The burning crux of the matter

Surely by now you’ve seen the news that an enormous statue of Jesus was burnt to the ground in Ohio Monday. There were only 1,000 or so Google news links about it.

I knew right away that copy editors would have a field day with potential headlines about “Touchdown Jesus,” the structure’s nickname. “Oh, tmatt, you should never dare a copy editor,” Doug LeBlanc said yesterday to Terry’s “Burning (Son of) Man” headline suggestion. Here’s Doug’s list:

Refiner’s Fire
Our God Is a Consuming Fire
Crispy Kitsch Kritter
Paging Flannery O’Connor
Jesus’ Cute Overload

Trust me, the ironies behind this story make me laugh as much as the next person. I love watching a good battle over the best headline.

At the same time, journalists seem to be peeing their pants over this story making sure its fully covered. It’s not like the Southern Baptists were having a convention or anything.

In their attempts, I wonder whether reporters were trying so hard to be cute that they forgot to just tell the story. I’m all for laughs and giggles, but surely reporters understand there is some line that shouldn’t be crossed. Apparently not, if you check some of the most respected sources like the Associated Press and the Washington Post.

“The King of Kings is now ashes to ashes,” Diane Kepley says in her video report for the Associated Press. “They say the King of Kings was a beacon of hope and salvation.”

This lead won’t even make sense to most people who aren’t familiar with the grand structure. I guess I preferred this lead that ran in the Detroit Free Press from the AP.

You know that huge statue of Jesus on northbound I-75 just outside of Cincinnati?

It was struck by lightning and burned down.

So simple yet so true. Jennifer Grant of the Cincinnati Enquirer captured the news while leaving room for some jest. (Check out the “write your own headline” feature and the audio of the 911 call) This is an example of how a newspaper kept the reporting solid while capturing the ironies.

In the meantime, forget any financial woes at the Washington Post; they have the resources to put not one but two reporters on the case.

Here’s the grand and very expensive lede from Monica Hesse and Dan Zak:

It appears God has sacrificed his only son. Again.

Blasphemous much? Sure, reporters can have some fun with this, but they could keep in mind that they are comparing this to the same person that Christians believe lived and breathed and was crucified.

When I chatted with Brad about this topic, he produced a few ledes in less than a minute:

Well, it looks like God got tired of competing with Sunday football.

Who said God appreciates endzone exaltations?

Jesus raised the roof and now it’s on fire.

The rest of the Post‘s piece reads as if the reporters held a drinking game for every time they found a religion reference during a natural disaster. The newspaper’s style section is known for its puff pieces, but surely two heads could come up with something better than this.

So, we turned to science. Religious structures, especially church steeples, are regularly zapped because they are often the highest point in a given area, according to John Jensenius, lightning safety specialist for the National Weather Service. But the same goes for towering secular symbols.

“Oh, she’s hit by lightning on a continual basis,” says Statue of Liberty spokesman Darren Boch.

When asked whether such lightning strikes might represent a malevolent act of God toward America, Boch says, “I can clearly state that no one here deems it an act of God.”

Which brings us to the main reason for writing this story: Lightning Safety Week starts Sunday.

Finally in the 16th paragraph, the reporters make their point. I hate to be the party pooper, but do national reporters really need to fall all over themselves to put several reporters on this? The Post story could’ve been written by someone in his mom’s basement in pajamas. I’m all for clever leads, brilliant headlines, witty comparisons, but on some level, doesn’t the story tell itself?

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  • Mike Hickerson

    These are all great examples of why no one ever needed to create a media criticism blog called “GetKitsch.”

  • Mollie

    Sarah wrote:

    The rest of the Post’s piece reads as if the reporters held a drinking game for every time they found a religion reference during a natural disaster.

    And yet the most recent example was curiously omitted. Remember last September when the ELCA voted to ordain gays in committed sexual relationships? At the same time, the cross on the steeple at the ELCA church across the street from the convention was knocked upside down by a tornado.

    That was the first thing I thought of when this Jesus burned. I just find it curious that it was omitted.

