By Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty

Devoted to “public religion” or “religion-in-public,” the publication Sightings surveys public arenas that are not confined to the political world. Education, commerce, entertainment and the arts represent spheres where publics encounter religion.

The arts, which deserve more attention than Sightings gives them, have an important place in the Marty household. A favorite topic at home at the moment is Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites. Wife, Harriet, prepped for a recent broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of the Dialogues by spending months studying George Bernanos’ French-language text (which Poulenc set to music).

The April issue of Opera News was much devoted to this religion-themed opera. When Harriet and I read this issue, we were struck there by “Coda: Grace Notes,” a surprisingly personal column written by Brian Kellow. He tells the story of his almost life-long atheism or religious indifference and his lack of preparation for the profound “Grace” themes in Poulenc’ work.

Unexpectedly, in the penultimate paragraph of his Opera News column, Kellow writes: “When I turned fifty, I became a Catholic, something that stunned several friends and family members.” More: “Perhaps because I do not find getting older a place of refuge or peace, I still view the promise of grace…as an immensely powerful idea.” This month Kellow will attend a performance of Carmelites for the first time as a Catholic and wonders: “Will this make any difference in how I respond?” Read More…


By Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty

Three “War College” scholars, in the Spring 2013 issue of Daedalus (see reference), discuss some of the reasons why the military wins more confidence than other American institutions. The military is not our subject; those authors may be biased because of their vocation and location, and we may lack full confidence in Harris and Gallup and Pew and other measurers of opinion. Still, even if statistics strung out in editorials can weary the eye, they do tell us something. In our case, the “War College” authors drew on a Harris poll conducted two years ago. Let’s look at what this poll turned up about “Organized Religion” to see if there are insights or lessons for those who care about religion in American life.

In the Harris poll, 57 percent of those questioned had “a great deal of confidence” in the military, and only 10 percent had hardly any. “Small business” came in second, while “major companies,” “Law firms,” “The press,” “Wall Street” and “Congress” evoked the least confidence; they came in 12th to 15th. We keep our eye on “Organized Religion,” which came in sixth. As for “leaders in institutions,” the military rated highest, while religious leaders attracted “a great deal of confidence” among 22 percent. But here’s a slide: In 1966 religious institutions inspired high confidence among 41 percent of the people, that “high” figure dropped to 22 percent by 1980, near where it still hovers today.

These instruments are not sufficiently fine-tuned to be used to ascertain what factors contributed to declines in confidence shown the favored or the unfavored. So one cannot find here what the usually highlighted features in each decline were. Look elsewhere to see what “clergy abuse” has done to inspire loss of confidence. We can speculate about other contributors: mass media focus on frailty, some financial criminality or sloppiness, sharpening suspicion among “nones” and “secularists” and “drop-outs,” distorted vision among the cultured observers, etc. Read More…


By Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty

News of theological seminaries does not usually appear in public media unless someone who is part of one of them creates scandal — sexual or financial, since even heresy rarely gets covered in contemporary America — and cannot go unnoticed and not-covered. This week, therefore, this e-column has to take on a different character; for the first time its editors ask subscribers first to read the longish source, the Inside Higher Ed article, “The Struggling Seminaries,” whose link appears at the end of this Sightings, and then read the rest of this effort to provide context.

Why the shuffling of feet, clearing of throat, and doing this explaining? A simple reason: Sightings is devoted to the public faces of religion, and seminaries get dismissed as having effects only on private religious life in sectarian concerns. Such dismissal results from acts of overlooking or mis-defining the roles of theological and ministerial education. Because of denominational divisions, misunderstanding of who seminary graduates are and what they do and where they fit in the public life of a nation described as “pluralist” and “secular,” they can be passed by news analysts and the public.Then one thinks of this: hundreds of thousands of seminary graduates are priests, pastors, ministers, chaplains, teachers, administrators, and “lay” leaders in crucial places and spaces. As we write this week, some African-American pastors and the Roman Catholic cardinal in our town, Chicago, are forming a coalition to try to stem the tide of support by other clergy and congregations for gay marriage legislation. Other weeks it is the supporters who are central to or at the edge of pro-gay marriage moves. So it is on scores of issues. How these religious leaders are trained — most of them are seminary graduates — has something, usually very much, to do with their exercise of ministry. Read More…

By Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty

Forget, for the moment, popes and budgets and March Madness, shall we? This week we dispense with headlines and blogs and releases, unless the latter are three-hundred or three-thousand years old. The week’s calendar notifies believers and everyone else of Passover for Jews and Easter for Western Christians, plus Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. They have in common what one notices about most profound and remembered religious festival stories. Each has a dark side, a shadow which never permits the observant to settle simply for superficial giddiness or glee.

We leave to theologians, liturgical experts, and psychologists some elaborations of the fuller implications of what we cannot evade. For Jesus-people, they begin with the story of King Herod killing the innocent children in Bethlehem. Some complain that it ruins the Happy Holiday spirit. Yet the dark side of the festival stories are integral to the whole. Profound religious events and texts are in part disturbing, the scholars remind us, because they deal with magnifications of real life, including its nether sides. Their realism suggests honesty writ large. Read More…