Five story ideas for a faithful December

It’s upon us again — that winter month dreaded by every religion reporter. Do you need a Christmas story idea? Don’t forget Kwanzaa and HumanLight and Secular Solstice and Yule and Festivus, all happening this month. Here are five story ideas to get you going.

The Virgin Mary gets her 15 minutes in the spotlight

The current issue of National Geographic magazine declares “How the Virgin Mary Became the World’s Most Powerful Woman,” with a cover story by Maureen Orth. Is the premise true? Mary is deeply venerated by Catholics but virtually ignored by evangelicals and other Protestants. How is this Jewish teenager perceived by Christians, Muslims and Jews in your area of coverage?


  • Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez

    Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez is an assistant professor of religion at Temple University in Philadelphia. She specializes in American religious history and women and religion. She is at work on The Valiant Woman: The Virgin Mary in Nineteenth-Century American Culture, in which she argues that Mary appealed to both American Catholics and Protestants at a time when the two groups were deeply suspicious of each other.

  • Mary F. Foskett

    Mary F. Foskett is Wake Forest Kahle Professor of Religion and director of the Humanities Institute at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. She has written widely on representations of Mary throughout the centuries, including the book A Virgin Conceived: Mary and Classical Representations of Virginity.

  • Elizabeth A. Johnson

    Elizabeth A. Johnson is a religious sister of the Congregation of St. Joseph and a theologian at Fordham University in the Bronx, N.Y. She is one of the foremost feminist theologians and has written extensively on the Virgin Mary, including the book Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints.

  • Johann G. Roten

    The Rev. Johann G. Roten, an internationally recognized expert on Mary, is director of research and special projects for the Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton, a Marianist Catholic college in Ohio. The library has one of the largest collections of resources on the Virgin Mary in the world, and it posts the “Mary Page” with resources from the library in several languages.

  • Jon M. Sweeney

    Jon M. Sweeney is the author of Strange Heaven: The Virgin Mary as Woman, Mother, Disciple and Advocate. He includes Mary in the Old and New Testaments, in various mystical texts including the Quran and the texts that inspired Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ screenplay, and apparitions and visions, the rosary, feast days and issues of difficult dogma for Protestants, including the Immaculate Conception. He’s also the author of The Pope Who Quit, which tells the story of Pope St. Celestine V. 

Where are all the mainline Christians?

New membership numbers from several mainline Protestant churches show a decline. But a new survey from LifeWay Research shows that many people — even “nones” and atheists — take a seat in a church pew on or around Dec. 25. What accounts for this? A desire to please family? Sentimentality? Or something deeper? In what ways can churches respond meaningfully to these particular visitors, and how might that differ from outreach to the crowd traditionally referred to as “C and E” (Christmas and Easter) worshippers? And where are the nominal Christians the rest of the year? Why aren’t they going to church?




  • Nancy Ammerman

    Nancy Ammerman is professor of sociology at Boston University and a leading expert on congregational dynamics, especially in mainline Protestantism. She is the author of Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life and Pillars of Faith: American Congregations and Their Partners. She is also an expert on religious movements and has written about the rise of fundamentalism.

  • Diana Butler Bass

    Diana Butler Bass is an author, speaker and scholar who specializes in American religion and culture. She is the author of many books, including Christianity After Religion and Grounded: Finding God in the World – A Spiritual RevolutionArrange an interview through Melinda Mullin at HarperCollins.

  • Warren Bird

    Warren Bird is director of research and intellectual capital for Leadership Network, a nonprofit organization that works to foster Christian leadership, innovation and church growth. He has studied and profiled many of the nation’s biggest and fastest-growing churches and is a co-author of A Multi-Site Church Road Trip: Exploring the New Normal. Bird’s dissertation in 2007 examined whether megachurches foster “spectator religion”; he concluded that they don’t. Bird lives near New York City.

  • Ian Markham

    The Very Rev. Ian Markham is the dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary. He is an expert on mainline Christianity, and he wrote a book, with the Rev. Martyn Percy of Oxford, called Why Liberal Churches Are Growing. Markham is also the author of Against Atheism: Why Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris Are Fundamentally Wrong.

  • Joerg Rieger

    Joerg Rieger is a professor of constructive theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He is an expert on mainline Protestant denominations and says some of those churches, while they do not teach a prosperity gospel, share a “prosperity mentality” when they preach that “good things happen to good people.”

