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Colorado Springs motives? So far, one is clear: Pro-life pastor/officer died defending life

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Faced with headlines about violence at an abortion facility, the late Cardinal John O'Connor of New York City took to the pulpit and, digging into the writings of the Catholic Catechism, Pope John Paul II and Gandhi, stated the obvious. Do you remember that very candid quote?

"If anyone has an urge to kill someone at an abortion clinic, they should shoot me," said the late Cardinal John O'Connor, preaching to his New York City flock in 1994. "It's madness. It discredits the right-to-life movement. Murder is murder. It's madness. You cannot prevent killing by killing."

The cardinal added, in an online forum:

"Where does this spiral end? How is it limited? Surely, we are all as tired of abortion as we are tired of murder. But we must fight murder without conforming to it or condoning it," wrote the cardinal. ... Let us attend to God's revelation: 'Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good' (Romans 12: 21).

Now, I bring this up as law officials in Colorado Springs begin the process of digging into the history of the man arrested as the gunman in the horrifying standoff at a Planned Parenthood. Apparently, Robert Lewis Dear has a previous criminal record.

And what about motive? Here is a recent update, as posted at The Colorado Springs Gazette:

The Associated Press reports Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers says authorities aren't ready to discuss a possible motive of the gunman who attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic there, but says people can make "inferences from where it took place."Suthers says investigators have interviewed Dear, but that authorities still want to learn more about him, suggesting that his mental health was part of the investigation.

Now in this case, the tragic reality is that it is much easier to articulate the motives of the local police officer who was one of the first responders and lost his life in the fighting.

The officer's name: The Rev. Garrett Swasey.

Are you seeing that title -- "The Rev." -- in front of his name? I put it there because of information included in the sidebar printed this morning by The New York Times.

Garrett Swasey, 44, the University of Colorado Colorado Springs police officer who was shot and killed while responding to a shooting at a Planned Parenthood office, was described by his fellow church members and friends as a courageous man and loving father who drew strength and inspiration from his Christian faith.He was married, with two young children, and had been on the campus police force for six years. He also spent seven years as a co-pastor at Hope Chapel in Colorado Springs. “Here’s a guy who worked full time as a police officer, and then gave a great amount of time to his local church and didn’t get a dime for it,” said Scott Dontanville, a co-pastor who knew Officer Swasey for 15 years. “He did it because it was the thing that he felt he needed to do.”

And also:

Mr. Dontanville noted that although Officer Swasey would “disagree with the abortion industry,” it would not have been a factor in his actions on Friday.“I don’t think that was on his mind,” he said. “He was there to save lives. That’s the kind of guy he is.”

Swasey was a co-pastor of a local evangelical congregation, Hope Chapel. Click here for a recording of his final Advent sermon, Sunday before last, preaching from Hebrews 3. This congregation called it's pastors "elders," a term that is usually associated with some form of ordination.

This appears to be a pretty typical evangelical congregation and it has posted its doctrinal statements here. The statement on marriage and family makes it clear that this is a doctrinally conservative, pro-life church.

It is the belief of Hope Chapel that God has ordained the family as the foundational institution of human society. It is composed of persons related to one another by marriage, blood, or adoption. We believe marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in a covenant commitment for a lifetime. Marriage is God’s unique gift to reveal the union between Christ and His church. Marriage also provides the man and the woman the framework for intimate companionship, the channel for sexual expression according to biblical standards, and the means for procreation of the human race. ...We believe children, from the moment of conception, are a blessing and heritage from the Lord.

So at this point, we have very little information about the motives of the alleged killer and officials are being careful, as are most journalists. Some, however, are are suggesting that this attack may somehow have been inspired by the recent undercover videos released by the Center for Medical Progress, focusing on Planned Parenthood practices and the exchange of tissues from aborted children for funds (with people arguing about whether these funds represented a "sale" of the tissues or a reimbursement for the cost of handling and transfering the tissues).

However, journalists do know quite a bit about the motives of this pro-life pastor and police officer who, with his actions, made this statement to the gunman as he tried to protect people whose lives were at risk: "Shoot me."

As you read the coverage in the days ahead, look for additional information about both of these men. What were their motives? Let's see. Was the gunman acting alone? Was he linked to any organizations involved in protests against abortion? There are many questions for journalists to investigate.

On a related issue, check out this Gazette sidebar that sought reactions from local and national activists who are opposed to abortion. Here is how it opens, with reactions from a local activist in the Respect Life office of the Catholic Diocese of Colorado Springs:

Joseph Martone Jr.'s cellphone logged 61 calls and text messages Friday while he was in Las Vegas for the Thanksgiving holiday. Some people wondered if he was OK. Others were curious. Was he involved in the deadly shooting and hours long standoff at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood?No. It wasn't Martone who killed a University of Colorado at Colorado Springs police officer and two civilians and wounded nine others Friday afternoon at the clinic at 3480 Centennial Blvd."I pray it's not related to the abortion business," he said in a telephone interview Friday night. "I hope it's not about that."Although Martone is a familiar and adamant protester at the Planned Parenthood clinic -- he has been arrested three times for trespassing and served jail time and paid fines for those transgressions -- Martone said he prefers prayer over violence."It's a really sad thing, no matter what the reason," he said. "No matter how much I despise Planned Parenthood, no one deserves to go through this, and I pray for everybody involved."

There is one jarring word in that, from my perspective.

Martone "PREFERS" prayer over violence? Wait. Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that he is committed to prayer and protest, but is opposed to violence? Once again, he is part of the local Catholic pro-life network. Right?

FRONT-PAGE IMAGE: Released by the Colorado Springs Police Department.

Categories: Main

Pope Francis in Kenya: AP gets some details, but misses the 'big idea,' in his message

Friday, November 27, 2015

Pope Francis has been on the road, again, which means that it's time for more stories about the political implications of his sermons and off-the-cuff remarks to the flocks of people who gather to pray and worship with him.

This is business as usual, of course. Want to play along and see how this works in a typical Associated Press report?

OK, first we'll look at the many excellent details from one of the Kenya talks that made it into the AP report, which ran in The Washington Post with this headline: "Pope calls slum conditions in Nairobi an injustice."

As you read several chunks of the story, ask yourself this big-idea question: What does this pope believe is the ultimate cause of this injustice?

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Visiting one of Nairobi’s many shantytowns on Friday, Pope Francis denounced conditions slum-dwellers are forced to live in, saying access to safe water is a basic human right and that everyone should have dignified, adequate housing. ...In remarks to the crowd, Francis insisted that everyone should have access to water, a basic sewage system, garbage collection, electricity as well as schools, hospitals and sport facilities.“To deny a family water, under any bureaucratic pretext whatsoever, is a great injustice, especially when one profits from this need,” he said.

Now, I think it is fair to ask: Is safe water the "big idea" in this talk, or is the pope saying that safe water is a symptom of larger problems? Hold that thought, as we head back to the AP text:

Francis, known as the “slum pope” for his ministry in Buenos Aires’ shantytowns, has frequently insisted on the need for the three “Ls” -- land, labor and lodging -- and on Friday he focused on lodging as a critical issue facing the world amid rapid urbanization that is helping to upset Earth’s delicate ecological balance. ...Francis denounced the practice of private corporations grabbing land illegally, depriving schools of their playgrounds and forcing the poor into ever more tightly packed slums, where violence and addiction are rampant.

So we have more talk about economic issues and plenty of evidence that there are problems of injustice in the structures of Kenya. But is that all that is going on in these remarks by the pope? Again, what's the big idea here?

Let's head over to the ever-essential Whispers In The Loggia blog and look at the actual papal text. It appears that the larger subject, for Francis, is the struggle of ordinary people in Kenya to strive for dignity in a surrounding culture defined by materialism and commercialism. (I wonder if they have Black Friday in the slums of Kenya. Probably not.)

What is the ultimate source for this problem?

Read back through the AP story, or whatever news coverage is in your local media, and look for traces of this passage. Pope Francis stresses that he has come to praise:

... The wisdom found in poor neighbourhoods. A wisdom which is born of the “stubborn resistance” of that which is authentic," ... from Gospel values which an opulent society, anaesthetized by unbridled consumption, would seem to have forgotten. You are able “to weave bonds of belonging and togetherness which convert overcrowding into an experience of community in which the walls of the ego are torn down and the barriers of selfishness overcome.” ...

I want in first place to uphold these values which you practice, values which are not quoted in the stock exchange, are not subject to speculation, and have no market price. I congratulate you, I accompany you and I want you to know that the Lord never forgets you. The path of Jesus began on the peripheries, it goes from the poor and with the poor, towards others.

Wait a minute: What stock exchange? You mean the problem is larger than the flawed structures in Kenya that are discussed in the Associated Press report?

Let's keep reading what the pope had to say:

These realities which I have just mentioned are not a random combination of unrelated problems. They are a consequence of new forms of colonialism which would make African countries “parts of a machine, cogs on a gigantic wheel.” ... Indeed, countries are frequently pressured to adopt policies typical of the culture of waste, like those aimed at lowering the birth rate, which seek “to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized."

So the conditions addressed by the AP are, the pope says, in what I take as his thesis statement, "not a random combination of unrelated problems." The bigger issue, from his perspective, is that Africa is being jammed into a colonial matrix of what the good life is supposed to look like.

So what cultural and even moral changes are African nations being forced to embrace, by rich people in the West as part of this new "colonialism"?

Read that final quote again. The pope names several. Are there others? Did this larger issue make it into the news accounts that you saw?

Just asking.

Categories: Main

Washington Post misses multiple hints about faith in Eagles of Death Metal story

Friday, November 27, 2015

I’m not really a heavy metal fan but when I saw this piece posted in the Washington Post about the band that was playing during the terror attacks at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris, I had to take a second look.

I was swimming through this longish piece when I began noticing all sorts of hints about faith being dropped by Jesse Hughes, the lead singer of Eagles of Death Metal. Anyone who’s been in a Christian subculture could pick them up instantly. I am not sure the reporter was attuned to this at all, unfortunately, and Hughes wasn't really big on the God talk but he kept dropping hint after hing. It's obvious this man is one mixed-up guy, albeit quite entertaining.

Anyway, this piece has more ghosts (places where the reporter should have picked up on the spiritual element) than a Hogwarts Halloween party. Here’s how it started:

From head to toe, the Eagles of Death Metal lead singer is like a neon sign advertising the trappings of American rock. Tight jeans. Bright tattoos. Bold views. Wild hair. Several stints in drug rehab. And above all: sexually charged lyrics.On Nov. 13, Hughes was belting those sexually suggestive lyrics on stage when three members of the Islamic State forced their way into the Bataclan concert hall in Paris. Hughes managed to escape but scores of his fans did not. Strapped with suicide vests and armed with Kalashnikovs, the gunmen slaughtered 89 people at the Bataclan. Across the city, coordinated attacks claimed 41 more lives.In a statement, the Islamic State tried to paint the concert hall as a hedonistic pleasure palace “where hundreds of pagans gathered for a concert of prostitution and vice.”But if the Islamic State tried to blame Hughes, his band and his fans for the supposed sins of rock-and-roll, then the attackers forgot about the genre’s other side: its saving grace.

