Bob Smietana is a senior writer for Nashville-based Facts & Trends magazine. He lives in Nashville, Tenn.
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Modern Hymn Writers Revive a Lost Musical Art
Most songwriters in Nashville want to get their songs on the radio. Keith and Kristyn Getty hope their songs end up in dusty old hymnbooks.
The Gettys, originally from Belfast, Ireland, hope to revive the art of hymn writing at a time when the most popular new church songs are written for rock bands rather than choirs.
They’ve had surprising success.
One of the first songs that Keith co-wrote, called “In Christ Alone,” has been among the top 20 songs sung in newer churches in the United States for the past five years, according to Christian Copyright Licensing International. It is also a favorite in more traditional venues — including the recent enthronement service for Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.
Hearing that hymn sung by a boys’ choir with a brass ensemble and thousands of worshippers was a thrill for Keith Getty, a self-described classical nerd.
Fearfully and Wonderfully Made
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Eric and Ruth Brown believe nothing about daughter Pearl Joy's life is a mistake.
They say God gave Pearl her bright red hair and wide blue eyes, as well as the genetic disorder that created a cleft in her upper lip and caused her brain's development to stall in the first weeks in the womb.
"Things didn't go wrong," Eric Brown said. "God has designed Pearl the way he wanted, for his glory and our good."
That belief has sustained the Browns during the past six months, ever since a routine ultrasound revealed that the couple's third child has alobar holoprosencephaly, a rare genetic condition that's almost always fatal. A specialist told the Browns she would probably die in the womb and advised them to end the pregnancy early.
It's one thing to talk about God's will when life is good. It's another when a doctor is saying your baby won't live.
The Browns were forced to consider religious, medical and ethical issues most parents never will. And nobody could make their decision for them.
The Browns never considered abortion. They believe that Pearl is "fearfully and wonderfully made," as Psalm 139 puts it, and God alone should decide when she lives and when she dies.
Seeing Pearl's beating heart on the ultrasound also persuaded them to continue the pregnancy, even if the odds were stacked against her.
"If there is a chance, you say yes to that chance," Eric Brown said. "The only thing I know about parenting is that you say yes."
So far, Pearl has beaten the odds.
Few babies with Pearl's disorder make it to term, and of those who do, only 3 percent survive birth, according to the Dallas-based Carter Centers for Brain Research in Holoprosencephaly and Related Malformations. Pearl has a particularly severe form of the condition, which means her brain never divided into two hemispheres.
She turned 11 weeks old Oct. 12, a milestone that the Browns celebrated by lighting 11 candles and singing "Happy Birthday."
Unitarian Universalists See Chance for Growth in Growth of Secularism
For Nathan De Lee, going to church as a kid was an ordeal.
De Lee, a Unitarian Universalist, grew up in rural Kansas, where members of his faith were few and far between. Attending services meant an overnight trip to Kansas City, Mo., where the nearest Unitarian Universalist congregation was.
Today, getting to church is easy for De Lee, an astronomer at Vanderbilt University. He's a regular in the choir on Sundays at First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, which has a congregation of about 500.
De Lee is one of a growing number of Unitarian Universalists, a group of people who believe in organized religion but are skeptical about doctrine. The denomination grew nationally by 15.8 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.
Religious Labels Matter Less in 2012 Presidential Election
There aren't any white Protestants on the presidential ballot this year — a first in American history.
Instead, the race features two Catholic candidates for vice president, and a Mormon Republican and African-American mainline Protestant for president.
Perhaps lucky for all of them, voters care more about issues such as social justice or gay marriage than they do about denominational brands.
That's particularly true for Republican Mitt Romney and running mate Paul Ryan, who hope to woo evangelical voters that share their values rather than their theology.
It's a situation that probably would have baffled famous evangelicals such as the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, who used the issue of abortion in the 1970s and 1980s to turn evangelicals into a powerhouse voting bloc among Republicans.
"If you had told Jerry Falwell back in 1980 that by 2012 that there would not be a white Protestant on the ticket — he would have died right there," said Shaun Casey, professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.
Muslim Group, CAIR, Regains Tax-Exempt Status
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a national Muslim civil rights group that has frequently drawn fire from conservatives, has regained its tax-exempt status.
The Washington, D.C.-based CAIR and its related foundation were two of about 275,000 nonprofits that lost tax exempt status last year for not filing tax returns for three years in a row. Last month, the Internal Revenue Service sent a letter to the CAIR-Foundation Inc., saying the nonprofit had regained its tax-exempt status.
"We are obviously pleased that all the paperwork issues have been resolved and our tax-exempt status has been restored," said Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for CAIR. Hooper did not know the details of what paperwork, including tax returns, had been filed.
Mormons and Baptists Compete for Converts
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Jake Pulsipher's first day as a working missionary for the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board began at 6:30 a.m. with prayer and exercise, followed by breakfast and study.
Then he put on a black suit, white shirt, and red tie, along with his official name tag, and headed out to knock on doors and tell people about Jesus. In doing so, he became the latest of 20,000 Mormon missionaries in the United States.
