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AP finds distortions in Boston Globe story on Vatican sex-abuse prosecutor

Friday, November 28, 2014

After I expressed concern that a Boston Globe story on the Vatican prosecutor's alleged failure to report abuse left unanswered questions, Religion News Service's David Gibson tweeted to GetReligion:

@GetReligion @tweetmattingly Worth checking this out, @nwinfield did some asking around http://t.co/tUmTJAfldM

— David Gibson (@GibsonWrites) November 26, 2014

The Associated Press's Nicole Winfield sought to fill in the blanks from the Globe story and uncovered a significant distortion:

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The head of the Jesuits in the United States defended the Vatican's new sex crimes prosecutor Tuesday, saying he had virtually no role in the order's handling of a notorious pedophile now serving a 25-year prison sentence.The Rev. Timothy Kesicki, president of the U.S. Jesuit Conference, spoke to The Associated Press after The Boston Globe reported that the prosecutor, the Rev. Robert Geisinger, failed to report the abuser to police when he was the second highest-ranking official in the Jesuits' Chicago province in the 1990s.Kesicki said Geisinger only worked for the Chicago province for about 14 weeks, from late December 1994 through March 1995, and never again. He was brought in as a temporary executive assistant to the acting provincial while the regular provincial was in Rome for a big Jesuit meeting. Geisinger had no governing authority and was tasked mainly with maintaining correspondence for his boss, said Kesicki.

Jesuit Father James Martin, on his Facebook page, gives further details:

After the Chicago Provincial traveled to Rome for a General Congregation, he asked his "socius," that is, his secretary, to serve as "acting provincial," which basically means keeping the paper flow going, but not making any big decisions. Father Geisinger was asked to be "acting socius," that is, acting secretary for the "acting provincial"--for 14 weeks. (Not throughout the 1990s, as the article leads one to believe.) No big decisions are ever taken until the Provincial returns. So the "acting provincial" has almost no authority. The "acting socius," his temporary secretary, then, has zero authority. Basically, he is tasked with tasked with handling his letters and emails of the acting provincial, as Father Timothy Kesicki, SJ, notes in his response to the AP's questions.

In other words, when the Globe claims Geisinger was "the second-highest-ranking official among the Chicago Jesuits in the 1990s," it is being, well, Jesuitical. It inaccurately characterizes both the level of responsibility Geisinger had and the length of time he had such responsibility.

None of this is to say Geisinger did what he should have when abuse claims were brought to his attention, either when he was the acting socius or later on, when, as Winfield notes, he became the Jesuits' top canon lawyer in Rome. As Rod Dreher observes,

The point is not that Fr. Geisinger was directly responsible for McGuire’s discipline, only that he knew all about McGuire’s crimes, and did little or nothing. That doesn’t make Geisinger any different from anybody else in the Church administration in those days, but it seems to me this is far from irrelevant in judging Geisinger’s fitness to serve as the Vatican’s top sex crimes prosecutor.

Still, having myself suffered abuse, I'm angry when reporters and editors push through sensationalistic stories like the Globe piece without asking all the questions that need to be asked. Victims are not served by anything less than the truth. Based on the information we have so far about Geisinger, I have to agree with Martin:

The Society of Jesus has far from a perfect record when it comes to sexual abuse crimes. But blaming someone for something he had zero authority over, as the original story did, does not help us confront the tragedy of the crimes of sexual abuse.

 

Image via Shutterstock

Categories: Main

Who rescued Rusty? Art? God? Prison? Dallas newspaper doesn't clear it up

Thursday, November 27, 2014

"Lord, have mercy," Leonard "Rusty" Medlock says twice in a profile in the Dallas Morning News. Let's all pray the same as we puzzle over the newspaper's article.

On the one hand, Medlock is quoted several times saying that only God's grace awakened his artistic talent in prison, where he was serving time for a drug conviction. On the other hand, the newspaper says Medlock's very incarceration -- or his own talents -- turned his life around.

This dichotomy starts with the first two paragraphs:

No one has to sell Leonard “Rusty” Medlock on the idea of giving people second chances.The same situation that threatened to marginalize him in society — a prison term for drug-related felonies — liberated him in a Texas prison.

See it wasn’t God, it was prison that liberated Medlock.

But wait, the headline says: "Set free by art in prison, ex-convict paints a new life for himself." So, it was neither God nor prison, it was art.

Or was it Medlock himself? One sentence says: "Those three words, 'Lord Have Mercy,' are the title of his signature artwork — a gripping piece that also reveals how he turned his life around." So God had mercy, yet Medlock fixed himself?

A friendly reader said it best: "Okay, so art frees people from drugs and crime, or people free themselves, not Jesus."  

Not that the News necessarily meant it to come out that way. But we readers can get confused when several factors are tossed out as "the" change agents in someone's life. And why not ask the man himself? More on that in a moment.

Now, I'm not taking anything away from the man's obvious gifts. The News alertly reports that Medlock showed artistic talent even in elementary school. His recovery is all the more remarkable when we learn he was a track star in high school before he fell into drug dealing, then drug use, then prison.

And it's true that prison slowed him down, so to speak, and gave him time to develop that talent. Medlock used toothpaste and color from Skittles candy to paint, the News says.

But when he is quoted directly, Medlock talks plainly about his faith journey and whom he credits for rescuing him. One passage in the profile starts with a description of his picture Lord Have Mercy:

His signature drawing depicts a man with his head bowed, tattered-sleeved elbows resting on both knees, hands clasped, deep in prayer.Beneath it is a verse from the Bible, 1 Thessalonians 5:17: “Pray continually.”“Even in my darkest hours, I was praying,” Medlock said. “I was the only one sitting in a drug house, using drugs and praying out loud. I’d say, ‘Lord, please don’t let me die in this sin.’ ”

The profile ends in the same vein. Now out of prison, Medlock supports himself and his wife with his art. They live in a nice home and attend a Methodist church in downtown Dallas. And the addict-turned-inmate-turned-artist is clear whom he credits for his turnaround:

“Lord, have mercy,” Medlock said. “It’s amazing what God can do.”

Yes, you can and should point out factors and influences on his path. No, you don’t have to share his spiritual beliefs. You just have to tell what happened and what or whom he thinks was behind his renewal. No need to add your own gloss. Just let the readers decide. 

Categories: Main

The Aftenposten and abortion in Norway: All the news that's fit to print

Thursday, November 27, 2014

“All the News That’s Fit to Print” first appeared on the cover of the New York Times on October 25, 1896. The newspaper’s publisher Adolph Ochs adopted the slogan for professional and business reasons.

Ochs wanted to set the Times apart from its more sensationalist competitors, filling the market niche of New York’s quality newspaper. Pursuing high quality journalism not only was a moral good, it could make money also, he believed.

The business model adopted by Ochs and other “quality” newspapers at the start of the 20th Century guided the empirical practices of the mainstream press for most of the last century, though tabloids in the United States and the “red tops” in the United Kingdom have never followed this code.

Over the last 25 years the Ochs model has been challenged by the advocacy press approach, where a newspaper reports on a story from an openly avowed ideological perspective. A French newspaper reader knows that when he reads about the same issue in LiberationLe MondeLe FigaroLa Croix and L’Humanite he will be presented with left, center left, center right, Catholic and Communist perspectives of an issue.

In and of itself, such an advocacy approach is not a bad thing.

Seeing a story from a variety of perspectives often allows the reader to gain a deeper understanding of the issues than that presented by a traditional newspaper following the “All the News That’s Fit to Print” model. So long as falsehoods are not presented, reading different “spins” or interpretations of the same event can enlighten readers by presenting to them different ways of thinking about an issue.

These musings on the nature of truth, cranks and newspaper reporting were prompted by an item that caught my eye in a story from News in English.no -- a website that carries English-language news stories from Norway. Its headline stated: “Abortion opponent disrupted bishop’s ceremony.” The article reported:

Anti-abortion activist Per Kørner demonstrated his views during Sunday’s ceremony in Tromsø consecrating the newest bishop of the Norwegian Church, Olav Øygard. Kørner was eventually seized by two civilian clad police who firmly escorted him out of the ceremony.

… Kørner disrupted the ceremony when he strode forth in the cathedral, sitting down close to the king until he was literally carried out, involuntarily, by the two policemen. Then the ceremony continued as normal. Kørner told newspaper Aftenposten afterwards that he wanted “to challenge the church to fight on behalf of the most helpless members of society,” in his view, unborn children.

Intrigued I went to Aftenposten -- Norway’s largest “quality” newspaper. Struggling manfully through the article entitled “Abortmotstander kastet ut av kongens sikkerhetsvakter” with dictionary in hand, I found Aftenposten was telling a different story.

Continue reading "The Aftenposten and abortion in Norway" by George Conger.

 

Categories: Main

The 'Kellerism' brand of journalism comes to the heartland -- in Fort Wayne, Indiana

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

I find it sad, but not all that surprising, that the journalistic virus that your GetReligionistas call "Kellerism" is spreading out of the elite zip codes along the East and West coasts.

Once again, "Kellerism" is a form of advocacy journalism that is practiced by journalists who are working in mainstream newsrooms, as opposed to newsrooms that openly admit that they have a dominant editorial point of view, or template, on many crucial issues in the public square. The term grew out of remarks by former New York Times editor Bill Keller, with an emphasis on this 2011 forum (video) at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin.

Here, once again, is a chunk of an "On Religion" column I wrote about his response when he was asked if -- it's a familiar question -- the Times can accurately be called a "liberal newspaper."

“We’re liberal in the sense that ... liberal arts schools are liberal,” Keller noted. ... “We’re an urban newspaper. … We write about evolution as a fact. We don’t give equal time to Creationism.” ...Keller continued: “We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes -- and did even before New York had a gay marriage law -- included gay unions. So we’re liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal.”Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

As I have noted several times, the key words are "aside from." Why use a balanced scale when editors already know who is right?