The story soon launches into a description of the man who escaped death that night:

In many ways, Hughes is a fitting figurehead for American rock. Just last month, Grantland called him “rock’s last wild man.” In an interview laced with references to sex, drugs, religious devotion and Donald Trump, Hughes likened himself to rock-and-roll greats like Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Prince.

“Religious devotion?” More information, please. Plus, the song this band was singing as the ISIS began firing away was "Kiss the Devil." Where does the Satanism in the lyrics fit in with Hughes' "devotion?"

The reporter could have unpacked all that later on, but didn’t. The story launches into Hughes’ bio, with him saying:

“I was going through a really ugly divorce,” Hughes said in an interview earlier this year. “I went through a very typical, clichéd ‘I served you my whole life, and this is what I get’ anger.”

Now, who do you think is the “you” Hughes is referring to? Is that "you," or "You"? Doesn't this bring to mind Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody?" The story then describes Hughes’ raunchy lifestyle:

But Hughes also seems to capture, for better or worse, much more of the contradictory American condition. He is highly religious and politically conservative. He loves Donald Trump, believes President Obama was not born in America and considers George W. Bush his hero because “a dude who does blow and likes ZZ Top is my kind of motherf--,” he told Hyden.Yet, he is also hypersexual -- “I’m a horny dude, man” -- and unabashed about his continued drug use: “The only place you’re going to find the type of speed I like to do is at a gay bar at six in the morning.”Hughes is an ordained minister who preaches fevered sermons online but has also posed for naked photo shoots with his ex-porn star girlfriend. He describes himself as devout, but goes by the nickname “The Devil.”

An ordained minister? Fill in the blanks, dude.

A quick Google search turns up this Facebook post by the Universal Life Church world headquarters about their ordination of Hughes on Dec. 6, 2012. Hughes, they say, is “a very intense and very devout Christian.” What denomination was he before getting ordained AND, if he's so unhappy with God, what's he doing becoming a pastor?

So at this point, one wonders: Is Hughes still bitter toward God? Or is he grateful that his life and the lives of his band were saved on that awful evening when so many people died because they came to listen to them? Does Hughes feel at all bad about being a magnet for crazies, in this case an ISIS cell?

Looking more closely at this piece, we see the quotes are taken from other interviews. So it’s possible the reporter had no access to the rock star.

But the writer does seem a bit clueless as to the spiritual aspects of Hughes’ escape from death. Near the end, the article refers to rock music’s “saving grace” being the people at the concert who refused to leave their friends or who blocked their friends from being hit by bullets. Was the real origin of grace the music or Hughes? Should the term have been applied to something else, not the least of which the fact that Hughes escaped?

Here’s hoping this reporter gets a one-on-one with Hughes where he can buttonhole the musician on whether serving God still has benefits or not.

Categories: Main

An Advent miracle? Check the fine details in the baby in a Queens manger story

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Why a purple towel?

If you have followed the news online in the past day or so, you have probably seen reports about the newborn baby that was left -- umbilical chord still attached -- in a manger scene inside a church in Queens.

It has been interesting to follow the coverage as it developed, with a strong burst of holiday sentiment from news producers everywhere who have been quick to proclaim, "It's a Christmas miracle!"

Ah, but there are some intriguing fine details in this story that are worth pondering. Let's start with an early Reuters report, as circulated by Religion News Service. This is pretty much the whole story:

NEW YORK (Reuters) -- A newborn with his umbilical cord still attached was found lying in a manger at a New York church, police said on Tuesday.At Holy Child Jesus Church in the borough of Queens on Monday, the custodian found the crying infant wrapped in towels in the indoor nativity scene he had set up just before his lunch break, a New York police spokesman said.Father Christopher Ryan Heanue, one of the priests at the church, said he and others placed a clean towel around the baby while waiting for paramedics to show up.“The beautiful thing is that this woman found in this church -- which is supposed to be a home for those in need -- this home for her child,” Heanue said, referring to the person he assumes left the baby there.“A young couple in our parish would love to adopt this child and keep this gift in our community. It would make a great Christmas miracle,” Heanue said.

There were questions, early on, about whether the mother who left the baby inside the church would be protected from prosecution under the fine details of New York state's safe haven or "Moses" law, which allows a newborn to be left anonymously at designated locations -- as long as the baby is given to an appropriate person.

In this case, the child was simply wrapped in towels and placed in the manger -- period.

When I read the early reports, I was curious to find out precisely what kind of church this was. It was interesting, to me, that its leaders already had a Nativity scene set up in its sanctuary -- even before the first Sunday in the season of Advent, which leads to the 12-day Christmas season that begins on Dec. 25.

The New York Times lede did -- sort of -- get that detail right:

For a few moments, the sight could have been confused for a miraculous arrival ahead of the Christmas season: A newborn baby, hours old and full term, appeared within a nativity scene at a Queens church on Monday.But the story of how the baby got onto the stage inside the Holy Jesus Child Church in the Richmond Hill neighborhood was much more earthly, the police said: A woman, seen on video, had arrived with the boy wrapped in a towel, his umbilical cord still attached, and departed without him.On Tuesday afternoon, detectives were seeking to speak with the woman, who was believed to be the child’s mother.

Apparently, in New York media, a church is Roman Catholic unless stated otherwise. In this case, it is certainly interesting that this mother chose to leave her newborn in a church with a highly symbolic name -- Holy Child Jesus Catholic Parish.

Was that a coincidence of did the mother seek that church out by name?

I raise this question because of another consistent detail in recent updates on this story. Clearly, this Catholic parish had already put up its Nativity scene -- empty -- as part of its decorations for the reflective, penitential Advent season, which begins this coming Sunday.

And what liturgical color, in Western liturgical traditions, is associated with Advent? That would be purple, or perhaps deep blue, because of its association with royalty.

So did anyone in the newsrooms covering this story note this detail? Has anyone heard of Advent? This is from The New York Post:

Cradling the newborn in her arms, the young woman can be seen in surveillance footage from a nearby 99 Cent Store as she walks down Jamaica Avenue and enters the shop at around 12:55 p.m. Monday. She peruses the shelves and picks up what appears to be the purple towel she used to wrap up the baby boy before leaving him in the crèche that had been set up inside the Holy Child Jesus Church in Richmond Hills. After paying, the woman grabs her bag and leaves. She would later abandon the baby and make off without being seen.

Why a purple towel, the color that would fit the Advent decorations?

Why did she choose Holy Child Jesus Church?

Stay tuned, to say the least. I think the reporters covering this story may need to do a bit of homework on the Advent season.

Categories: Main

Disturbing think piece for Thanksgiving week: It's time to open a file on Wilayat Sinai

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Veteran GetReligion readers -- or religion-beat pros with a global perspective -- are probably familiar with the work of Dr. Jenny Taylor, a foreign-affairs reporter turned media critic, and Lapido Media, which is also known as the Centre for Religious Literacy in World Affairs.

I have featured "think pieces" from Lapido (which means "to speak up" in the Acholi dialect of Northern Uganda) here many times and will continue to do so. The simple fact of the matter is that news media on the other side of the pond are being forced -- ambushed by reality, really -- to take religion more seriously. Lapido's work is playing a role in helping journalists, and diplomats, dig deeper.

This brings me to the site's new briefing paper on the rise of Wilayat Sinai, the Islamic State affiliate that is on the rise in Egypt. This group was almost unknown in North American media -- until the alleged downing of that Russian airliner the other day.

So, reporters, are you like me? Is the name Abu Osama al-Masry almost totally foreign to you? Then this Lapido Media think piece -- continuing work the centre began publishing a year ago -- needs to go in your files. A sample or two? Sure.

A former Azhar student and clothing importer Abu Osama al-Masry claimed responsibility on behalf of Wilayat Sinai. ‘They were shocked by a people who sought the hereafter, loved death, and had a thirst for blood’, he said.‘We will inherit your soil, homes, wealth, and capture your women! This is Allah’s promise’.Al-Masry, a nom-de-guerre indicating he is Egyptian, is said to have been born in northern Sinai but grew up in Sharqiya in the eastern Nile Delta.The 42-year-old former student at the Muslim world’s most prestigious seat of learning, al-Azhar in Cairo, al-Masry is said to be 'well versed in Islamic jurisprudence' and 'eloquent in quoting the Quran'.Wilayat Sinai, meaning ‘the province of Sinai’, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State on 10 November, 2014.It was previously known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (ABM), translated roughly as ‘Supporters of Jerusalem’ -- implying the same apocalyptic zeal as IS.

There are dots to connect, in this case, a number of stories that individually received little attention in the mainstream press. But add them together and one gets -- ambitions and strategies that resemble ISIS.

If the Russian airline attack is confirmed, it will not have been the first time Wilayat Sinai has targeted foreigners.Strategy, however, is shifting from attacking tourism in Egypt as part of an economic war, to attacking tourists in retaliation for their nation’s policies.In February 2014 the group killed two South Koreans and an Egyptian driver in a bus traveling from St Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai.They also claimed responsibility for the hideous executions of American oil worker William Henderson in August 2014, and the Croatian Tomislav Salopek in August 2015.

And also:

In addition to the acts of terrorism listed above, ABM has been a leading force in a long list of attacks in Sinai and the Egyptian mainland.The small Christian population of roughly 650 families in the Sinai have also suffered at their hands. Many have relocated, though local Muslims have promised to protect them.Targeting Christians is only one of the ways Wilayat Sinai is imitating the Islamic State. Mixing terror and piety, they have beheaded opponents and moved against drug trafficking. They have appealed to the sympathy of Bedouin tribes and distributed money to those whose homes have been destroyed in the conflict.But Wilayat Sinai has so far failed to reproduce the primary marker of the Islamic State – territorial acquisition. They hide out in the desert, mix with the people, plant roadside bombs, and adopt guerilla tactics, but have failed to claim and hold land.It has not been for want of trying.

Read it all, and then open a digital file. Journalists who cover religion at the global level will want to bookmark Lapido Media.

Categories: Main

Whose yoga is it? Journalists, proceed with care because the details matter

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

One of my most uncomfortable experiences as a journalist was a story I did in 1995 to mark the 25th anniversary of Earth Day. I worked in Washington for Religion News Service at the time, and my task was to come up with a story with national appeal.

I decided to check in with Native Americans to learn what the day meant to them as members of a culture that non-Indians such as myself naively believed still held closely to traditional spiritual beliefs about humanity's place in a holistic world order. (In truth, there were dozens of distinct indigenous cultures spread across the Americas prior to European colonization.)

I'd connect environmentalism with indigenous beliefs for mainstream newspaper readers (RNS's main client base at that time). It was, I thought, a story sure to get widespread national play.

So I started making calls, beginning with the editor of Indian Country News, then the leading national publication covering Native American interests.

Did I get a tongue lashing.

What a silly premise, he told me. Poverty-stricken contemporary Native Americans cared more about day-to-day survival than Earth Day. Nor did he wish to indulge some white reporter's attempt to link contemporary environmental concerns with some generalized, romanticized and fantasized indigenous spiritual trope.

You took our land and now you're after our beliefs! I was, he bitterly insisted, committing cultural appropriation.

Then, in what felt like his pouring salt onto my journalistic wound, he demanded that I not quote him, even though the broad rules of the game -- established by journalists, of course, not interview subjects -- dictate that he should have said he was speaking off-the-record prior to unloading his anger at me.

