “The Gnostic Gospels” author Elaine Pagels and retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, a Charlotte native.

Apologetics conference set

Os Guinness, best-selling author of “The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life,” will be among the long list of speakers at the 20th annual National Conference on Christian Apologetics.

Hosted by Southern Evangelical Seminary, it will be Oct. 11-12 at First Baptist Church, 732 Indian Trail-Faiview Rd. in Indian Trail, N.C.

“Apologetics” is a conservative branch of Christianity devoted to the intellectual defense of the faith.

 Conference speakers have included prison minister Charles Colson and Focus on the Family’s James Dobson.

Registration and details here

Friday, August 9, 2013

Explore 'Jerusalem,' see neighbors' faith

Starting next month, you can learn more about Jews, Christians and Muslims in Jerusalem and CLT.

 Discovery Place will begin showing “Jerusalem” – filmed in IMAX – on Sept. 21. Based on the preview at the movie's Web site, it’s a visually stunning exploration of the Holy Land, with the accent on Jerusalem.

The National Geographic film, narrated by British actor Benedict Cumberbatch (the contemporary Sherlock Holmes on PBS), will also highlight intersections between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

That brings us to what else Discovery Place is doing: Starting Sept. 14, the uptown museum will bring “Families of Abraham” back to Charlotte.

This widely praised photo exhibit spotlights 11 local families – Jewish, Christian and Muslim – during a single year as they celebrate holy days and go about rituals of daily life.

Eleanor Brawley, a Charlotte photographer and TV documentary producer, conceived and directed the exhibit, which debuted in late 2006 at Charlotte’s Levine Museum of the New South.

Brawley and seven other photographers shot everything from an Indian-American/Muslim wedding to a Passover Seder to a Christmas Mass at Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe). The exhibit, which will fascinate and move you, has traveled to nine other venues – including Duke Chapel in Durham.

There’s also a new hardback book with most of the exhibit’s 204 black-and-white images. “Families of Abraham: A Remarkable Story about the Religious Diversity of the South” is at Park Road Books and the Levine Museum of the New South.

“Families of Abraham” will be at Discovery Place through Jan. 12; “Jerusalem” will be shown through March 30.

Hear ‘Walking the Bible’ author

Keeping with the Jewish-Christian-Muslim theme: Bruce Feiler, whose “Walking the Bible” (the book and documentary) traced the 10,000-mile trek described in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, will speak in Charlotte on Sept. 29.

His topic: “Are we in a Holy War? A way forward for Jews, Christians and Muslims today.”

He’ll speak at 5p.m. at First Presbyterian Church, 200 W. Trade St. The evening will include dinner and a panel featuring Feiler and three Charlotte faith leaders: the Rev. Pen Perry of First Presbyterian, Rabbi Judy Schindler of Temple Beth El and Iman John Yahya Ederer of the Muslim Society of Charlotte.

Cost is $10. Details: Go to the church's Web site or email FPCEvents@firstpres-charlotte.org.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Duke theologian: Don't fly U.S. flags in church

Stanley Hauerwas has been called the only pacifist you'd want on your side in a bar fight. That's how provocative this N.C.-based Christian theologian can be.

In a new 5-question interview with faith & culture writer Jonathan Merritt, Hauerwas -- a professor at both Duke Divinity School and Duke Law School -- talks in unequivocal terms about the Iraq War, C.S. Lewis, World War II and the difference between patriotism and Christianity.

Hauerwas' Christianity is uncompromising. He's criticized both liberals (for their support of abortion, among other things) and conservatives (for their support of wars, among other things).

Mostly, his chief concern in this short interview is that too many Americans cannot distinguish the church from America. So much so, he says, that they are flirting with the sin of idolatry.

"The deep problem is the Christian identification with America," he says. "It's an understandable confusion given our country's history. But that doesn't make it any less perverted."

He's scandalized by all the American flags waving in and around churches: "I've long said that flags being used in churches on the 4th of July is a form of betrayal. It is so because the flag represents for many a more determinative sacrifice than the sacrifice of Christ."

Here is the full interview and a 4-minute black and white video in which the bearded Hauerwas speaks, punctuated by his signature laugh, about "The System vs. the Kingdom."

