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Updated: 26 min 24 sec ago

The Marine, the Muslims and the school: a tale of spinning news

2 hours 45 min ago

Some news stories are like Rorschach inkblot tests, with various people seeing them through different lenses. Unfortunately, some of those people are editors and reporters -- especially on hot-button issues like Islam, education and patriotism.

A major example this week is a row in La Plata, Md., where Marine veteran Kevin Wood angry over a history lesson about Islam. Wood asked for an alternative assignment for his daughter; the school said no, they argued, he got insulting, then he was banned from the campus.

This all got tangled, of course, in other issues: academic freedom, separation of church (or mosque) and state, equal treatment for all religions, etc. The right-tilt might have been predictably filled by Fox News. But in fact, the network didn't hyperventilate:

Kevin Wood told MyFoxDC.com that he went to La Plata High School in La Plata, a town about 30 miles southeast of Washington, and challenged a history assignment requiring students to list the benefits of Islam. He said the meeting with the vice principal got heated; the school said he made a threat and banned the Iraq veteran from school property."[Wood] was threatening to cause a disruption or possible disruption at the school," a district spokesperson said.Wood did not deny getting worked up over the issue, but said he was standing up for the Constitution and is against any religion being taught at the public school.

One Fox coup: citing a copy of the homework assignment asking, "How did Muslim conquerors treat those they conquered?" The "correct" answer, the station says, is, "With tolerance, kindness and respect." You can see how a Marine who'd fought in Iraq would get upset over that.

But Fox didn't get Wood on camera, and didn't say why. Fox did get him on phone, but only his wife went in front of the lens. Fox also erred in quoting Mrs. Wood -- "We cannot discuss our Ten Commandments in school but they can discuss Islam's Five Pillars?" -- without checking with the school.

The Blaze, though, rants on dad's behalf, starting with the headline: "Fed-Up Marine Dad Confronts School Officials Over Daughter’s Mandatory Islam Assignment — Here’s How They Responded." It continues:

Kevin Wood, a Marine Corps veteran who fought and lost friends in Iraq, says he complained to school officials at La Plata High School in Maryland after his daughter was given a mandatory homework assignment about the religion of Islam. However, his request for an alternate assignment was denied and he was reportedly banned from his daughter’s school entirely.The assignment in question reportedly required 11th grade students to write a three-page essay about the “five pillars” of Islam, Mecca and Mohammed.“I don’t agree with it,” Wood told Fox News in a phone interview. “You can’t study God or Christianity in school. You’ve got atheist suing schools for saying ‘God’ in the pledge and not being able to say prayers before football games, but we can force-feed our kids Islam.”

Makes him sound like a nice guy. But as you'll see, he said more than "I don’t agree with it."

United Press International really sounds nasty, with a headline, "Islamophobic ex-marine banned from daughter's high school for threatening teachers." At least, that's what shows on a Google search. But click the item, and you get a tamer head: "Father upset over Islam history lesson barred from school over threats."

Either way, UPI favors the school:

A former corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps has been banned from the campus of his daughter's high school, accused of threatening administrators in the course of a rant about the school's history curriculum.On Thursday, La Plata High School administrators issued a no-trespass order for parent Kevin Wood, after the eight-year Marine threatened to come to the school on Monday and create an unspecified disruption if Islam and related topics were not removed from his daughter's 11th-grade history class.

The UPI story cites and links to the Fox News piece and one by SoMdNews, neither of which has an inflammatory headline. So who added "Islamophobic ex-marine"? Google? A UPI editor? Some SEO wonk?

The taproots for most of these articles seem to be the Fox and SoMd News versions. At more than a thousand words, the latter has the most on the flap. The outlet, a joint website of four newspapers, is more and less enlightening than the others.

On the one hand, it's more direct in what Wood said: that he told the vice principal she could "take that Muslim-loving piece of paper and shove it up your white ***."  On the other, the newspaper says the school claimed that Wood "threatened to upset the school environment" -- but didn't press the school on what Wood said he was going to do so.

SoMd also cites a school spokeswoman saying that the curriculum has students learn parts of Christianity when studying the Renaissance era, and Buddhism and Hinduism when learning about China and India.

Yahoo Parenting quotes Wood's wife that the husband had vowed to "bring down a sh*t storm on the school." However, she said, he was threatening only to muster an attorney and the media against the school.

But I have to give a bronze star to WUSA9, a Gannett station in Washington, D.C., -- and not only for getting Kevin Wood on camera today. Wood tells the station that if the school teaches Islam, it should teach about the deeds of modern jihadis. "They're just teaching, 'Oh, it's peaceful.' And it's not peaceful," he says.

I also liked how the station quoted a parent who sided with Wood, although it got two who had no problem with the school assignment. It also asked someone at the Council on American-Islamic Relations; she predictably says that violent Muslims aren't following true Islam and that reactions like Wood's are part of a "growing anti-Muslim sentiment" in America. (At least she didn't say "Islamophobia," like the UPI headline.)

And I respected how WUSA9 the station links to three photos of the actual assistant.

What a novel idea: letting us hear opposing comments, then read the assignment and judge for ourselves. It's miles better than putting an inkblot, so to speak, on journalism.

Categories: Main

Concerning RNS, monkey business and early decisions made by the creators (small 'c') of GetReligion

5 hours 20 min ago

Veteran Religion News Service Editor Kevin Eckstrom has written a lengthy response to Dawn's current post that ran under the headline, "Religion News Service monkeys around with the Pope Francis evolution speech."  Rather than leave his letter in the comments pages, where few will see it, we will do what we have done several times in the past with letters of this sort (from journalism professionals) and pull it out front for all readers to see.

I'll offer a few words of response at the end. But first, let me note that -- due to no fault of her own, it was a software issue -- Dawn's post ran late in the afternoon, rather than at 9 a.m. She was also in graduate school classes during the day and could not do significant changes to her post after the RNS correction ran. Thus, she added a quick reference to that development at the end, several hours later. This timing issue affected content.

All of the GetReligionistas have full-time work in other jobs and that affects when we write and what we are able to write. Alas, that is normal these days. All journalists in the Internet age, especially in small newsrooms, are swamped and stressed and this affects digital journalism in many, many, ways. Many bloggers are swamped in OTHER JOBS and blog when they can. That is certainly the case around here.

Now, here is Eckstrom's comment:

You, Mohler and others imply that RNS intentionally misrepresented what the pope said. That's not at all true, and you have no basis for that accusation.

-- Here's what happened. The copy that we received from Josephine did not include the term "demiurge." In a bid for clarity, she translated "demiurge" as "divine being," which is close but obviously not close enough. In fact, she asked 6 other reporters in the Vatican press office how to translate the concept into English, and nobody knew. (For what it's worth, when I queried 10 people in the states later about this, nobody here knew what it meant either. I'll admit I didn't even know it was a word.)

-- The official Vatican translation, which included "demiurge," did not come out until the next day. In other words, there was no official transcript against which to compare Jo's translation.

-- Mohler completely read way more into the text than was there. Trust me, if we honestly thought the pope was denying the divinity of God, that would have been an above-the-fold screaming headline. That's obviously not what he meant, and not what we reported, intentional or otherwise.

-- At no point did Mohler -- or the Vatican -- ever request a correction. Yes, Mohler's office did contact Jo about the translation, but it was never more than that. All of this took place on email. Never once did they contact an RNS editor to either express concern or ask about a correction/clarification.

-- All of Mohler's and your angst about this took place on Twitter. Maybe this is surprising to you or others, but we here at RNS don't live and breathe on Twitter. Rather than ranting about a supposed RNS bias that doesn't exist, perhaps you could have contacted us in the real world to ask what was going on or request a correction. But you kept this all to vindictive 140-character tweets that not only questioned our motives, but did so without an ounce of evidence for what was really going on.

-- When this finally reached my desk, we investigated swiftly and issued a clarification, both online and to our subscribers. I'm sorry you disagree with our use of [demigod], but the experts we consulted agreed it was an agreeable term, to put in brackets, to help the reader understand an obscure term like "demiurge."

I know GetReligion is a place where shots are fired before questions are asked -- I've come to expect that. And I know y'all love to crow about responsible journalism without practicing it yourselves. That's your prerogative. But to insinuate that we have some kind of rogue agenda, or that we're purposely misquoting THE POPE to suit our own ends, without any evidence in fact, is not only irresponsible but it's reprehensible. Our biggest sin here is that this editor had never heard the term "demiurge," and a dictionary check failed to shed any light. Fine, guilty as charged. Should have taken that undergrad philosophy class.

But to claim, without any basis in fact, that we did intentionally, and then tried to cover it up by not correcting it, is pretty low, even by GetReligion standards.

One last question: You cite Elizabeth Dias' piece in TIME about how the media totally missed the boat on the larger pope/evolution story -- that what the pope said about evolution and creation was not "new" Catholic teaching. I agree, except that the RNS story ("demiurge" notwithstanding) was one of the few that actually did point this out, and in fact we went out of our way to add background about previous popes and evolution to show that this was not a break with the past. So while the whole demiurge element was (literally) lost in translation, the thrust of the piece was solid.

Kevin Eckstrom / RNS

As a response, let me first share an anecdote from last week during the Synod on the Family wars, which also led to commentary here that in part involved RNS. While working on a synod column for Universal, I called up a priest and scholar here in Beltway-land for a background talk related to my piece, basic fact-checking.

He made an interesting comment. When the "seismic change" furor began in the New York Times and elsewhere he just stopped reading the news report and decided, he said, that he would "wait until the translations came out." In other words, he didn't get all of that hot and bothered because he knew the early news would be based on rushed translations. Period.

To some degree, that is part of what happened with the RNS story. The story did say -- the literal meaning of the words in print -- that the pope was not "a divine being" and people reacted to the literal meaning of those words. Even in its current correction, RNS is struggling to find words that capture -- in ordinary English -- what the pope was saying. But journalists don't have the ability to wait for the real translations, in cases like this.

The pope saying God isn't really God, yet still is the creator is a strange set of ideas. Thus, the enraged reactions and the eventual correction.

Dawn, in what I must assume was the phrase that most upset RNS leaders, stated: 

For RNS to not only put the words "God is not a divine being" in the pope's mouth but also refuse to correct its mistranslation would therefore be simply irresponsible.

That's strong, but her point was that the words "not a divine being" did not come out of the pope's mouth and, thus, someone had to have put them there. They should have been corrected promptly or, from our perspective, never published in the first place (however, see the above references to journalists being really rushed, understaffed and being forced to deal with bad or nonexistent translations).

One final comment: When GetReligion.org began, co-founder Doug LeBlanc and I faced a decision on a crucial aspect of our work. We decided that we would -- writing as commentators and opinion writers, as opposed to news writers -- dissect the work published by mainstream newsrooms.

Would we try to call newsrooms and do basic reporting about the whole who, what, when, where, why and how in the stories -- good and bad -- that we discussed? We decided the answer was "no" -- because we felt that if we did that in some cases we would need to do it in all cases, in the name of consistency. There was no way we could do that.

Movie critics rarely, before writing a review or critique, call up directors and screenwriters and say, "What in the world were you thinking when you wrote the plot of Mission Impossible?" 

We are a media criticism site, for better and for worse. We do occasional pieces on issues related to the craft -- think 5Q+1 and the work (which we hope expands) of Richard Ostling. We are also more than happy, even when the correspondence is a bit tense, to hear from journalists and to print their comments. Thus, we are doing that once again.

Categories: Main

Speaking of religion and politics, this is not your run-of-the-mill cause for pastor activism ...

9 hours 2 min ago

Same-sex marriage. Abortion. Liquor by the drink.

It's not uncommon for pastors to speak out on controversial public issues — be it from a strictly moral perspective or a political angle.