Meekly, I agreed. The last thing I wanted was for him to come across my story with his quotes left in -- and for him to call me and give me another tongue lashing. (I produced a story without his quotes; it did not, as I recall, get great play.)

This embarrassing memory came to mind while reading a recent story in The Ottawa Sun, about the dropping of a free yoga class at the University of Ottawa because of the specter of, you guessed it, cultural appropriation.

Here's the top of the story:

Student leaders have pulled the mat out from 60 University of Ottawa students, ending a free on-campus yoga class over fears the teachings could be seen as a form of "cultural appropriation."Jennifer Scharf, who has been offering free weekly yoga instruction to students since 2008, says she was shocked when told in September the program would be suspended, and saddened when she learned of the reasoning.Staff at the Centre for Students with Disabilities believe that "while yoga is a really great idea and accessible and great for students ... there are cultural issues of implication involved in the practice," according to an email from the centre.The centre is operated by the university's Student Federation, which first approached Scharf seven years ago about offering yoga instruction to students both with and without disabilities.The centre goes on to say, "Yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practiced," and which cultures those practices "are being taken from."The centre official argues since many of those cultures "have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy ... we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practising yoga."

Some clarifications before we proceed. By "yoga," the paper is referring to hatha yoga, one of several yogic disciplines in traditional Hinduism and the one that's become the exercise of choice for many Westerners. And no, "centre" and "practising" are not typos, merely the Canadian spellings of those words.

It would be easy to simply dismiss this story as one more example of excessively self-conscious and youthful politically correct silliness. There has been a sudden upsurge in such stories. Many of the incidents reported reveal a thin-skinned attitude that I find self-righteous and limiting personal expression.

There's no clear explanation in the Ottawa Sun story whether any Hindu students were actually involved in getting yoga discontinued. Plus, all other stories on this incident I found on the Web appeared to be non-reported rewrites of the Sun.

Was this the doing solely of non-Hindu students who think they know what offends Hindus? -- even though it was largely Hindus who introduced hatha yoga to the West (details on this are in the Wikipedia link above). Nor is there any explanation of why this story is being told only now; the incident occurred in September.

But cultural, and religious appropriation do occur, all the time, in fact, and sometimes it is insensitive and inappropriate.

(Sometimes, as with hatha yoga, appropriation may also be viewed by groups -- some Christians, for example -- as a slippery theologically slope to be avoided. But that's another story).

Journalists, and in particular religion reporters who cover a beat that's as sensitive as any, need to discern where the line falls between appropriate and inappropriate expressions of this sort of borrowing.

I understand being upset by cultural/religious appropriation.

As a Jew, I feel annoyance when Christians, by way of example, wanting to celebrate a Passover Seder -- or as they might regard it, a reenactment of the Last Supper -- don skullcaps and Jewish prayer shawls, and blow the ram's horn instrument known as a shofar used in certain Jewish prayer services, and do so in an inappropriate manner out of sheer ignorance or insensitivity.

Yet as a firm believer in pluralism and religious liberty, I also accept their right to act in the manner that annoys me -- as long as they treat me the same way.

Moreover, it's impossible to stuff the syncretism genie back in the bottle today. Technology has made it possible for anyone with the interest to learn all they want about virtually any religious culture or practice. Modernity's pluralistic impulse sanctions religious/cultural cross-pollination in the name of tolerance. And that, to my mind, is not all bad, despite the cringe-inducing incidents that can arise. Besides, nothing here is really new. Humans have been borrowing cultural and religious/spiritual beliefs and practices since -- well, probably for as long as we've been around.

Journalists just need to be able to spot appropriations and know when they might step on someone else's toes. Proceed with care.

Categories: Main

How to fix children's Sunday school? Get rid of the Bible, Wall Street Journal reports

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

At my home congregation in Oklahoma, a dedicated volunteer named Mrs. Camey has taught the kindergarten Sunday school class for two-plus decades.

After 12 months in Mrs. Camey's class, these kindergartners — typically 25 to 30 of them — can recite all 66 books of the Old and New Testaments, name the 12 apostles and tell you the fruits of the Spirit (giggling when their teacher teasingly asks if these fruits include oranges and pineapples).

Most Sundays, Mrs. Camey will read a story to these 5- and 6-year-olds straight from the Bible — and then they'll use colorful markers, scissors and glue to make a craft that helps them remember that week's lesson. About midway through the year, the children will start thumbing through their own Bibles to locate various books with the help of Mrs. Camey and her two teaching assistants.

In late July, after 12 spiritually rewarding months in Mrs. Camey's class, these students will don caps and gowns and graduate to the first grade — and a new group of kindergartners will arrive the next Sunday morning to start the process all over again.

My church's experience — with the kindergarten class and other grade levels — is a far cry from what I read about in a recent Wall Street Journal story:

How churches are rethinking Sunday school

— WSJ Greater New York (@WSJNY) November 14, 2015

As best I can tell, this Journal feature makes the case for improving Sunday school by, um, eliminating the Bible.

Go ahead and read the lede, and tell me if my synopsis is an exaggeration:

To capture the attention of her young charges one Sunday morning, Mandy Meisenheimer sang, danced and drew some life lessons from the Old Testament story of Joseph and his brothers.“Families aren’t always that loving, are they?” she asked. “Raise your hand if your family has ever had an argument. Raise your hand if your parents have ever made a mistake.”Mrs. Meisenheimer used the class to debut a new song, marching around at times with her arms sweeping in ballerina-like movements. The three dozen children, who ranged from first- to sixth-graders, were rapt.This is how Mrs. Meisenheimer, the children and families director at Riverside Church, leads a jazzed-up version of Sunday school, without a Bible in sight.

Keep reading, and the Journal describes how this "liberal Protestant" congregation and several other churches in the New York area are rethinking their approach to religious education. The newspaper relies on the ever-squishy "experts say" to suggest some churches are scrapping Sunday school altogether and making other changes. That may be true, but this piece lacks the hard data and firm attribution that typically distinguish the Journal from lesser newspapers.

The story provides no numbers on the Riverside Church's overall Sunday attendance and gives no details on the church's overall membership trend (although the Sunday school revamping would tend to indicate a decline).

But the Journal does note:

The 85-year-old Riverside Church has spent about $300,000 overhauling its Sunday school classrooms to create bright, flexible spaces, including a lounge area for teens. The revamped curriculum, introduced this fall, embraces the ethnic, economic and religious diversity of New York and is adjusted for families led by a single parent or same-sex parents.

The story prompted this note from one frustrated GetReligion reader:

They spent $300K to take Scripture out of Sunday school?I mean, mainline Protestantism abandoning Scripture isn't that newsworthy, is it? Was Sunday school the last to go?

Great questions.

The Journal needed to do a better job of putting the Riverside Church's experience into proper context. And adding a "liberal" before the "churches" in the headline might have helped frame the reported trend more precisely.

Image via

Categories: Main

Associated Press finds debates about Syrian refugee crisis -- among former refugees

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The following is a public service announcement to mainstream journalists who are frantically trying to cover all of the different political angles of the current Syrian refugee debates: Please remember that the word "Syrian" does not equal "Muslim."

This is, of course, a variation on another equation that causes trouble for some journalists who are not used to covering religion: "Arab" does not equal "Muslim."

Thus, if and when you seek the viewpoints of Arab refugees who are already settled in America, including those who came here during previous waves of bloodshed in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, please strive to interview a few Syrian Christians and members of other religious minorities.

This is especially important when covering tensions in the declining industrial cities of the Midwest and Northeast, where Arabs of all kinds have been settling for generations. You will often find that many of these tensions are, literally, ancient.

This is a rather personal issue for me, since my family was part of an Orthodox parish for four years in South Florida (including 9/11) in which most of the families had Syrian and Lebanese roots. It also helps to remember that many people who come to America from Lebanon were driven into Lebanon by persecution in Syria, much earlier in the 20th Century.

To see these factors at work, check out this recent Associated Press "Big Story" feature that took the time to talk to a variety of voices on both sides of some of these divides.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) -- A few days ago, a pastor asked Syrian-born restaurant owner Marie Jarrah to donate food to a welcoming event for recently arrived Syrian refugees. Jarrah, who said she regularly helps people in need, declined.Like many of Allentown's establishment Syrians, she doesn't think it's a good idea to bring refugees to the city. She clung to that view even before last week's terrorist attacks in Paris. "Problems are going to happen," said Jarrah, co-owner of Damascus Restaurant in a heavily Syrian enclave.

This brings me to another crucial point. When interviewing members of religious minorities linked to Syria, try to grasp that there is a difference between "supporting" the leader of the current government and reluctantly supporting that government, in part because of its long history of protecting religious minorities from jihadist elements. There are Syrians who fiercely defend President Bashar al-Assad and then there are those who totally understand that he is a monster, but a monster that is not committed to killing them. Click here ("The evil the church already knows in Syria") for some background.

For example of this puzzle, see the following in the AP report:

Pennsylvania's third-largest city is home to one of the nation's largest populations of Syrians. They are mostly Christian and, in no small number, support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- a dynamic that's prompting some of them to oppose the resettlement of refugees, who are Muslim and say they fled violence perpetrated by the Assad regime.Aziz Wehbey, an Allentown auto dealer and president of the American Amarian Syrian Charity Society, worries some Syrian refugees might have taken part in the fighting in Syria's civil war and have "blood on their hands.""We need to know who we are welcoming in our society," said Wehbey, who immigrated to the United States a quarter-century ago and became a citizen.

Very little nuance there.

The AP team, I am glad to say, did a better job of showing that there are diverse points of view concerning the basic refugee settlement question on both sides of this religious divide -- in a Syrian community that dates back into the 19th Century. I thought this passage was especially effective:

"I don't have a problem with anyone coming here. I came to America as an immigrant. That's what I am," said Osama Dayoub, 23, who was raised in Syria but moved to Allentown in 1999 and gained citizenship. "You're going to make them feel uncomfortable? No. Let them live."An Orthodox church where many pro-Assad Syrians worship -- and which recently sent a delegation to the Russian embassy in Washington to express gratitude for Russia's backing of Assad and its airstrikes in Syria -- is hosting a benefit next month for Syrian refugees locally and abroad. The church has already directly assisted a Muslim refugee family in Allentown."We are concerned like everyone else," said Nasser Sabbagh, a board member of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church and brother of the pastor. "We are concerned about the safety of the Lehigh Valley community and the Syrian community." But, he said, the refugees "are not terrorists. . I don't think we should isolate them and push them way."

So there are Syrians who are working to help the incoming refugees, while also cautious about screening issues. There are Syrians who do not want to see Damascus fall -- placing one of the region's last surviving Christian communities in the path of ISIS -- but who favor careful, discerning efforts to help those fleeing the current fighting.

As I read this story, I wondered about two issues: (1) Do these former refugees, and the descendents of refugees, feel differently about resettling intact Muslim refugee families, as opposed to accepting a wave of young, male, single Muslim refugees? (2) What is their take on the fact that the United States government seems be accepting an unusually low number of Arab Christians, in terms of the percentage of refugees who are currently fleeing the fighting in Iraq and Syria?

Just asking. However, this AP story did a good job of showing a few of the complexities hidden in this major issue in the news.