  • Mark Tooley

    Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, a faith-based organization that tracks how Christian denominations respond to issues such as religious liberty, LGBT rights and immigration and often advocates for a more conservative approach.

  • John Vaughan

    John Vaughan is the founder of Church Growth Today, a research and consulting organization based in Bolivar, Mo. Its Megachurch Research Center has been studying U.S. and global megachurches since 1985. His books include Megachurches & America’s Cities: How Churches Grow.

  • Jeffrey Walton

    Jeffrey Walton is communications manager for the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. where he often writes about the Anglican and Episcopal churches.

The rise of the anti-holiday card

Scrooge knew Christmas was a humbug, but now greeting card companies are picking up the idea with cards that feature greed, guns, depression and even bodily functions as a way to say “Merry” and “Happy.” What gives? Here are some card companies with anti-joy cards.


  • Peggy Levitt

    Peggy Levitt is a professor of Latin American studies and sociology at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., and an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. She is the author of several books, including God Needs No Passport: Immigrants and the Changing American Religious Landscape

  • Karal Ann Marling

    Karal Ann Marling is a professor of art history at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis-St. Paul. She has written about religion and Disney, the American highway, Elvis, Christmas and the Vietnam Memorial.

  • Ira Mehlman

    Ira Mehlman is media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. FAIR advocates for changes in immigration law that would reduce the number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States. Mehlman contends that Jews could face increased anti-Semitism if more immigrants are allowed into the U.S. Contact Mehlman through FAIR press secretary Cassie Williams.

  • S. Brent Plate

    S. Brent Plate is a professor of religious studies at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. He has written about religion, art and visual culture. Religions, he notes, discuss the creation of the world, and films work on re-creating the world. He’s interested in how film has “come down” off the screen and infiltrated rituals. His books include A History of Religion in 5-1/2 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses; Religion and Film; The Religion and Film Reader; Blasphemy: Art That Offends; Re-Viewing the Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics; and Representing Religion in World Cinema.

Green Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa?

Climate change has been a hot topic this year, with Pope Francis’ encyclical and the Paris COP21 talks. How are people in your area of coverage reducing their carbon footprint or waste during December? Did their faith motivate them?


  • Ellen Bernstein

    Ellen Bernstein is founder of Shomrei Adamah, the first national Jewish environmental organization, founded in 1988.  She is author of The Splendor of Creation: A Biblical Ecology and numerous articles on Judaism and ecology.  She teaches at Hebrew College in Newton, Mass., and consults in the area of religion and ecology.

  • Steven Bouma-Prediger

    Steven Bouma-Prediger is the author of For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care. He is a professor of religion at Hope College in Holland, Mich., where he leads the environmental studies program.

  • John Grim

    John Grim is a senior lecturer and senior research scholar at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. Grim earned his doctorate in the history of religions and is a co-author of Ecology and Religion.

  • Jonathan Merritt

    Jonathan Merritt writes and speaks extensively on faith and culture and is a senior columnist for Religion News Service. Merritt’s books include A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars and Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined. He can discuss the viewpoints and concerns of young evangelicals on a range of issues, especially on sexuality and sexual identity and the environment. He lives in Brooklyn. Contact through his website.

  • Sarah McFarland Taylor

    Sarah McFarland Taylor is an associate professor of religion at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She is the author of Green Sisters: A Spiritual Ecology, about the growing number and strength of environmentally activist Roman Catholic nuns. She is at work on Green Convergence: Religion, Environment and Popular Culture and has also written about creation spirituality; the Gaian, or Earth-based, Mass; the idea of the eco-church; and the general “greening” of religion in America. She teaches several courses on religion and ecology.

  • Mark I. Wallace

    Mark I. Wallace is a professor of religion at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pa. He is the author of Finding God in the Singing River: Christianity, Spirit, Nature, among other titles.

The rise of the nonbeliever’s holiday

There are more December holidays than just Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. A number of holidays for nonbelievers have cropped up in recent years, some driven by organizations — American Humanist Association’s HumanLight — and some by creative individuals — Raymond Arnold’s Secular Solstice. Then there’s Newtonmas, inspired by the television series The Big Bang Theory. What are nonbelievers looking for in these observances? How popular are they? Why do they borrow many of the trappings of religion?


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