But this one, courtesy of Kentucky's Lexington Herald-Leader, is new to me (even though I live in a state where the deceased have been known to turn out in large numbers for elections):

There's no "Thou shalt not" on vote buying in the Bible, but it's a sin nonetheless, according to a group of Magoffin County pastors trying to discourage the pernicious practice in a place where it has long corrupted the fabric of politics.The ministers have asked local candidates in the general election to make a public pledge not to buy votes or provide money for others to buy votes for them, and to report anyone who buys votes for them to Attorney General Jack Conway's office.The local Salyersville Independent newspaper has been running a copy of the pledge in the paper with the names of those who have signed, and posting photos of the signed pledges on its Facebook page.

Keep reading, and the Herald-Leader provides a nice piece of religious imagery, straight out of Exodus:

Judge-Executive Charles "Doc" Hardin said nearly every candidate for local office has signed the pledge, himself included.Justin Williams, who pastors Lakeville Baptist Church and helped organize the effort, said the hope was that the pledge "will ultimately lead to a day that when I take my daughters to vote for the first time, that vote buying will be a distant memory in Magoffin County."That wouldn't qualify as a miracle on the order of parting the Red Sea, but it would be remarkable.A local lawyer once described Magoffin County as the "vote-buying capital of the world" — quite a claim in a region long plagued by candidates buying votes with money, liquor, drugs or power over jobs.

Later in the story, the Kentucky newspaper does a good job of explaining — from a biblical perspective — the pastors' position:

Williams said he and other ministers often get questions about their views on scriptural matters. After the primary, and with the general election approaching, a good number of the questions were about vote buying, including what the Bible says about it, Williams said.A group of more than a dozen ministers decided to confront the issue with a letter to the newspaper in late September.The letter acknowledged there is no verse in the Bible that says don't buy votes, but the pastors — all from Baptist or other Protestant churches — said there was plenty of Scripture to conclude Christians should not be involved in buying or selling votes.For one thing, it's illegal, and verses such as 1 Peter 2:13-14 make clear Christians are to obey the law unless it conflicts with Scripture, the letter said. Vote buying also constitutes bribery, which the Bible teaches against, and does not show Christ-like behavior, the pastors said in the letter.In addition, vote fraud exploits the poor, which is against biblical teaching, the pastors said.

1 Peter 2:13-14 (New International Version) says:

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.

I thought the Herald-Leader story was fine, especially given newspaper space constraints. 

But as I kept reading the summary of what the pastors said, I found myself wanting to know the exact words they used.

If you, too, are curious, here's a link to the full letter to the editor originally published by the Salyersville Independent.

A couple of representative paragraphs from the letter:

Disclaimer: There are candidates on the ballot who are members of our churches. But this is in NO WAY an endorsement of any candidate on the ballot in the November election.)We begin by saying that vote-buying is NOT explicitly forbidden in Scripture. What do we mean by that? You cannot go to a Bible verse and see the statement: “Thou Shalt Not Buy Votes In An Election.” But just because the Bible doesn’t explicitly forbid something doesn’t give us liberty to do it. For instance, the Bible doesn’t say, “Thou Shalt Not Look at Pornography On The Internet;” but we know — or at least we hope we know — that we are not permitted to look at pornography on the internet just because the Bible doesn’t explicitly forbid it. Vote-buying is the same way: While there is no scripture that explicitly forbids it, there are many Scriptures that, if true (and they are!), make the practice of vote-buying and selling (for a Christian) impossible. Based upon these Scriptures, there are 4 reasons why a Christian should not participate — in any way — in the practice of buying and selling votes.

Once again, we have solid proof that the Godbeat ain't ever boring. I can't afford to pay you for it, but can I get an "Amen?"

Categories: Main

Religion News Service monkeys around with Pope Francis evolution speech

Thursday, October 30, 2014

If the mainstream media had a mantra these days, it would be "The Pope Is Just Like Us!" A recent variation on the meme of Francis as an earth-shattering revolutionary is the press's guiding interpretation of the pope's address to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences.

As Catholic blogger Damian Geminder observes, MSNBC Community Editor Daniel Berger had "the most popular article on msnbc.com for much of Tuesday, featuring this completely-not-sensationalistic-and-totally-journalistic headline"

Look whose byline is leading the front page of @msnbc ... pic.twitter.com/FclNELJTdL

— danielhberger (@danielhberger) October 28, 2014

No need to give details here on where the MSNBC spin goes off the rails, as Geminder has done a serviceable (albeit highly polemicized) job. So too has Time's Elizabeth Dias, whose story bears the catchy headline "Sorry, But Media Coverage of Pope Francis Is Papal Bull." 

I have praised Dias here before; her work is excellent proof that one does not have to personally sympathize with orthodox (i.e. Catechism-carrying) Catholics in order to do responsible reporting on church issues. Perhaps the New York Times' Ross Douthat had her in mind when he sent out this tweet:

Grateful to the terrible media coverage of @Pontifex on evolution for supplying a sorely needed occasion of Catholic unity today.

— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) October 28, 2014

The core observation of Dias's piece is that

the media has gone bananas in its coverage of Pope Francis.

Dias' words, while borne out by articles such as Berger's, are exemplified most dramatically by the truly bizarre hijinks that the pope's evolution speech sparked at Religion News Service. Granted, the story by Josephine McKenna avoids the "going rogue" angle, but what it did say was far more irresponsible. As you can see from this archived version, it gave a bungled translation that had the pope denying God is a "divine being":

Francis said the beginning of the world was not “a work of chaos” but created from a principle of love. He said sometimes competing beliefs in creation and evolution could co-exist.“God is not a divine being or a magician, but the Creator who brought everything to life,” the pope said. “Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”

Got that? Pope Francis, according to RNS, said, "God is not a divine being." 

If that were a true quote, then, as Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler observed on Twitter, it would be headline-worthy indeed:

It would seem to be big news that Pope Francis believes God is “not a divine being” as this @RNS report quotes him. http://t.co/g7vKFxtC0G

— albertmohler (@albertmohler) October 28, 2014

But what did the pope actually say? The word that RNS translates as "divine being" was the Italian "demiurgo," meaning "Demiurge." Perhaps it's not the most familiar word to your average religion journalist, but a quick online search would have turned up Merriam-Webster's definition, which begins:

1. capitalizeda :  a Platonic subordinate deity who fashions the sensible world in the light of eternal ideasb:   a Gnostic subordinate deity who is the creator of the material world

Here is the key line of the pope's address as it was spoken:

E così la creazione è andata avanti per secoli e secoli, millenni e millenni finché è diventata quella che conosciamo oggi, proprio perché Dio non è un demiurgo o un mago, ma il Creatore che dà l’essere a tutti gli enti.

 And here is the quote in the ZENIT news agency's translation, with a bit more context:

When we read in Genesis the account of Creation, we risk imagining that God was a magician, with such a magic wand as to be able to do everything. However, it was not like that. He created beings and left them to develop according to the internal laws that He gave each one, so that they would develop, and reach their fullness. He gave autonomy to the beings of the universe at the same time that He assured them of his continual presence, giving being to every reality. And thus creation went forward for centuries and centuries, millennia and millennia until it became what we know today, in fact because God is not a demiurge or a magician, but the Creator who gives being to all entities. The beginning of the world was not the work of chaos, which owes its origin to another, but it derives directly from a Supreme Principle who creates out of love. The Big-Bang, that is placed today at the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine intervention but exacts it. The evolution in nature is not opposed to the notion of Creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.

The context makes it obvious that the pope is not intending by any stretch of the imagination to deny God is a "divine being." He is, rather, denying that God is a demiurge, i.e. lower-case "builder-god" who merely fashions creatures out of primordial stuff and then leaves them to their own devices. For RNS to not only put the words "God is not a divine being" in the pope's mouth but also refuse to correct its mistranslation would therefore be simply irresponsible.

But that is exactly what RNS did -- for forty-eight hours, even as Mohler and others questioned its translation. Not only that, Mohler reported on his radio show yesterday that McKenna staunchly stood by her mistranslation even while acknowledging that "demiurge" was an "acceptable" alternative:

I looked at this story again and again; I read it over and over again, but there is no doubt that this is exactly what RNS reported – that the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church said just Monday. And furthermore, I waited to see if RNS might almost immediately publish some kind of clarification or retraction – it didn’t come. So I asked my office directly to be in contact with reporter to ask if this was a translation issue. Just late yesterday that reporter, Josephine McKenna, reported back saying that she was happy with her translation even though she’s unsure what the Pope intended; in other words, quite explicitly, [she's] sticking by her story. She’s even sticking by her translation.Now we have at least two huge new stories here. The first new story is that the Pope said such a thing. Now let’s just grant for a moment that the Pope almost surely did not mean what the context here seems to imply that he met; what the words themselves even more clearly seem to imply. There must be something else behind this and in the total context of the Pope’s address it appears that what he meant to say was that God the creator, as revealed in Scripture and Christian tradition, is not some kind of blind impersonal mere deity but an intelligent creator who had a plan for his creation. But that’s not what he said, at least not according to the translation and the report offered by Religion News Service.But that leads to the second big news story here. How can it be that a news organization with the scale and scope and reputation of Religion News Service can put out a news report saying that the Pope on Monday declaring that God is not a divine being and there appears to be almost no conversation about it and no demand for clarification? At least, not until we asked for clarification and later yesterday we had a second clarification from the reporter who said that the word ‘demiurge’ used in some other translations would be acceptable. But she continues to stand by her original translation.

As I wrote yesterday on Twitter, McKenna's position simply doesn't make sense. If the translation "God is not a demiurge" is "acceptable," then her translation "God is not a divine being" is not. She can't have it both ways.

A journalistic question: Why is RNS so tied to having the pope say "God is not a divine being" that it let its mistranslation stand? What were they thinking?

As of this morning, the translation has finally been corrected -- sort of. It now reads:

“God is not a demiurge [demigod] or a magician, but the Creator who gives being to all entities," the pope said.

So, we now have the right translation -- but, as though RNS couldn't leave well enough alone, they added a new misinterpretation. A Demiurge is not a demigod. They are two different things.

Honestly, if an interpretation were needed, how hard would it have been for the RNS editors to add the parenthetical "[subordinate builder-god]," or to put an explanatory sentence into the body of the story? Do they really think readers are so stupid as to not grasp the concept? Most of all, why did it take the agency two days -- and a public shaming -- to fix the error?

UPDATE, 10/31/14: See the comments section below for a response from RNS Editor-in-Chief Kevin Eckstrom.  

Image via Shutterstock.

Categories: Main

Looking for spiritual ghosts, as the Ben Bradlee story moves to National Cathedral

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Of course Ben Bradlee was raised as an Episcopalian.

This is Washington, D.C., and he was one of the giants of the city, a titan from his days consulting with (and covering) John F. Kennedy, Jr., to his final years working hard to encourage a new generation of journalists in The Washington Post newsroom as it struggled, like all major media institutions, to enter the uncharted waters of the digital age. He was larger than life and that kind of Beltway story can only end with a funeral in the interfaith, ecumenical, civil-religion holy place called National Cathedral.

The Post team, as it should, has pulled out all the stops in its eulogies for Bradlee, with untold inches of type -- analog and digital -- and numerous multi-media features. And the role of religion? Let's just say that the liturgical elements of this drama didn't go very high in the story. Here is the top of the massive Style section feature on the funeral:

Following a small choir’s soft alto affirmation of America’s beauty, the organ swelled, and the people joined in, and the national hymn that Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee chose for his own funeral filled the cathedral, its pews lined with the powerful and the ordinary.Then a prayer, and two sailors delivering a taut flag to the editor’s widow, and a bugler sounding taps from high in the Gothic rafters, and then, because this was Mr. Bradlee who was being celebrated, a sharp break from the stately and solemn: The band struck up Sousa’s jaunty “The Washington Post” march and Ben Bradlee left the building as he had departed his newspaper on so many nights through the 26 years he led it: electrifying the room just by sweeping through it.