Categories: Main

Lutherans and Catholics: Some major, major overlooked news to pursue

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Pope Francis continues to confound conservative Catholics. A notable incident Nov. 15 got little attention in the mainstream press as the globe was transfixed by Islamist terrorism. This is an incident worth a second look from reporters.

During a Rome meeting with Lutherans, a wife asked the pontiff when she could receive Catholic communion alongside her Catholic husband. Francis responded:

“... You believe that the Lord is present. And what’s the difference? There are explanations, interpretations, but life is bigger than explanations and interpretations. Always refer back to your baptism – ‘one faith, one baptism, one Lord,’ this Paul tells us; and then consequences come later. I would never dare to give permission to do this because it’s not my own competence. One baptism, one Lord, one faith. Talk to the Lord, and then go forward. [Pause] And I wouldn’t dare, I don’t dare say anything more.”

Leaving aside the pope’s “competence,” his “go forward” is reasonably interpreted as “go ahead” if your own conscience says "go." Francis has roused similar debate over Communion for  remarried Catholics without the required annulments of first marriages.

Catholicism’s Catechism is explicit that Protestants shouldn’t receive at Mass until the whole tangle of doctrinal disagreements is resolved:

“Ecclesial communities derived from the Reformation and separated from the Catholic Church ‘have not preserved the proper reality of the Eucharistic ministry in its fullness, especially because of the absence of the sacrament of Holy Orders’ [quoting the Second Vatican Council’s 1964 decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio]. It is for this reason that Eucharistic intercommunion with these communities is not possible for the Catholic Church” (#1400).  

The Religion Guy learned about the pope’s words from Rod Dreher’s comments on his blog at Dreher in turn cited Vaticanologist Rocco Palmo’s “Whispers in the Loggia” blog. Palmo made a key interpretive point. Francis, who likes the question-and-answer format, “is customarily apprised of the questions to be put to him in advance -- given the situation here, it’d be practically impossible to believe that Francis didn’t anticipate the topic coming up.”

If so, this was no spontaneous gaffe. Thus, Dreher asks, Is this pope Catholic?

“Hard to avoid the conclusion that Pope Francis just effectively rewrote the Catechism, and destroyed a Eucharistic discipline that has existed since the Reformation. Did you ever think you would live to see this? The Pope is refuting the magisterial teaching of his own Church, and not on a small matter, either.”

By coincidence -- or was it coincidental?! -- a major Catholic-Lutheran document was released Oct. 30 just before Francis met the Lutherans, also with little media notice. The progressive Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the U.S. Catholic bishops’ ecumenism committee issued “Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry, and Eucharist (.pdf here).” 

Negotiators from the two sides offer an 118-page overview of 50 years of Catholic-Lutheran discussions in the U.S. and internationally that finds agreements on 32 points. This text, not yet treated by the full U.S. Catholic hierarchy, is being referred to the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation, which represents 72 million believers in 142 church bodies.

As Francis commented, Lutherans and Catholics agree on the “real presence” of Jesus Christ in the bread and wine, and the U.S. negotiators conclude historic differences on the sacrament no longer justify separation. They propose “occasional” Catholic communion with Lutherans, citing especially the plight of married couples. This raises another question: What about other bodies -- think the Episcopalians -- already in Communion with the ELCA?

Now, it’ll be a big challenge for reporters to translate into news copy the technicalities about e.g. “apostolic succession,” the “sacrifice of the Mass” or “transubstantiation.” In case you wonder, the negotiators only note briefly that there’s “no promise of imminent resolution” on the papacy, and slide past “moral issues that are often deemed to be church dividing.”

Journalists looking to develop this in depth have a huge news peg upcoming, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation set off by Lutherans. Between now and 2017 there’s ample time to absorb all the relevant documents. The first person to phone might be Willliam G. Rusch, former ecumenical officer of the ELCA and now Yale Divinity School’s Lutheran specialist, who resigned from the U.S. talks June 3.

Categories: Main

$15 million lawsuit threat: Muslim 'clock boy' Ahmed Mohamed looking to strike it rich?

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Muslim "clock boy" Ahmed Mohamed is back in the news.

You may recall that we first highlighted media coverage of the Texas teen after his disputed arrest back in September:

From Washington Post story on #IStandWithAhmed, three words that don't belong in a news story

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) September 17, 2015

The 14-year-old made headlines again in October after his family decided to move to Qatar:

Associated Press goes overboard on Muslims 'under siege' headline

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) October 22, 2015

The latest news has dollar signs (15 million of 'em) written all over it:

'Clock Kid' Ahmed Mohamed, family suing Texas city, school for $15 million

— Fox News (@FoxNews) November 23, 2015

'Clock boy' Ahmed Mohamed's family seeks $15 million and apologies, attorney says

— CNN (@CNN) November 24, 2015

Family of Muslim teen who took homemade clock to Texas school seeks $15 million over arrest:

— The Associated Press (@AP) November 24, 2015

Letters demand $15 million and apologies from mayor and officials for Ahmed’s clock arrest

— Dallas Morning News (@dallasnews) November 23, 2015

For an editorialized spin on this new development, Fox News (as always) is happy to oblige:

Ahmed Mohamed is looking to strike it rich before the clock strikes midnight on the “clock kid” story.Attorneys for Mohamed, 14, and his family want $15 million in damages and apologies from several officials stemming from Mohamed’s September 14 arrest, when he brought to school a homemade clock that a teacher flagged as a possible bomb.

CNN provides a less tilted lede:

(CNN) Fifteen million dollars and apologies from the mayor and police chief.That's what an attorney says the family of Ahmed Mohamed is demanding from city and school officials in Irving, Texas, or they say they'll file a civil suit.

And The Associated Press goes old-school inverted pyramid (not a bad approach at all on a story such as this):

IRVING, Texas (AP) — Attorneys for a 14-year-old Muslim boy arrested after the homemade clock he took to his Dallas-area school was mistaken for a possible bomb said Monday he was publicly mistreated and deserves $15 million.A law firm representing Ahmed Mohamed sent letters Monday demanding $10 million from the city of Irving and $5 million from the Irving Independent School District. The letters also threaten lawsuits and seek written apologies.

At this point, neither the city nor the school district is commenting, and the overall coverage from national media such as Fox, CNN and AP is pretty sketchy. 

On the other hand, The Dallas Morning News offers rather insightful coverage on its front page today:

Front page of today's Dallas Morning News.

— Bobby Ross Jr. (@bobbyross) November 24, 2015

The Morning News' meaty rundown:

Threatening a lawsuit, Ahmed Mohamed’s lawyer says that not only did Irving officials illegally interrogate the boy for bringing a homemade clock to high school, but they later coordinated to “kneecap a kid in the media” in an effort to cover up their mistakes.The alleged smear effort made Ahmed the target of anti-Muslim threats, the focus of conspiracy theories and caused his family to flee the country, the lawyer wrote in letters sent Monday to City Hall and Irving ISD.Ahmed’s family demanded that officials apologize and pay them $15 million to stave off a civil rights suit.“Mayor Beth Van Duyne lied about Ahmed and his family, and she did it to an audience that is on the absolute fringe of American life,” attorney Kelly Hollingsworth wrote.City and school officials did not comment on the charges, though some in City Hall have been expecting to be sued since September, when the 14-year-old Sudanese immigrant was arrested -- accused of building a hoax bomb instead of a clock -- and transformed overnight into a global symbol of Islamophobia.

In the next paragraph, the Dallas newspaper provides this context -- context that may or may not give readers pause:

Monday’s letters were sent as anti-Muslim rhetoric is sweeping the U.S. presidential race and seeping into local politics. Armed protesters stood outside Irving’s largest mosque on Saturday — convinced that it had hosted a Shariah court, and that the Quran instructed Muslims to kill nonbelievers.

Is it a fact that "anti-Muslim rhetoric is sweeping the U.S. presidential race?" Two words -- Donald Trump -- lend credence to that statement, even though I wonder if more nuance might be helpful in characterizing what's being said by the candidates.

As for the armed protesters, crazy stuff is happening in my native Texas. A Morning News editorial today suggests:

We all should collectively pray for peace -- in whatever house of worship we choose -- and leave our guns at home.

Be careful out there, folks.

Categories: Main

Holiday fare? National Geographic delivers a meandering mess on the Virgin Mary

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Just in time for Christmas, National Geographic magazine has given us an article on “How the Virgin Mary became the world’s most powerful woman” for its December issue.

"Sounds like a great story," I thought. Then I saw the splashy graphics mapping Marian sightings around the world and the photos of various Marian devotees. I realized this article wasn’t about Mary, it was about the people who say they’ve seen Mary and those who pray to her.

Sure enough, a story that promised so much failed to deliver in a big way. Here’s how it begins:

It’s apparition time: 5:40 p.m. In a small Roman Catholic chapel in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the village of Medjugorje, Ivan Dragicevic walks down the aisle, kneels in front of the altar, bows his head for a moment, and then, smiling, lifts his gaze heavenward. He begins to whisper, listens intently, whispers again, and doesn’t blink for ten minutes. His daily conversation with the Virgin Mary has begun.Dragicevic was one of six poor shepherd children who first reported visions of the Virgin Mary in 1981. She identified herself to the four girls and two boys as the "Queen of Peace” and handed down the first of thousands of messages admonishing the faithful to pray more often and asking sinners to repent. Dragicevic was 16 years old, and Medjugorje, then in communist-controlled Yugoslavia, had yet to emerge as a hub of miracle cures and spiritual conversions, attracting 30 million pilgrims during the past three decades.

For starters, having visited and written about Medjugorje in a previous post, I knew those kids were not shepherds and their families weren't poor. The National Geographic writer had them mixed up with the Fatima visionaries.

The Medjugorje folks were one child and five teen-agers living in a town known for its tobacco fields and vineyards. This being summertime, usually the able-bodied teens were helping with the tobacco harvest. It being about 6:15 p.m. on June 24, 1981, these kids were walking about outside or had snuck outside for a smoke when the first apparition happened. (If you want to read better and more factual pieces about the visionaries, try this piece about the early days of the apparitions and this 2012 Daily Mail article).

Also, the “30 million pilgrims” number for Medjugorje has been bandied about since 2009 and maybe before. Six years have passed, people. Do some math. A magazine of National Geographic’s stature should have gotten an update.

Continuing on, I noticed the writer showed a curious ignorance of the biblical Mary, who was a politically astute Jewish girl who wanted the Roman oppressors overthrown. Her song in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke makes that clear. The writer could have at least given some bibliographic information about Jesus’ mother; how she lingered by Jesus’ cross; how she and Jesus’ brothers thought the Jewish rabbi was out of his mind enough that they arrived in a delegation at one of his preaching sites and how she disappeared from Scripture after the first chapters of Acts. Or even the extra-biblical stuff, such as the traditional names of her parents, her burial spot and how ancient church tradition came to view her not as a Jewish mother of several children (as most Protestants believe, although not, long ago, John Calvin and Martin Luther), but as a perpetually virginal patron saint of the whole church.

