Happy, vague Catholics with 11 kids (updated)

Jen and Larry Kilmer have 11 children. They are Catholic.

We live in a day and age in which the two halves of that equation are not automatically connected.

That’s interesting, in and of itself. However, if you are interested in reading anything about the substance of the faith that shapes this unique family’s life, the Washington Post feature story about them is not going to satisfy you.

However, please note that I am writing this real fast so that a few GetReligion readers, if they wish, can sign on and chat with Jen Kilmer at 1 p.m. EDT. Maybe you can ask her what the Kilmer family’s faith has to do with its ability to survive and even thrive.

As it is, this is about as deep as it gets in this delightful, but rather hollow, feature:

There is no secret formula to their success, says Jen (and aside from an occasional hand from in-laws, no outside child-care help either). But clearly, keeping on top of a family this size requires superhuman doses of organization and patience. Not to mention a level of personal sacrifice beyond measure.

“People are always asking, ‘How do you have time for yourself?’” says Jen. “But when you realize there’s more to life than yourself … I think time to yourself is overrated.”

Jen and Larry met in 1994 when they were both teachers and soccer coaches at area Catholic high schools. Their soccer teams played each other; they married three years later. Jen, who grew up on a small farm outside Boston with eight siblings, says she always wanted lots of kids. Larry, who was adopted and has one sibling, had no preconceived notions of family. The couple say they agreed to accept the children God sent them.

Now, one can only assume that the final sentence there is a reference to Natural Family Planning. If so, it is a very strange assumption — leaving readers with the impression that natural birth control methods do not work at all, which is not the case when couples are knowledgeable and committed to using these principles.

My reading of that passage is that the Kilmers simply “agreed to accept the children that God sent them” — period. However, it would be nice to know what these words mean to them. This hot-button subject, believe it or not, is never discussed in any detail.

Instead, the emphasis in the story — National Geographic alien culture style — is on the joyful precision that allows the five-bedroom house to escape chaos. The father is a teacher. The mother works at home. The children attend Catholic schools. I love the detail that the family cannot stay in hotels because they are considered a fire hazard, because of the awkward adult-to-child ratio.

And their faith? This is one of the only factual hints that we have:

During the school year, Jen’s days begin at 5 a.m.

She lays out the children’s uniforms, makes lunches, then attends 6:30 Mass at the Shrine at St. Jude.

After Mass, Larry and the oldest boys leave for school.

The remaining school-age children get dressed, eat breakfast, grab lunches and walk to school. The youngest stay home with Mom, who finishes up the morning routine: cleaning from breakfast, making beds and putting in a load of laundry. This fall, two of the three youngest will start preschool, adding a little wrinkle to the established morning routine.

So Jen Kilmer, at least, is a daily Mass Catholic. With the family’s children in Catholic schools — one would assume a very traditional one — readers could make certain assumptions about the faith content in the classrooms and chapels. But there is no other significant religious content in the story, in terms of the Catholic faith that sets this family apart from, well, other American Catholics. I wondered: How close to they live to their church?

At the very end of the piece there are a few nice details, but, again, they pass quickly:

She admits to crying sometimes under the weight of it all. But those “pity parties” are short-lived.

“I can only feel sorry for myself for so long because there is work to be done,” she says.

In the midst of the stress and commotion, the constant chorus of “Mom!” and the backbreaking pace, Jen remains calm and cheerful. It’s evident that part of what gives her peace as well as the confidence of knowing it will all work out is her Catholic faith.

“Somehow God provides,” she often says, “in ways you don’t even know.”

That faith guides the children as well. When he grows up, Tommy, 9, says he wants to be “a professional basketball player and a priest.”

“If I am a professional basketball player,” he says, “I’ll do that, retire and then become a priest.”

When asked if more children are in their future, Jen mentions her age and says, “Probably not, but we would love to. We would accept whatever comes.”

And that is that. It possible, do join the upcoming Post chat session.

UPDATE: OK, the transcript is up — right here. Did any of you join in?

Yes, the NFP issue did come up. Jen Kilmer’s answer adds a bit more insight into their beliefs on the subject.

Cracking the godparent code

I am blessed to have many godchildren. Seven, in fact. I witnessed their baptisms, pray for them daily, and am either engaged in their religious instruction or ready to be in the case their parents need the assistance. Of all my vocations, being a godmother is one of my very favorite. My children have very special godparents who serve that role for them.