For those interested in religious content, the key question was whether or not this was a formal Anglican liturgy. The story answered that question, but not with details about the content. The story was vague, at every point when specific details could have been used. This summary paragraph said it all:

Mr. Bradlee’s funeral Wednesday at Washington National Cathedral was an exercise in high Episcopal ritual, but also a statement of the man’s irreverence and verve, a joyful cataloguing of the ingredients he used to transform his paper into one of the best: a zest for the great story, a certain swagger and above all, a belief that if ain’t fun, it ain’t worth doing.

If you are looking for the precise, punchy details of the man's life and style, that is what this story is about. Toward the end, it was possible to read between the lines at some of the religious, or perhaps it is best to say "spiritual," realities that loomed over this giant life. The "spiritual" is always mentioned, but never illustrated. The service, readers learn, "mixed the regal and spiritual with the intensely intimate."

That is oh so Washington, D.C. The focus was on what is real, what matters in the circles in which Bradlee was a patriarch. For example, with another fitting reference to the powerful and stylish wife of his mature years, the matriarch of the "On Faith" website:

An Irish tenor sang Barbra Streisand’s “Evergreen,” which was Mr. Bradlee and Sally Quinn’s own love song. Mr. Bradlee had chosen the hymn “Sun of My Soul” (“It is not night if thou be near”), and Quinn selected the readings and liturgy, which included a recitation of the Hebrew Kaddish by Mr. Bradlee’s friend and physician, Michael Newman. (Although raised Episcopalian, Mr. Bradlee kept a ready arsenal of Yiddish insults and endearments. A good story from a Jewish reporter could win the writer the name “Bubbeleh” for at least a few days.) Newman praised Quinn for providing her husband “a good ending, a soft landing.”

It is interesting, of course, to consider the words of the chosen hymns -- in this case both sacred and secular. Who, for example, is the "Thou" -- upper-case "T" -- in the hymn? The Post reports this as "thou" -- lower-case "t."

Sun of my soul, Thou Savior dear,
It is not night if Thou be near;
O may no earthborn cloud arise
To hide Thee from Thy servant’s eyes.When the soft dews of kindly sleep
My wearied eyelids gently steep,
Be my last thought, how sweet to rest
Forever on my Savior’s breast.Abide with me from morn till eve,
For without Thee I cannot live;
Abide with me when night is nigh,
For without Thee I dare not die.If some poor wandering child of Thine
Has spurned today the voice divine,
Now, Lord, the gracious work begin;
Let him no more lie down in sin.Watch by the sick, enrich the poor
With blessings from Thy boundless store;
Be every mourner’s sleep tonight;
Like infants’ slumbers, pure and right.Come near and bless us when we wake,
Ere through the world our way we take,
Till in the ocean of Thy love
We lose ourselves in Heaven above.

Now, here is the big question. In terms of the content of this story, was that the main hymn in the service, or is this meditation from St. Barbra? 

Love, soft as an easy chair
Love, fresh as the morning air
One love that is shared by two
I have found with youLike a rose under the April snow
I was always certain love would grow
Love ageless and evergreen
Seldom seen by twoYou and I will make each night a first
Every day a beginning
Spirits rise and their dance is unrehearsed
They warm and excite us
'Cause we have the brightest loveTwo lights that shine as one
Morning glory and midnight sun
Time we've learned to sail above
Time won't change the meaning of one love
Ageless and ever evergreen

Actually, I am not sure if either of these works represented the actual, newsworthy content -- even in terms of religion -- of this event. No, I would say that the most crucial content that was buried in the story, that truly needed to run higher up in the text, was this:

Rosamond Casey, one of Mr. Bradlee’s stepchildren from the second of his three marriages, read the poem “Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley, which ends with “I am the captain of my soul,” a line she believes he first heard when he was 14, paralyzed with polio. It was a line he often wielded, she said, “as an exhortation or an acclamation of someone he admired, like the plumber in the next room fixing the sink.”

In terms of the spirituality that drives Washington, D.C., this is the "sacred" text that the Post team needed to have put in graphics or in a sidebar. This was the heart of the story:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

Hear that voice? 

Categories: Main

5Q+1 interview: From God and guns to Death Row salvation, JoAnne Viviano excels reporting on faith and values

Thursday, October 30, 2014

JoAnne Viviano covers faith and values for the Columbus Dispatch, a central Ohio newspaper with a daily circulation of 120,000 and an average Sunday circulation of about 230,000.

Her Godbeat writing earned her the 2014 Cornell Religion Reporter of the Year Award from the Religion Newswriters Association. That award honors excellence in religion reporting at mid-sized newspapers.

"I grew up in suburban Detroit, where my mom fostered in me an early love for books by taking me to the library regularly and teaching me to read as a kindergartener," Viviano said.

She received a bachelor of arts degree in English and communication from the University of Michigan ("not very popular here in Columbus!") before starting working as a reporter. She recalls "an amazing mentor there named Jon Hall, who helped me find the confidence I needed to turn my writing abilities into a career as a reporter."

Her first writing job came with her Michigan hometown weekly, The Romeo Observer, followed by stints with The Macomb Daily in Mount Clemens, Mich., the New Haven Register in Connecticut and The Vindicator in Youngstown, Ohio. Along the way, she covered beats ranging from general assignments to municipal governments to state courts to education to crime.

Shortly before a strike hit The Vindicator, she left and earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. That led her to The Associated Press, where she worked for several years, starting in the Detroit bureau before moving to Columbus, eventually serving as a breaking-news staffer.

"I came to The Columbus Dispatch in 2012 because I missed beat reporting and being part of a metro newsroom," Viviano said. "It was a scary choice, with the way the industry has been, but I’m glad I made it. The Dispatch has remained strong and is a supportive, positive place to work."

More congregations consider use of armed guards | The Columbus Dispatch http://t.co/r4bwk3HV

— JoAnne Viviano (@JoAnneViviano) February 1, 2013

Q: What percentage of your time do you spend on the religion beat? What's a typical workweek like for you?

A: As The Dispatch’s full-time faith and values reporter, I spend the bulk of my time on the religion beat. From time to time, I fill in for another reporter or work a weekend general assignment or police shift.

Each week, I am responsible for our Faith & Values pages, which run on Fridays, and generally have two or three stories and a couple shorter items. The pages are a combination of my local work and wire copy. I also write daily stories as news arises and weekend stories that might be more in depth or have a more general appeal.

So I spend my week contacting and visiting sources, researching, scheduling photos and, at times, shooting video to run on the website alongside a story.

Gun classes in the sanctuary? Some churches say ‘Amen!’ | The Columbus Dispatch http://t.co/CeEn6u5l

— JoAnne Viviano (@JoAnneViviano) February 1, 2013

Q: What do you like most about your job? And what do you find most challenging?

A: I feel so fortunate to be a reporter. I enjoy meeting people I’d never otherwise encounter, hearing their experiences and viewpoints and helping them tell their stories. It’s amazing to me that I am able to learn new things every day this far into my career.

I’d say the main challenge of the religion beat is its vastness. Columbus is very diverse, and I still have much to learn. It’s a beat in which you can be tackling a brand-new subject nearly every day.

Firing of Catholic teacher necessary to maintain 'integrity of our faith,' bishop says | The Columbus Dispatch http://t.co/XcqNVcdRip

— JoAnne Viviano (@JoAnneViviano) April 30, 2013

Q: Your winning RNA entry included stories about God and guns, a fired gay teacher at a Catholic school and jailhouse religion involving Death Row inmates. Tell me about those stories and why you considered the topics interesting and/or important.

A: The God and guns stories came in the aftermath of the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. I had heard that some local congregations were considering security issues and had seen a story elsewhere about a church offering concealed-carry classes. I thought it was important to let the community know what measures congregations had been taking or considering to ensure safety and to give a snapshot of how views may differ in our urban, suburban and rural areas.

I learned about the fired teacher after a former student sent me information on a petition and other activities seeking her reinstatement. This was important because it caused great distress and division in the school community where the teacher worked but also across a decent part of the diocese. The difficulty was getting a clear representation of the diocese’s point of view, because they had been sticking to short statements. I was eventually able to get the bishop and the superintendent to sit down and talk with me in order to make the stories more balanced.

The story on Death Row clergy came to me over time as I covered executions for The Associated Press and learned more about them. Then, during my first days on the religion beat in 2013, I contacted a priest who was the spiritual adviser to a man who had just been executed. He replied with a short email telling me that he was too upset by the experience to discuss it. I thought it would be interesting to tell the stories of the people who counsel these inmates and how the death penalty affects them. It took some patience to gain the trust of some of the pastors and to get access to Death Row, but when we did, we were able to get interviews as well as photos and videos to help tell the story.

Clergy help Death Row inmates find faith, peace | The Columbus Dispatch http://t.co/Uvlw6KY4VN

— JoAnne Viviano (@JoAnneViviano) August 19, 2013

Q: Where do you get your news about religion?

A: I keep an eye on various sources, including Religion News Service and a number of faith websites. I also hear from sources at various faith-based organizations and people in the religious community here in Columbus.

The Religion Newswriters Association also has a ReligionLink site that offers resources and an annual conference, where I’ve found peer support and ideas.

Catholic priest forms unlikely bond with Death Row inmate | The Columbus Dispatch http://t.co/3cJJKmTXMs

— JoAnne Viviano (@JoAnneViviano) August 19, 2013

Q: What key religion stories or issues do you anticipate in your coverage area over the next 12 months?

A: Well, there’s a decent chance that Pope Francis may visit Philadelphia next year, so that would involve a great deal of coverage on my part.

In Columbus, there is a growing population of Muslims, so I’ll also be keeping an eye on that increase and reception by the greater community.

Also, I think a lot of stories will come from watching how people of faith negotiate the changes that come with recent rulings on same-sex marriage.

Congratulations to @JoAnneViviano, who won a well-deserved award for religion reporting. http://t.co/9FnGbjqFNd

— Jeannie Nuss (@JeannieNuss) September 22, 2014

Q: Any advice for GetReligion as we endeavor to analyze mainstream news coverage of religion?

A: So many papers have dropped religion reporters, leaving the coverage to others who may not have the time or experience to understand the complexities involved. Also, religion is so prevalent in other beats, from business to sports to government and education. It’s everywhere.

So again, you have non-religion reporters covering religious issues.

Clearly, this isn’t a trend that’s missed by GetReligion. Perhaps it’d be worth exploring ways in which media and others are responding to the trend.

For example, I think RNA has helped by expanding to serve not just religion writers but other writers as well, and various faith-based groups have published guidebooks for the media.

Categories: Main

Posterized Bible covers: Enterprising newsfeature in Nashville Tennessean

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

You hear so much about the "Word of God," it's easy to forget the need for it to look attractive as well. So the Nashville Tennessean showed some alert reporting in its newsfeature on a venerable poster company being tasked with a contemporary Bible translation.

Reporter Heidi Hall took an otherwise mundane announcement and made it into a solid, hybrid business-religion story:

The Common English Bible's Nashville-based distributor contracted Hatch to create new paperback covers showcasing three Scriptures — a fresh look for this Christmas giving season. The 2011 translation replaces anachronistic phrases with the language of today.Its distributor's instruction to Hatch was frighteningly broad: Basically, just do that wonderful thing you do. But artist Amber Richards said she stuck with her employer's archive of text and picture blocks and asked question after question until her design emerged.

Hall, the reporter, spins the story several ways. She cites Hatch manager Celene Aubry noting that both the printer and the publisher, Abingdon, are venerable firms. "When the 225-year-old company wanted a fresh look, they came to the 135-year-old company," Aubry says.