-- Tim Funk

Friday, August 2, 2013

A bet that answered a prayer

It all began eight years ago, with a bet between two drum majors at South Mecklenburg High School.

Both would seek out a person they thought least likely to show up in church, then invite him or her to attend the next Sunday. The winner would be the one whose invitee accepted – and then kept going to church.

Anna Hanlin, one of the drum majors, had her eye on Brittany, a freshman in the school’s color guard. “She came from a very broken home,” Anna recalls, “and I felt like she needed a friend.”

To Anna’s surprise, Brittany immediately said yes. “It was kind of like God answered my prayers,” Brittany says of Anna’s invitation to worship with her family at Harrison United Methodist in Pineville.

 As a young child living in New Jersey with her grandmother, Brittany found solace from her family’s poverty and turmoil in a Baptist church. But at 11 she moved to Charlotte with her mother. The churchgoing stopped. The turmoil continued, she and her mother kept their distance, and Brittany felt that God had forgotten her.

Then came Anna’s invitation.

Left to right: Brittany, Maria Hanlin, and Anna Hanlin.

Going to a predominantly white church was a different experience for Brittany. But she enjoyed the Hanlins and their church. And she could feel God’s presence again.

Brittany “started coming to church with us,” Anna says, “then spending the weekends with us, then spending weeks with us. And then, before we knew it, she was family.”

The Hanlins were hesitant at first, not wanting to usurp Brittany’s mother. But she never called looking for her daughter, and it was clear Brittany had a new home.

In 2010, Brittany, then 20, changed her last name to Hanlin. “Sissy” is what she now calls Anna. “Mom” is the Rev. Maria Hanlin, former head of Mecklenburg Ministries.

 Over the past year, as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Chicago, Brittany worked with at-risk girls that reminded her of herself. That experience, followed by a lot of prayer, convinced her that God had a plan for her.

Next week, she’ll start divinity school at Vanderbilt University.

But first, this Sunday morning, Brittany Hanlin will don her adopted mother’s black robe and deliver her first-ever sermon at Charlotte’s Park Road Baptist Church.

Looking on from a front pew, beaming, will be the other Hanlins – including Anna, who clearly won that bet.

-- Tim Funk

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Kenyan lawyer wants Jesus' conviction overturned

A Kenyan lawyer wants to go to court to redress an injustice done 2,000 years ago to a Jewish preacher and healer called Jesus of Nazareth.

Dola Indidis, who's Roman Catholic, is petitioning the International Court of Justice in The Hague to overturn and nullify the conviction of Jesus by Pontius Pilate, then the Roman governor of Judea.

As told in the New Testament, that conviction led to Jesus' crucifixion and, in time, to the founding of Christianity -- now the world's largest religion.

According to a report by Religion News Service, Indidis wants to keep the faith that flowed from Jesus' execution. But he accuses the long-dead Pilate of "judicial misconduct, abuse of office, bias and prejudice. . . .The selective and malicious prosecution (of Jesus) violated his human rights."

Indidis first brought the case before Kenya's highest court in Nairobi in 2007. That court, RNS reported, refused to hear it, saying it lacked jurisdiction.

He faces equally long odds as he pursues a hearing before the International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court. The court is best known for ruling on territorial disputes between countries.

But the Roman Empire, which sent Pilate to rule over what is now a part of Israel, no longer exists.

RNS called Indidis' quest "quixotic," but he is forging ahead.

He has pointed to the example of Joan of Arc, the 15th century French saint who was burned at the stake after leading her country's soldiers to victories against the English. Her conviction was later overturned by a Vatican court, and she was canonized in 1920.

-- Tim Funk

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Tension these days often within faiths

When I went on an interfaith trip to Israel earlier this year, I expected some sparks between members from the two congregations traveling together.

After all, one congregation was Jewish and one was Baptist.

Yes, Temple Beth El and Myers Park Baptist – the two houses of worship sponsoring the trip – share a liberal approach to politics and social justice.

But their theologies are different. You won’t hear “Jesus Christ” during Shabbat services at Temple Beth El. And on Sunday at Myers Park Baptist, you’ll hear that name over and over – in song, prayer and Scripture.