Instead, the writer sums up the biblical narrative in one paragraph, then includes a quote from a priest at the International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton in Ohio, saying one can’t believe what was said in the Bible because most of the material on Mary is from hearsay. His assertion that the Gospels (including all that we know on Mary) weren’t written until at least 40 years after Jesus’ death is suspect as it’s entirely possible they were written within 20 years. Also, in an oral culture with a high, high respect for tradition, a generation or two is the blink of an eye.

The rest of the article is not about Mary, it’s about her appearances. It wanders from touching on her purported present-day miracles, then her apparitions, then on Muslim thoughts about her (but nothing about what Protestants or Eastern Orthodox Christians believe). It doesn’t go into the “why” of some 2,000 Marian appearances since the Council of Trent in (1545-1563). It doesn't connect the dots to point out that two of the more famous Marian appearances in the early 1980s: Medjugorje in 1981 and Kibeho, Rwanda in 1982, both contained dire prophecies of future wars that came true.

Why are the daily messages (from Mary) at Medjugorje so apocalyptic and at the same time repeating the same thing over and over? Why does Mary constantly insist in spots around the world that the locals build churches in her honor? Where are the quotes in this story from the many serious scholars who study questions such as these?

I would have expected a better piece had National Geographic used a religion specialist to write this piece. Using a special correspondent to Vanity Fair tells me that the magazine wanted something glitzy with eye candy photos and little depth. Which is, sadly, what they got.

Near the end, the piece wanders off for five paragraphs on a segment about a retired female U.S. Army colonel who’s on a pilgrimage to Lourdes. The tangent adds nothing to the article, which then wraps up on a wishful note that Mary is lighting the way for the Lourdes pilgrims.

The idea behind this piece –- that Mary is the world’s most powerful woman -– is intriguing. But the story lost its way early on and the result was a mishmash of anecdotes about visitors to her shrines. It certainly doesn't illustrate her influence in anything that matters. If Mary truly is that powerful a female, the right kind of article would have illustrated how vivacious and magnetic a personality she must have and how she's using all that power.

Categories: Main

Washington Post goes inside ISIS propaganda machine (with near zero interest in message)

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

I was about halfway through the latest Washington Post news feature on life inside the Islamic State -- "Inside the surreal world of the Islamic State’s propaganda machine" -- when something hit me.

The Post team had produced a fascinating and haunting piece about the ISIS teams that crank out its propaganda, while focusing only on the hellish or heavenly images in the videos. Apparently the words that define the messages contained in all of this social-media material are completely irrelevant.

This is rather strange, considering the meaning of the word "propaganda," as defined in your typical online dictionary:

prop·a·gan·da ... noun1. derogatory information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.

After 20-plus years of teaching mass communications and journalism, trust me when I say that I know that we live in a visual, emotional age. The Post article does a great job of describing the care given to the images and the music that are helping define the Islamic State for both its converts and enemies.

But are the words that define the visual symbols completely irrelevant? Why ignore what the voices and texts are saying about the goals and teachings of the caliphate?

I can only think of one reason: Quoting the content of the propaganda would require the reporters and editors at the Post to deal with the twisted, radicalized version of Islam that ISIS leaders are promoting, it would mean dealing with the content of the state's theology (as opposed to its political ideology, alone). Ignore the words and you can continue to ignore the religion element in this story.

OK, that's my main point. I also want to stress that this is a must-read story, even with this massive Allah-shaped hole in its content.

So how did the Post foreign desk manage to report this story, anyway? A key voice is Abu Hajer al Maghribi, who spent nearly a year as a cameraman for the Islamic State.

Abu Hajer, who is now in prison in Morocco, is among more than a dozen Islamic State defectors or members in several countries who provided detailed accounts to The Washington Post of their involvement in, or exposure to, the most potent propaganda machine ever assembled by a terrorist group.What they described resembles a medieval reality show. Camera crews fan out across the caliphate every day, their ubiquitous presence distorting the events they purportedly document. Battle scenes and public beheadings are so scripted and staged that fighters and executioners often perform multiple takes and read their lines from cue cards.Cameras, computers and other video equipment arrive in regular shipments from Turkey. They are delivered to a media division dominated by foreigners -- including at least one American, according to those interviewed -- whose production skills often stem from previous jobs they held at news channels or technology companies.

These information and image warriors are considered officers, with higher salaries and better cars than many other ISIS workers. They speed past security checkpoints with special passes that show how important they are to the cause. Their products and logos, at times, achieve corporate-level quality.

Meanwhile, tech pros in the West struggle to limit ISIS access to Twitter and Facebook, while the U.S. fights videos and words with limited, strategic bombing. Some tech giants -- makers of cameras and smartphones -- are not going to like the brand-name references to their products in this piece.

Using their Turkish WiFi, ISIS professionals often depict the caliphate as a peaceful and idyllic domain for true believers, in contrast to their other videos that are soaked in bloody and apocalyptic scenes of death. Inside the ISIS zone, the worst videos are often shown over and over on screens in public squares, for audiences of young men, women and children.

There are hints that all of this has something to do with efforts to efforts to spread the ISIS version of Islam, either through conversions or by the sword.

Some of the media professionals were less than enthusiastic, or so they told the Post, when it came time to make the infamous videos of captives being butchered, burned or shot. Why?

Abu Hajer said he had grave objections to what happened to the Syrian soldiers in the massacre that he filmed in the desert near Tabqa air base. But he acknowledged that his misgivings had more to do with how the soldiers were treated -- and whether that comported with Islamic law -- than any concern for their fates.As the soldiers were stripped and marched into the desert, Abu Hajer said he filmed from the window of his car as an Egyptian assistant drove alongside the parade of condemned men.“When the group stopped, I got out,” he said. “They were told to kneel down. Some soldiers got shot. Others were beheaded.” The video, still available online, shows multiple camera operators moving in and out of view as Islamic State operatives fire hundreds of rounds.“It wasn’t the killing of soldiers that I was against,” Abu Hajer said. “They were Syrian soldiers, Nusairis,” he said, referring to the religious sect to which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his closest supporters belong. “I thought they deserved to get shot.”“What I didn’t like was that they were stripped to their underwear,” he said, an indignity that he considered an affront to Islamic law.

But the story shows that many of the men behind the cameras were, in the end, helping direct the very shows they were filming, including the executions. This can be seen in the editing, in the special effects and, yes, in the words spoken -- even if the Post declined to quote any of those words.

... A propaganda team presided over almost every detail. They brought a white board scrawled with Arabic script to serve as an off-camera cue card for the public official charged with reciting the condemned man’s alleged crimes. The hooded executioner raised and lowered his sword repeatedly so that crews could catch the blade from multiple angles.The beheading took place only when the camera crew’s director said it was time to proceed.

As I said, this story is incomplete. But what made it onto the page is strong stuff.

Categories: Main

USA Today plays it straight: Star running back who is headed to the Catholic priesthood

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

I had a sense of dread -- two of them, come to think of it, if that's possible -- as I started reading this USA Today story about Division III football star Jordan Roberts and his journey into the Catholic priesthood.

On one level I was afraid that the story would simply be too cute. You know: Future priest runs to glory and all that, like a bad version of "Rudy."

The flip side of that would have been to label on the snark, either about the church itself or the quality of football being played at this level. No, honest. A writer could have pulled that off. This school is so minor league that even a man in a collar can run the ball off tackle.

Instead, this turned into one of the most moving God-and-gridiron pieces I have read in quite a long time. I especially like the fact that the story started in church, rather than on the playing field.

ST. PAUL -- Sundays are sacred at the St. John Vianney Seminary, a plain five-story red-brick building across a grassy quad from the main chapel at the University of St. Thomas. It is the only day Jordan Roberts and 133 brother seminarians studying to be Roman Catholic priests may wear priestly garb for Mass -- black cassocks with the white Roman collar.Rising at 6 a.m., they begin their day with Holy Hour prayer and morning Mass. They end it with a rosary and lights out at 9:30 p.m. Last Sunday, seminary officials permitted Roberts a brief leave in late afternoon to join another fraternal group -- his St. Thomas football teammates -- to watch the NCAA Division III playoff selection show. Roberts is the Tommies' top rusher and scorer.

There are all kinds of interesting details, starting with the fact that Roberts converted to Catholicism as a young man. The 6-0, 222-pound running back walked away from a promising role, and his scholarship, at a larger school. His per-game statistics are amazing.

You know there has to be a story in there, somewhere. If anything, this feature makes readers wait a bit too long to tune into the drama -- although the wait is worth it.

The youngest of three children, Roberts grew up in a family that believed in God but never joined an organized church. Three personal heartaches his freshman year at South Dakota left him reeling.The day after Roberts and his girlfriend of six years broke up, his best friend and high school teammate Nick Bazemore committed suicide in his dorm room at Black Hills (S.D.) State University. Roberts said he and Bazemore loved each other like brothers, and he plays with "NB20," Bazemore's initials and number, imprinted on the heels of his cleats."Those two things, combined, were the greatest amount of pain I ever felt," Roberts said. "When Nick died, that changed everything for me. And shortly after that, my parents got divorced. All these things kind of made me search for answers."Teammates introduced Roberts to a Fellowship of Catholic University Students Bible study class. "Slowly, I started to love the faith and love the Bible study I was in," he said. "It gave me so much hope. It really helped me through the situation I was in, to put it bluntly."

Then there is a college renewal conference. Then a chaplain introduces him to the seminary community. Then the transfer to, get this, a Catholic seminary full of sports fans, where:

... seminarians make up Caruso's Crew, a fan group that flies the Vatican City flag and dresses like construction workers -- white hard hats, muscle shirts with suspenders, and oversized tools. "When they announce Jordan Roberts, we all erupt," said Crew boss Kyle Loecker, a third-year seminarian. "That bond is what we're all grateful for."

What a surprise. Read it all, folks.


Categories: Main

Syrian refugees, redux: This time, AP remembers to ask religious leaders

Monday, November 23, 2015

Last week I criticized the Associated Press for writing about Syrian Christian refugees without talking to any Christians. (Thinking back, I don’t think they talked to Syrians either.) Well, AP finally got around to asking not only Christians but those of a range of faiths. And they did a beautiful job. Especially compared to some stories I could mention.

The background, of course, is the public anxiety over President Barack Obama's plans to bring in 10,000 or more refugees from the Syrian civil war over the next year. In the wake of the recent attacks in Paris, and reports that cells of terrorists are dotted all over Europe, many Americans worry that some of the killers may enter the country posing as refugees.

This is a story on which religious groups have clear viewpoints, and Godbeat pro Rachel Zoll of AP rounds up those perspectives. She samples views of Protestants, Catholics, Jews and even an American Muslim group. Her thorough report shows a remarkable consensus among them.

The top of the story could hardly be better:

In rare agreement across faith and ideological lines, leaders of major American religious groups have condemned proposed bans on Syrian refugees, contending a legitimate debate over security has been overtaken by irrational fear and prejudice.Top organizations representing evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Jews and liberal Protestants say close vetting of asylum seekers is a critical part of forming policy on refugees. But these religious leaders say such concerns, heightened after the Paris attacks a week ago, do not warrant blocking those fleeing violence in the Middle East."The problem is not the Syrian refugees," said Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, who noted how his state has welcomed a large number of Cuban refugees over the years. "This is falling into the trap of what the terrorists wanted us to become. We shouldn't allow them to change who we are as a people."

