Thirty religion writers walk into a karaoke bar.
Sounds like the opening line of a joke.
Better yet, this was in Las Vegas, as the after-party of the Religion News Association’s annual conference. That’s right, the RNA chose to meet in Sin City. The sharing of video clips from that outing disproves the advertising slogan “What Happens in Vegas Stays In Vegas.”
This is a group that believes “Religion is always in the room,” so when one of their own belted out Don McLean’s “American Pie,” the assembled chorus added extra emphasis to this stanza:
Did you write the book of love
And do you have faith in God above
If the Bible tells you so?
Do you believe in rock and roll?
Can music save your mortal soul?
And can you teach me how to dance real slow?
The conference opened with an overview of anti-Semitism in the United States and abroad, and one of the concluding sessions offered guidance on how to cover horrific events, including the October 2018 massacre of 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
The topics in between ranged from “Saving Souls in Sin City: The Secret Life of Ministry in the Party City” to “High Church? Marijuana, Mushrooms and Drug Related Religious Activism” to “The Whistleblowers,” women who have called out sexual abuse by clergy. Other panels dealt with the use (or misuse) of sacred texts in the immigration debate, the spiritual tendencies of the millennial generation, the challenges of telling stories of faith on television and video, and the role of religion in reporting on abortion and reproductive rights.
RNA members reject the admonition that religion, like politics, should not be discussed in polite company; indeed, they contend that society can only benefit from more reporting on issues directly or indirectly related to religion/faith/spirituality/belief (or non-belief).
As for this year’s venue, Rabbi Sanford Akselrad of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, Nev., told the panel on “Saving Souls in Sin City” that the glitz of the Strip and the gaming industry aside, he has a regular congregation, no different than one in, say, Cleveland.
Even as a couple of hundred admitted “religion nerds” gathered in a casino-hotel, down the hall seemingly a couple of thousand men and women were hoofing away at the 2019 Vegas Dance Explosion, billed as the world’s largest line dance event. Perhaps not coincidentally, on Saturday morning, a large circle was being instructed in dances set to the tunes of “Shabbat Shalom” and “Mayim, Mayim.”
I remain critical of national Jewish organizations for their absence at the RNA conference. They continue to miss an opportunity to present themselves to an audience with a natural bent toward the subject of their work.
The American Jewish Committee did step up this year, to sponsor that opening day bagels-and-lox breakfast session on anti-Semitism. “We are at a tipping point in America. Which way are we going to go?” said Rabbi Noam Marans, AJC’s director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations. “It’s ultimately about all of America coming together to prevent this, because the disease of anti-Semitism is not a disease that stops with the Jewish people. It’s a disease that ultimately inflicts itself on all of society and destroys it.”
The most consistent Jewish presence in recent years has been Chabad Lubavitch, an organization that understands the benefits of outreach. For the third consecutive year, media staff from Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn hosted a Friday evening Shabbat meal, a heimish gathering of a dozen journalists who are Jewish and several who are not, the latter wanting to experience a religious practice different than their own.
In full disclosure, I am a member of RNA and serve on the committee that planned the Las Vegas panels and soon will begin work on next year’s conference near Washington, D.C. – a city of sin in its own right.
The 2020 meeting will take place two weeks before the election, so the intersection of politics and religion will surely be on the agenda. But I’ve been thinking that, with a nod to that evening at Dino’s Lounge in Las Vegas and the singing of “American Pie,” maybe we should also have a panel titled “Can music save your mortal soul?”