This summer, we’ve had several readers submit stories about the way the media use the term godparent. In fact, the issue has been raised so much that I figured we had to go ahead and look at it.

One submission was this one from The Guardian:

Steven Spielberg’s summer cruise around the coast of Sardinia in the company of his god-daughter Gwyneth Paltrow and friends has entered choppy waters after he fell foul of watchful Italian beachgoers, a vigilant coastguard and Italy’s strict rules on having fun.

And here’s a more recent piece from the Associated Press:

Amy Winehouse’s 15-year-old goddaughter performed an outstanding set at the Big Chill music festival, mirroring her late mentor by closing her show with a cover of Winehouse’s “Love Is a Losing Game.”

Dionne Bromfield got teary-eyed when she performed the song, barely able to sing its last few words, though the crowd cheered her on.

“She was an amazing singer,” Bromfield said. “She was not only my godmother, but she was my mentor and my boss as well.”

Readers have asked about whether these terms have different uses in real life versus celebrity life.

Traditionally, “Godparent” is defined as “a person who stands sponsor to another at baptism.” Encyclopedia Brittanica explains:

… One who stands surety for another in the rite of Christian baptism. In the modern baptism of an infant or child the godparent or godparents make profession of faith for the person being baptized (the godchild) and assume an obligation to serve as proxies for the parents if the parents either are unable or neglect to provide for the religious training of the child, in fulfillment of baptismal promises. In churches mandating a sponsor only one godparent is required; two (in most churches, of different sex) are permitted. Many Protestant denominations permit but do not require godparents to join the infant’s natural parents as sponsors. In the Roman Catholic Church godparents must be of the Catholic faith.

OK. So Gwyneth Paltrow has said that she was raised by a Jewish father and Quaker mother and that it was a nice way to grow up. She’s raising her children Jewish although her husband is from a Christian background. Steven Spielberg is Jewish. So I’m very curious what the context is for referring to him as her godfather.

Amy Winehouse was Jewish. I’m unsure about Dionne Bromfield’s religion. She’s been referred to as Winehouse’s goddaughter for many years.

Do non-Christian religions ever use the term “Godparent”? It seems that there are a couple of roles in Judaism that could be translated as godparent. This is from Wikipedia, so take it for what it’s worth, but here are some examples:

Santeria
In the Yoruba religion Santería, godparents must have completed their santo or their Ifá. A person gets his Madrina and Yubona (co-godmother) or his Padrino and Yubon (co-godfather) or some santeros aside from his co-godparents may have an oluo (babalao, initiate of ifa) who consults him with an ekuele (divinating chain).

Judaism
There are two roles in the Jewish circumcision ceremony that are sometimes translated as godparent. The sandek holds the baby boy while he is circumcised. Among Orthodox Ashkenazi, the kvater (or kvaterin if female) is the person who takes the child from his mother and carries him into the room in which the circumcision is performed. Kvater is etymologically derived from the German Gevatter (“godfather”).

Chinese traditions
Some Chinese communities do practice the custom of matching a child (the “god son/daughter”) with a relative or family friend (who becomes the “god mother/father”). This practice is largely non-religious in nature, but commonly done to strengthen ties or to fulfill the wish of a childless adult to have a “son/daughter”. In most circumstances, an auspicious day is selected during which a ceremony takes place, involving the god-child paying his/her respects to his new god-father/mother in the presence of relatives or friends.

OK. So Jews do have some roles that could translate as godparent but they are for circumcision sponsors, so that wouldn’t explain the Paltrow-Spielberg situation. So what’s going on here? Are we redefining the term? If so, what is this term that so clearly means “baptismal sponsor” supposed to mean when used in celebrity journalism? Can anyone explain it to the readers who have submitted variations on these examples?

Image via Wikipedia.

Breaking news about the pope of Rome

What we have here is an example of a very serious religion-news story, one that is worthy of serious coverage in the mainstream press. A newspaper has covered it and that is good.

Kind of.

However, this story from Toronto also contains one of the scream-out-loud hilarious mistakes that I have seen in the entire history of GetReligion. You literally could not make this one up. No way.