    As for the “resacrifice” of Christ lede — I think it’s offensive and blasphemous on its own merits but stunning when you think of how the Post treats stories about, say, arson over cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad.

  • Martha

    Ah, I’m going easy on the reporters this time, becaue there have been lots of jokes about this on religion blogs too (and a bit of the “I’m outraged you’re laughing about this!” reaction as well).

    You’re right, though; two reporters does sound a bit much. Maybe they volunteered to cover this rather than go to Disneyland for the Baptist convention?

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    What I told Sarah concerned me most about the lede was that it MADE NO SENSE. What was Touchdown Jesus sacrificed for? And was the suggestion that this statue of Jesus was, in fact, God’s own son or just a representation thereof?

    I get the irreverence. This ran in the Style section. The WaPo Style writers pride themselves on that. But this lede was so hackneyed. To be fair, the three that I suggested were pretty cheeseball too. But they were intended to be.

  • Martha

    Apparently a comedian named Heywood Banks had a song out about this statue called “Big Butter Jesus” (don’t kill me; I got the link via two religion blogs!)

  • Mike Hickerson

    An update from the Enquirer. Interesting choice of photo: it’s the church’s electronic marquee, announcing in all caps”He’ll be back,” but only the first word is in the photo.

  • Maureen

    I know the “some stories are behind a pay wall” is annoying, but why link only to the Enquirer? The statue was inside the Dayton Daily News’ market, also, and they did good coverage. Heck, so did WHIO TV (which posted photos first, as far as I can tell).

  • Dave

    Connie Schultz, a Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist, reported that this statue was also known as Quicksand Jesus. It’s no surprise that the edifice evokes jokes; portraying a heroic figure only from mid-torso up is well outside statuary standards. This instance invites the irreverent to speculate that Jesus may have walked on water but seems to be having trouble with land.

  • Julia

    re: Butter Jesus.

    I just was in Cincinnati where the locals explained that the statute looks like it was carved out of butter. And it does.

  • Joshunda

    Maybe I shouldn’t admit it but I kind of liked the lede, though I agree that two reporters is a lot for a story about a statue getting struck by lightning. And it was unfortunate that the ELCA tornado wasn’t mentioned at all, since that was a big deal last summer.

    As for the line about reporters “peeing their pants to get this story covered” in contrast to the Southern Baptist convention, I rarely have readers write me emails suggesting that I blog about something. Southern Baptist convention: 0. Touchdown Jesus statue: 3.

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I write about religion in addition to other stories that I have to cover, and while the Southern Baptist convention was interesting, it was not local and it was not of interest to the majority of my readers in the same way that this event was.

  • Bobby

    (W)hile the Southern Baptist convention was interesting, it was not local and it was not of interest to the majority of my readers in the same way that this event was.

    Joshunda, If you were in Dallas, I think I could make a case that a story about the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting is a LOCAL story. But I’m not familiar enough with Austin to attempt that argument. I would urge you, though, to check out some of your fellow religion writers’ comments on our post about the Southern Baptist meeting.

    It could be that if you poked around a bit, there is a story or trend there that would interest readers in Austin. To some extent, I think the fact that Baptists are trying to figure out how to stem falling membership numbers in a post-denominational society ties right in with the excellent piece you did recently on the “spiritual but not religious” trend.

    I guess I’m curious: Any idea how many Southern Baptists you have in your readership area? And how would that compare with other denominations and religious groups in the area?

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Some good points made here. I’d like to respond to two really quickly:
    Maureen, I didn’t mean to imply that there was no good local coverage. I’m sure they also did some excellent work on the story. I was merely trying to contrast two newspapers who were trying to have some fun.
    Joshunda, I think Bobby’s response makes sense. I think a blog post is completely understandable (and you do a good job at it). You’re trying to build a readership that may include non-local coverage and the occasionally funny item. I do think that the Post lead went over the line. As Mollie suggested, they might not write this sort of thing if they were covering Islam.

  • Bonnie Waletzko

    The thing that surprised me more than anything was the fact that the Baptists had a statue at all. Don’t they say that that would be idol worship? Or is it only idol worship if Catholics have statues?