Hall also stirs in a dash of history, noting that Hatch's first project was a flier in 1879 announcing a speech by the famous abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, a Congregationalist minister. So, she says, the Bible project is a homecoming of sorts for Hatch.

As the cover art shows, though, the publisher didn't try for some contemporary look to match the modern-language version of the Bible. Instead, it went retro, with posters of three scripture verses looking like they were printed in the 1890s.

Hall, the writer, explains the thinking behind the choice of three verses:

* For Lent and Easter, Malachi 4:2: "But the sun of righteousness will rise on those revering my name; healing will be in its wings."

* For Nashville -- "Music City" and the home of both Hatch and Abingdon -- Ephesians 5:19: "Speak to each other with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs."

* For a sports reference, suggested by Abingdon senior editor Michael Stephens,
I John 4:7: "Dear friends, let's love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God."

All the covers, of course, are meant to be produced in time for the Christmas season.

There's also a bit of background on the Common English Bible -- produced by 500 translators, reviewers and editors from more than 20 faith groups. The translation is also surprisingly successful -- with more than 1 million copies thus far, according to Hall.

The Tennessean article finishes by comparing the three featured verses with other popular translations: King James Version, New International Version and the fast-rising English Standard Version. It's not a one-to-one comparison, though: For each verse, a different translation is put up against the Common English Bible.

It's a fun read, but a little sparse. I wanted to know more about the look and feel of the new edition. What typography? Will single-column editions be available? Can you get it with standard tools like maps, cross-references, explanatory notes or a concordance? Maybe space was tight that day in the Tennessean. Still, you can't tell a holy book by its cover.

The paper also had a chance for more human interest. Remember how Amber Richards, the Hatch artist, said she "asked question after question" until she decided on a design? Well, what kinds of questions? What designs did she reject? And on what basis did she know the final result was the "right" one?

Finally, the story might have benefited from outside reaction. Pastors or, better yet, lay leaders around Nashville could have looked at the new covers and said if they liked them. Better still, the Tennessean could have just shown the art around a mall. Readers always like to read other readers, you know.

Photo: Banner on the front page of the Nashville Tennessean, showing the three poster-like covers produced by Hatch Show Print for the Contemporary English Bible.

Categories: Main

CNN continues ratings countdown to the death of young Brittany Maynard

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Let's face it. At this point CNN owns the Brittany Maynard "death with dignity" story. At this point, we are watching the final steps by in her pilgrimage to Nov. 1.

As always, when the rules of "Kellerism" journalism are being followed (click here for background on this salute to former New York Times editor Bill Keller), there is no need for any other point of view on this highly divisive issue. It would be hard to do otherwise, when the story literally began with the 29-year-old Maynard writing an exclusive essay for CNN.

This short update is the latest:

Brittany Maynard, the terminally ill woman who plans to take her own life, has checked the last item off her bucket list. She visited the Grand Canyon last week."The Canyon was breathtakingly beautiful," she wrote on her website, "and I was able to enjoy my time with the two things I love most: my family and nature."Photos showed her and her husband standing on the edge of the canyon, hugging and kissing. 

But in real life, there is pain on the other side of these kinds of moments.

But her cancer reasserted itself."Severe headaches and neck pain are never far away, and unfortunately the next morning I had my worst seizure thus far," she wrote on her website. "My speech was paralyzed for quite a while after I regained consciousness, and the feeling of fatigue continued for the rest of the day."

It is especially interesting to note that, once again, there is no need to mention the links between the organization with which she is linked -- Compassion and Choices -- and the earlier end-of-life network known as the Hemlock Society. Note that it would be inaccurate to claim, as some activists do, that the Hemlock Society simply changed into Compassion and Choices. At the same time, it is strange not to mention (perhaps in a story longer than this update) the real connections inside this movement.

In a longer piece in CNN's Maynard campaign, there was a brief glimpse of viewpoints on the other side -- a very brief glimpse.

The so-called "death with dignity" movement is opposed by many religious and right-to-life groups, which consider it assisted suicide. But polls have shown that most Americans support having a say in how they die, especially if the process is described not as doctors helping a patient "commit suicide" but as ending a patient's life "by some painless means.""I think there is something of a movement here," Arthur Caplan, professor of bioethics at NYU's Langone Medical Center, told CNN's Don Lemon. "When you push Americans to say, 'Do you want choice on this matter?' I think a lot of them are going to say yes."When surveyed about why they wished to end their life, Oregon's terminally ill patients said they most feared losing their autonomy as their illnesses worsened.

Actually, I think the first sentence in that part of the story was supposed to say: "The so-called 'death with dignity' movement is opposed by right-to-life organizations and many religious groups, which consider it assisted suicide." I think it is safe to say that there are no right-to-life groups that support "death with dignity." If anyone knows of such a group, please let me know.

The poll results on this issue are, of course, all over the place and the results -- as stated -- tend to vary with the wording of the question.

In this case, I think the language "polls have shown that most Americans support having a say in how they die" is extraordinarily vague, even by CNN standards. A few specific poll questions and specific results would have been nice. You know, as journalism. And if the goal is journalism, it would also help to quote at least one real person -- perhaps a person facing the same life-and-death decision -- who is on the other side of this debate. Maybe a sidebar?

Just saying. That is, if the goal is journalism.

Categories: Main

Is it a fact? Catholic-bred beheading victim James Foley converted to Islam, New York Times reports

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

After James Foley's beheading by the Islamic State militant group two months ago, the American's Catholic background made headlines.

American journalist executed by Islamic State wrote about faith and prayer: http://t.co/yi8ZaNJNNf #religion #journalism

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) August 20, 2014

Slain U.S. journalist James Foley was 'living his faith,' and the media take notice http://t.co/7muMivKAdx

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) August 26, 2014

But in a massive, 5,000-word story Sunday — an absolutely riveting piece of journalism overall — The New York Times reported that Foley converted to Islam soon after he was taken hostage.

EXCLUSIVE: The story of 23 Westerners held hostage by ISIS & their struggle for survival http://t.co/X7dCmfJOqP

— The New York Times (@nytimes) October 25, 2014

The front-page story quoted 19-year-old Jejoen Bontinck of Belgium — identified as "a teenage convert to Islam who spent three weeks in the summer of 2013 in the same cell as Mr. Foley":

Mr. Foley converted to Islam soon after his capture and adopted the name Abu Hamza, Mr. Bontinck said. (His conversion was confirmed by three other recently released hostages, as well as by his former employer.)“I recited the Quran with him,” Mr. Bontinck said. “Most people would say, ‘Let’s convert so that we can get better treatment.’ But in his case, I think it was sincere.”Former hostages said that a majority of the Western prisoners had converted during their difficult captivity. Among them was Mr. (Peter) Kassig, who adopted the name Abdul-Rahman, according to his family, who learned of his conversion in a letter smuggled out of the prison.Only a handful of the hostages stayed true to their own faiths, including Mr. (Steven J.) Sotloff, then 30, a practicing Jew. On Yom Kippur, he told his guards he was not feeling well and refused his food so he could secretly observe the traditional fast, a witness said.Those recently released said that most of the foreigners had converted under duress, but that Mr. Foley had been captivated by Islam. When the guards brought an English version of the Quran, those who were just pretending to be Muslims paged through it, one former hostage said. Mr. Foley spent hours engrossed in the text.His first set of guards, from the Nusra Front, viewed his professed Islamic faith with suspicion. But the second group holding him seemed moved by it. For an extended period, the abuse stopped. Unlike the Syrian prisoners, who were chained to radiators, Mr. Foley and Mr. (John) Cantlie were able to move freely inside their cell.

Given the circumstances, however, should Foley's "conversion" really be presented as a fact? That was my question as I read the story.

Times reader Bob Scrameustache expressed a similar sentiment in a Twitter exchange between him and the writer:

@rcallimachi You really present as a fact the conversion of someone waterboarded, beaten and finally killed by Islam fanatics?! Respect him.

— Bob Scrameustache (@TheDudeParis) October 27, 2014

@TheDudeParis I present this as fact based on numerous and hourslong interviews with people held alongside him

— Rukmini Callimachi (@rcallimachi) October 28, 2014

@rcallimachi Question is: Is it as a fresh muslim convert under duress, or as a lifelong christian that Foley would want us to remember him?

— Bob Scrameustache (@TheDudeParis) October 28, 2014

@TheDudeParis Hostages held w Foley say he was sincere in his new faith

— Rukmini Callimachi (@rcallimachi) October 28, 2014

In a story published Wednesday, Catholic News Service quoted Foley's mother, Diane:

Mother of James Foley says faith, prayers kept her son strong http://t.co/8k1vMokfGx #CNSstory via @thecompassnews pic.twitter.com/rYONDDZ8iD

— Catholic News Svc (@CatholicNewsSvc) October 29, 2014

From the Catholic News Service story:

In 2011, militants loyal to Moammar Gadhafi captured Foley in Libya and held him for 44 days. He later wrote an essay for Marquette Magazine in which he spoke about the power of prayer and how it helped him endure his imprisonment.“I began to pray the rosary. It was what my mother and grandmother would have prayed,” Foley said. “It took a long time, almost an hour to count 100 Hail Mary’s off on my knuckles. And it helped to keep my mind focused.”Diane thinks praying also helped her son maintain hope during his second captivity, she said.“I think that is a fruit of prayer, too, and his faith, that he was hopeful, that he did know … that we were all doing all we could do.”

From there, the Catholic News Service story referenced the Times report:

John and Diane Foley, who are Catholic, maintained that their son’s faith was evident throughout his captivity, though they did not name a specific religion.“Jim prayed often, the other hostages tell us, and when he prayed, he felt the closest to his family. So, we really felt that sustained him,” Diane said. “I’m so thankful that he believed and he trusted that God was with him, so he wasn’t totally alone.”Diane said she believes her son’s faith, and the prayers from people all over the world, gave him the courage to endure and be a positive presence for the other hostages.“Daniel (Ottosen, one of the freed hostages) told us that Jim was pure goodness,” she said. “And that just really meant so much to me as a mom, you know. That even in that dark hole, thanks to the prayers of so many, that Jim was able to reach deep and be a bit of goodness and light.”

I wonder: Was Catholic News Service overly cautious in reporting that Foley's parents said "their son’s faith was evident throughout his captivity, though they did not name a specific religion?" What faith would Catholic parents be referring to?

I also wonder: Why didn't someone ask a terrorism expert about people who convert under torture? How genuine could that be considered? And can you accept the testimony of others who have endured similar tortures? 

The other obvious question: If Foley really converted to Islam, why kill him? More from the Times reporter:

@resist_empire Exactly. They convert them but then kill them like a "kuffar."

— Rukmini Callimachi (@rcallimachi) October 28, 2014

But now it's your turn, GetReligion readers: Did the Times handle the claim that Foley gave up his Catholic faith in the best manner? Do you, like the reporter, accept his conversion as a fact? Why or why not?

Categories: Main

A biblical oldie, but goodie: So who was Cain's wife?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

LIBBY ASKS:

If human origins began with one couple, Adam and Eve, how did Cain find a wife?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

The famous biblical story of Cain, history’s first murderer, includes this old Bible head-scratcher about who his wife could have been. Genesis 4 tells of Cain’s birth, agricultural vocation, rivalry and killing of his younger brother Abel. God curses Cain to wanderings and hard toil in the fields, yet mercifully grants a mysterious “mark” for protection against those who might want to kill him. Cain enters exile “in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” Only then do we learn that Cain is married (verse 17). John Calvin’s classic commentary from 1554 thought the context indicates Cain married in Eden, though others say a wife from Nod is possible.

In the strictly literal reading, after Abel died there would have been only three true human beings, Adam, Eve, and Cain. So, skeptics demand, who was the wife?