So politics is worthy of balanced journalism, but there is no need for that kind of thing when professionals deal with news linked to morality and religion -- things like sex, salvation, gay rights, abortion, euthanasia, cloning and a few other non-political issues. Yes, things like Roe v. Wade and Romer v. Evans. A second doctrine grows out of that. There is no need for intellectual and cultural diversity in mainstream newsrooms on these kinds of issues, the kind recommended in that famous 2005 self-study at the Times called "Preserving Our Readers' Trust."

Sorry for the long introduction, but it's crucial to understand this term in order to wonder why a long-time GetReligion reader was so upset after reading the recent Ford Wayne (Ind.) Journal Gazette story that ran under the headline, "For 20 years, same-sex couples wed in city."

Let me stress that this is a valid story that focuses on an important topic -- the fact that doctrinally liberal congregations in the newspaper's region had long been performing religious rites to bless same-sex relationships, even before same-sex marriage became legal in Indiana.

Yes, the word "wed" in the headline might be problematic for some readers, since the union rites were not legally "weddings" until recently, but that didn't really bother me -- since as an active churchman I think of marriage in terms of doctrine rather than state laws, anyway. But, did these liberal clergy openly call them "weddings" at the time? That would have been a good question for a journalist to have asked.

However, it does not appear that the Journal Gazette team was asking many questions. There is no evidence that the goal here was anything other than public relations for one side of a very important public and religious debate. Read the story and look for any attempt to accurately report the views of traditional Jews, Christians or anyone else on the traditional side of a sanctuary aisle. Here is a key section of the story, its one attempt at balance:

While there is more hesitation in acceptance among churches and clergy in smaller, more rural areas, the Fort Wayne area is generally pretty welcoming to the LGBT community. ...Last month, two days after same-sex marriage became legal in Indiana, the University of Notre Dame announced it would extend benefits and housing to legally married same-sex couples.Days later, the Rev. Kevin Rhoades, bishop of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Roman Catholic Diocese, wrote that it was important that Notre Dame continued to affirm its fidelity to Catholic teaching on the true nature of marriage, adding that there was “confusion” over a preliminary document from a Vatican committee on issues concerning homosexuals.Rhodes cited official church documents that say the church views homosexuals and heterosexuals as “equal in dignity” and opposes “unjust discrimination” against homosexuals. But, he wrote, the church continues to view homosexual sex as wrong and opposes same-sex marriage because the “nature” of marriage requires opposite sexes.

Actually, is it proper under Associated Press style to refer to a bishop as merely "the Rev." -- which is the proper style for a priest or pastor? Just asking.

Meanwhile, note that Rhoades "wrote" these views. Where? Did the local newspaper really settle for a quote from a website or a press release on a topic this crucial, rather than doing actual research talking to the bishop and other experts on the other side?

After all, the newspaper's team interviewed clergy person after clergy person on the liberal side of the debate, as well as people directly touched by these rites. That was good, solid, necessary research to represent their beliefs and to help readers understand their actions. They were treated with respect, as they should have been.

And what did the Journal Gazette offer believers on the other side of this debate?

There is a word for what the orthodox believers received in this case: Kellerism.

Categories: Main

Boston Globe story on Vatican prosecutor's alleged failure to report abuse leaves unanswered questions

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Boston Globe ran a story over the weekend alleging that the Vatican's top prosecutor on sex-abuse cases failed to report an abusive priest to civil authorities when he was a high-ranking official in the Jesuits' Chicago Province.

Given the legwork that reporter Michael Rezendes put into culling the sources for the story, the piece is well worth your time, but it leaves some unanswered questions. There's a lot of smoke here, to be sure, but it leaves me with the feeling that the Globe could have gone to greater length to locate the source and extent of the fire. 

Here's the lede, the wording of which suggests some delicate legal vetting:

A prominent American Jesuit recently named by Pope Francis to prosecute priests accused of sexually abusing minors under church law was himself one of several Catholic officials who allowed a notorious abusive priest to remain in ministry for years after learning of his long history of sexual abuses, legal documents show.The Rev. Robert J. Geisinger, named in September as the Vatican’s “promoter of justice,’’ was the second-highest-ranking official among the Chicago Jesuits in the 1990s when leaders were facing multiple abuse complaints against the Rev. Donald J. McGuire, a globe-trotting priest with many influential supporters, including Mother Teresa of Calcutta.But the Jesuits failed to notify police or take effective steps to prevent McGuire from continuing to molest minors.

Got that? Geisinger was "one of several Catholic officials" who knew about McGuire's abuse but "failed to notify police or take effective steps" to prevent him from re-abusing. What is being suggested is not that he actively sought to cover up, but that he enabled evil to perpetuate by failing to do the right thing.

The story continues:

Documents examined by the Globe, most of them church records produced during lawsuits filed by McGuire’s victims, show Geisinger had detailed knowledge of the complaints against McGuire as early as 1995 and advised officials in Chicago on how to discipline McGuire as late as August 2002.

That last date reflects especially badly upon Geisinger. August 2002 was two months after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued its Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which mandated that diocesan officials report abuse to civil authorities. Although the Jesuits as a religious order are not themselves under diocesan authority, they work in dioceses and, as such, are responsible for abiding by the bishops' rules.

More from the Globe:

McGuire was finally convicted in 2006 by a Wisconsin jury of molesting two boys who had notified civil authorities. He was also convicted on federal charges in 2008 and is serving a 25-year-prison sentence.“It’s astonishing that, for such a high-profile, sensitive position, the Vatican wouldn’t want someone whose background is unassailable, in the sense that there shouldn’t even be questions raised,” Philip F. Lawler, the editor of Catholic World News, said of Geisinger. Lawler has been a prominent critic of the church’s handling of the sex abuse crisis.

Great quote from Lawler, and kudos to the Globe for putting his words above the obligatory quote from SNAP or BishopAccountability.org (the latter are quoted further down in the piece). Lawler's advocacy for victims is more potent than that of those organizations, because he does not share their institutional antagonism to the Church.

When the Globe asked the Vatican for comment, the Holy See's press office doubled down:

Geisinger, reached at his Rome office, referred questions to the Vatican press office, which expressed confidence in his abilities, saying, “the Holy See fully expects Father Geisinger to continue to do an excellent job as promoter of justice, based on his prosecution record, his commitment to justice, and his concern for victims.”The Rev. Federico Lombardi, director of the press office, said in a statement that Geisinger had “voiced concerns regarding McGuire’s conduct” while working with the Chicago Jesuits, and he credited Geisinger with presenting the case for McGuire’s expulsion from the priesthood in 2008. Lombardi noted that Pope Benedict acted on Geisinger’s request in less than two months. 

The rest of the story lays out the documentation of Geisinger's role in the case. At the end is the quote from BishopAccountability.org:

Said Terence McKiernan, founder of the advocacy group bishopaccountability.org: “Do you really want to pick someone who is actually in the paper trail of one of the most egregious cases that the Jesuits have ever handled?”

It's a weak note on which to end the piece. 

Let me explain: There is no question that anyone who fails to report a well-grounded suspicion of childhood sexual abuse to civil authorities commits a grave wrong. That was true in the 1990s and it is true today. Likewise, as Lawler said, anyone in such a high-profile position as the Vatican's promoter of justice should have an unassailable record on abuse. As a victim of abuse myself, and as a Catholic, the information the Globe has unearthed on Geisinger gives me no reason to rejoice at his being where he is in the Curia. But if all the Globe can ultimately do is highlight that Geisinger is  "in the paper trail" of the McGuire case, then it seems to me that there are angles of this story that have not yet been explored. 

Given that the 2002 letter from Geisinger was written while he was serving in the Jesuit headquarters in Rome, a good place to start when asking further questions would be: What exactly was Geisinger's job in Rome at the time? Was he handling abuse cases there? Can this case be taken as representative of the advice he gave at the time?  To my mind, Geisinger's voice in the 2002 letter sounds more like a bureaucrat trying to put out administrative fires than a priest concerned about the safety of the Lord's flock. Even so, more context is needed before we can understand his role in the whole mess.

Categories: Main

'World' of difference when it comes to investigative reporting

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

In all too many weeks, the Saturday “Beliefs” column provides the only coverage of religion in The New York Times. The influential daily’s Nov. 8 item dealt with World, an unusual Christian magazine because it covers mostly general news rather than just parochial topics.  This biweekly for those wanting “Christian worldview reporting that reinforces their core beliefs” has a conservative slant on politics as well as faith.  A recent GetReligion post by our own tmatt, for example, noted his differences with the journalistic philosophy of World Editor in Chief Marvin Olasky. 

Sadly, investigative reporting has suffered greatly with media downsizing and the Times rightly commends that aspect of World’s work. Religious periodicals generally don’t rake muck, especially about folks sharing their ideology. But World has been willing to bring conservative scandals to the surface, with praiseworthy courage. Apart from that, this magazine is worth watching as an interesting venture in handling the news from an explicitly Christian standpoint.

To get a better sense of World's journalistic M.O., let's examine not some sensational expose but a  more routine article from the current issue, in which staff reporter Emily Belz ably covered ongoing conflicts at secular colleges and universities that apply anti-discrimination codes to end recognition for evangelical Christian clubs.  An attorney criticized such policies Sept. 19 in “Houses of Worship,” the Wall Street Journal’s weekly op-ed equivalent of the Times’s “Beliefs.”  But this important dispute has received minimal mainstream media coverage, showing why outlets like World are valuable players in the media mix. (And then there was a tmatt column on this topic for the Universal syndicate.)

Most of the disputes involve InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, which opens meetings to all comers but says student  leaders should uphold its beliefs, in particular that the Bible opposes same-sex behavior.  (Full disclosure: The Religion Guy was active in InterVarsity during college days.) Sometimes funding from student fees is cut off but the more important losses are meeting space on campus, publicity for events, participation in student activity fairs, and over-all respectability. Some evangelical groups move off campus, some still gather on campus via word of mouth, some negotiate compromises, and some sign non-discrimination pledges and cross their fingers.