Every year, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spend tens of millions of dollars to spread their takes on Christianity. They rely heavily on thousands of faithful volunteers willing to spread out across the country to share their faith.
The two groups are among the four largest denominations in the United States -- Southern Baptists are second and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints fourth, according to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches from the National Council of Churches. The Catholic Church is No. 1 and the United Methodist Church is No. 3.
They are also competitors for converts, says Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
''Methodists are not out knocking on doors. Mormons are,'' he said.
Filmmaker Switches Sides, Now Opposes Mosque
An outspoken supporter of a planned mosque that has sparked opposition in Murfreesboro, Tenn., has switched sides and joined the anti-Islam movement.
Eric Allen Bell, a documentary filmmaker, was a fixture at court hearings and protests over the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro in 2010. Back then, he was making a movie called Not Welcome, which depicted mosque critics as Southern Christian bigots.
Now he says the mosque is part of a plot to destroy America. He claimed the mosque is "built on a foundation of lies" in a recent op-ed piece at the anti-Islam site Jihadwatch.com.
Young Snake Handlers Grasp the Power of Faith
NASHVILLE, Tenn. --- Andrew Hamblin's Facebook page is filled with snippets of his life.
Making a late-night run to Taco Bell. Watching SpongeBob on the couch with his kids. Handling rattlesnakes in church.
Hamblin, 21, pastor of Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette, Tenn., is part of a new generation of serpent-handling Christians who are revitalizing a century-old faith tradition in Tennessee.
While older serpent handlers were wary of outsiders, these younger believers welcome visitors and use Facebook to promote their often misunderstood — and illegal — version of Christianity. They want to show the beauty and power of their extreme form of spirituality. And they hope eventually to reverse a state ban on handling snakes in church.
Uncertain Future for Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land
For the past 24 years, Richard Land has used his folksy charm and fiery rhetoric to become one of the leading voices of the religious right and the public face of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant group.
Now Land's future is in doubt amid an investigation over his remarks about the Trayvon Martin shooting and for alleged plagiarism.
A church committee is scheduled to issue its report by Friday (June 1), and there's a possibility that Land could lose his job as president of the Southern Baptists' Nashville-based Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
‘The Voice’: New Bible Translation Focuses on Dialogue
The name Jesus Christ doesn't appear in "The Voice," a new translation of the Bible.
Nor do words such as angel or apostle. Instead, angel is rendered as "messenger" and apostle as "emissary." Jesus Christ is "Jesus the Anointed One" or the "liberating king."
That's a more accurate translation for modern American readers, said David Capes, lead scholar for "The Voice," a complete edition released this month by publishing company Thomas Nelson. Capes says that many people, even those who've gone to church for years, don't realize that the word "Christ" is a title.
Catholic Group Leaves Vanderbilt Over Membership Rules
One of the largest student religious groups at Vanderbilt University is leaving campus in a dispute over the school's non-discrimination policy that bars student groups from requiring their leaders to hold specific beliefs.
Leaders of Vanderbilt Catholic, which has 500 members, says the rule make no sense. P.J. Jedlovec, the group's president, says the group's meetings are open to all students, but only people who share the group's beliefs can be leaders.
"If we were open to having non-Catholics lead the organization, we wouldn't be Catholic anymore," Jedlovec said.
Anglican Breakaway Groups Confront New Power Struggle
The saga of the Anglican Mission in the Americas sounds like the words to an old country song: "Why have you left the one you left me for?"
Founded by breakaway Episcopal priests who left their former denomination because they felt it was too liberal, the Anglican Mission is now in the middle of another ugly church feud.
Last time the fight was over sex and salvation. Now the fight is over money and power, between the Anglican Mission's U.S. leaders and the overseas Anglican group that adopted them.
"It's like my mom and dad just told me they are getting a divorce," said the Rev. Brian Hardin, pastor of the Four Winds Mission in Spring Hill, Tenn., which is a member of the Anglican Mission.
Peace Be Upon Them
A Tennessee church welcomes its Muslim neighbors.
A Tennessee Church Welcomes its Muslim Neighbors
Rev. Steve Stone was just trying to be a good neighbor.
Two years ago, the pastor of Heartsong Church in Cordova, Tennessee, on the outskirts of Memphis, learned that a local mosque had bought property right across the street from the church. So he decided some Southern hospitality was in order.
A few days later, a sign appeared in front of the church. "Heartsong Church welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to the neighborhood," it read.
That small act of kindness was the start of an unlikely friendship between the two congregations, one that made headlines around the world. Members of the mosque and church have shared meals together, worked at a homeless shelter, and become friends over the past two years. When Stone learned that his Muslim friends needed a place to pray for Ramadan because their building wasn't ready, he opened up the doors of the church and let them hold Ramadan prayers there.
A Token of God's Grace
Nashville's New Groove
A growing number of Nashville-based Christian musicians are discovering that their faith compels them to play and work for social change.
With Eyes to See
Megachurch leaders Kay Waren and Lynne Hybels confront the challenges of HIV/AIDS, personally and globally.