At the 1925 “Scopes Trial,” pro-evolution lawyer Clarence Darrow used the wife to ridicule his opponent William Jennings Bryan as he quizzed him about Bible details on the witness stand. (Darrow: “Did you ever discover where Cain got his wife?” Bryan: “No, sir. I leave the agnostics to hunt for her.”) Similarly, scientist Carl Sagan’s novel and movie “Contact” employed Cain’s wife to undermine conservative belief in the Bible.

For modern-day liberals there’s no problem; they figure the early chapters of Genesis are pure myth. Others see some history here but question that Adam and Eve were literally humanity’s first couple. However, Jewish and Christian tradition holds that the Book of Genesis presents humanity’s actual origin with the first parents, Adam and Eve, and Cain as their first child. This sort of historical detail is especially important for evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants.

Ancient Jewish tradition explained that Cain married one of Adam and Eve’s daughters, who are mentioned in chapter 5. That’s the view of the Book of Jubilees (2nd Century B.C.E.), historian Josephus (1st Century C.E.), and the Talmud. Brandeis University exegete Nahum Sarna wrote that “in the present narrative context no other possibility exists.” One ancient midrash named her Awan while ancient rabbinical speculation thought Cain and Abel both married their sisters and Cain killed Abel out of envy and lust because Abel’s wife was more beautiful.

If Cain married his sister, that’s incest. Scandal! The customary explanation is that the Bible didn’t fully define incest alongside other sexual sins till much later, in the time of Moses (Leviticus 18, Deuteronomy 27).

Continue reading "Who was Cain's wife?" by Richard Ostling.

Categories: Main

And this just in! Southern Baptists still convinced Christianity has been correct on marriage for 2,000 years

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

I think it is time for a moratorium on the use of the word "rail" by mainstream journalists, or at least by those who are not writing editorial columns or essays for advocacy publications.

Maybe it is time to say that we should only rail unto others as we would like them to rail unto us.

Now, I know that the word "rail" is legitimate and can be used accurately. I am simply saying that there is a high test for communications that can be accurately described with this word. Consider the following online dictionary material:


rail ... verb (used without object)1. to utter bitter complaint or vehement denunciation ... to rail at fate. complain or protest strongly and persistently about. "he railed at human fickleness"

Elsewhere, you can find synonyms such as to "fulminate against, inveigh against, rage against, speak out against, make a stand against" and so forth. Now, some of those references are fairly neutral and others capture the way this term is commonly used in news reporting. I think "rage against" is the hot-button concept we see the most often.

So with that in mind, consider this USA Today report about the current Southern Baptist Convention conference on the dark side of family life in a post-Sexual Revolution world. Right up front, let me note that the report accurately states that the key to this event is its attempt to look at negative behaviors among straights -- those in pews and those on the outside -- as well as trends among, well, you know, the LBGTQ community.

The story -- under the headline "Southern Baptists laud marriage, only not for gays" -- notes that fact, but finds an interesting way to get to that newsworthy point:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Southern Baptists have railed against the idea of same-sex marriage since it entered mainstream American culture, believing it goes against God's will and serves as a sign of the nation's collapsing morality.Speaker after speaker at an April summit -- the first in modern Southern Baptist history solely devoted to the topic of sex -- repeated the theme of homosexuality's innate wrongness.This week, straight people are getting just as much attention and maybe more. About 1,300 pastors, Christian educators and other interested Baptists are packing "The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage," a conference presented by the denomination's policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Like I suggested earlier, people in public life that journalists embrace tend to "argue" that something is right, or "observe" certain truths to be self evident. Those on the wrong side of issues "rail" against them. They also "believe" that something "goes against God's will" rather than, well, defend 2,000 years of Christian doctrine on a topic.

The key: There isn't a single word in that lede that a journalist would write differently if writing it for The Advocate. I am not, of course, suggesting that a national newspaper, when covering this event, use language that would be used by World magazine or Baptist Press. I am suggesting that there should be some kind of less judgmental, neutral language that would fall in the middle.

As I noted, this short news report did stress that the point of this conference was to look at a wide spectrum of issues in sexual morality. The various sessions on the sins of straights were, however, turned into one-sentence bullet points that flashed by, while the framework for the piece -- truth is (wink, wink), this event was really about gay issues -- remained intact.

Stop and think about that: What would a conservative religious group do if it decided that, rather than continue (if this is the case) to dwell on gay issues, it was time to hold a conference that focused on the sins of the overwhelming majority of people in its own pews and religious culture?

How do you talk about straight sinners and get that very newsworthy topic covered, as news on its own? Is that possible? After all, it would be relevant to far more readers in the context of North America.

That said, let me note the strange headline on this report as it ran in The Nashville Tennessean:  "Southern Baptists laud marriage, only not for gays." Is it all that surprising -- newsworthy, in other words -- that a conservative denomination has decided to affirm Christian traditions on this topic?

With that in mind, please consider an essay that ran recently in The Week. The double-decker headline caught the thesis: 

Why so many Christians won't back down on gay marriageA traditional view of marriage is about much more than today's politics. It's deeply woven into the 2,000-year-old ethic at the heart of our faith.

Now, I do not know the work or the worldview of author Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry and why the word "our" is used in the headline. I do know that this piece is must reading for journalists who -- for the sake of accurate coverage -- want to understand the doctrinal views of the vast majority of the world's Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Pentecostal and Evangelical Christians.

If you fall into that journalistic camp, please attend. First the thesis, looking from the view of those who want to redefine marriage to include same-sex partners:

... (It's) important to understand that this movement is based on a premise that is based on a misreading of history. And this misreading could drive the movement to ends it wouldn't desire.The false premise goes something like this: Christianity, as a historical social phenomenon, basically adjusts its moral doctrines depending on the prevailing social conditions. Christianity, after all, gets its doctrines from "the Bible," a self-contradictory grab bag of miscellany. When some readings from the Bible fall into social disfavor, Christianity adjusts them accordingly. There are verses in the Bible that condemn homosexuality, but there are also verses that condemn wearing clothes made of two threads, and verses that allow slavery. Christians today find ways to lawyer their way out of those. Therefore, the implicit argument seems to go, if you just bully Christianity enough, it will find a way to change its view of homosexuality, and all will be well.

And what's the problem with that?

Christian opposition to homosexual acts is of a piece with a much broader vision of what it means to be a human being that Christianity will never part with. The story Christians have been telling for 2,000 years goes something like this: The God who made the Universe is also, by his very nature, Love, and he made human beings with a very lofty vocation. Humans are meant to reflect His glory in the world; to be like God, that is to say, to be lovers and creators. Everything in the Universe has been put here to be used by God's children to reflect his loving glory -- and to teach them about God's love. This is particularly true, or so the story goes, of the unique sexual complementarity between men and women. The sexual act is meant to reflect God's love by fostering a union at once bodily and spiritual -- and creates new life. The complementarity of the persons in a marriage reflects the complementarity of the Persons of the Trinity, and the bliss of marital union is an inkling of the bliss of the union of the Persons of the Trinity. The fruitfulness of the marriage act reflects that God is a creator and has charged man to be an agent of his ongoing work of creation. And, finally, if God's love means total self-giving unto death on a Cross, then man and wife must give themselves to each other totally -- no pettiness, no adultery, no polygamy, no divorce, and no nonmarital sexual acts. According to the story that Christianity has been telling for 2,000 years, Christianity's view of sexuality isn't some encrusted holdover from a socially conditioned patriarchal era on its way out, but is instead deeply connected to its understanding of who God is and what human beings exist for.

Christianity's opposition to homosexuality is not the product of some dusty medieval exegete poring over obscure Old Testament verses. From the beginning, what set apart the new and strange sect called Christians from the rest of their culture was their strange sexual ethic. They refused polygamy. They refused the sexual exploitation of slaves by their owners. They refused prostitution, premarital sex, divorce, abortion, the exposure of infants, contraception -- and homosexual acts.As the British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe noted, in this Christianity was a great equalizing force: Because of the fact of pregnancy, most premodern cultures enforce sexual restraint on women. Where Christianity's bizarreness lay is that it insisted on the same restraint on the part of men -- whether gay or straight. Christians held a bizarrely exalted view of (lifelong, monogamous, fertile, heterosexual) marriage as reflecting the image of God himself, but, even more bizarrely, held up lifelong celibacy as an even more exalted state of life. From the start, alongside the refusal to worship the Roman emperor as a god and Christians' supererogatory care for the poor, this was what set Christians apart, and goes a long way toward explaining why Pagan writers could scorn Christianity as a religion of "slaves and women."

You don't have to agree with this point of view in the current age. But it is crucial for journalists to understand the doctrinal, the theological, point of view that drives the actions of many small-o orthodox believers caught up in these debates. If the goal is to quote them accurately and, who knows, even to anticipate their actions in future news stories, it helps to know these kinds of facts about history.

Please give it some thought, for the sake of accurate journalism.
 

Categories: Main

New twists in Jahi McMath case -- but same old generic religion in media coverage

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Jahi McMath -- the teenage girl from California whose family is fighting to keep her alive against a hospital's brain-death diagnosis -- is back in the headlines.  Yet, even as Jahi's family says she is showing new signs of brain activity,  there is little sign that mainstream journalists feel the need to exercise their brains when describing the family's faith. Instead, they continue to keep the faith angle as generic as possible, chalking up the persistence of the teen's family to vague "religious grounds."

The San Jose Mercury News begins its story on the latest developments in the McMath case by highlighting the case's novelty:

OAKLAND -- Her attorney calls her "Patient No. 1," a groundbreaking test of widely accepted standards defining brain death as a form of irreversible mortality. Indeed, as far as brain-dead patients go, Jahi McMath has entered uncharted territory.Most families, according to medical experts, come to terms with a medical diagnosis of brain death within days. Loved ones gather to say goodbye as machines are shut off, organ donation decisions are made, funeral services planned.Not so for Jahi, who would have celebrated her 14th birthday on Friday. Almost 11 months after she was first declared brain dead and  became the subject of a national debate, the Oakland 13-year-old remains on machines -- a case unlike any recorded in the United States since the medical establishment first recognized brain death as a form of death in the past century, experts said. ...Jahi's doctors say original tests performed on the girl were accurate but contend that, over time, the swelling in her brain has receded, and tests now show different results. Videos released by Dolan also show her limbs moving when her mother commands her to move.

The story doesn't link to the videos. Here is one in which Jahi appears to kick her foot at her mother's prompt.

The Mercury-News continues:

The tests, according to the doctors' declarations, show Jahi's brain did not liquefy, which is what regularly happens to brain-dead patients within weeks. Her skin, according to [family attorney Christopher] Dolan, remains warm and soft. 

In addition to quoting the family's attorney, the story quotes various experts. The sources seem to have been chosen with care, and the reporter has made a good effort to provide balance. All in all, it's a fine report, save for this factoid that dangles in the air like an unanswered question -- or, to put it in GetReligion terms, a religion ghost

Since January, Jahi has been in New Jersey, where a state law allows families to reject a brain-death diagnosis on religious grounds. But the family says they want to bring her home to her native Oakland.

What, pray tell, are these "religious grounds"? The Mercury News gives no indication, and they're not alone. Reuters used the same vague language when covering the story. Why are journalists omitting giving specific information about the family's faith, when their faith is the very reason they're rejecting Jahi's brain-death diagnosis?

This media avoidance of the religion angle in the McMath case is not new. Tamie Ross observed in this space last January that, despite the family's using social media to request prayers for their daughter and express their hopes for a miracle, no news outlet offered information as to where the family worshiped. 

Could it be that the McMath family really only has some vague, generalized, nonspecific religion?