One of World’s telling anecdotes involves a chat between InterVarsity executive Greg Jao and a lobbyist for California State University, which in September removed recognition from InterVarsity on all 23 campuses.  When Jao raised a hypothetical case, the lobbyist said it would be wrongful discrimination if a campus group for female survivors of sexual violence barred men! For that matter, would a gay club want to be taken over by militant evangelicals?

As so often with religious magazines, this is  a good story that could be broadened for a more general readership. World doesn’t tell us whether liberal Protestant chaplains favor college administrations or the evangelicals, and why.  What’s the reaction to all this by Catholicism’s Newman Centers, the Muslim Student Association, moderate and liberal Jews in Hillel, or Orthodox Jews in “kiruv” and Chabad groups?

Space permitting, World could have offered more background. This backroom fuss first went public at Tufts University back in 2000. InterVarsity has been a significant force in fostering academically respectable belief and believers. Born at Britain’s University of Cambridge 137 years ago, it reached the U.S. in 1938 with the University of Michigan chapter (which was briefly denied recognition). InterVarsity now has  949  chapters on 616 U.S. campuses. Its periodic conventions are among the biggest of any student organization, drawing 16,000, and with the demise of the Student Volunteer Movement are the major recruiting ground for foreign mission workers. 

The article could also have fleshed out the legal situation. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 “Christian Legal Society v. Martinez” ruling rejected a related appeal from CLS, which had been banished by the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law. It’s worth explaining why the five majority justices backed college administrators, alongside the stinging contention of the court’s four conservatives that the ruling squelched constitutional freedoms of speech, association, and religion in favor of “prevailing standards of political correctness.”

If the courts are anxious to protect minorities, without question Bible-toting, prayerful evangelicals are very much a minority group on today’s campuses. There is a story in there and it isn't over yet.

Categories: Main

What role did clergy play during #Ferguson chaos? If journalists looked, they were there

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Anyone who has studied the role of religion in American history knows why the voice of clergy have always played such a crucial role in the story of African-Americans in this land.

During the darkest days in the generations after death of slavery, fierce racism continued to prevent all but a few brave blacks from pursuing degrees in law, medicine and other elite fields. The vast majority of those who earned elite degrees served others in black communities and that was pretty much that.

But in the historic African-American churches, men went to seminaries (and among Pentecostals, in particular, women as well) and returned to become the public voices of the people in the pews and on the streets. They were the faces that were turned outward, into society as a whole.

This brings us to #Ferguson, of course, and the coverage of the events after the grand jury report was made public. As Bobby said this morning, we will appreciate help from readers as we try to sift through the mainstream coverage of this event, looking for the work of reporters who followed up on the work of pastors who pledged that their church facilities would be safe havens for all, no matter what. Did any churches burn?

I was struck, when I first reached by computer this morning, by the contrast between the main coverage in The Washington Post and in The New York Times. This was the kind of pivotal, national news event that -- since journalists had days or even weeks to seek out sources and to plan coverage -- readers have a chance to look inside the minds of editors and glimpse how they approach the news.

The bottom line? The Post team clearly was searching for the Ferguson pastors on or near the scene. The Times team? I frankly found the religion-angle silence, in the early coverage, to be rather shocking. Here are one or two of the crucial sections of the extensive Post coverage, in this case from a lengthy sidebar focusing on the Ferguson community reaction:

There was little looting here, except for the bewigged mannequins that young men dragged from the beauty shop into the street.“I feel like the verdict was unfair, that it shouldn’t have taken so long to reach it,” said Duane Coats, a calm voice amid the cries and profane jeers, an elder with the Christian Faith Center. His task, he said, was to stop protesters from throwing bottles and persuade them to stick to peaceful actions. Protest organizers had deployed him and other clergy members to the likely hot spots in greater St. Louis to try to urge nonviolence.

Once again, note that this church leader was part of a network in the region working on this issue. This is precisely what I was talking about earlier. You know that journalists were in touch with the organizers of the mainstream protests linked to local institutions, in the black community and otherwise.

Were these clergy hard to find? To spot in the swirling action at the scene? Note a crucial detail in this passage:

As they tried to force the demonstrators to move, some officers had heated exchanges with members of the clergy who attempted to serve as intermediaries. Officers pushed them aside and demanded that the crowd move from the sidewalk.“Ron Johnson is getting a call from me tomorrow,” declared Pastor Robert White, who leads a congregation in downtown St. Louis and was wearing a bright orange “Clergy United” T-shirt. He was referring to the Missouri Highway Patrol captain. “This proves that all of that training was just training in how to arrest people, not how to de-escalate.”At nearby Wellspring United Methodist Church, volunteer medics brought two women suffering from the effects of tear gas to recuperate.

Was this organized clergy presence a surprise? Of course not. Check out this BuzzFeed blog post from last summer, under the headline, "How Clergy In Ferguson Succeeded Where The Police Failed."

In short, the work of the clergy who had long been been active at grassroots level was followed closely by Post reporters when, literally, push came to shove.

Now, search for similar passages in this early Times report. I am looking for sidebars and updates online, but have not found one that includes the obvious religious angles. This reference struck me as interesting:

... (Many) here questioned why the authorities would announce the decision in the evening, rather than waiting for daylight hours. Furious, sometimes violent, demonstrations and tense clashes with the police took place late into the night for several weeks in August, and some law enforcement officers had urged a daytime announcement. Over a period of weeks, many leaders here had suggested that a Sunday morning announcement would be best, but the grand jury, which had been meeting on the case since Aug. 20, finished its work on Monday. ...Many of the elaborate plans for how the grand jury’s decision would be released -- including 48-hour notice for the police after the decision -- appeared to have been scrapped. The family of Mr. Brown, 18, who was killed by Officer Wilson on Aug. 9, was notified by prosecutors in the afternoon, after some reports had already appeared on television and online. A lawyer for the family expressed frustration that they had not been told sooner.

Interesting. Who were the "many leaders" who were seeking the release of this explosive report on Sunday morning? That's an interesting timing, to say the least.

Stay tuned. There are ghosts all over the place in this ongoing drama.

Outside St. Louis County police headquarters, clergy link arms and walk, chanting "This is what theology looks like." pic.twitter.com/hXzpQYbqfE

— Mitch Smith (@MitchKSmith) November 25, 2014
Categories: Main

Once again, #Ferguson defies easy analysis but demands solid journalism and context

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

"Unrest, again": Images of #Ferguson are on front pages around the U.S. today http://t.co/SjQATNVyvr pic.twitter.com/3iJCPgCdgI

— Poynter (@Poynter) November 25, 2014

This was the question three months ago:

Amen to this question: 'What the hell is happening in #Ferguson?': http://t.co/v1ISW3xY8O #journalism http://t.co/VCkvxBBD78

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) August 14, 2014

Here we go again. 

I'm supposed to write a post this morning critiquing media coverage. But honestly, the situation at this point defies easy analysis and understanding:

Violence erupted in #Ferguson, leaving parts of the city on fire and stores looted: http://t.co/CeRqQ2iOFI pic.twitter.com/j5XYC3cpW6

— CNN (@CNN) November 25, 2014

Lesley McSpadden, #MichaelBrown's mom, screams over #FergusonDecision: http://t.co/e5VOYiDxpZ (Charles Riedel, AP) pic.twitter.com/r44LVj9AsS

— USA TODAY (@USATODAY) November 25, 2014

#Ferguson hit by looting and arson after the grand jury decision http://t.co/sBNRjlUqfP pic.twitter.com/jb8TUFJLhT

— Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) November 25, 2014

#Ferguson burns. pic.twitter.com/KvnRtJA94R

— Robert Cohen (@kodacohen) November 25, 2014

Just watched about 20 people break into a wireless store on w. Florissant. 1 man threatened me 4 recording #Ferguson pic.twitter.com/2vVt095WBO

— Stephanie Elam (@StephanieElam) November 25, 2014

Daniel Burke, editor of CNN's "Belief Blog," made an excellent point on Twitter:

Much love to my friends in #ferguson, but it's hard to see the scene via tweets, posts and photos. journalism, and context, are so crucial.

— Daniel Burke (@BurkeCNN) November 25, 2014

"Journalism, and context, are so crucial." Can our Godbeat friend get an "Amen!?"

Speaking of context, this is another relevant tweet I saw (via a retweet by the excellent @tweetmattingly):

Hey CNN & FOX..my guess is there are many churches full of people praying...why not show them instead of another burning trash can #Ferguson

— Todd Wagner (@wordsfromwags) November 25, 2014

Full disclosure: I watched the prosecutor speak, and I watched the president speak, but I couldn't take the 24-hour news talking heads, so I flipped the switch and don't know if CNN and Fox showed churches full of people praying or not. 

But I do know that some excellent religion writers are on the scene, including Lilly A. Fowler of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who has been tracking the faith angle in Ferguson for months and — after a late night — was back bright and early this morning:

Reporting from Shaw Park in Clayton where clergy are getting ready to march #mikebrown #ferguson pic.twitter.com/C4XLFiYd5Y

— Lilly A. Fowler (@LillyAFowler) November 25, 2014

About 100 clergy marching & singing in Clayton right now #ferguson #mikebrown pic.twitter.com/JsDiPCsYF0

— Lilly A. Fowler (@LillyAFowler) November 25, 2014

Clergy blocking traffic. Still singing but police have moved in #mikebrown #ferguson pic.twitter.com/LJ7B8uZ3Tm

— Lilly A. Fowler (@LillyAFowler) November 25, 2014

Clergy are now on the ground in Clayton #ferguson #mikebrown pic.twitter.com/BckGXfGBPG

— Lilly A. Fowler (@LillyAFowler) November 25, 2014

CNN's Eric Marrapodi is in Ferguson, too. 

While his duties extend beyond religion, he's certainly attuned to that crucial angle:

Clergy protecting a store after windows were smashed. "Don't do this, we've come too far!" #FergusonDecision pic.twitter.com/Sh19mDEwXE

— Eric Marrapodi (@EricCNNBelief) November 25, 2014

If you see solid religion reporting in Ferguson or come across any holy ghosts, please don't hesitate to let us know — either in the comments section or via @getreligion.