I should say that it's great and not just (to be honest) because it mentions Wenski, whose archdiocesan newspaper is one of my freelance clients. Wenski, a South Florida native, has a long record of fighting for refugees and other immigrants, Haitians and Central Americans as well as Cubans. ("Immigrants work hard, assume responsibility and take risks — values that American society has always valued," he said at a press conference five years ago.) Zoll has clearly picked up on his stance.

Her article is a model of sweeping coverage and efficient writing. It gets views from Southern Baptist and evangelical leaders and asks United Methodist and Episcopal bishops alike.  It paraphrases stances of Jewish and Muslim organizations. And it does this and more within 865 words.

It's true that CNN did a little of this nearly a week ago. CNN majored on remarks by American Catholic bishops, with a quote from an evangelical leader and passing comments about Jews and Muslims. It also quoted Franklin Graham's fears about letting Muslims "come across our borders unchecked while we are fighting this war on terror."  But AP's is broader and has more direct quotes from a variety of traditions.

AP offers data on how much the government depends on faith groups to resettle refugees: They take care of about 70 percent, the story says. Also interesting: Most of the work is done by two groups, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. Other players include Jewish and Methodist groups and the evangelical-aligned World Relief.

Best of all, the article uses moderate language on the opposition, who fear the idea of accepting terrorists along with the refugees. It cites survey figures showing that only 31 percent of white evangelicals want a boost in Syrian influx. And it non-sarcastically reports governors' concerns:

Lawmakers and more than half of U.S. governors, mostly Republicans, have said they were worried Islamic extremists may try to take advantage of the U.S. refugee process. Some governors are refusing Syrian refugee settlement in their states for now. They point to a passport found near the body of one of the Paris suicide bombers that had been registered along the route asylum seekers are taking through Europe. It's not clear how the passport ended up near the attacker.

To those concerns, the faith leaders speak pretty much in unison: Our religions are better than this. So is our nation, which has a long tradition of accepting the oppressed. I liked the terse reaction of United Methodist Bishop Scott Jones toward the Syrians: "We need to stand by them against the jihadist movement."  He says he knows 35 United Methodist congregations in Kansas and Nebraska willing to sponsor some.

And Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore scolds fellow evangelicals for their reticence: "Evangelicals should be the ones calling the rest of the world to remember human dignity and the image of God, especially for those fleeing murderous Islamic radical jihadis."

Checking with Jewish and Muslim groups was a good touch in this story. So is subdividing Jews as it does with Christians, mentioning Reform and Orthodox bodies.  

A comparative nitpick: The story mentions "the conservative Southern Baptist Convention." This comes close to the usual labeling of conservatives as on the fringe. The only reason I can imagine for including it here is to say, "Look! Moore is conservative, and he favors accepting Syrians!"

The AP article shines especially bright when you look at some others. The Houston Chronicle, for instance, loads up on snarkastic quotes against the anti-refugee point of view.

The Chronicle gives less than two paragraphs to presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, who want to favor Christians among the Syrian refugees. Then the paper gets seven other voices -- Catholic, Lutheran, United Methodist and Presbyterian leaders, a couple of university professors, an officer of the National Council of Churches -- to pile onto him. They say the candidates are using "demagoguery," being "very un-Christian," using "discrimination based on religion."

The best, i.e. worst, example is Rebekah Miles, an ethicist with Southern Methodist University: “You would think one of their responsibilities would be to talk sense, to be moderate … But instead of calming, they’re inciting.” Oh, and she says religious leaders need to oppose "hate mongers."

Every so often, this 1,200-word piece makes a valid point. Its sources invoke the parable of the Good Samaritan and the Hebrew experience of being immigrants. They say that separating Muslim from Christian refugees amounts to a religious test. (Cruz denies that, but the Chronicle doesn't let him explain.) Meanwhile, there is this question: Why are so few Christian refugees getting into the U.S.?

A Lutheran bishop reminds us that the U.S. rebuffed Jewish refugees from Europe just before World War II. And a professor of Islamic studies says: “These people we’re talking about are not terrorists coming here to murder innocent Americans. They’re running from terror.”

So the pro-immigration folks are reasonable and idealistic, and their opponents are un-Christian, bigoted hatemongers. The Chronicle even arches an eyebrow at Cruz' spirituality, saying he "claims to have found God" at a Baptist church. As if it's their call to judge who has found God.

Read together, the two stories could make a good lesson in a journalism class. One gives you much to think about. The other tells you what to think.

Photo: Refugees wait at the border of Greece in September. Photographer: Ververidis Vasilis. Thumbnail photo: A young refugee at a volunteers' camp in Greece. Photo by Lukasz Z. Both photos via


Categories: Main

Three things to know about 'Spotlight,' the new movie about journalists investigating clergy sexual abuse

Monday, November 23, 2015

I saw "Spotlight" over the weekend and loved it.

Of course, I'm a journalist, so I obviously would appreciate a film in which all the actors dress as crummily as me.

Seriously, I identify with the reporters and editors who meticulously dig to tell an important story. They knock on doors to interview key players, sue for access to crucial court documents and develop relationships with inside sources.   

With cheap ink pens and notepads as their major tools, they change the world. That's journalism at its best.

For Godbeat watchers, here are three important things to know about "Spotlight":

1. It's a great movie.

A Wall Street Journal reviewer gushed:

To turn a spotlight fittingly on “Spotlight,” it’s the year’s best movie so far, and a rarity among countless dramatizations that claim to be based on actual events. In this one the events ring consistently — and dramatically — true.The film was directed by Tom McCarthy from a screenplay he wrote with Josh Singer. It takes its title from the name of the Boston Globe investigative team that documented, in an explosive series of articles in 2002, widespread child abuse by priests in the Catholic archdiocese of Boston, and subsequent cover-ups by church officials. The impact of the series, which prompted the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law and won a Pulitzer Prize for the paper, was cumulative and profound — what began as a local story ramified into an international scandal. Remarkably, Mr. McCarthy, his filmmaking colleagues and a flawless ensemble cast have captured their subject in all its richness and complexity. “Spotlight” is a fascinating procedural; a celebration of investigative reporting; a terrific yarn that’s spun with a singular combination of restraint and intensity; and a stirring tale, full of memorable characters, that not only addresses clerical pedophilia but shows the toll it has taken on its victims.

At the time of the Globe investigation, I was the religion editor for The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City's major daily. As the scandal spread nationwide, I recall reporting on failures in Oklahoma clergy abuse cases and making a quick trip to Dallas when Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, a Catholic, was named to head a national review board for U.S. bishops.

2. It's a movie about great journalism.

The Poynter Institute's Bill Mitchell observed:

By the time the credits rolled, I had to agree with reviewers who’ve concluded that ink-stained, web-whipped wretches haven’t looked this good since "All The President’s Men." That’s true as a result of both similarities and differences in the two movies. It’s the differences that render "Spotlight" a must-see not only for journalists but for the people they serve."All the President’s Men" put a David and Goliath morality tale in the hands of hugely popular actors — Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Robards — who proceeded to make investigative reporting appear not only cool but wildly successful. The president resigned.The stars of "Spotlight" — Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, Brian D’Arcy James — are just as cool but successful in different ways on a different stage."Spotlight" reveals just enough about the journalists to make them sympathetic, flawed and accessible. Their interactions with abuse survivors show them to be compassionate human beings as well as hard-charging investigators. Editors leading the charge in 2002 acknowledge failing to follow up on solid tips provided years before.And unlike Watergate, a once-in-a-lifetime, only-in-Washington sort of blockbuster, clergy sexual abuse is a story that continues to unfold in hundreds of communities and newsrooms around the world. The film concludes, in fact, with a screen-after-screen list of cities and towns where the abuse drama erupted beyond Boston.

3. It's a movie, not actual journalism.

Journalism, of course, doesn't put words in people's mouths that they didn't say. 

Hollywood does — and did, as Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen noted Sunday:

“Spotlight,” the movie about The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of the coverup of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, had its general release on Friday and film critics agree: “Spotlight” is one of the best movies of the year.Jack Dunn had a different reaction. After seeing the film at the Loews theater across from Boston Common, he stepped onto the sidewalk and threw up.The movie sickened him because he is portrayed as someone who minimized the suffering of those who were sexually abused, as someone who tried to steer Globe reporters away from the story, as someone invested in the coverup.“The things they have me saying in the movie, I never said,” Dunn said. “But worse is the way they have me saying those things, like I didn’t care about the victims, that I tried to make the story go away. The dialogue assigned to me is completely fabricated and represents the opposite of who I am and what I did on behalf of victims. It makes me look callous and indifferent.”

Later in the same column, Cullen pointed out:

Dunn isn’t the only real person portrayed in the film who has a beef with McCarthy. Steve Kurkjian, a legendary Globe reporter, is portrayed as a curmudgeon who was dismissive of the importance of the story. That couldn’t be further from the truth, and Kurkjian did some of the most important reporting as part of the team that won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for exposing the coverup.Kurkjian, a journalistic icon, is owed an apology, at least. So is Dunn, but he’s looking for more. A lot more. His lawyer sent a letter to the filmmakers, demanding that the offending scene be deleted from the movie, just as the movie hit hundreds of screens coast to coast.

So as closely as the basic storyline — and even the clothes — may reflect actual events, "Spotlight" is definitely a drama, not a documentary. And it's certainly a one-sided portrayal, with the journalists as heroes and the Catholic hierarchy as villains.

For their part, Catholic bishops are presenting the church in the most positive light as the movie hits theaters.

Boston Globe religion writer Lisa Wangsness reported earlier this month:

Roman Catholic Church leaders in the United States have sent talking points to dioceses around the country to help them prepare for the release of the movie “Spotlight,” highlighting the progress the church says it has made in preventing and responding to the sexual abuse of children by clergy.The US Conference of Catholic Bishops in September drew up the guidance and statistics in anticipation of the movie’s release, said Don Clemmer, a spokesman for the bishops. He said church leaders wanted dioceses to be ready to speak to victims who experienced pain with the release of the movie, and to show them — and the wider public — that the church has changed.

And in a similar report for The Washington Post, Godbeat pro Michelle Boorstein wrote:

“Spotlight,” a new film about the Catholic clergy abuse scandal’s explosion in 2002, begs the question: How are things different in 2015?Dozens of U.S. church leaders have in the past few days been offering answers in the form of public statements, with some primarily focusing on the survivors and others casting the scandal as fully in the past and framing the church as the leader today in a society that hasn’t fully dealt with the problem.

For anyone interested in comparing the Hollywood version of "Spotlight" with the Globe's actual coverage of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, the Boston newspaper has a special webpage with a number of interesting links. Check out "The story behind the 'Spotlight' movie."

Categories: Main

Might this be the lede? Democrats allow pro-life Catholic to run (and win) in Louisiana

Monday, November 23, 2015

Please raise your hand if you are getting more and more tired of political labels, especially when they are linked to issues of religion, culture and morality. Can I get a witness?

During the recent elections in that crazy alternative universe called Louisiana, Republicans struggled to pin a liberal label, of some kind, on the Democrat who was willing to be the latest sacrificial victim in the race for governor. Everyone knows that Louisiana is a deep red, culturally conservative state, so the Democrat was given little chance to win.