No -- at least, not according to The New York Times, whose San Francisco bureau chief, Norimitsu Onishi, appears to be the only reporter during the whole 11-month case to have asked Jahi's mother specifics about her faith. Onishi paid due attention to the religion angle when covering the story back in January, providing the needed depth missing from the rest of the media's reports:

Nailah Winkfield, the girl’s mother, said she was hopeful that Friday’s agreement would facilitate her daughter’s move.“I believe in God, and I believe that if he wanted her dead, he would have taken her already,” Ms. Winkfield, a Baptist, said by phone. “Her heart is beating, her blood is flowing. She moves when I go near her and talk to her. That’s not a dead person.”Jahi was admitted to Children’s Hospital last month, and underwent three surgical procedures that included removing her tonsils and adenoids. She subsequently “suffered serious complications” that resulted in her death, according to court documents submitted by the hospital. The family’s lawyer said in a court filing that Jahi suffered “large blood loss and, as a result, she suffered a heart attack and a loss of oxygen to her brain.”The hospital determined two days later that the girl was legally dead, and later sought to remove the ventilator. The family objected, asserting that the heartbeat was proof that she remained alive. In a document filed in Federal Court, the family’s lawyer stated that the girl’s parents are “Christians with firm religious beliefs that as long as the heart is beating, Jahi is alive.”

Got that, media folk? Jahi's mother's Baptist faith -- and her understanding of what it requires -- forms the foundation of her religious grounds for fighting to keep her daughter on life support. It also tells us something about her faith in the power of prayer, which comes through in a recent post she made on Facebook:

 Thank you all for your donations, kind words of encouragement and PRAYER. Please keep praying for Jahi that is the most important thing you could ever give her. I believe more than anything it is the positive thoughts and faithful prayers that have been keeping her going. We will pray for you all as well, thank you.

Image via Keep Jahi McMath on Life Support.

Categories: Main

Los Angeles Times covers grieving students, but where are their voices?

Monday, October 27, 2014

"How do you feel?" It's such a callous news cliché, especially shouted while sticking a mike in someone's face. But let's face it: When people are shot down senselessly -- as five high schoolers were at Marysville-Pilchuck High School near Seattle -- we want to know how their friends are taking it.

Unfortunately, we don’t find out in the Los Angeles Times'  coverage of the church vigil that followed the shooting.

The article sets an appropriate mood at the local Grove Church, crowded with students grieving for their fallen classmates. The Times even notes that students from a rival school were there -- and that the other school canceled and forfeited a planned football game.

The story adds movingly what the shooter, Jaylen Fryberg, really did to the kids:

Each bullet that Fryberg fired tore apart the region's safety and calm. As dusk fell and rain threatened, hundreds of students and parents, teachers and neighbors gathered together in search of solace. There were hymns, prayers and a moment of silence punctuated by tears.There was Scripture: "Come to me all of you who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest."  There was horror. And there was hope."I hate this tragedy as much as any of you," Pastor Nik Baumgart told the mourners who filled the church auditorium and its lobby and flowed out into the parking lot. "I hate what's going on. I hate what we've had to see."And I remember all kinds of times when I've had the same thoughts that you've had about that city, about that situation, about those schools," he continued. "Now that's us. Now that's my alma mater. Here's what we're here to do tonight. It's simple. It's honestly overly simple. Love one another. Weep together."

That's perceptive reporting. The minister doesn't rush to judge or say the dead girl was "in a better place." He just confesses human frailty, and asks everyone to love and weep.

What's missing, then? Voices of those who are grieving. The Times quotes the city's police chief and with a local doctor. It asks federal officers what kind of gun was used. And it cites a statement by the chairman of the Tulalip native American tribe, to whom the shooter belonged. But it adds little from the students themselves. The most is asking a football player about a possible motive for the crime.

The Times seemed to care more about Fryberg's emotional state:

Fryberg, the son of a prominent family in the Tulalip tribe of Native Americans, apparently was distraught over a recent breakup with his girlfriend. His postings on social media suggested that he was upset over personal relationships. “It won't last ... it'll never last,” Fryberg said in his final posting on Twitter on Thursday.Two days earlier he wrote: “It breaks me.... It actually does.... I know it seems like I'm sweating it off.... But I'm not.... And I never will be.”

Look at those details: Twitter, Fryberg's tribe, troubles with his girl. Why wasn’t the Times as curious about how the survivors felt? Or even how many attended the church vigil?

You may have also caught a few flickers of religious "ghosts." To which denomination does Grove Church belong? Why hold the vigil there, instead of a park or community center? Did the kids already know the pastor? And that quote from the Bible -- who said it? Probably wouldn't have shocked anyone to know it was Jesus.

The Times did a little better the next day, talking with a student about another shooting victim, Gia Soriano:

Hailee Simenson, a 16-year-old Tomahawks cheerleader, described Soriano as someone who was "really, really sweet and had a lot of friends.""It's really hard for us," Simenson said hours after the shooting. "We're a close school ... It's scary ... not something I thought would happen at our school."Austyn Neal, a 14-year-old freshman and classmate of Soriano, said the two had been in world history class Friday morning before Soriano was shot.

"She's funny, outgoing," Neal said. "She was shot in the head. It was going around the school and Twitter."

It's all touching, and the Times probably could have got similar quotes at the vigil the previous day.

People magazine  had more, although admittedly a couple of days later. The story mentions the gifts at the makeshift memorial on the chain link fence, and it reports that Gia Soriano died Sunday night of her wounds. And it tells how the shootings have affected the Tulalip:

Earlier Sunday, parents and students gathered in a gymnasium at the school for a community meeting, with speakers urging support and prayers and tribal members playing drums and singing songs. Fryberg was from a prominent Tulalip Indian tribes family.

Young people hugged each other and cried, and speakers urged people to come together during the gathering Sunday.

"We just have to reach for that human spirit right now," said Deborah Parker, a member of the Tulalip Indian tribes.

"Our legs are still wobbly," said Tony Hatch, a cousin of one of the injured students. "We're really damaged right now."

Even better was the treatment in the Seattle Times. It  quotes a number of students about their dead and wounded friends. One visited a memorial site with roses. Another set up a Gofundme.com page for one of the shooting victims -- and was amazed to see it reach his $10,000 goal in seven hours.

Quoted at length was Lukas Thorington, 14:

Thorington is a freshman at Marysville’s other public high school, Marysville Getchell, but Zoe, Shaylee and victim Nate Hatch were classmates of his in earlier grades.He described the teenagers as ordinary, popular kids.“Zoe was very outgoing,” Thorington said. “She was into sports. She was nice and awesome. She was fun to hang out with.”Thorington first heard about the shooting while at school Friday. Since then, his mind has been on his friends.“Last year, in eighth grade, there was a students versus staff basketball game,” he said, recalling that Zoe and Shaylee were both on the girls basketball team at Totem Middle School. “We were all playing basketball that day against the teachers. We won and we were all happy and celebrating.”Thorington called Shaylee sociable and kind. She helped other kids with their problems, he said. The two girls were tight with Nate, a talkative football player and wrestler with a sense of humor.“Nate, he’s really funny,” Thorington said. “It was kind of shocking to me when heard because they were all friends. I don’t know what happened.”

The Seattle story also says several churches plan to keep their doors open as gathering spaces -- even serving free breakfast and lunch, in one case.

See, despite what I said about sticking mikes into faces, people in such tragedies often want to talk out their thoughts and feelings -- if, of course, they're asked with courtesy and sympathy. It's almost like they are determined not to allow shock and horror to have the final word.

As Pastor Nik Baumgart of Grove Church tells the Seattle Times: “The goal is not to provide all the answers, but to gather and let each other know that you are not alone. To be alone you feel like it is 10-times worse. Grief shared makes it lighter — it will help us get through it and not just stew in it.”

Pastors can be vital in getting people through such things. So can media like the Los Angeles Times.

Categories: Main

God news? Pope Francis gets earthy talking about 'family;' mainstream press ignores him

Monday, October 27, 2014

I would have thought that, in the wake of the recent media storm about the Synod on the Family, almost anything that Pope Francis said in public on that topic would be big news in the mainstream press.

Turns out, that is not the case. But I will plunge on. 

What if Pope Francis -- media superstar, par excellence -- even said something blunt and controversial about the meaning of a word like "family"? What if, in said quote, he even used a typically earthy Francis term like "bastardized"? Surely that would draw coverage?

With all of that in mind, consider the top of this Vatican City report from the Catholic News Agency (as opposed to The New York Times, NPR, Comedy Central or something mainstream):
 

In an audience with members of an international Marian movement, Pope Francis warned that the sacrament of marriage has been reduced to a mere association, and urged participants to be witnesses in a secular world.

“The family is being hit, the family is being struck and the family is being bastardized,” the Pope told those in attendance at the Oct. 25 audience. He warned against the common view in society that “you can call everything family, right?”

“What is being proposed is not marriage, it's an association. But it's not marriage! It's necessary to say these things very clearly and we have to say it!” Pope Francis stressed. He lamented that there are so many “new forms” of unions which are “totally destructive and limiting the greatness of the love of marriage.”

OK, that was blunt. Did he get into any specifics?

Noting that there are many who cohabitate, or are separated or divorced, he explained that the “key” to helping is a pastoral care of “close combat” that assists and patiently accompanies the couple.

Notice that these quotes, drawn from a question-and-answer session, actually mentioned several of the most controversial topics from the recent synod. Based on what I am reading, the issue of working with divorces Catholics is actually the topic that, over the next 12 months, stands a good chance of jumping out of Catholic cyberspace chatter and into reality.

Surely it would be news in Pope Francis openly shared some of his views on what has happened to modern marriage -- inside and outside the church?

Consider this CNS material. Would there be a reaction of the pope was quoted saying this in The Washington Post?

... Pope Francis explained that contemporary society has “devalued” the sacrament by turning it into a social rite, removing the most essential element, which is union with God.
“So many families are divided, so many marriages broken, (there is) such relativism in the concept of the Sacrament of Marriage,” he said, noting that from a sociological and Christian point of view “there is a crisis in the family because it's beat up from all sides and left very wounded!”


So what is the key issue here? Why didn't these remarks draw ink?

It's kind of like when the world press rushed to quote this pope saying that the church needed to stop being obsessed with issues such as abortion -- even suggesting that Catholics who continued to speak out on the topic were violating the new "spirit" or "tone" established by Francis. The same journalists were not as interested, a day or three later, when this same pope spoke at a major pro-life gather, offering some very strong words on the materialistic worldview that fuels what Saint John Paul II called the "culture of death."

Pope Francis made these new remarks on the family at a Marian conference, for heaven's sake. Who covers conferences about Mary? That can't be a valid setting for news. Right? And maybe the pope didn't say, well, the right things about the family?

Categories: Main

Ebola-free nurse Nina Pham thanks God, and The Dallas Morning News takes notice

Monday, October 27, 2014

At first glance, nurse Nina Pham's return home to Texas after beating the often-deadly Ebola virus failed to raise my GetReligion antenna.

A medical story? Definitely.

A political story? Perhaps, given Pham's Oval Office hug with President Barack Obama. 

But a religion story? Probably not.

#Ebola nurse Nina Pham back in Texas after getting clean bill of health (and White House hug): http://t.co/8w9P3nIDPa pic.twitter.com/NzUomlFxbo

— Dallas Morning News (@dallasnews) October 25, 2014

The straightforward lede of The Dallas Morning News' front-page story on Saturday gave no indication of a faith angle: 

Nurse Nina Pham, the first person to contract Ebola in the U.S., returned home to North Texas late Friday with a clean bill of health, reassurance from President Barack Obama and the promise of a reunion with her dog, Bentley.CareFlite pilot Jason Davis confirmed about midnight Friday that Pham had arrived at Fort Worth's Meacham International Airport: "She seemed good -- super nice family. She's in good spirits."Pham, one of two Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas nurses who caught Ebola while treating Thomas Eric Duncan, was declared virus-free and sent home by the National Institutes of Health in Maryland. Officials also confirmed Friday that her colleague Amber Vinson has tested free of the disease, but they said they didn’t know when she’d be ready to leave Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.Before Pham visited the Oval Office and got a hug from Obama, she expressed gratitude as she left the NIH facility.