Stay tuned.

Update: See Terry Mattingly's post at the link below:

What role did clergy play during #Ferguson chaos? If journalists looked, they were there: http://t.co/VWZO1eE0cs pic.twitter.com/LazFKxvzb8

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) November 25, 2014


Categories: Main

Muslim terrorists in Kenya attack people who, uh, aren't Muslims

Monday, November 24, 2014

Our GetReligion guru, tmatt, likes to complain how news media talk about "generic Christians" in the Middle East. Well, much of the coverage of Saturday's mass murder in Kenya goes one further -- making the victims into generic "non-Muslims."

Here's the lead of the widely used version by the Associated Press:

Somalia’s Islamic extremist rebels, Al-Shabab, attacked a bus in northern Kenya at dawn Saturday, singling out and killing 28 passengers who could not recite an Islamic creed and were assumed to be non-Muslims, Kenyan police said.Those who could not say the Shahada, a tenet of the Muslim faith, were shot at close range, a survivor told The Associated Press.

AP later says the killers "separated those who appeared to be non-Muslims  — mostly non-Somalis — from the rest." Their source for much of this? A "non-Muslim head teacher of a private primary school in Mandera [who] survived the attack." (Emphasis mine.)

The Los Angeles Times account follows suit in 800 distressingly vague words.  It says the killers "separated Muslims from non-Muslims," then shot the latter. Even when giving background -- saying the attack "follows the pattern of previous terror attacks in Kenya in which Muslims have been spared" -- it's fuzzy on Muslims as opposed to whom.

If the victims' religion made a difference, what was it? Buddhism? Hinduism? The answer should be obvious  to anyone who checks a database like the World Factbook by the CIA: 82.5 percent of Kenyans are Christian. While the nation also includes people of "traditionalist" faiths, and 2.4 percent are "nones," it's safe to say the main targets last weekend were Christians.

Especially when the Times quotes an Al-Shabab spokesman using the term "crusaders":

“As for the Kenyan crusaders, you are fighting a losing battle against Islam, you have previously tasted the bitter reactions of your crusade campaign, and just as we have warned you before, we reiterate to you that you will have no safety until you cease your hostilities against Muslims.”

The quote clearly echoes Osama Bin Laden, as in this article in The Guardian, in which he calls Muslims to oppose "a Christian crusade against Islam." Knowing (or remembering) that fact could have led to some insightful remarks from Kenyan pastors -- especially in the towns along the border of Somalia, home of Al-Shabab.

Reuters' follow-up yesterday, if anything, does a little worse than AP and the Times:

Somalia's Islamist al Shabaab militants have claimed responsibility for the attack Saturday, when gunmen ordered passengers on the bus to recite Koran verses and shot dead non-Muslims -- 19 men and nine women -- who could not.

That's the only reference to the religion of the victims. Reuters cares more about what kind of equipment the Kenyans destroyed in the counter-raid.

Which organization did better on this story? A faithful reader spotted one: Bloomberg News, which usually concentrates more on business. Its brisk, 505-word story identifies the killers, victims and motives right in the lede: "Al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militia, said it carried out an attack on Christians traveling on a bus in northeastern Kenya, killing 28 people."

A jihadi source even spells out the religious motive to Bloomberg:

“The Mujahedeen intercepted a bus, which had on board a group of Christians that enjoyed the killing and the maiming of Muslims,” al-Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamed Rageh said in a statement read on Radio Andulus, a pro-al-Shabaab broadcaster.

But the difference doesn't come down to different sources. Yes, AP quotes the Kenyan police chief and a teacher who was on the bus. And Reuters quotes a different spokesman for Al-Shabab than Bloomberg, but the Times quotes the same one -- Sheikh Ali Mohamed Rageh -- although it spells the name differently.

We should give a point to AP for saying that the victims were shot for being unable to recite the Shahada. The Times and Reuters say Al-Shabab wanted to hear one or more quranic verses. (Do they know the difference between the Quran and the Shahada?)

However, AP incorrectly defines the Shahada as "an Islamic creed declaring oneness with God." The creed actually says, "There is no god but God and Muhammad is the prophet of God."

And why did Al-Shabab commit the murders in the first place? AP says merely that it was retaliation for "raids by Kenyan security forces carried out earlier this week on four mosques at the Kenyan coast."  Nothing on why the mosques were raided. The Times and Reuters make clear that Kenyan police say the raids found weapons and literature to recruit more jihadis.

Bloomberg nailed the religious angle for that, too -- again, from the Al-Shabab representative:

“That attack is payback for the actions of their fellow Christian soldiers in Kenya that killed many innocent Muslim at prayers in a mosque in Mombasa over the past week,” Rageh said.

It's not like news media are religiophobic. Remember all the stories out of Iraq, reporting how the Islamic State was targeting Yazidis? So I have to ask: Why do so many reporters and/or editors seem to avoid mentioning Christians as targets?

Categories: Main

Memory eternal: Arne Fjeldstad and his efforts to help (global) media get religion

Monday, November 24, 2014

There is really no way to tell the story of GetReligion.org without talking about the veteran journalist and pastor who for years led The Media Project -- the Rev. Dr. Arne Fjeldstad of Norway. It is very unusual to find a Lutheran clergyman who also had a 30-year career as an editor in the mainstream press, including senior positions in the leading Norwegian daily newspaper Aftenposten. For his doctoral dissertation, quite early in the Internet age, he wrote about the potential growth of online churches.

Although his byline rarely appeared here at GetReligion, that was because he felt his management skills were best used behind the scenes. Trust me when I say that his gifts were many and they have been essential. Click here to read his global perspective on the 10th anniversary of this weblog.

Arne died very suddenly Sunday afternoon at his home in Norway, hours before he was scheduled to depart for a journalism conference in South Korea. Over the past decade, his travels took him around the world on almost a monthly basis, meeting with at least 600-plus journalists face to face at one time or another. In the photo above, he is seen -- earlier this month -- with journalists from nine different African countries gathered in Lusaka, Zambia.

My former Washington Journalism Center colleague Richard Potts, who worked with Arne on many conferences in Latin America, wrote this morning: 

The world of journalism has suddenly lost a kind man and a tireless warrior for religious equality and press freedoms around the world. ... His humility, Christian faith, work ethic and investment in leaders in media in the developing world will leave a legacy that quite literally spans the globe. Well done, good and faithful servant.

One of the last emails I received from Arne was similar to many others in the past, as he passed along the URL of a GetReligion-worthy article he had spotted. He wanted me to pass along a think piece from a "kindred spirit" in discussions of religion and the news, Jenny Taylor of the Lapidomedia network.

The headline on the piece -- posted at PublicSpirit.org.uk:

To which Arne Fjeldstad would say, "amen." He never, ever gave up working on that very subject, along with the twin freedoms of religion and the press. Here are a few clips from this must read Taylor article, beginning at the start, which I pass along as Arne requested.

Memory eternal, friend and colleague. Your work will continue.

Aaqil Ahmed, beleaguered Head of Religion at the BBC, called me in for a cup of tea last September to ask what I meant by religious literacy. He’d got wind of an event I had run that had unpacked for journalists and opinion formers why the media were getting Egypt’s revolution so badly wrong.  As usual the media had been siding with the political opposition, in true British fashion, assuming them to be the under-dog in a game of two sides.  They had ignored the complicating third and fourth factors: the persecuted Copts, and browbeaten Sufis, either ignorant of their existence or embarrassed about siding with Christians or more esoteric religion.  Almost no investigative work was being done on the plight of Coptic or Sufi minorities as Egypt went into revolutionary meltdown, beyond macho scenarios of Jeremy Bowen in Tahrir Square.   There was a clear lack of contacts and channels into the Coptic world even though Copts are often fluent in English.The Sunday Times took two weeks after the main mass arsons in August 2013 to file their report.  Ignorant? -- or suppressing the news of burning churches lest they appear ‘partisan’? What it betrayed was ignorance of the Coptic contribution to Egyptian civic life and worse, a cavalier attitude to the life-threatening nature of religiously illiterate reporting.  Ignoring the Copts, vulnerable as a tiny minority despite their disproportionate economic and cultural clout, consigned them further to oblivion. This was religious illiteracy in the media at its worst -- and it’s the consequences of this that a new Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, founded by the Woolf Institute in Cambridge, has an opportunity to examine and even change.How does religious literacy in the media work? Religious literacy does not require religious partisanship, but as was demonstrated at that Egypt event, a simple attention to the facts.

And later, there is this sad echo of so many pieces on this topic through the decades:

To understand religion’s motivating power, its ability to solidify allegiances, its ability to terrify or reconcile, was to get dangerously close to taking it seriously and that might imply confessional partisanship i.e. bias. Richard Porrit says:  ‘For too long religious affairs -- as editors deem fit to call the specialism -- has been a job palmed off on reporters.  It is a role that has traditionally been dodged, by the cream of the newsroom, for specialisms thought to be more glamorous or hard-hitting.’ ...

And this:

Journalists are ... careless with their categories:  Paul Wood, rightly lauded BBC World Affairs reporter, nonetheless owned up to the mistake of calling the war in Central African Republic ‘sectarian’, as if Islam and Christianity were variants of the same faith, like Catholics and Protestants. Language is our stock in trade as journalists.  You wouldn’t confuse basketball with rugby, even though both are sports.  Getting it right matters. In a place like Sudan where, as al-Jazeera brilliantly showed in a documentary recently, the bloodbath caused by the failure of two big men to work together was neither ‘tribal’ nor ‘ethnic’.  Yet the West almost rejoiced to conclude it was, and then it became so, as people consolidated around rumour promoted by media stereotypes.