So where to start? The serious story, of course. What we have here is another clash between an ancient faith (in this case Coptic Orthodoxy) and the moral tug of modernity (symbolized this time around by the government of Canada). What makes this case interesting is that educators in Catholic institutions have been caught in the middle of the conflict.

Here’s the top of this Toronto Star report by the “visual arts” (?!?) reporter:

The president of the Canadian Egyptian Congress is urging parents to reject a call by a Coptic Orthodox priest to pull some 4,000 children out of the Catholic school system if it adopts a policy more accepting of homosexuality and religious difference.

The school board has proposed an Equity and Inclusive Education policy, to be voted on at the end of August, that softens some strictures of Catholic doctrine to fall more in line with provincial standards.

“The kids have friends, they have a place to go, and they would lose that,” Nazeer Bishay said. … “And besides, we don’t have enough schools for all of them. So we will lobby, we will pressure the board, we will keep up the fight. But we do not recommend withdrawal.” He and others in the Coptic Orthodox community plan to schedule a meeting with the Toronto Catholic District School Board to discuss their concerns.

At this point, the Star does something very logical, which is to explain why Coptic Orthodox children would be attending Catholic schools in the first place.

Oh, sorry, the story doesn’t really do that. That would have been an interesting point to make, since I would be willing to bet that Coptic parents have been making these decisions in order to send their children to schools with moral doctrines that echo those in their own faith. In this case, the parents may also have hoped that the schools would stand firm on underlining the differences between ancient Christianity and Islam, a subject that matters to Copts.

However, what this story does attempt to do is, in one paragraph, explain the differences between Copts and Catholics, since someone must have mentioned that both churches have hierarchies that feature a leader with that highly newsworthy title — “pope.”

If you are holding a beverage of any kind, please put it down on a flat surface several feet away from your computer keyboard.

Ready? Proceed with caution.

Though most in the Coptic Orthodox community send their children to Catholic school, they are not Catholic themselves. The differences are slight — they use the same liturgies, though Orthodox Christians differ from Roman Catholics in their belief that the Pope is a human being, not a divine figure — which has meant Coptic Orthodox children most often are sent to Catholic school.

All together now: Catholics teach that their pope is WHAT?!?!

A “divine figure”? What in the world does that mean?

While we are at it, in Associated Press style the word “pope” should be lower-case when it stands alone. Also, I should mention that there are major liturgical differences between the Divine Liturgy as celebrated in Coptic Orthodox congregations and the Mass as observed in Western Rite Catholic parishes.

All of that, needless to say, is small potatoes compared with the howler about the pope somehow sliding into the Holy Trinity or Holy Quartet as some kind of “divine figure.”

Obviously there should be a correction. However, it does not appear that the editors of the Star will take that honorable path. Instead, the online version of the story now reads:

Though most in the Coptic Orthodox community send their children to Catholic school, they are not Catholic themselves. The differences are slight, which has meant Coptic Orthodox children most often are sent to Catholic school.

No mention of an error being corrected.

Nothing to see here. Please move along.

Images: Coptic Pope Shenouda III and, second, Pope Benedict XVI.

God in the gutters?

The New York Times’ small-business marketing blog poses this question:

Is God a Marketing Strategy?

The top of the post:

Recently while searching online for a new refrigerator, I came across a Web site for a local appliance store that featured the Ichthus, or Christian fish symbol, in its logo. The personal side of me that grew up watching Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker tearfully separating people from their money on Sunday television hesitated. The marketer side of me wondered if companies that invoke religious symbols are simply sharing their values — or trading on the intrinsic values of the brand that is the Bible? Lots of businesses align themselves with religion (without going through any kind of certification process from a higher authority).

It’s an interesting post. Check it out.

Since GetReligion focuses on mainstream media news coverage of religion — as opposed to opinion blogs — I won’t attempt to critique the Times post. However, I would like to analyze an Associated Press story on the same subject.

The AP headline:

Blessing or blasphemy? Some businesses wear their faith on their sleeves

The top of the AP story:

PLANO, Texas — A raspy voice blares from a CD player as Amen Gutter Systems owner Trey Snider and two helpers install rain gutters on a tree-shaded brick home in this Dallas suburb.

The voice isn’t rock star David Lee Roth, Snider’s hero as a hell-raising teenager, but rather a man reading from the King James Version of the Bible.