But then I read Pham's own words — the next two paragraphs of the story:

“I would first and foremost like to thank God, my family, and friends. Throughout this ordeal, I have put my trust in God and my medical team,” she said. “I am on my way back to recovery, even as I reflect on how many others have not been so fortunate.”Pham, 26, said she felt “fortunate and blessed to be standing here today,” praised the care she received in Dallas and Maryland, asked for her privacy and said all she really wants to do is come home and be reunited with her 1-year-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel.

After seeing the "God" quote way up high in the Morning News' report, I was curious about two things: 1. Who wrote the story? 2. Would God make just a cameo appearance, or would the newspaper elaborate on the faith angle?

I smiled when I saw the name of the lead writer: Jeffrey Weiss, a Morning News veteran who was one of the nation's premier religion writers during his time on the Godbeat.

Since I know Jeffrey, I couldn't resist asking him about the story. Here's part of what he told me:

That byline was more credit than I deserved. I was rewrite, assembling the story from feeds. But I will say that I absolutely included Pham's God references in part because of my background. She made a point of it so I figured that was worth noting. And I even thought about GR (GetReligion) as I did it. ...I suppose my choice did have something to do with my years of writing about people whose faith was important to them. It was clearly important to her.

As for my second question, the Morning News provided some nice religion details later in the piece:

Parishioners at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Fort Worth included prayers of thanks in their evening Mass on Friday. Pham attended the church growing up, and her family still does.Deacon Michael Hoang said Pham’s mother texted him early Friday with the news that the nurse was going home. He happily started spreading the news among the churchgoers.“Everything happens for a purpose,” Hoang said. “God allowed this to happen so we can recognize all the wonderful people out there … willing to help other people.”After the Vietnamese-language Mass, parishioners lingered to talk about the good news, smiles all around.

 I asked Jeffrey if it was his idea to send a reporter to the church:

Oh, no. We've been on that from the day she was identified.Religion figures have been key in the coverage. Rev. George Mason at Wilshire Baptist was a major player in the coverage of (Ebola victim Thomas Eric) Duncan and his family.Churches have been an important conduit in finding people who know the patients. I had nothing to do with most of this, however. Reaching out to churches and religious leaders just emerged from the reporting. By lots of folks who were not me.

Jeffrey then made a statement straight out of the GetReligion handbook (with no prompting on my part, I promise):

As we've always said, religion is not separate from the news on many stories. It's woven inextricably. DMN cast of thousands did a good job of recognizing the elements as they presented.

Amen. Amen. Amen.

Kudos to Jeffrey and his colleagues for recognizing — and highlighting — the important religion angle on this ongoing story.

No ghosts to see here.

Categories: Main

Baltimore Sun offers another look at generic faith of a key Raven player

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Anyone who is following the Baltimore Ravens knows that one of the most controversial issues looming over the NFL has been the suspension of superstar Ray Rice after a videotaped episode of domestic violence.

Behind the scenes, the team scrambled to replace its star running back. Out of nowhere, journeyman Justin Forsett has emerged as one of the feel-good stories of the year, with the tailback's yards-per-carry average ranking as one of the best in football (even though he is 5-feet-8, 197 pounds).

The Baltimore Sun ran a lengthy profile of Forsett last week and, lo and behold, a major theme in the story was his strong but totally vague faith. GetReligion readers who are into sports, and there are a few of your out there, will remember that the Sun has, in recent years, been amazingly consistent in its approach to players who are religious believers. The bottom line: All fog, with specific details ignored or buried. Clearly, this has become a newspaper policy.

So what are readers fold about the faith of this crucial Ravens player?

The only running backs to gain more yards than Forsett are the Dallas Cowboys' DeMarco Murray (785 yards), the Pittsburgh Steelers' Le'Veon Bell (542 yards), the Houston Texans' Arian Foster (513 yards) and the Philadelphia Eagles' LeSean McCoy (422 yards). With 64 carries, 52 fewer than McCoy, Forsett has rushed for 14 fewer yards and is averaging nearly three yards per carry more than the Eagles' star.Among the top-five runners, Forsett is the only back to rush fewer than 116 times."Justin Forsett, determined," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said when asked to describe Forsett. "He's a man of great faith. He's a very thoughtful guy, highly-motivated, tremendous character and a heck of a football player. Fortunate isn't the word I'd use, just very blessed to have him on board."

So we have "great faith" and "tremendous character," resulting in the team being "very blessed" to have him around. The Raven's head coach -- a Super Bowl winner year before last -- is a frequent user of God talk, which has never been explored to any meaningful degree by the local newspaper.

Let's keep reading, with insights from offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who coached Forsett in Houston:

"He's played in a few places, and sometimes guys like these, they don't get many opportunities," Kubiak said. "But when they get them, they take advantage of them. He did that with me in the past. I think the biggest compliment I can pay Justin and John [Harbaugh] after being here is knowing he was the type of guy John wanted on his team. I'm very proud of him."

Let's underline that one as a veiled reference to Harbaugh's faith.

Later on there is this, where Forsett is described as:

... one of the most respected players in the Ravens' locker room. Forsett has a humble, low-key personality, but is typically smiling. He's outspoken about his religious beliefs and also writes a blog about his faith."He's one of the best men you'll ever meet, very religious, he's a family man," wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "He's honestly one of the best people that I've ever had the opportunity to be around. He's wise beyond his years. ..."

You get the idea. So, what is the nature of this faith? Has his faith created bonds with some players but, in a locker room that contains some freewheeling egos, tensions with others? Does he have a pastor? A church? A place of service to the community? What has he said about his own faith online? What's this about him being a preacher's son? 

The key is that faith is a major theme in the story, but the details just don't matter that much. Is this reallya Baltimore Sun policy on the sports pages?

Categories: Main

Your weekend think piece: Interesting historical background about atheists in foxholes

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Veteran GetReligion readers will know that my academic background is in history, just as much as in journalism and mass media. I have always been fascinated with the history of religion in America (this helps on the religion beat) and, in particular, church-state studies. While doing a master's degree in church-state studies at Baylor University, I focused my thesis research on civil religion in the Vietnam War era.

You can't study church-state issues and a war as controversial as the one in Vietnam without hitting issues linked to conscientious objectors, which leads you into studies of tensions between the military establishment and minority forms of religion. You also end up studying the tensions that have, for generations, swirled around the work of military chaplains.

What a paradox this is. How do people serve in the military without the support of clergy? The idea of a military force without chaplains is hard to contemplate. Yet how do you maintain doctrinal integrity in settings where it is impossible for a wide variety of faiths to be represented? How do you keep a rabbi on a submarine that contains one or two Jews? How do you ask a traditional Catholic soldier to say his confession to a female Episcopal priest?

And what about people who have no faith at all? The absence of faith is, of course, a faith position and these military personnel deserve some kind of support when it comes to stress and conflict over ultimate issues.

The following Religion & Politics think piece is not a news story, but I wanted to share it with GetReligion readers after it was recommended by a longtime reader. This is, of course, one piece in an equation that has many, many, many variables, as I have already said. Journalists who cover the military, or church-state issues, or both, need to read this. Here's the top:

Do American military chaplains need to believe in God? Or, as the Navy Times once asked, “Who supports the atheists in the military?” These questions attracted renewed attention this year after the Army formally recognized humanism as a religious preference for soldiers in April, and the Navy rejected the application of a humanist chaplain to join its ranks in June. The issue of how to meet the needs of non-theists in the military is neither new nor incidental. Rather, “who supports the atheists” is a question that has vexed the military for the better part of a century, as the U.S. tries to determine how to best serve a religiously diverse population.More recently, a growing percentage of the military population has identified as non-theist. A 2012 Pentagon survey found more than 13,000 atheist or agnostic personnel, along with 276,000 troops (nearly a fourth of all personnel) who claimed no religious preference -- a proportion of whom may also be non-theist.

Note the size of the non-theist community. Clearly there is a threshold that, once passed, forces this issue off the military back burner. Non-theists have been pounding on the door, seeking their right to some kind of chaplain-like support, since the early 20th century.

And the numbers are crucial. Note this development at mid-century:

During World War II, as chaplains surveyed the religious preferences of their units, some acknowledged the presence of atheists among enlisted men and officers -- not as dangers, but as an unremarkable, if tiny, presence. Moreover, when the military desperately needed more chaplains to serve its rapidly swelling ranks, the Humanist Society of Friends (the predecessor group to today’s Humanist Society) offered their services. A nontheistic division of Quakers who had split off from their theistic, pacifist counterparts, these humanists strove to meet their patriotic obligations as non-combatant chaplains. The Army chaplaincy again resisted, declining to take up the humanist offer. But this time the refusal was different. Unlike the 1920s rebuff, lack of belief did not propel the War Department’s response. Instead, insufficient numbers did. Army policy dictated that chaplains were allocated to groups with a minimum of 100,000 adherents according to the 1936 Census of Religious Bodies. The Humanist Society of Friends -- like a number of fundamentalist Christian churches who also volunteered their ministers -- failed to reach the necessary threshold.

Keep reading, because there are possible story hooks in here -- especially in an age when chaplains for traditional forms of religion also feel that they are being locked out or overlooked in a military that has established a kind of pluralistic, liberal Protestant orthodoxy as the norm.

Strange allies ahead? Stay tuned. And read it all.

Categories: Main

Attacking graveyards: Washington Post probes unusual form of oppression in Pakistan

Friday, October 24, 2014

This is how bad persecution gets in Pakistan: You can't escape it even if you're dead.

Denying a final resting place to a despised group is the topic of an enterprising newsfeature by the Washington Post. For Christians and other minorities there, enduring contempt even in death is a way of life.

"Bleak" seems hardly adequate to describe the picture painted by the article. Here's a painfully eloquent passage:

Christians say they earn less than $2 a day working in the sugarcane fields. They must shop at the sparsely stocked Christian-run rice and vegetable store. They are not allowed to draw water from wells tapped for Muslim neighbors. Now, in what many consider to be a final indignity, they and other Pakistani Christians are struggling to bury their dead.Pakistan, whose population is overwhelmingly Muslim, is nearly twice the size of California. But leaders of the tiny Christian minority say their burial sites are being illegally seized by developers at an alarming rate, while efforts to secure new land are rejected because of religious tenets barring Muslims from being buried near people of other faiths. Increasingly, the remaining Christian cemeteries are packed with bodies atop bodies.

The WaPo story is a textbook example of reporting both in breadth and depth. It reports from three towns, from a remote hamlet to Lahore, the nation's second-largest city. It quotes 12 sources, Muslim as well as Christian. And it armors itself against a possible complaint of pro-Christian myopia:

Christians in Pakistan have been targets of what human rights activists call an unprecedented wave of violence against religious minorities, including Shiites, Ahmadis, Sikhs and Hindus. Thousands of members of religious minority groups have been killed over the past five years. But the Christians’ dwindling burial space is an example of a less dramatic but more persistent battle they say takes place behind the bloody headlines: a daily struggle for what might seem to be basic rights.

The article presents numbers, anecdotes and individual quotes. A Pakistani Christian laments a move by a Muslim developer to take cemetery land for a park and a Muslim graveyard. "It's like a pain in our heart," he says.

The Post adds that most Pakistani Christians are "poorly educated and are relegated to living in slums and working menial jobs," although it doesn't attribute the assertion. It adds that the Christians are "frequently attacked," and it adds several anecdotes -- drawn from reports by NBC News and the Post itself.