And this, too:

Journalists have a job to do.  They are largely oblivious of the deeper discourse wars that have paralyzed their profession for a generation.  What is preventing them getting at the truth of the world’s religious predicament is an ideology and system of emotional and intellectual habits that denies religion, and therefore identity and meaning, a proper place in the national conversation. Scott Stephens calls this ‘the Kingdom of Whatever’. Rowan Williams lamented ‘a world in which there aren’t and couldn’t be any real discussion of the goals and destiny of human beings as such’. That’s the stuff of journalism, but we now lack even minimal consensus on the most fundamental questions of life, social obligation and political ends, as well as the means -- the common moral and conceptual grammar, as Stephens put it -- to resolve such widespread disagreement.“What is preventing [journalists] getting at the truth of the world’s religious predicament is an ideology and system of emotional and intellectual habits that denies religion, and therefore identity and meaning, a proper place in the national conversation."

Amen, to that. Read it all.

Image: Arne Fjeldstad (end of the second row on the left) with journalists from nine different African countries at a conference earlier this month in Lusaka, Zambia.

Categories: Main

In advance of Ferguson grand jury decision, something's missing when Los Angeles Times goes to church

Monday, November 24, 2014

My story from earlier today, on faith's role in Ferguson: http://t.co/YeUgtSE0HF pic.twitter.com/FVlTqUxs5X

— Matt Pearce (@mattdpearce) November 24, 2014

With a grand jury decision expected soon in Ferguson, Mo., the Los Angeles Times went to church Sunday:

First, the pastor asked congregants to pray for the parents of Michael Brown, who was fatally shot over the summer about three miles away. They murmured yes.

Then she asked the several dozen mostly black parishioners at Christ the King United Church of Christ on Sunday to pray for the families of the other black men in the region who had been shot by police officers. Some of them murmured yes.

Next, the Rev. Traci Blackmon asked her congregation a question not often heard on the turbulent streets of neighboring Ferguson, which remains tense with fear, anger and uncertainty as the conclusion of a grand jury investigation into Brown's Aug. 9 death looms ever closer -- perhaps as soon as Monday.

“Will you pray for Officer Darren Wilson?” Blackmon asked.

Hearing the name of Brown's shooter, the congregants remained silent.

The Times story focused on Christ the King United Church of Christ, describing it as "an oasis of warmth and calm, albeit one not far removed from the pressures that have gripped the region."

Later in the piece:

Mia Henderson, 29, of the St. Louis suburb of University City, said she joined Christ the King United Church of Christ a year and a half ago because Blackmon was committed to social causes.After the Ferguson unrest, Henderson said, “I found a lot of comfort in God, knowing the God I serve is a God of justice and social justice. I really believe Jesus was the ultimate social-justice advocate.”Henderson called Blackmon's call for prayers for Wilson “the right message. What's right is not always the easy thing. I'm glad we have people like her who remind us that frustration can't be what leads us.”Rosetta James of Florissant — who, at 76, is old enough to remember when most of the white congregants left the church when its first black pastor arrived — said she was praying for the protesters to pursue change, but “we also pray for the police.”“We all pray to the same God,” James said, adding: “Police are praying too.”Blackmon asked congregants to pray for the police, for Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, and for themselves. “Because none of us will ever be the same.”

On the surface, it's a perfectly fine story.

But after reading it the first time, something gnawed at me, even if I couldn't quite place my concern. So I read it again. And again.

Finally, it struck me: the Times went to a church but didn't really go to church. Do you know what I mean?

 

Between the headline and the story, variations of the word "pray" appear a dozen times. The pastor asks about prayer. Parishioners talk about prayer.

But nobody ever actually prays.

What was the content of the actual prayers said Sunday at this church? What did the pastor or others say to God? Did the pastor or others actually pray for the white officer? If so, what did they say?

What songs did the congregation sing? Did those hymns relate to the "pressures that have gripped the region?"

What Bible verses were quoted? Did any Scriptures speak to the big picture in Ferguson?

On such questions, the Times remains absolutely silent — like a song without a melody. And that's what's missing from this story.

Categories: Main

So when is it OK for a bishop to call President Barack Obama a 'sodomite'?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

This was certainly the strangest URL anyone sent me this week.

When I saw that an Episcopal bishop had called the president a sodomite I assumed that the problem in this story was that we were dealing with an "Episcopal" bishop -- a leader in some kind of fringe, buy-yourself-a-mitre church -- rather than a real, live leader in the liberal Episcopal Church establishment. As it turned out, the WLRN website was actually writing about a mainstream, and thus culturally liberal, Episcopalian.

So what the heck?

Eventually, this story or essay gets to the point, underneath the headline: "What Bishop Frade May Have Meant When He Called President Obama A Sodomite." But first, the story had to explain that this bishop was actually a good guy.

Miami's downtrodden, disenfranchised and undocumented probably have no greater friend than Bishop Leopold Frade, spiritual leader of Southeast Florida's 33,000 Episcopalians.The Cuba-born clergyman -- once the Bishop of Honduras -- authorized the South Florida diocese's first same-sex wedding in 2012. Five years before that, he demanded that the Bush Administration give protected status to 101 Haitians refugees who had washed ashore in South Florida after a three-week ordeal at sea. Even earlier, he was convicted of trading with the enemy for helping Cuban refugees make it to Florida after the Mariel boatlift (the conviction later was overturned).

Thus, there was no surprise that Frade was actually, on immigration, voicing a policy that was politically to the left (I guess, if left vs. right applies in this case) of President Obama.

So the stance was no surprise. The words? That's another matter. 

"It is horrible," Frade, in his purple robes, shouted from the steps of  Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, "to see the people being deported, being separated from their children, being separated from the people that they love because we have insisted on not doing what we need to do as a country."But here’s where it did get strange. In his anger over the country's dysfunctional immigration system, the bishop called the president a nasty name: sodomite."He has been the president that has deported more people than even Bush did!" Frade said. "And I am asking President Obama to stop being a sodomite!"And he repeated it in Spanish for the Hispanic media: "Es la hora de decirle al Presidente Obama que deje de ser un sodomita!"

Now, if you were dealing with a quote that loaded, when and where would you deal with that material in your news report?

Right. As soon as freaking possible.

That's not what happened in this case. The WLRN team waited until the very end of the piece to explain that there is a liberal take on the biblical story of Sodom and that this liberal bishop was not belting out a insult. Well maybe this was an insult, but, you know, this liberal Anglican was not yelling THAT insult.

So what was going on?

At the very first level of analysis, no one has accused the president of being gay. And even if Obama were gay, Frade's background suggests he would have no problem with it.

Uh, tell me more.

Ezekiel 16, cited by the bishop, reads like a condemnation of female sexuality as might be heard from, say, a member of ISIS. But it becomes apparent that the slutty, ungrateful woman getting all the grief is actually a metaphor for Jerusalem, which the Lord is berating for enjoying unearned wealth and beauty while giving no help or comfort to the poor and needy. Then, there's a comparison to Jerusalem's "sisters," Samaria and that champion sin city of all time, Sodom.So, then: being this kind of sodomite, as Bishop Frade perhaps inadequately explained to the immigration rally, is wallowing in undeserved luxury while ignoring one's duty to the needy. In his view, perhaps a perfect indictment of the U.S. and its Congress and its approach to immigration."This was the sin of your sister Sodom," Frade bellowed as the immigrant activists darted worried glances at each other. "She and her towns, they felt very proud of all the abundance that they had, all the food they have, enjoying all their comfort. But they never help the poor and needy. They became proud and they did things that I detest."

So this was a good use of the word "sodomite," you see.

I don't know about you, but I would have found a way to put that plot twist a bit higher in the report.

Categories: Main

Scripture, social media and online comments: Post on President Obama quoting the Bible offers a case study

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Some big websites are cutting comment sections. Social media and trolls are 2 reasons http://t.co/Tm38TifQSk @cnntech pic.twitter.com/hzn3XyMKvH

— CNN (@CNN) November 21, 2014

It's probably appropriate that I came across this CNN story via Twitter:

(CNN) -- Online comments are on the way out.Influential tech blog Re/code announced Thursday that it has shut off the comment forums on its story pages. Instead, the website is steering commenters to social media."We thought about this decision long and hard, since we do value reader opinion," co-executive editor Kara Swisher wrote. "But we concluded that, as social media has continued its robust growth, the bulk of discussion of our stories is increasingly taking place there, making onsite comments less and less used and less and less useful."The announcement was just the latest in a recent wave of prominent websites removing or significantly scaling back their comment sections. Reuters, Popular Science and the Chicago Sun-Times have recently nixed comments.Fairly or not, comment forums have gained a reputation as a haven for Internet trolls. Several of the sites that have banned comments noted the lack of civility in their decisions.

The Washington Post also highlighted the issue:

The case against comments http://t.co/udctGJhvDa

— Washington Post (@washingtonpost) November 23, 2014

Back in July, Christianity Today dropped comments on some articles:

Why many of our comment sections are going away… http://t.co/5LeUuvndF9 (Reply with any feedback! That's what we're here for.)

— Christianity Today (@CTmagazine) July 31, 2014

CT Editor Mark Galli noted:

At their best, online comments sections sustain vibrant, respectful, and diverse conversations. That's true on some of our own blogs and channels, we're happy to say. But too often, our efforts to carefully and thoughtfully report on controversial subjects have been swamped by comments that do not reflect the mutual respect and civil conversation we want to promote.

However, Galli invited readers to keep the discussion going via Facebook, Twitter and other outlets.

At GetReligion, we still attempt — as best we can — to moderate comments. Still, in my nearly five years of writing for this journalism-focused website, I have noticed a decline in both the number and quality of comments. Often, the best feedback and conversations about GetReligion come via social media.

Scripture makes top of @NYTimes front page, but which one?: http://t.co/LfCTVsIF0V #religion #journalism pic.twitter.com/Tree4z7iuh

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) November 21, 2014

A recent example: My Friday post on President Barack Obama quoting a Scripture in his immigration speech generated an interesting exchange on Twitter.

In that post, I mentioned a tweet by James A. Smith Sr., chief spokesman for the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.:

"Scripture." Which one, Mr. President?

