Could’ve been so beautiful

Usually, I keep my compulsion for ’80s pop hits — the music of my youth — under control. This week, though, I’m in Philadelphia on a work-related trip, and my rental car — unlike my family’s minivan — has satellite radio. Satellite radio with an all-’80s station!

So, please blame Tiffany, but I can’t resist commenting on three recent stories with faith angles that could’ve been so beautiful, could’ve been so right — but stopped short of actually getting religion.

I Ran (So Far Away) from the spiritual lede: Last week, the Omaha World-Herald in Nebraska ran a Page 1 trend story on a backlash against digital chatter. It opened this way:

Tom Murray is spending these days unplugged, in digital detox. He’s trying to distance himself from the virtual world and reconnect with the real one, where people talk face to face and don’t leap to answer every electronic chirp. You might say he has unfriended himself. “I gave up Facebook for Lent,” the Omahan said.

My first reaction: Giving up Facebook for Lent is so last year’s story. But religion news junkie that I am, I kept reading to find out more details about the spiritual aspects of this decision. However, there was no more mention of Lent — or anything religious — until the end:

After Lent is over, he plans to maintain a tight rein on his Facebooking, restricting himself to perhaps one log-in a day, in the evening.

“The philosophy of why I gave it up I don’t want to leave behind.”

Rock This Town with a gay-friendly prom: The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., featured a Page 1 story Thursday on the small Mississippi town that canceled its high school prom rather than let a lesbian student attend with her girlfriend.

In advance of a private prom planned for today, the reporter interviewed a variety of townsfolk about the controversy. This part grabbed me:

Linda Lindale, a local artist and born-again Christian, is disturbed by the reaction McMillen’s stance has provoked in some.

“Do I agree with that lifestyle?” she said, referring to McMillen’s homosexuality. “No, because I’m a blood-bought child of the King. But I’m not going to condemn her. It’s not our job to judge. We are taught (in the Bible) if we judge somebody, we will be judged by the same measure.”

Every story can’t be entirely about religion, and reporters deal with finite space. But wow, I’d love to know more about this woman’s religious background and beliefs. In a perfect world, I’d even welcome an explanation of born-again Christian.

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, not go to church: If your musical tastes extend beyond the ’80s (or if you, like me, have kids who watch the Disney Channel), you may have heard of a teenage pop star named Miley Cyrus.

I bring this up because Parade had a fascinating interview with Cyrus that delved into her faith:

Miley’s ease with talking about God points to another aspect of her life — her faith. Before her family moved to L.A. in 2005, she was baptized in a Southern Baptist church as a kind of spiritual insurance policy against big-city life. Yet she no longer frequents church these days.

“My faith is very important to me,” she says. “But I don’t necessarily define my faith by going to church every Sunday. Because now when I go to church, I feel like it’s a show. There are always cameras outside. I am very spiritual in my own way. Let me make it clear, though — I am a Christian. Jesus is who saved me. He’s what keeps me full and whole. But everyone is entitled to what they believe and what keeps them full. Hopefully, I can influence people and help them follow the same path I am on, but it is not my job to tell people what they are doing wrong.”

Is it hard being openly Christian in Hollywood?

“People are always looking for you to do something that is non-Christian,” she answers. “But it’s like, ‘Dude, Christians don’t live in the dark.’ I have to participate in life. If I wear something revealing, they go, ‘Well, that’s not Christian.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to go to hell because I’m wearing a pair of really short white shorts.’ Suddenly I’m a slut. That’s so old-school.”

Give the writer credit for asking about Cyrus’ faith and allowing her to express it in her own words. But there’s so much in that relatively short chunk of text that makes me wish for more. For starters, the reference to “a kind of spiritual insurance policy against big-city life” lacks clarity and raises more questions than it answers. Is that the writer’s cynical opinion? Is that how Cyrus viewed her baptism?

Moreover, Cyrus’ description of herself as “very spiritual in my own way” is interesting but so vague as to lack real meaning. I wish the reporter had pressed her more on what her spirituality entails.

And yes, I feel silly calling for a more substantive interview with Hannah Montana. But with more insight, this story could have mastered the best of both worlds (entertainment and religion).

If you’ll excuse me, Boy George, Prince and Madonna are calling my name.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Ryan

    Lots of interesting stuff here. I think an interesting story would be about how celebrities deal with the paparazzi when it comes to worship, how churches deal with it, and what, if anything can be done so that worship is respected. Even the US President deals with this issue.

  • Bobby

    I agree. That could be an interesting story. I nominate Bob Smietana of The Tennessean to write it. Certainly, he could explore not just Miley’s situation specifically, but also country stars in general in a city sometimes called the buckle of the Bible Belt (among other cities that claim that distinction).

  • Mike Hickerson

    I agree that journalists should dig into the impact of paparazzi on church attendance – both its real impact and its perceived impact. The President has issues, of course, and Miley Cyrus feels like it’s a problem. I’ve heard members of U2 express the same concern. Yet lots of celebrities DO attend church regularly. I’ve never heard about attention being an issue for any athletes who attend church; Denzel Washington and other Hollywood superstars reportedly attend church weekly; and a friend of mine tells me that he recently served communion to a couple of household-name country & pop stars. How much is this a legitimate concern for disturbing the peace of their chosen church, and how much is just an excuse? How do churches with celebrity members – like Denzel Washington’s own West Angeles Church of God – deal with the issue?

  • Bobby

    Interesting questions, Mike. A friend of mine in the Nashville area posted a Facebook status a while back about being at a suburban Cracker Barrel and Miley Cyrus eating at the next table. Didn’t sound like she was surrounded by paparazzi but rather being left alone by most people. Not sure the circumstances of her church attendance, however, although I do suspect that there’s a higher paparazzi interest in a teenage pop star as opposed to Vince Gill and Amy Grant going to church — or even Denzel Washington.

    I do know of a Hollywood star who attends a certain church, and I wanted to write about his faith, but he declined to grant the interview just because he didn’t want to advertise his place of worship and have a lot of curious “visitors” start showing up.

    Religion News Service had an interesting feature on the tourists who still line up to attend the Georgia church where former President Jimmy Carter teaches Sunday school.

  • Dave

    I blipped right over the Miley Cyrus interview in Parade; thank you for focusing attention upon it. This may have been a missed opportunity for some depth on someone who is deep in her faith but drifting between churches.

    I tried to keep up the spirit of your post by framing this comment in terms of the Jefferson Airplane and the Beatles, but my brain just keeps getting straighter as it gets older.

  • Bobby

    Hey Dave, thanks for keeping with the theme. :-)