But, even though we went to Jewish sites and Christian sites, members of the two congregations bonded, agreed to disagree on theology and even discussed Jesus’ Judaism.

So no tension?

Not between them.

But there was some between the Reform Jews in Charlotte and the Orthodox Jews who make many of the rules in Israel.

And between the Baptists from Charlotte and the other Christians – mostly Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox – who run so many of the ancient churches in Israel.

At the Western Wall, Rabbi Judy Schindler of Temple Beth El and a few other women from her congregation risked getting arrested by wearing a tallit, or prayer shawl. Orthodox Jews believe only men should wear a tallit, and most Orthodox do not think women should read from the Torah, especially in mixed company.

A court in Israel has since ruled that women should not be arrested for wearing a tallit or reading from the Torah at the Western Wall. But that hasn’t changed the Orthodox view.

And some of the Baptists from Charlotte were turned off by what they considered the grandiose images at, say, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There, Catholic pilgrims from Eastern Europe rubbed rosaries on an oiled slab of rock where some believe Jesus’ body was prepared for burial.

The group was scheduled to attend a Sunday service at a Baptist church in Jerusalem. But plans were changed when it was discovered that the church was Southern Baptist – much too conservative for the Myers Park Baptists and, they worried, much too interested in converting those from Temple Beth El to Christianity.

You don’t have to travel 5,000-plus miles to pick up on this intrafaith tension.

Several mainline faiths – Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist – have been fighting among themselves over whether to ordain and marry gays and lesbians.

Conservative Episcopalians have rebelled against their church’s liberal leaders by becoming Anglicans.

And liberal Catholics upset with their conservative leaders? Some of them have become Episcopalians.

--Tim Funk

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Charlotte diocese pays for young pilgrims to see pope

Young Catholics -- a few hundred thousand of them, at least -- are in Rio de Janeiro to join Pope Francis in celebrating the annual World Youth Day festival.

It's the Argentinian pope's first overseas trip since he became leader of the Roman Catholic Church in March.

The revelers there to cheer him on include a dozen or so young people and their adult chaperones from the Diocese of Charlotte.

These local pilgrims almost didn't get to go: ITC Tours, the travel agency arranging World Youth Day packages for young people in 20 U.S. dioceses claimed bankruptcy in June.

Gone, suddenly, was the $25,000 the Charlotte group had paid for the trip to Brazil.

But there's a happy ending: The diocese came to the rescue, paying for the group's airfare and hotel stay.

For more details on what happened, check out the report in Charlotte's diocesan newspaper, The Catholic News Herald.

To follow the Charlotte pilgrims on Twitter: @queencityym. Also check out the Charlotte Youth Ministry's Facebook page.

One of the tweets includes a link to a photo of the group at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Identified in the photo are: Rebekah Torres, Katie Herzing, Evan Lance, Michael Myers, Daniel Torres and Brandon Berryhill.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, NPR previewed World Youth Day by interviewing a young S.C. woman who had converted to Catholicism.

Hannah Mayo lives in Charleston, and here's what she had to say.

-- Tim Funk 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Reasons why Superman is Jewish

Quite a year for our old friend Superman.

 He's turning 75 -- he sure doesn't look it! -- and, starting Friday (June 14), fans of the Krypton-born superhero will be flocking to the multiplexes to catch his latest movie, "Man of Steel."

But how well do you really know this flying icon?

Yes, he's sometimes disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper.

But did you know he's also Jewish?

So says Larry Tye, author of the new best-selling bio, "Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero."

Some have opined that the new movie, and a few of the older ones, cast Superman as Christ-like.

But this week, writing in The Jewish Daily Forward, Tye returned to Superman's roots, where he identified models from the Hebrew Bible and recalled the Midwestern Jewish neighborhood, circa World War II, that was home to the creator of the comic book hero.

The title of Tye's piece: "10 Reasons Superman Is Really Jewish."