So naked is the hatred illustrated by the stories, it's hard to believe they all happened in the 21st century:

In 2009, two Christian villagers in Punjab were shot dead and five others burned alive after a mob accused a Christian of burning a Koran. Last year, 127 people were killed in a suicide bomb attack on a Christian Church in Peshawar. In September, a police officer shot and killed a Christian while the man was in jail on blasphemy charges.The country’s blasphemy law forbids insults of any form — even by “innuendo” — against the Muslim prophet Muhammad, and makes the crime punishable by death, though there has yet to be a state-sponsored execution of a convicted blasphemer. On Thursday, a Pakistani court upheld a 2010 death sentence for a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, whose case drew worldwide attention and condemnation from the Vatican.

Horrendous as they are, the anecdotes would have been amplified by total numbers; I'm sure that human rights groups must have compiled some. But you can judge a group not by its most extreme members, but by how everyone else reacts to them. And thus far, Pakistani society hasn't responded well. In fact, it “has been cultivated to develop indifference and animosity” toward Christians, says a rights advocate.

Why and when did the hostilities ramp up? This article doesn't answer what. It says that local shopkeepers in one town began encroaching on the Christian cemetery a decade ago. Was the action a byproduct of the United States' fight against Al-Qaida in Afghanistan? Is it a fruit of the many madrasas, or Muslim schools, across the nation? Perhaps a reaction to the Hindutva movement, which has led to persecution of Muslims and Christians in neighboring India?

And when did Christianity first come to the land? The Post says a Christian cemetery in Lahore may date to the 1800s. Perhaps the three writers didn't go into that because it would have added to the story length, already topping 1,300 words.  But a short paragraph on when and how Christians arrived would have added depth.

Those nitpicks aside, this article is a forceful account of a form of hatred so spiteful that it's hard to grasp. If this article had come out on, say, Fox News or Worldnet Daily, it might be easy to brush it off as conservative propaganda. But coming out in the Washington Post, the reporting shines even more brightly.

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After the synod: Was 'confusion' caused by the press, the pope or the devil?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Let's walk into this minefield very slowly and carefully.

This week, "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I talked about the recent Synod on the Family at the Vatican and some of the themes that emerged out of it. Click here to listen to the podcast.

Truth be told, that primarily meant discussing the tsunami of news coverage about a draft report earlier in the week that was hailed by a major gay-rights group, and thus the elite media, as a "seismic shift" in Catholic attitudes toward the LGBTQ community, the divorced, cohabiting couples, etc. By the end of the week, following blasts of input from cardinals and bishops from around the world, the synod's more modest official report placed a heavier emphasis on affirming Catholic doctrine and, thus, drew far less coverage.

Once again, many Catholics were asking a familiar question: Is there some way for the Catholic church to let the public, especially the world's Catholics, hear the full sweep of what the pope is actually saying? The pope keeps talking about sin, penitence, mercy and salvation, with a strong emphasis on the symbols and language of mercy, and elite news headlines usually report him as saying something like, "Who knows what sin is, anymore, let's show mercy -- period."

After that, criticism of what the press reported the pope as saying -- including attempts to note the content and context of whatever Pope Francis actually said -- is hailed in the same news outlets as criticism of the pope or a rejection of his alleged new direction for the church.

Rinse. Cycle. Repeat.

Now we have a great example of this process to examine, in the latest clash between a news outlet and Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, who for years has been one of the most pointed critics of press coverage of Catholicism. For background, here are some links about an earlier clash with The New York Times, in which Chaput circulated a transcript of his actual words as a way of criticizing what the Times alleged that he said. Also check out this interesting 2009 Chaput speech and dialogue with reporters at the Pew Forum in Washington, D.C. As always, I will mention that I have known Chaput since his Denver days as a priest and campus minister, back in the mid-1980s. In the years since that stage in his career, we have become friends and I now write about his work in the context of columns and commentary (such as this).

Thus, we have a headline on Religion News Service piece by the liberal Catholic columnist David Gibson that states, "Archbishop Chaput ‘disturbed’ by Vatican synod debate, says ‘confusion is of the devil'. " The original headline apparently read, "Archbishop Chaput blasts Vatican debate on family, says ‘confusion is of the devil'."

Let's go to the transcript of part of the question-and-answer session that followed Chaput's Erasmus Lecture the other night in New York City (full video here). This is now being circulated online in an attempt to clarify what the archbishop actually said.

Audience member: I would be very grateful for your comments on the recent Synod on the Family in Rome.Chaput: Well, first of all, I wasn’t there. That’s very significant, because to claim you know what really happened when you weren’t there is foolish. To get your information from the press is a mistake because they don’t know well enough how to understand it so they can tell people what happened. I don’t think the press deliberately distorts, they just don’t have any background to be able to evaluate things. In some cases they’re certainly the enemy and they want to distort the Church.Now, having said all that, I was very disturbed by what happened. I think confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was of confusion.

The archbishop then stressed what I have heard other Catholic insiders (left and right) express, which is that they really want to (a) talk to people who took part and (b) read the final translations of the key statements and documents. As opposed to what? As opposed to the tsunami of early "seismic change" reports.

Continuing in his answer to the synod question, Chaput added: 

There’s no doubt that the Church has a clear position: on what marriage means and that you don’t receive communion unless you’re in communion with the teachings of Christ, that gay marriage is not a possibility in God’s plan and therefore can’t be a reality in our lives. There’s no doubt about any of that. I think when it’s all said we have to be charitable toward people who disagree with us and we certainly welcome into the Church sinners. I’m one, and they usually welcome me when I come to the parishes. I think we have to be better at reaching out to divorced Catholics so they don’t think that they’re immediately excluded from the Church because they’ve been divorced and remarried. Some people think that even when they get a divorce they’re not welcome in the Church. So I think we need to work on that.We have deep respect for people with same-sex attraction, but we can’t pretend that they’re welcome on their own terms. None of us are welcome on our own terms in the Church; we’re welcome on Jesus’ terms. That’s what it means to be a Christian -- you submit yourself to Jesus and his teaching, you don’t recreate your own body of spirituality.

Now, that is pretty nuanced material that, to me, sounds a lot like some of the language in the final synod statements and the pope's final synod sermon.

So what was the substance of the Gibson analysis that prompted that Chaput and the devil headline? Here are the key passages, starting with the lede:

NEW YORK (RNS) Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, a leading culture warrior in the U.S. hierarchy, says he was “very disturbed” by the debate over church teachings on gays and remarried Catholics at this month’s Vatican summit, saying it sent a confusing message and “confusion is of the devil.”

And later:

Chaput is expected to host Pope Francis in Philadelphia next September for a global World Meeting of Families, and his criticisms tracked complaints by other conservatives who were upset with Francis for encouraging a freewheeling discussion among the 190 cardinals and bishops at the Vatican’s two-week Synod on the Family. ...“I was very disturbed by what happened” at the synod, Chaput said. “I think confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was one of confusion.”

So here is the question: What is missing from the Gibson analysis that played a central role in the full Chaput statement?

That would be the press coverage. When it comes to the confusion surrounding the synod, is the archbishop primarily pointing a critical finger at the synod or at the press coverage of the synod?

Let me stress that I am not saying that that readers need to agree with Chaput's analysis. I am asking a journalism question: In the quotes cited above, what did the archbishop actually say, in terms of the primary source of the confusion surrounding the synod and its work?

If the key was that the "public image" of the synod, to quote Chaput, was an image of confusion and that this "public image" of confusion was of the devil, then who or what was he saying was the primary source of the confusion seen by the public?

Again, you don't have to agree with him. But what did he actually say in his answer to this question about the synod, the answer that supposedly led to the headline?

Once again, was Chaput saying that Catholics and the public could not trust the synod, or was he saying that they should not trust the press coverage of the synod? One more time: you do not have to agree with him: But what did he say in his New York City remarks?

Categories: Main

Southern evangelicals dwindling?: RNS blogger examines the numbers behind The Atlantic's claims

Friday, October 24, 2014

Is the South losing its "cultural Christianity," as Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler describes it?

New research indicates that "the percentage of Alabamians not affiliated with a specific religion surpasses the percentage of white mainline Protestants, ranking it third among 'religious' groups," Alabama Godbeat pro Carol McPhail recently reported.

In #Alabama, the religiously #unaffiliated now surpasses a major religious group, says @publicreligion http://t.co/UGy3whPauL via @aldotcom

— Carol McPhail (@cmcphail) October 13, 2014

The numbers cited in that story prompted this opinion piece a few days later:

Are Alabamians losing their religion, or does it just look that way?: opinion - The Huntsville Times -… http://t.co/zJauYZd8Yk

— Religion time (@Religiontime) October 16, 2014

Meanwhile, The Atlantic made a big splash on social media this week with this provocative claim:

Southern Evangelicals: Dwindling—and Taking the GOP Edge With Them. @robertpjones for @TheAtlantic http://t.co/2q4n5q75or

— Public Religion Res. (@publicreligion) October 17, 2014

From The Atlantic article by Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute:

Compared to 2007, just after the 2006 midterm elections, the five southern states where there are tight Senate races have one thing in common: the proportion of white evangelical Protestants has dropped significantly.1. In Arkansas, where Republican and freshman Representative Tom Cotton is locked in a tight race with two-term Democratic Senator Mark Pryor, the white evangelical Protestant proportion of the population has dropped from 43 percent to 36 percent.2. In Georgia, where Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn is battling Republican candidate David Perdue for retiring Senator Saxby Chambliss’s seat, white evangelical Protestants made up 30 percent of the population in 2007 but that number is currently down to 24 percent.3. The proportion of white evangelicals in Kentucky has plunged 11 points, from 43 percent to 32 percent; here Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell faces the Democratic Alison Grimes, the secretary of state.4. In Louisiana, where Republican Representative Bill Cassidy is up against three-term Democrat Mary Landrieu, white evangelicals have slipped from being 24 percent of the population to 19 percent.5. Likewise, North Carolina has seen a dip in the white evangelical proportion of its population, from 37 percent to 30 percent; here incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan battles Republican Speaker of the North Carolina House Thom Tillis.

But what was it that Mark Twain said about "lies, damned lies and statistics?"

How many evangelicals are there? Depends on how you count them. It depends *a lot* on how you count them! http://t.co/B0TG5yWncG @tobingrant

— Jacob Lupfer (@jlupf) October 22, 2014

The stats reported by Jones made Religion News Service blogger Tobin Grant's "spidey-sense start buzzing," as he put it. Grant decided to examine the numbers behind the numbers.

Dwindling evangelicals? Why you should be very skeptical @publicreligion's claims in @theatlantic http://t.co/Xi8NVMtoCY via @RNS

— Tobin Grant (@TobinGrant) October 21, 2014

From Grant's RNS post:

Jones showed results from a massive survey PRRI completed last year and compared them to Pew Research Center’s 2007 Religious Landscape survey. White evangelicals have dropped from 22 percent of Americans to just 18 percent.Reading this, my spidey-sense started buzzing: that would be an 18 percent drop in just seven years! More than that, the numbers Jones were reporting didn’t match the 26 percent reported by the Landscape Survey. 18-22-26? The numbers didn’t make sense—at least not to me.Re-reading the piece, I figured out part of the problem. The headline was a bait-and-switch. This wasn’t about all southern evangelicals but white southern evangelicalsAnd “white” meant excluding anyone who was Latino, too.I ran the Pew data, moving anyone who was neither-white-nor-Latino out of the evangelical tradition.  That reduced the evangelical percentage down to the 22% PRRI reported, but some of the state percentages were still much higher than Jones was reporting.

And Grant is just getting his started. Before retweeting The Atlantic piece, be sure to read his analysis. Read it all.

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