It helped, of course, that the heavily favored Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter has, in the past, done his share of stupid self-destructive stuff. Cue up that campaign ad at the top of this post.

So the Democrat won. How did The Washington Post choose to label this unlikely victory

Completing a long-shot bid that ran counter to the conservative tide sweeping the Southern states, Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards was elected governor of Louisiana on Saturday, defeating his Republican rival, U.S. Sen. David Vitter. ...A jubilant crowd of Edwards supporters greeted news of the Democrat’s win at the venerable Monteleone Hotel in New Orleans’s French Quarter as a brass band led an impromptu “second line” celebration through the packed ballroom.Addressing the crowd, Edwards said, “I did not create this breeze of hope that’s blowing across our state, but I did catch it.” He reached out to supporters of his Republican opponent, pledging to be a governor “for all the people of Louisiana,” and congratulated voters for not giving in to the “deep cynicism about our politics and our future.”

So what was the key in this victory? That would seem to be the most important element to get into the lede, methinks. Of course, I say that while making the following confession (one familiar to veteran GetReligion readers): I am an old-school Southern Democrat myself, conservative on moral and social issues while leaning left on most everything else. 

So, was the Edwards victory really a win for the left in terms of the modern Democratic party? Well, yes, in that the Republicans lost.

But what did this win tell the Democratic establishment? If it wants to return to power in the South, to even a small degree, what kind of candidates do the Democrats need to find? Apparently, the answer is: Precisely the kind of men and women they have been driving out of the party.

What does this have to do with religion, morality and culture? That's where the journalism questions begin, in the stories about the Edwards win. Here's what the Post ran pretty far down in the story:

From the start of his run, Edwards knew any chance of victory hinged on distinguishing himself from the prevailing image of Democrats among voters. In meetings with small groups in rural parishes, he touted his opposition to abortion and strong support for gun ownership. He had fellow members of West Point class speak about his character and values.

So how did Edwards manage to run to the moral and cultural right of this tainted Republican? Might that be an element of this story that belonged in the lede, if the goal was to let readers know what actually happened in this race?

Apparently not.

The New York Times also put the unique qualifications that Edwards offered Democrats -- in this day and age -- quite a ways from the lede.

Mr. Edwards, a Catholic with a Boy Scout earnestness who comes from a family of sheriffs, won by a larger margin, 56 to 44 percent, than any Louisiana Democrat running for governor since Edwin Edwards reclaimed the office after a four-year absence by beating David Duke in 1991. ...He is a social conservative, but an old-school Democrat on bread-and-butter issues who champions public schools and is less enamored ofcharter schools and vouchers. The most immediate consequence of his election might be the state’s acceptance of Medicaid expansion, which Mr. Edwards pledged to carry out right away.

But the Times team did assure its readers that, for Edwards:

Social issues, in any case, will be far down his to-do list. All of the attention for now will be on the state’s dire fiscal situation, with a structural budget deficit, little left to cut and minimal appetite among businesses for chipping in more revenue.

That may be true. However, the key to this story was that the Democrats managed to end up with a logical candidate in a red state. Might this be the larger lesson, if the goal is to remain some balance that would allow the party to be more competitive in the, well, Bible Belt? After all, concerning Edwards:

His résumé seems almost laboratory-made for a red-state Democrat, starting with a family that has been in law enforcement for generations, an education at West Point and eight years as an Army Ranger. ...In addition to his military background, Mr. Edwards emphasized his Catholic conservatism on social issues. The Edwards campaign put up an early ad in which his wife, Donna, a public-school teacher, recounted how he had refused to consider an abortion upon learning that the first of their three children was going to be born with spina bifida. (The child, a daughter, is now engaged to be married.) The strong anti-abortion stance neutralized a line of attack that had been effectively used in this state against Senator Mary L. Landrieu, who was soundly beaten in a re-election attempt last year.

So back to the beginning: Was this a win for the left? Yes, in that the Republicans self-destructed. Was it a win for conservative Democrats in the South? That's a more complex and interesting story, one that apparently doesn't interest editors at the Post and Times.

Categories: Main

Here's what's missing in that Associated Press story on America's Little Syria

Sunday, November 22, 2015

In Pennsylvania town's Little Syria, largely Christian, a divide emerges over impending refugees:

— The Associated Press (@AP) November 20, 2015

Talk about false advertising.

In the title, I made it sound like I'd tell you what's missing in that recent Associated Press story on America's Little Syria.

But here's the deal: I'm not entirely sure I know what's missing. Or if something really is. How's that for wishy-washiness?

I've read the AP report three times — going on four — and each time at the end, I find myself going, "Hmmmmm."

Maybe you can help me figure this out? 

Let's start at the top:

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — A few days ago, a pastor asked Syrian-born restaurant owner Marie Jarrah to donate food to a welcoming event for recently arrived Syrian refugees. Jarrah, who said she regularly helps people in need, declined.Like many of Allentown's establishment Syrians, she doesn't think it's a good idea to bring refugees to the city. She clung to that view even before last week's terrorist attacks in Paris. "Problems are going to happen," said Jarrah, co-owner of Damascus Restaurant in a heavily Syrian enclave.As debate intensifies nationally over the federal government's plan to accept an additional 10,000 refugees from war-ravaged Syria, a similar argument is taking place in Allentown — one with a sectarian twist.Pennsylvania's third-largest city is home to one of the nation's largest populations of Syrians. They are mostly Christian and, in no small number, support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — a dynamic that's prompting some of them to oppose the resettlement of refugees, who are Muslim and say they fled violence perpetrated by the Assad regime.

First off, I love the story angle. Amid all the headlines focused on Syrian refugees this week, I'm extremely interested in what the folks quoted in this story have to say. 

Up high, it sounds like the Christian Syrians are anti-refugee, while the Muslim Syrians are pro-refugee — the unidentified pastor planning a welcoming event notwithstanding.

In the middle of the story, readers learn that local Muslims are helping the refugees:

The Muslim Association of Lehigh Valley, a mosque and school outside Allentown, has been working with the refugees, integrating them socially, sorting through donations of clothes, appliances and school supplies, and enrolling them in English-language classes."There's a lot of rhetoric, but we try not to even acknowledge the rhetoric, because right now there's a crisis," said Sherrine Eid, refugee coordinator at the Muslim Association. "We have much bigger fish to fry."

But later, the story suddenly switches to Christians welcoming the refugees:

Some Syrian Christians say they welcome the refugees."I don't have a problem with anyone coming here. I came to America as an immigrant. That's what I am," said Osama Dayoub, 23, who was raised in Syria but moved to Allentown in 1999 and gained citizenship. "You're going to make them feel uncomfortable? No. Let them live."An Orthodox church where many pro-Assad Syrians worship — and which recently sent a delegation to the Russian embassy in Washington to express gratitude for Russia's backing of Assad and its airstrikes in Syria — is hosting a benefit next month for Syrian refugees locally and abroad. The church has already directly assisted a Muslim refugee family in Allentown."We are concerned like everyone else," said Nasser Sabbagh, a board member of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church and brother of the pastor. "We are concerned about the safety of the Lehigh Valley community and the Syrian community." But, he said, the refugees "are not terrorists. . I don't think we should isolate them and push them way."

So now I'm a little confused.

Maybe it's a matter of generalizations where there needs to be much more nuance and context. Maybe it's a matter of a wire service trying to tell a story that ought to be 2,500 words in only 800. Maybe something else entirely is throwing me off and I just can't put my finger on it. 

Or maybe the story is fine and my mushy brain just really needs the weekend to get here.

I'm open to all those possibilities. By all means, click the link and help me solve the mystery. Please?

Categories: Main

Daily Beast approaches satire territory when ‘reviewing’ Carson’s congregation

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Tina Brown, who founded The Daily Beast, will readily admit the news site’s name is an homage to Evelyn Waugh’s novel “Scoop,” in which the newspaper tub-thumping for war was called “The Beast.”

But Brown’s website approached satire not only in its name when it sent a reporter to poke around a congregation with which this writer is intimately familiar, the Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland. In its report, Brown’s reporter demonstrated a breathtaking lack of basic knowledge about religion -- certainly about Christianity -- or even what people do when they go to worship services these days. Click here to read that story.

Disclosure: I’ve been a member at Spencerville since 2003, have attended weekly worship there, and still am on the rolls, not having yet transferred my records to a local Adventist congregation in Utah.

Oh, some fellow named Dr. Ben Carson is a member there, along with his family. You might have heard about his connections to the Seventh-day Adventist faith.

It’s not unusual for the press to poke around the church of a presidential candidate’s choice, especially if that church is either little-known or perhaps controversial. In 2008, Trinity United Church of Christ was put under a media microscope not only because Barack Obama was a member there. but also because the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor, had issued many sermons that were, shall we say, a bit caustic about America and its role in the world. Four years later, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had a media-led “Mormon Moment” when Mitt Romney, a lifelong member, returned missionary and former bishop, ran for the presidency.

Now it’s Adventism’s turn. Gideon Resnick, “a journalist with a fervent interest in politics, peach rings and rap mixtapes” was sent by Brown’s minions on a field trip to inspect this curious tribe of people from which Carson has sprung forth, Quixote-like, to tilt at the White House.

Or so the tone of the article (original headline, “Ben Carson’s Church: We’re Glad He’s Not Here”) might have us believe. Buckle your seat belts, gentle reader, because you’re about to discover some amazing, astonishing, out-of-this-world things.

The Spencerville congregation meets in a church. With wood paneling. And a pipe organ (a rather nice one, if you ask me) and -- gasp! -- stained glass windows. The natives there practice something called tithing and offers envelopes in which donations may be placed. Most astounding of all, these, er, Christians believe some guy named Jesus is going to return to Earth for the “end of times”!

Pardon my sarcasm, but Resnick, and perhaps his editors, know little -- and apparently researched even less -- about just what Christians (of just about any stripe) are, believe or do:

”Followers abide by many elements of Evangelical Protestant doctrine but emphasize the importance of the Saturday Sabbath, promote religious liberty, focus on diet and health, and want to preserve conservative values like same-sex marriage. They are also firm believers in the eventual Second Coming of Jesus Christ and that those who don’t accept him linger in eternal sleep rather than go to hell.”

While I was surprised to learn same-sex marriage is now a “conservative value” Seventh-day Adventists want to “preserve” -- it isn’t generally regarded as a "conservative" principle and, no, Seventh-day Adventists don’t endorse it -- it was the “firm believers in the eventual Second Coming of Jesus Christ” bit that surprised me.

So far as I am aware, just about every Christian communion in the world today -- Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Congregational, Pentecostal and even the Quakers -- are “firm believers in the eventual Second Coming of Jesus Christ.” That kind of defines Christianity: We’re Christ-followers, and we believe that Jesus will return, as promised at the end of the Gospel accounts.

Reporter Resnick, clearly miffed by a request from an Adventist communication director to not interview Spencerville members while on church property, went on to spin all sorts of things about the congregation, and the parent body, that are just patently false. His account is an almost textbook case of why the press “doesn’t ‘get’ religion,” to borrow a phrase.

Attending a worship service on November 14, the morning after the terrorist attacks in Paris, France, Resnick hears Adventist Pastor Chad Stuart ask congregants to join in prayer for the victims, suggesting this is one more indicator of the end times, although Stuart “careful to not distinguish the attacks in Paris as the sole sign of the imminent salvation.”