— James A. Smith Sr. ن (@JamesASmithSr) November 21, 2014

I remarked:

Of course, not everyone agreed with Obama's selection of Scripture, and Smith's question above may or may not have been an editorial comment (I honestly don't know).

Smith replied to my question on Twitter:

@bobbyross @GetReligion Thanks. I intended a broader matter: which religion's Scripture since he didn't cite the verse or say "Bible." ...

— James A. Smith Sr. ن (@JamesASmithSr) November 21, 2014

@bobbyross @GetReligion Did he want the benefit of citing the Bible without offending other religions? None of which undermines your point.

— James A. Smith Sr. ن (@JamesASmithSr) November 21, 2014

That prompted this discussion including Bob Smietana, president of the Religion Newswriters Association: 

@JamesASmithSr @bobbyross @GetReligion The ever helpful @ReligionReport stylebook has the answer on "Scripture" http://t.co/tYPtHOJ5ed

— Bob Smietana (@bobsmietana) November 21, 2014

@bobsmietana @JamesASmithSr Interesting. @apstylebook also says to capitalize when referring to the religious writings in the Bible.

— Bobby Ross Jr. (@bobbyross) November 21, 2014

@bobsmietana @JamesASmithSr @GetReligion @ReligionReport But not sure readers make that leap (hey, it's capitalized, so it's from the Bible)

— Bobby Ross Jr. (@bobbyross) November 21, 2014

@bobbyross @JamesASmithSr @GetReligion @ReligionReport good point. Most folks would still get the reference, I think.

— Bob Smietana (@bobsmietana) November 21, 2014

Alas, that's the kind of conversation that — when I joined GetReligion in March 2010 — might have occurred in our own comments section. 

Now, many readers find it easier and perhaps more personal to engage on a social media platform.

We welcome the discussion wherever you want to have it, even as we urge you to keep reading and sharing what we write at GetReligion.

Encourage your friends to follow @GetReligion & the GetReligionistas: @tweetmattingly, @mypeacebook, @scribefla, @bobbyross & @geoconger.

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) November 23, 2014
Categories: Main

Do 'evangelicals' in the Church of England support or oppose female bishops? Yes

Saturday, November 22, 2014

For the past 20-plus years, the overwhelming majority of my students have come from schools that could, to one degree or another, accurately be described as part of "evangelical" Protestant life here in America.

Yes, there are quotes around the word "evangelical," not because the word is scary, but because many people, including journalists, are not sure what it means.

Early on, most of my students -- when asked what kind of church they attend -- would have described themselves as part of flocks that were "independent," "nondenominational" and "evangelical." A few would have added the word "charismatic." The common denominator, however, was the word "evangelical."

Then, about six or seven years ago, that totally changed. Oh, most of my students still come from schools that can be called "evangelical." Most grew up in "evangelical" churches and most still attend churches that can be called "evangelical" to one degree or another. However, many if not most students are now backing away from that word -- "evangelical."

The reason why is pretty obvious: "Evangelical" has become a political term in public discourse. We are now a full decade since Time magazine named Sen. Rick Santorum, an loyal Catholic, as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America. I found that strange, so I called Time to ask about it. I was told that that they knew Santorum was a Catholic, but that he "voted like an evangelical."

This topic -- call it "Define 'evangelical' -- give three examples" -- has been discussed many times here at GetReligion and it came up again this week during our latest Crossroads podcast, when host Todd Wilken and I talked about the long-awaited decision to allow female bishops in the Church of England. Click here to listen to that or subscribe at iTunes.

In my post on that topic, I noted that The New York Times described the opposition to female bishops among one group of English evangelicals, but failed to note that the vast majority of evangelicals in the Anglican world -- especially among charismatic Anglicans -- actually support the ordination of women.

Once again, the word "evangelical" was just in a simplistic and shallow manner -- the generic backwards people. At the same time, The Times team failed to note that the deepest opposition to female priests and bishops is found among Anglo-Catholics and others -- think Rome and the Orthodox East -- whose life is deeply rooted in Church tradition and centuries of doctrine on such matters.

Whatever the word "evangelical" means, in the current context, it is hard to link it to the word "tradition" and certainly note to "Tradition," with a big "T." Evangelicalism is largely a phenomenon of contemporary culture and, well, "niche" culture.

Thus, the word is hard to define and, far too often, the political noise drowns out most rational discussion on this topic. Don't take my word for this. Loyal GetReligion readers (or those who follow my column) may remember the following from 2004:

Ask Americans to rank the world’s most influential evangelicals and the Rev. Billy Graham will lead the list.So you might assume that the world’s most famous evangelist has an easy answer for this tricky political question: “What does the word ‘evangelical’ mean?” If you assumed this, you would be wrong. In fact, Graham once bounced that question right back at me.“Actually, that’s a question I’d like to ask somebody, too,” he said, during a 1987 interview in his mountainside home office in Montreat, N.C. This oft-abused term has “become blurred. ... You go all the way from the extreme fundamentalists to the extreme liberals and, somewhere in between, there are the evangelicals.”Wait a minute, I said. If Billy Graham doesn’t know what “evangelical” means, then who does? Graham agreed that this is a problem for journalists and historians. One man’s “evangelical” is another’s “fundamentalist.” ...Long ago, Graham stressed that this term most be understood in doctrinal terms, if it is to be understood at all. He finally defined an “evangelical” as someone who believes all the doctrines in the ancient Nicene Creed. Graham stressed the centrality of the resurrection and the belief that salvation is through Jesus, alone.

But who gets to determine what is, and what is not, "evangelical" doctrine? This is why it's so important to realize that evangelicalism is a movement, a subcultural or a market niche -- not an organization, a tradition or, well, even a church. It is also not a political party, as anyone who has studied this topic in America and the Third World would know.

So, should the Times team have noted that many Anglican evangelicals support female bishops? Should the world's most powerful newspaper have noted that the opposition to female bishops could best be described as "catholic" rather than "evangelical"? Certainly.

Will "evangelicalism," whatever that is, divide on other crucial issues in the future? Obviously, because that is already happening. Is there an "evangelical" left? Of course there is. Will it be larger and more powerful in the future? Of course it will. 

Why is that? Culture evolves. Is there an evangelical "tradition" to prevent that from happening in many "evangelical" pulpits and pews? Editors at The Times and in other newsrooms need to pay attention to that.

In the end, what is the doctrinal content of the "evangelical" movement and subculture? The bottom line: That depends on who you ask.

So let's be careful out there.

Categories: Main

When they want your head: Veteran journalist tells risks of Middle East reporting

Friday, November 21, 2014

 At some point, reporters in the Middle East stopped covering murders and started getting murdered.

Jeffrey Goldberg remembers the turning point in Before the Beheadings, an aptly named article in The Atlantic. Goldberg once enjoyed his dangerous beat, covering terrorism and religious wars in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East.  

At least he did, until the danger spread to reporters like himself -- a danger that preceded the killings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff this year:

The attacks of 9/11 weren’t the decisive break in the relationship between jihadists and journalists. It was the decision made by a set of extremists in Pakistan to kidnap the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in January 2002 that represented a shift in jihadist thought. To his kidnappers, Pearl was not a messenger to the outside world, but a scapegoat to be sacrificed for the sins of his fellow infidels. Murder was becoming their message.

Goldberg's first-person essay describes the paradoxical sense of danger and safety in reporting on various jihad groups. He writes about interviewing terrorist leaders on willingness to use nuclear bombs if available, and on how one even thought the Jews were "from Satan." But the jihadis gave safe passage to reporters in order to tell their stories via news media.

Goldberg describes one such meeting, with Pakistani terrorist Fazlur Rehman Khalil:

I had glimpsed a treacherous and secret subculture, and I was happy, because a reporter’s deepest need is to see what is on the other side of a closed door. In exchange, I would tell people in the West about Khalil and his beliefs. I was appalled by his message, and I wanted readers to understand the horror of it. But Khalil believed he was doing good works, and he wanted the world to celebrate his philosophy. Back then, the transaction worked for both parties. Today, when I think about the meeting, I shudder.

He relates a fellow journalist's attitude: “I used to tell people that as a reporter for an American news organization, it was like we were wearing armor. “People just didn’t go after American reporters.”

Until, of course, they did -- starting with Daniel Pearl in 2002. At the time, other newsmen thought it was because Pearl was Jewish; after all, he declared himself a Jew on video before his captors cut his throat and beheaded him.

"Non-Jewish reporters, meanwhile, could tell themselves that Danny’s death had more to do with his religion than his profession," Goldberg says. Why he didn't take alarm personally -- as both a Jew and a journalist -- he doesn't say.

What happened? One factor, he says, is that "extremists have become more extreme," noting that the Islamic State is too violent even for Al-Qaida. Another factor is the rise of social media, wiping out the need to tolerate reporters.

"There is no need for a middleman now," Goldberg says. "Journalists have been replaced by YouTube and Twitter. And when there is no need for us, we become targets."

That explanation, however, doesn't account for Nicholas Berg, who was beheaded two years after Pearl. Berg wasn’t a reporter -- he was a freelance communications worker -- but he was an increasingly religious Jew who worked with American Jewish World Service and believed in tikkun olam, repairing the world through good deeds. He also had an Israeli stamp on his passport, a fact not lost on inmates in an Iraqi jail where he was held. The coverage doesn't establish Berg's Jewishness as a factor in his death, but I'd rate it a strong possibility.

Goldberg confesses himself a bit haunted by his advice to young reporters. He once highly recommended Middle Eastern reporting to younger journalists: "save some money, go learn Arabic, be a newspaper stringer, grab for the big stories, and you’ll have an interesting life."

One of those he advised was Steven Sotloff. "I prefer to think that he could not have been dissuaded," Goldberg says understandably.

To me, a subtler horror -- if there's such a thing -- was revealed in this paragraph:

I no longer spend much time with Islamist groups. Today, even places that shouldn’t be dangerous for journalists are dangerous. Whole stretches of Muslim countries are becoming off-limits. This is a minor facet of a much larger calamity, but it has consequences: the problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan and Syria and Iraq are not going away; our ability to see these problems, however, is becoming progressively more circumscribed.