Here are the first three, in the words of Mr. Tye.*

"1) Superman’s creator, Jerry Siegel, acknowledges in an unpublished memoir that he was strongly influenced by anti-Semitism he saw and felt, and that Samson was a role model for Superman.
Jerry also says he wrote about the world he grew up in: a Cleveland (Ohio) neighborhood that was 70% Jewish, where theaters and newspapers were in Yiddish as well as in English, and there were two dozen Orthodox synagogues to choose from but only one option, Weinberger’s, to buy your favorite pulp fiction.
 It was a place and time where weaklings — especially Jewish ones, who were more likely to get sand kicked in their faces by the bully down the block if not Adolf Hitler — dreamed that someday the world would see them for the superheroes they really were.

"2) If only we’d been paying attention, we’d have seen Siegel dropping hints of his hero’s ethnicity when Superman dropped down from a faraway planet.
On Krypton, Superman went by the name Kal-El as in Isra-el and the prophets Samu-el and Dani-el. It means God. Kal is similar to the Hebrew words for 'voice' and 'vessel.'

"3) The alien superbaby was not just a Jew, but also a very special one. Like Moses. Much as the baby prophet was floated in a reed basket by a mother desperate to spare him from an Egyptian Pharaoh’s death warrant, so moments before Kal-El’s planet blew up, his doomed parents tucked him into a spaceship that rocketed him to the safety of Earth.
 Both babies were rescued by non-Jews and raised in foreign cultures — Moses by Pharaoh’s daughter, Kal-El by Kansas farmers named Kent — and all the adoptive parents quickly learned how exceptional their foundlings were.
The narratives of Krypton’s birth and death borrow the language of Genesis. Kal-El’s escape to Earth is the story of Exodus."

For the seven other reasons why Superman is Jewish, click here

*And full disclosure: Author Larry Tye has been a good friend of mine since the 1980s, when we were colleagues at The Anniston Star, a small, crusading newspaper in Alabama. Besides Superman, Larry has authored books about the Jewish Diaspora, Pullman Porters, and Negro Leagues pitching legend Satchel Paige.

The subject of his next book: Robert F. Kennedy.

By the way, his Superman bio, published by Random House, is now in paperback.

-- Tim Funk 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Huckabee to churches: Give up tax breaks to speak out

Former Arkansas Gov. -- and one-time Southern Baptist preacher -- Mike Huckabee says it may be time for churches to give up their tax-exempt status. That way, he says, they'd be free of the accompanying restrictions on political speech.

Huckabee's remarks, reported by Bob Allen of the Associated Baptist Press, came this week during a pastors' conference on the eve of the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in Houston.

"You may not clap real loud for this, but at least hear me out and think about it and pray about it," the Fox News pundit and ex-GOP presidential candidate told the Southern Baptist pastors. "I think we need to recognize that it may be time to quit worrying so much about the tax code and start thinking more about the truth of the living God. And if that means we give up tax-exempt status and tax deductions for charitable contributions, I choose freedom more than I choose a deduction that the government gives me permission to say what God wants me to say."

Churches that want to keep their tax-exempt status can't openly endorse candidates and have to be careful how political their pastors get in the pulpit.

Huckabee said recent reports that the IRS had targeted certain conservative groups should also cause churches to be concerned about religious freedom in the United States.

Some of Huckabee's toughest comments during his speech were directed at those in the Republican Party want to re-brand the GOP and appeal more to young people by down-playing social issues important to conservative Christians.

"Of late, the Republican Party has tried to tell those of us who are evangelicals that maybe we need to dial it back a little when it comes to issues like the sanctity of life and the holiness of marriage," said Huckabee, who ran second to U.S. Sen. John McCain for the 2004 GOP presidential nomination. "Well, I've got a news flash for the GOP: I plan to take my last ride in life on a white horse, not on an elephant and not on a donkey. And I will stick with the word of God and if the party, any party, goes a different way, I stick with Jesus. I believe he is forever."

-- Tim Funk

Monday, June 3, 2013

Pittenger to help monitor treatment of religious minorities

U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger has been named to a joint congressional-executive branch commission charged with monitoring human rights abuses in China.

House Speaker John Boehner named the Republican congressman from Charlotte to the panel because of his past work supporting religious minorities in China and other countries.

Evangelical Christians and the Vatican have complained for years that the Chinese government routinely persecutes Christians. Though the government has allowed more Bibles to be published in recent years, it still restricts where and how many Christians worship. The Vatican and Chinese rulers continue to spar over the government's insistence on ordaining Chinese Catholic bishops without Vatican consent and detaining some bishops loyal to the pope.