And while the approach of the end of days may seem like an odd idea to some, especially when tethered to calamitous world events like the Paris terrorist attack, 41 percent of Americans said they believe that Christ will return by 2050, according to a 2010 Pew Research Center poll. Carson has an 87 percent approval rating with white born-again evangelicals.

Millions upon millions of American evangelicals have been raised to read their morning newspaper “with the Bible in their other hand,” to borrow an old phrase. True, date-setting hasn’t worked out well for evangelicals such as the late broadcaster Harold Camping, or for the Millerite forerunners of Adventism, for that matter. Yet for Resnick to call the core belief of millions “an odd idea” belies fundamental knowledge of what Christianity is looking towards. Lacking that perspective, it seems difficult for The Daily Beast to enlighten readers, as opposed to titillating them.

Resnick’s discussion of what Seventh-day Adventists believe will happen to those who don’t accept Christ as Savior (not, in his words, “give themselves up for Jesus”), shows still more confusion:

“At the Second Coming of Christ, the trumpet of God and the voice of the archangel looks down and the dead in Christ will rise first,” Stuart told me. “At that point people will go up to heaven. We don’t believe in a god that tortures people for all eternity.” This is a departure from the work of [Adventist Church co-founder Ellen G.] White, who referenced hell in many of her writings.

Um, no. Ellen White, whom Adventists believe exercised the gift of prophecy during her years of ministry, believed in annhiliationism, as do present-day evangelicals such as Edward Fudge, Clark Pinnock and the late John R. W. Stott. White may have “referenced hell in many of her writings,” but didn’t depart from the Adventist’s teachings.

There's tons more that could be disputed here, but space, even pixels, won't allow it. At its core, The Daily Beast article seemed dedicated to producing more heat than light, more sizzle than steak. That’s fine if you’re seeking clicks, less so if you pretend to actually inform your readers.

Categories: Main

America's bishops take on the porn industry; mainstream media don’t care

Friday, November 20, 2015

Pornography reaps $97 billion a year worldwide -- $10-$12 billion just in America -- and the nation's Catholics number more than 66 million. So when the nation's bishops issue a massive new paper on pornography, wouldn't you think news media would listen hard?

But no, most mainstream media's answer seems to be "Yawn." Except for the Catholic press, few outlets showed any interest.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, at their second semiannual meeting this year, certainly spared no alarms at the explosion of "hypersexualized" content -- not only videos but movies, music, novels, videogames, "sexting" phone messages, even drugstores, hotel chains, and cable companies.

"In the confessional and in our daily ministry, we have seen the corrosive damage caused by pornography: children whose innocence is stolen; men and women who feel great guilt and shame for viewing pornography occasionally or habitually; spouses who feel betrayed and traumatized; and men, women and children exploited by the pornography industry," says the 32-page paper.

Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, chairman of the committee that did the paper, adds his own ringing quote. As reported by Catholic News Service, Malone calls porn a "particularly sinister instance of consumption" whereby men, women and children "are consumed for the pleasure of others." Adds the 1,200-word CNS story:

"Producing or using pornography is gravely wrong. It is a mortal sin if it is committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent. Unintentional ignorance and factors that compromise the voluntary and free character of the act can diminish a person's moral culpability," says the approved version of "Create in Me a Clean Heart: A Pastoral Response to Pornography."

The use of religious terms like "gravely wrong" and "mortal sin" are especially noteworthy. The bishops are stating their belief that porn not only degrades personal dignity but imperils souls. CNS was alert also in spotting the mitigating factors in the study.

And I don’t see that high standard matched in secular media.  As a faithful reader told us, it may fall into our "Got News?" category.

"They certainly noticed the statements on nukes, the economy and gays," Faithful Reader says. "So when the bishops take on a $97 billion global industry, that's not worth looking at?"

But even the few secular reporters who showed up in Baltimore, where the bishops met, gave it only passing mention. The Baltimore Sun did an omnibus advance story, saying the bishops were planning to deal with abortion, marriage, immigration and religious liberty. And the follow-up wasn't much better: two of the 13 paragraphs.

I'll give the Sun two points, though. It repeats the idea of people in the sex industry as "disposable objects," rather than children of God.  And it notes that the study title -- "Create in Me a Clean Heart" -- comes from "King David's plea for forgiveness in Psalm 51."

Still, the rest of the story spreads itself thin in covering all the topics of the bishops' meeting, such as abortion, euthanasia, poverty and the environment. Much like the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette does, leaving any mention of porn until the end of the article.

The Post-Gazette does have better sourcing, quoting five bishops or archbishops.  And the passage on the porn study is indeed eloquent: "It encourages users of pornography to see the exploitation of both the persons depicted and themselves, and it encourages church leaders to help people affected by its use." Still, it all reads like an afterthought.

And MSNBC didn’t do itself proud in its account, which covers less than a stripper's costume. First offense was the sarcasm headline, "US Catholic bishops condemn growth of 'corrosive' pornography." After that comes a bare story of less than 290 words. It goes downhill right from the lede:

Roman Catholic bishops issued a collective condemnation of pornography Tuesday, calling it "a dark ‘sign’ of the modern world" that causes "corrosive damage."The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops almost unanimously approved a statement saying the impact of porn had "grown exponentially" with technology. "Some have even described it as a public health crisis," they said.

At least MSNBC cites the document saying pornography "hurts the user by potentially diminishing his or her capacity for healthy human intimacy and relationships" and "presents a distorted view of human sexuality that is contrary to authentic love, and it harms a person’s sense of self-worth." The article also links to the study itself.

But after that, the article spends two paragraphs on the bishops' new election-year guide dealing with the well-worn issues of marriage and abortion. So the part on porn runs more like 230 words.

I know what some of you are thinking: "After the recent terrorist attacks, the media were probably stretched too thin to pay much attention to pornography." Valid point. They used to have deeper benches before laying off the reporters that were their main routes of info. They also used to have religion writers doing religion stories. Imagine telling a non-specialist to cover, say, Super Bowl or a major firm's IPO.

Yes, many have died lately in France, and in Mali and Lebanon. Balance that against the millions of humans, including children, victimized by various forms of the sex industry -- not just videos but the slave trade, child porn, sexually transmitted diseases, etc.  All of it was rife before the current wave of terrorism and will likely outlast it. Shouldn't it get more than a few paragraphs?


Categories: Main

Ideology or theology? Is it time for Western journalists to start taking ISIS at its word?

Friday, November 20, 2015

So here is an important question facing journalists, diplomats and presidential candidates as they ponder the mysteries of the Middle East, at this moment in time. This is the question that "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I explored in this week's podcast. Click here to check that out.

That question: Is ISIS a political state defined by a political system, by an ideology, in the same sense as the United States, France or Germany? Or, is the Islamic State best understood as a theocracy in which its political and religious institutions are wedded together, while operating according to laws and logic based on its leaders own understanding of Islamic theology and tradition?

Yes, ISIS leaders want land, oil, money, weapons and prisoners. But they also want converts -- other Muslims, for sure -- to their cause and their version of Islam, both in the regions they conquer as well as in the lands they threaten.

So ponder the opening lines of the recent ISIS statement (as printed in The Washington Post) in which its leaders claimed responsibility for the massacres in Paris:

In a blessed battle whose causes of success were enabled by Allah, a group of believers from the soldiers of the Caliphate (may Allah strengthen and support it) set out targeting the capital of prostitution and vice, the lead carrier of the cross in Europe -- Paris. This group of believers were youth who divorced the worldly life and advanced towards their enemy hoping to be killed for Allah's sake, doing so in support of His religion, His Prophet (blessing and peace be upon him), and His allies. They did so in spite of His enemies. Thus, they were truthful with Allah -- we consider them so -- and Allah granted victory upon their hands and cast terror into the hearts of the crusaders in their very own homeland.

The bottom line: Does this sound like political language?

The question, for journalists (and I assume statesmen as well) has become rather obvious: To what degree should the words of the ISIS leadership be taken seriously? When they say they are dedicated to building a caliphate -- an Islamic state for all of the world's Muslims -- to what degree should outsiders take that apocalyptic claim seriously?

Want to ponder a possible end-game here? Do the ISIS leaders plan to take Mecca from Saudi Arabia? What armies stand between ISIS and Mecca? Can you imagine Western troops invading Saudi Arabia in an attempt to protect Mecca?

Just asking.

This week, there was one Washington Post story in particular that I thought demonstrated the struggle that many journalists are having with this question of whether or not to take seriously the stated goals if ISIS. Read along, please. The starting point is the logic of the attack on Paris:

Expanding the conflict may seem like a self-destructive move. But to some analysts, it is squarely in keeping with what the group advertises as its overriding, apocalyptic mission: to lure the world’s unbelievers into Syria for a final, Armageddon-like battle.In the short term, the Islamic State is almost certainly betting that it can survive a counter­attack. Whatever losses the group may suffer will be far outweighed by the propaganda value of its newly proven ability to infiltrate other countries and kill hundreds of civilians, according to counterterrorism analysts and U.S. officials.“The more the West strikes, the more people are killed [in Syria], it only builds into the narrative that the end is coming,” said Matthew Henman, managing editor of IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center in London.

Then a few lines later:

Others cautioned that it is difficult to ascertain the Islamic State’s strategic motives or what it might have been hoping to accomplish with the Paris attacks and the downing of the Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula.The attacks could reflect a simple decision to “inflict pain” on France and Russia and deter them from further involvement in the region, said William McCants, an analyst at the Brookings Institution and the author of a new book, “The ISIS Apocalypse.” Or, conversely, it could mark an attempt to draw them deeper into the fight.“It’s one of the hardest questions to answer,” he said. “It’s totally unclear. We don’t know their motivation or what is motivating the decision-making at the top of the organization.”

Wait a minute. ISIS has not stated its motivations?

Frankly, I was glad that the Post editors printed these two statements, showing readers a glimpse of the arguments that are taking place among Western elites. Clearly, some people believe that the leaders of the caliphate think they are leading a caliphate, while others believe they are lying about their stated motives.

Here's a question to ponder: Are ISIS leaders focusing on money or purging their lands of unbelievers? I would say that the answer is "both."

The Post team carries on with its exploration of the apocalyptic theology of the Islamic State, noting:

According to the group’s extremist ideology, the caliphate will eventually triumph in a great war against infidel forces, culminating in a final end-of-days battle in Dabiq, an obscure Syrian town near the northern city of Aleppo.The group’s online propaganda magazine is titled “Dabiq.” Each edition features the same prophetic quote about how the conflict will unfold: “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify -- by Allah’s permission -- until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.”

And at the end of the story:

Yet it would be a mistake to analyze the group’s apocalyptic ideology through the lens of Western rationality, said Matthew Levitt, head of the counterterrorism program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.“They don’t see being way too brutal as a bad thing,” he said. “Brutality is working for them. They don’t see taking over the world as overstretching. This is part of the divine mission.”

This brings us to a final journalistic question, one that I have asked before here at GetReligion: Is the accurate word, in this case, "ideology" or "theology"? Why not own up to the theological content of ISIS and its motives, along with the content of its statements?

Enjoy the podcast (once again, if the word "enjoy" fits in this context).

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