That amounts to one of the biggest crimes of the jihadis. They behead a select, tragic few. But they blind the rest of us as much as they can.

The fact that any journalists still try to report from the region -- in spite of the difficulties and outright threats -- testifies to their courage and calls for our gratitude.

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Sports Illustrated shuns the 'Christian' label in story of suicide, reality TV and hoops

Friday, November 21, 2014

I don't know about you, but there are times when I can start reading a news feature and, even though there are no hints in the headlines, photographs or pull quotes, I can just tell that a religion shoe is going to drop sooner or later. 

That's how I felt when I started the epic Sports Illustrated story called "Love, Loss and Survival" about the struggles of New Orleans Pelicans forward Ryan Anderson after his long-time girlfriend, reality-television star Gia Allemand, committed suicide. Read the opening lines of this story and see if you can spot the first clue:

The argument began, as so many do, over something small and seemingly insignificant. Ryan Anderson can’t even remember what it was. A text message? An offhand comment?Then the quarrel grew, gaining strength. It carried over from lunch at a restaurant to the drive home, Gia Allemand’s voice growing louder. By the time Ryan dropped her at her apartment, in the Warehouse District of New Orleans, around six on the evening of Aug. 12, 2013, they’d said things they could never take back, and Gia’s anger had morphed into something else, dark yet strangely calm. Upon returning to his apartment, two long blocks away on Tchoupitoulas Street, Ryan flipped on a single light and slumped on the couch. All around were reminders of his relationship with Gia.

Spot it? I knew something was up the minute I read that he dropped her off at her apartment and then drove back to his own apartment. What? An NBA star who is seriously involved with a beautiful television celebrity and they are not living together? 

Now, it's important to know that I first read this lengthy feature in an actual tree-pulp edition of the magazine. We'll come back to why that matters in just a minute.

As I dug deeper into the text, I started hitting other clues that something was up.

Perhaps it was the references to Anderson being "different" from other NBA players and how, after the suicide, he went to the home of head coach Monty Williams and his wife Ingrid, where they huddled "in prayer" for hours. A pastor appears, at one point. Then the story detailed the romantic chaos of Allemand's non-TV life, which took a turn for the better when she "found God and soon after met Ryan, a strong, stable man from a strong, stable family."

Then, after the suicide, Anderson fell to pieces and pretty much shut down all links to the outside world, choosing to spend his time "reading his Bible in silence." Meanwhile, the tabloids went wild with what the magazine calls the obvious tabloid trifecta of "sex, celebrity and death." Anderson remained close to Gia's mother -- Gia’s mom, Donna Micheletti -- and to his coach. The coach never tried to pressure him back out onto the court. Instead, Williams sent his star Bible verses.

Are you beginning to think that there might be a specific, powerful religion hook in this story? If so, it was not worth a line or two of SI ink to articulate and name.

The story ends with Anderson trying to grasp the many demons that haunted Gia linked to her dysfunctional family, a complicated medical condition and her struggles to trust a man after being burned so many times in her past. He works through a career-threatening injury to his neck and comes out the other side stronger and more committed to helping organizations that try to help people who are tempted to take their own lives.

Now, that's the print version -- lots of character and signs of faith, with no specifics.

You have to wonder what happened in the editing, because the extended-cut that is available online -- perhaps this is the story that reporter Chris Ballard wrote -- offers a crucial addition to the pivotal passage that kicks the story into high gear:

The first thing Ryan saw upon entering Gia’s fourth-floor apartment were her knees. His recollections of what followed are fragmentary. His screaming and running to her. The vacuum-cleaner cord hanging from the second-floor handrail of the spiral staircase, so tight around her neck that at first he couldn’t loosen it. Gia’s dog, Bentley, running to him. A neighbor arriving and dialing 911 as Ryan tried to revive Gia. Seeing the three-word note in her handwriting on the dining room table:Mom gets everything. Paramedics rushing in. Ryan calling Donna. Donna cursing at him, screaming that he knew Gia was sensitive, that he was supposed to protect her. The police pushing through the door. Ryan answering questions, sobbing, blaming himself. Pelicans coach Monty Williams hurrying in with a team security guard and finding Ryan slumped on the carpet, his back to the door, unable to rise. Williams dropping to his knees and hugging his player, the two men rocking back and forth.For Williams, the night was a test of sorts. A fourth-year coach, Williams had played at Notre Dame and then for five NBA teams. He and Anderson were unusually close. Both men were Christians, and they bonded immediately despite the vast differences in their backgrounds. Williams grew up poor and once, at Notre Dame, considered suicide. That didn’t make it any easier to relate to Anderson now, however. Everyone’s pain is different.As a crowd milled outside the apartment complex, Williams and the security guard hoisted up Ryan, who was limp and drenched with tears and sweat, too hysterical even to walk. They dragged Ryan to the elevator and then into a waiting car, the tops of his feet, still wedged into flip-flops, scraping the asphalt so hard that his toes still bear thick white calluses more than a year later.

Now that wasn't hard, was it? Why did editors put that middle paragraph on the digital cutting-room floor?

Simply naming the ghost in the story didn't send the plot zooming off into Religion-Right land, did it? If anything, making the faith element more explicit only makes this tragic story more real and complicated. Even with the ties of love and faith in this couple, the demons that haunted this young woman's life remained present and powerful.

Pews contain hurting people, too. Religious organizations need to get involved with suicide networks. It's OK to state the obvious, isn't it? Even if that means printing an explicit reference to Christianity in a Sports Illustrated news feature?

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Don't oppress a stranger: President Obama quotes Scripture in his immigration speech, but which one?

Friday, November 21, 2014

There it is — right there on the front page of today's New York Timesa Scripture:

WASHINGTON — President Obama chose confrontation over conciliation on Thursday as he asserted the powers of the Oval Office to reshape the nation’s immigration system and all but dared members of next year’s Republican-controlled Congress to reverse his actions on behalf of millions of immigrants.In a 15-minute address from the East Room of the White House that sought to appeal to a nation’s compassion, Mr. Obama told Americans that deporting millions is “not who we are” and cited Scripture, saying, “We shall not oppress a stranger for we know the heart of a stranger — we were strangers once, too.”

The White House Blog highlighted that quote, as did many on social media:

Scripture tells us we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger—we were strangers once too. http://t.co/ZvtXHD8TUz

— Patrick Wintour (@patrickwintour) November 21, 2014

But James A. Smith, chief spokesman for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., asked an obvious question:

"Scripture." Which one, Mr. President?

— James A. Smith Sr. ن (@JamesASmithSr) November 21, 2014

Then again, maybe it wasn't such an obvious question to everyone.

The Times didn't bother to specify which of the 31,173 verses in the Bible that Obama referenced.

Neither did Reuters, NPR or the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which focused on Astrid Silva, a local immigration activist singled out by Obama:

Astrid remained in the shadows until her grandmother, who used to visit from Mexico every year, died and she couldn’t travel to the funeral without the risk of being deported, he said.“It was around that time she decided to begin advocating for herself and others like her, and today, Astrid Silva is a college student working on her third degree,” Obama said. “Are we a nation that kicks out a striving, hopeful immigrant like Astrid, or are we a nation that finds a way to welcome her in? Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger — we were strangers once, too.”

So, if a journalist wanted to track down the location of such a Scriptural reference, where might he or she start? Personally, I use a tool called Google.

London's Daily Mail is the only news organization that I could find that specified a verse (please share links in the comments section if I missed others):

He also quoted the Old Testament – Exodus chapter 22, verse 21.'Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger,' the president said, 'for we know the heart of a stranger – we were strangers once, too.'

Exodus 22:21 (New American Standard Bible) says:

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

The Daily Mail also could have mentioned Exodus 23:9 (again from the New American Standard Bible):

You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Of course, not everyone agreed with Obama's selection of Scripture, and Smith's question above may or may not have been an editorial comment (I honestly don't know):

Obama missed this Scripture in his immigration talk: Romans 13:1. Also Titus 3:1.

— Dana Loesch (@DLoesch) November 21, 2014

Romans 13:1 says:

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.

Undoubtedly, politics — not religion — will determine the outcome of immigration reform in America.

But when major news organizations such as the Times quote politicians citing Scripture, it would be nice if they'd specify which one.

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The Guy poses this question: So what does the Bible teach about polygamy?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

THE RELIGION GUY:

Nobody has yet posted a question about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. “Mormon” or “LDS”) acknowledging delicate details about founding Prophet Joseph Smith’s polygamy, but The Guy decided he ought to examine the classic matter of how the Bible views polygamy.

Smith declared that God was simply using him to restore “plural marriage” (the church prefers that term to “polygamy”) that was divinely inspired in the Old Testament. A major interpretive question affects such Old Testament issues, including slavery. Did God command, or commend, a practice, or did he merely avoid punishing what humans were doing on their own? If the Bible recounts an action without tacking on moralistic criticism, does that signal divine endorsement, or only recording of facts that may be problematic?

Mormons are correct that there was “polygyny” (one husband, multiple wives) in the Old Testament, though not the “polyandry” (one wife, multiple husbands) that Smith also practiced. LDS Scripture disagrees with the Bible by listing Isaac as polygamous. As for others the church cites: Abraham married both Sarah and Keturah, though the latter perhaps after Sarah died, with Sarah’s urging took servant Hagar as a concubine to produce offspring, and had other concubines. Jacob married two sisters, Leah and Rachel, because of their father’s trickery, and each sister later gave Jacob servant girls as wives to produce more offspring. Moses had two wives. Polygamy was often associated with the ruling class, as with Kings David and Solomon. The latter overdid it with 700 wives and 300 cocubines (1 Kings 11:3), ignoring God’s rule that the king “shall not multiply wives for himself” (Deuteronomy 17:17).