The government has also been criticized for its occupation of Tibet, where two Buddhist monks recently set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule and the continued exile of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Created in 2000, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China monitors human rights and development of the rule of law in China. It holds hearings and roundtables and must submit an annual report to the president and Congress.

One of Pittenger's main interests will be whether religious rights are respected in China.

His own years of Christian activism stretch back to after college, when he went to work for Campus Crusade for Christ. He worked on the staff for 10 years, serving as an assistant and advance man for Bill Bright, the group's founder. In that capacity, the young Pittenger also helped launch a ministry for elected officials and staff on Capitol Hill.

According to spokesman Jamie Bowers, Pittenger also traveled to several Eastern European countries, including the Soviet Union, to support persecuted Christians and underground churches.

Pittenger was in China on a mission trip in February 2012 when then-U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., announced she would not run that year for a 10th term. Pittenger, who got the news even though he was halfway around the world, was subsequently elected to succeed Myrick in the 9th congressional district.

Bowers said Pittenger has attended Central Church of God, a Pentecostal church in Charlotte, for 17 years. But because of frequent Sunday obligations, he and his wife now regularly attend Saturday evening services at Forest Hill Church, also in Charlotte. The Rev. Loran Livingston pastors Central Church of God; the Rev. David Chadwick is pastor at Forest Hill, an evangelical non-denominational church.

Over the years, Bowers said, Pittenger has gone on mission trips to Malaysia, Thailand, The Philippines, India, Egypt, Kenya, South Africa, and Guatemala.

One other N.C. Republican congressman -- U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, who represents the western part of the state -- sits on the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, chairs the commission; U.S. Rep.Chris Smith, R-N.J., is co-chair.

Details: www.cecc.gov

-- Tim Funk 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Franklin Graham may stage 2015 event in CLT

Billy Graham held four crusades in his hometown of Charlotte. But son Franklin Graham, who calls his stadium-sized gatherings festivals, has yet to have one in the Queen City.

That could change in 2015.

The younger Graham and his people are in "preliminary discussions" with churches and others about the possibility of staging a festival in Charlotte, confirmed Ken Barun, chief of staff at Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA).

Several Charlotte churches have been holding team meetings about the possibility of a Graham festival here. Barun said the talks are in the exploratory phase now, to "see the level of interest."

Franklin Graham, who heads the BGEA, has two overseas festivals scheduled for later this year: in Reykjavik, Iceland, Sept. 28-29; and in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Nov. 22-24.

In March of this year, Graham held a festival in La Paz, Bolivia.

Since 2009, he's also preached in several U.S. cities, including Buffalo, Green Bay, Denver, Milwaukee and Los Angeles.

Billy Graham held crusades in Charlotte in 1947, 1958, 1972 and 1996. That last one drew 336,100 people over four nights to what was then called Ericsson Stadium (now Bank of America Stadium).

Will Graham, Billy's grandson and Franklin's oldest son, is also a sometimes-traveling evangelist. His crusade-like events are called celebrations. And he tends to stage them in smaller U.S. cities, like Gastonia; Auburn, Ala; and Paducah, Ky. This year, he'll also preach abroad, in Kenya, Japan and Thailand.

-- Tim Funk

Friday, May 31, 2013

CLT clergy wind up in jail for protesting legislature

Some Charlotte clergy have been getting arrested and they’re eager to tell you why.

 In recent weeks, these Baptist, Presbyterian and Unitarian Universalist ministers have traveled to Raleigh to protest what they consider the General Assembly’s assault on the poor, teachers, minorities, and the unemployed.

 They’ve joined hundreds of other dissidents – professors, doctors, lawyers, students, senior citizens – to sing, pray, chant, clog the halls of the Legislative Building and, in some cases, get arrested.

The state NAACP, which organizes the protests every Monday, dubbed them “Moral Mondays.”

So far, four Charlotte clergy have been arrested, though that number may grow on the Mondays to come.

Among the protesters who’ve been charged with second-degree trespassing and failure to disperse on command: The Revs. Peter Wherry, pastor of Mayfield Memorial Missionary Baptist; Rodney Sadler, associate professor at Union Presbyterian Seminary; Kojo Nantambu, pastor of Green Oak Missionary Baptist (and president of the local NAACP); and Robin Tanner, minister of Piedmont Unitarian Universalist.

Tanner, 29, who was arrested May 20, told me this was her first act of civil disobedience.

 “I call it moral obedience,” she said. Acting on behalf of vulnerable people, she said, “is at the core of every religious tradition that I know of.”

 She cited the Republican-run legislature’s decision to cut back unemployment benefits, refuse to accept more people on Medicaid (the federal health-care plan for the poor), and prohibit people without a photo ID from voting.

In the face of such action, Tanner said, “there’s a sense of powerlessness – what else can we do?”

She said it was “deeply humbling” to be arrested. As in: having your hands zip-tied behind you and then being searched, finger-printed and photographed.

She and other arrestees were bused to the Wake County Detention Center, where she remained for four hours.

Her court date is in July.

Yes, there was some fear, she said. “But then I remembered I wasn’t there for me.”

This week, Tanner blogged about her experience.

On Sunday (June 2), Tanner’s congregation will join with two other UU churches to support “Moral Mondays.” The service, featuring several speakers, is 6:30 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte, 234 N. Sharon Amity Road. Its minister: the Rev. Jay Leach.

Then, on Monday (June 3), dozens of Charlotte-area UUs will travel to Raleigh for what’s being called “Mega-Moral Monday.”

And on June 10, Sadler (rsadler@upsem.edu) and others are organizing a “Moral Monday” in Raleigh that will feature hundreds of clergy from around the state. More than 40 Charlotte ministers have committed to joining that protest, he reported.

“This is really a non-partisan event,” said Sadler of Union Presbyterian Seminary, whose academic specialty is the Bible. “It’s these policies that are the problem.”

-- Tim Funk

Friday, May 24, 2013

Outgoing Meck Ministries head Hanlin offers parting words, challenges for Charlotte

As residents of one of America’s fastest growing cities, we in Charlotte are practiced at saying hello. But goodbye – we’re not so used to that.

I mention this because it’s time to bid farewell to Maria Hanlin.

Since 2005, she’s been the big-hearted leader of Mecklenburg Ministries, an interfaith group of about 100 congregations (there were 50 when she took the job) that’s dedicated to social justice and to building relationships among Christians, Jews, Muslims and others.

In just a few days, Hanlin will be moving up the road to become the new executive director/CEO at Habitat for Humanity of Greater Greensboro. She already has an apartment there and will be joined by husband Tim, a banker, after they sell their home here.

We shouldn’t be surprised that Hanlin is grabbing yet another opportunity to help those in need. Her doctorate is in Ministry with the Poor. And when she arrived in Charlotte 18 years ago to be associate pastor at Matthews United Methodist, she talked the megachurch into tithing 10 percent of its capital campaign to buy lots and build Habitat homes.

So, how to say goodbye?

I could spotlight her accomplishments at “MeckMin”: She’s helped fight bullying in the schools, got politicians and young people to walk in the footsteps of the city’s poor, arranged for black and white preachers to swap pulpits, recruited all-clergy work crews to build two Habitat houses – and much more.

Or I could go the biography route: Now 54, Hanlin grew up in Montgomery, Ala., where her white Methodist parents backed the efforts of a young black Baptist preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. and taught that segregation is a sin.

But in the few lines I have left, let’s let Hanlin say goodbye to us. Here are her parting words – and challenges to Charlotte:

-- “I so hope that people of (different) faiths will find common causes and join hands on issues our Scriptures command us to care about: Equitable education for every child, homelessness, poverty, affordable housing, the environment.”

-- “And if I was to stay, I hope I would have the courage to help our community look at the racial injustice of our prison system.” (She recommends “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander.)

-- “If we dare to dismiss or demonize a group because they are Muslim or they are immigrants or they are gay, we’re going against the God that created those people and called them good.”

-- In the face of Charlotte’s growing diversity, “we cannot live in fear – that is not what people of faith do. So the question becomes: Do we build bigger walls or do we build bridges?”

      -- Tim Funk