The traditional Jewish and Christian belief is that the biblical God established monogamy as the ideal (Genesis 2:18-25). Though Old Testament law permitted polygamy, the Bible often linked it with evil, envy, family strife, and spiritual and moral decline. Lamech, the first polygamist, was the symbol of brutality. Moses’ second marriage stirred opposition to his leadership. Solomon’s harem “turned away his heart after other gods.” And so forth. The later biblical prophets embraced monogamy to symbolize union with God. Mainstream Christianity from its earliest days required monogamy due to Jesus’ scriptural teaching (Matthew 19:5, Mark 10:7-8, Luke 16:28).

In LDS history, polygamy was a major cause of persecution, including Smith’s own assassination in 1844. Church authorities openly proclaimed their formerly hidden practice in 1852 but then abolished it in the 1890 “Manifesto” following fierce U.S. government and culture pressures (though the polygamy command remains in the LDS Scriptures and the faith’s theology of heaven).

Continue reading "What does the Bible teach about polygamy?" by Richard Ostling.

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Crucial, symbolic details in the Jerusalem attack: Why the 'Twersky' name was so important

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Anyone who wants to follow the daily flow of news and commentary -- light and serious -- about Jewish life knows that they need to be signed up for the daily newsletters from The Forward. I mean where else are you going to turn for key questions linked to the music of Pink Floyd?

Seriously, readers looking for the fine details on the lives of those lost in this week's bloody slaughter in the West Jerusalem synagogue (click here for the earlier Jim Davis post on the coverage) knew what they would find in the wave of coverage at The Forward. Whose blood was shed with those guns and knives and that ax? What made this attack so unique and disturbing? This is what specialty publications do -- offer depth.

In this case, that meant grasping the symbolic details at the heart of trends in modern Orthodox Judaism.

It was all about the names "Twersky" and "Soloveitchik." This was, as is so often the case in Jewish news, about the past, the present and the future.

Rabbi Moshe Twersky, murdered in a bloody Jerusalem terror attack on November 18, bore the last name of one of the most illustrious families in Hasidic Europe. But he also was the “truest disciple” of his grandfather, Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, the founder of Modern Orthodoxy in America, Twersky’s brother-in-law told the Forward.Twersky, the scion of two famed Ashkenazic rabbinic dynasties, was slain in a West Jerusalem synagogue during morning prayers.Friends mourned Twersky’s loss, and the loss of the connection Twersky represented to Soloveitchik, known in Modern Orthodox circles as the Rav. “Moshe was the apple of the Rav’s eye,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union’s Kosher Division and a lifelong friend of Twersky’s. “I would have to say the most special relationship the Rav had, in terms of this sense of continuity … was with Moshe as he was growing up.”

But here was the passage that, for me, made this story -- using a symbolic detail from religious life to stand for an era of change affecting millions of practicing Jews, in Israel as well as in Europe and North America.

Twersky had a gold-plated Orthodox pedigree, the product of an unusual union between the Hasidic Twersky dynasty and the Lithuanian Soloveitchik dynasty. His parents’ marriage, which united the two lines, was analogous, perhaps, to a theoretical union of a Bush and a Clinton.“It was a bridge between the Hasidic world and the non-Hasidic world,” said Yitz Twersky, a distant cousin and a family historian. “It was a big deal.”A photo of the wedding between Moshe’s parents, Rabbi Isadore Twersky and Dr. Atarah Twersky, shows Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in a modern-style top hat and Isadore’s father, Meshulam Zulia Twersky, in a Hasidic-style fur hat. The distinction might seem marginal to secular eyes, but to the Orthodox it signified vast differences in ideology and tradition.

By all means, read it all. This is what specialty reporting does, of course. It's like turning to Christianity Today for the fine details of mainstream and progressive evangelical Protestantism, with added criticism from World critiquing the details of the fine details.

So it is not a surprise that the team at The Forward jumped into action at the first mention of the name "Twersky."

However, let me note the outstanding job done -- early on, in a crucial sidebar -- by the foreign desk at The Washington Post on this same subject. This piece did a fine job of explaining the blood ties and symbolic details that made this event so powerful for English-speaking Jews in Jerusalem and in global networks linked to that city. The lede:

Rabbi Mosheh Twersky, scion of two of Orthodox Judaism’s most storied families and a well-known teacher himself, lived a life of Torah and prayers. He died while worshiping Tuesday in a Jerusalem synagogue, wrapped in a prayer shawl and with a black box holding scripture affixed to his forehead, part of the morning ritual of the Orthodox Jew.

The following passage is long, but crucial. This is fine, fine writing on deadline in the midst of chaos.

Might I also add that this is the kind of detail and experiential depth missing in so much of modern journalism on religion and a host of other complicated topics, in an era when red ink in the news business has led to the closing of so many foreign bureaus staffed with veteran scribes.

He came “from a family of princes,” said Rabbi Marc Penner, dean of Yeshiva University in New York, the flagship school of Modern Orthodoxy in the United States. Twersky’s brother, Mayer, is one of the “heads” of the university, where a prayer meeting was held Tuesday.“We talk about six degrees of separation, but the Jewish people are more like a family. It’s more like one or two degrees of separation,” Penner said. “I think that when one of the victims hits so close to home, it reminds us that whenever there’s a tragedy on either side, it’s an entire world that’s snuffed out.”Judaism calls for the dead to be buried as quickly as possible, and the narrow streets of Har Nof were a sea of black streaming to funerals for the victims.“Wrapped in a prayer shawl and phylacteries, the four victims were massacred, and numerous more suffered injuries,” Rabbi Yitzchak Mordechai Rubin, chief rabbi of the Bnei Torah synagogue in Har Nof, said at the joint funeral, according to the Times of Israel. “We have passed from a private state of mourning to a public one.”Phylacteries is another way of describing tefillin, which are spiritual devices, made of leather and a small black box, containing prayers. They are worn on a man’s forehead, connecting hands, head and heart.

For journalists, it is sad that some of this material needed to be drawn -- attributed, second-hand -- from newspapers close to the story. Does the Post still have a bureau in Jerusalem? Whatever. This was amazing work on the foreign desk, under great pressure and constraints of all kinds.

Categories: Main

This Patti's got no beef with Francis: Daily News on rocker Smith's tangled road to Rome

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Veteran Daily News rock critic Jim Farber made a rare venture into Godbeat yesterday with a story on Patti Smith's response to criticism over her planned performance at the Vatican's Christmas concert. Although Farber bases his piece upon a report in The Guardian, he improves upon his source by adding substantial recent background on Smith's faith journey.

The lede is provocative, like Smith herself:

Patti Smith wasn’t sorry for her words then - and she isn’t sorry for her actions now.Last week, the Godmother of Punk drew criticism from all sides after accepting the invitation of Pope Francis to sing at the Vatican’s upcoming Christmas concert.One Italian Catholic organization labeled the star “blasphemous.” Meanwhile, some hipsters found Smith’s proposed appearance hypocritical, considering she opened her very first album, "Horses,” with the famous sneer, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins/but not mine.”On Tuesday, Smith answered her critics during a talk at the Museum of The Moving Image in New York. After being asked about the controversy by The Guardian’s Vivien Goldman, who was in the audience, the rocker said, “I like Pope Francis and I’m happy to sing for him. Anyone who would confine me to a line from 20 years ago is a fool.”

Farber then goes into rock-historian mode. By his own admission, he's been writing about music since the Ford Administration, and he's well familiar with Smith's oeuvre:

Actually, the line comes from 40 years ago, kicking off a song called “Gloria (In Excelsis Deo).” The track melded Smith’s own transgressive poetry with a cover of Van Morrison’s ‘60s hit with his band Them, “Gloria.”

Then comes the closest thing Smith offers to a mea culpa

“I had a strong religious upbringing and the first word on my first LP is Jesus,” Smith explained. “I did a lot of thinking. I’m not against Jesus, but I was 20 and I wanted to make my own mistakes. And I didn’t want anyone dying for me. I stand behind that 20 year old girl, but I have evolved. I’ll sing to my enemy! I don’t like being pinned down and I’ll say what the f--k I want - especially at my age.” (Smith is now 67). 

Granted, Smith's coarse language (which, unlike a famous slip by Francis, was clearly intentional) won't win her any awards among Catholics who value reverence. Still, as Farber goes on to observe, there are indications she's been God-haunted for a while, and more so in recent years:

The poet-rocker has often used religious imagery in her work, for a variety of purposes. She titled her most popular album, 1978’s “Easter,” and included in the disc lyrics that quote Psalm 23. On the cover, a cross was placed on the credits below each band member’s name. The last sentence of the liner notes quotes the Second Epistle to Timothy: "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course..."The legendary rocker first met the Pope last spring, shaking his hand in St. Peter’s Square. She has called Pope Francis “very interesting.”...Recently, Smith told The Independent newspaper in the U.K. that she finds the Bible “very resonant” today."It has everything – creation, betrayal, lust, poetry, prophecy, sacrifice," Smith told the paper. "It doesn't really matter what religion you are or if you have no religion, those stories are still relevant to what people go through in their lives and they're also beautifully written passages."

One thing Farber neglects to note, perhaps for reasons of space, is that the topic of the Bible was raised in Smith's Independent interview because the singer had written a song for the film "Noah" on one of Pope Francis's favorite topics -- mercy.

On a side note, numerous other bits of evidence of Smith's interest in Christian faith are afloat on the Internet. Watch this remarkable clip of her giving an irony-free rendition of "You Light Up My Life" in 1979 on the children's show "Kids Are People Too." In the interview prior to her performance, she tells the host that her earliest vocational desire was to be a missionary:

More recently, the singer kicked off an interview by discussing her admiration for Pope Benedict XV. No, that's not a typo -- she really has a sort of devotion to Pope Benedict XV, the one who, as she notes, tried to prevent World War I:

And, prior to Francis's election, Smith, in her poet mode, engaged an audience in saying a prayer popularly credited to another Francis -- the saint of Assisi:

Could Smith be heading from the Ark of "Noah" to the Barque of Peter? Or is the punk poet simply stuck between rock and a bard place?


Photo by Daigo Oliva from São Paulo (originally posted to Flickr), via Wikimedia Commons

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