Bright red letters on the Christian convert’s white truck tout his company’s warranty: “Gutter that lasts until Jesus comes back.”

“I tell people, ‘If you have any gutter problems and you have not seen Jesus return on the clouds with great power and glory, call me,”‘ said Snider, 35, a self-described former drug-dealing fornicator.

From Faith Electric Inc. to Alpha-Omega Plumbing Co., hundreds of businesses across the nation wear their faith on their sleeves — literally.

So far, so good. I like the lede. Actually, it’s the kind of intro that I could imagine myself writing in my days as an AP religion and enterprise writer in Dallas.

Keep reading, though, and the 766-word story seems a bit shallow.

At the end, readers find out a little more about the gutter installer in the lede. But the reporter never bothers to provide specific details on his Christian background. The fact that he’s listening to the King James Bible provides a hint, but the story stops short of answering the obvious next question.

The guts of the piece, meanwhile, present talking heads with opinions but not much in the way of real insight as far as why the sources take the positions they do:

“I believe Christians would rather patronize other believers out of a charitable, heartfelt desire to bless them,” said Todd Tomasella, publisher of Dallas area “Believer’s Business Directory” yellow pages.

Tomasella’s 200-plus advertisers range from The Living Water car wash to Kingdom Builders real estate. All must sign statements of faith affirming their commitment to Jesus Christ.

But what some call a blessing, others consider blasphemy – or at least bad business.

“I don’t believe … it was ever the intention of Christ to have his followers try to advance themselves economically by reference to their faith,” said L. Kent Gilbreath, a lifelong Baptist who teaches economics at Baylor University.

What’s the history of the “Believer’s Business Directory” yellow pages? How long have they been around, and how much money does Tomasella make off of them? Does Tomasella find any biblical support for Christians patronizing other believers?

On what does Gilbreath base his opinion of Christ’s intention? Did the professor happen to mention Jesus throwing moneychangers out of the temple? I would almost be willing to bet that Gilbreath referenced that well-known scene from the New Testament.

Later, there’s a random Muslim quoted in the story:

On the other hand, Muslims such as Isam Alimam aren’t exactly the target audience for such companies. But the Lewisville, Texas, architect said he takes no offense at the existence of Christian-oriented businesses, as long as they don’t discriminate against non-Christians.

“If somebody wants to declare his faith or belief and wants to do business with people that share that, I don’t really feel bad,” Alimam said. “To the contrary, I may respect the man.”

Of all the Muslims in Texas, why was this one chosen to offer an opinion on this subject? What’s his expertise? I’m just not sure I understand what exactly he adds to the story.

Another vague source is introduced next:

Steve Mims, an Arlington, Texas, man who has installed garage doors for 20 years, said he gave his business a more spiritual name last year as he faced competition from “Angels Garage Door Service.”

“I asked God, ‘How can I compete with that?”‘ Mims said. “He said, ‘Name your company Heaven Sent Garage Doors, it’s got more power.”‘

I’d love to know more about that conversation with God. I’d love to know whether God had spoken to Mims before or if this was the first time. I’d love to know his religious background and how dedicated he is to it outside of his desire to compete with Angels Garage Door Service.

Alas, I’ve beaten up on this reporter enough. I actually know him personally and know that when he wrote the story critiqued, he was balancing religion enterprise stories with small-town murders, statewide political debates and constant interruptions from demanding editors in Dallas and New York. I also know that the reporter did not have the benefit of a truly remarkable blog such as GetReligion to help him overcome all his religion ghosts.

In case you haven’t figured it out, the writer responsible for the woefully inadequate religion story was me. I wrote that story for the Texas wire back in 2003. Just for the fun of it, I couldn’t resist putting myself under the GR microscope. But just this once.

Bachmann & Associates

I often tease my friend who will run for president some day that our friendship will end up costing him dearly. Reporters will dig up our connection and will explain what a freak I am and how that disqualifies him to be president. That’s kind of how it goes now if you run for office, apparently, no matter where you fall politically.

We see this kind of guilt by association throughout a new piece on Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) from The New Yorker, a much talked-about profile that includes some bizarre connections and strange inferences.

Apparently this is the week for targeting Bachmann, as there is much talk about the notorious Newseek cover, which we’ll deal with in a later post. Some of you may resonate with Slate‘s Jessica Grose when she says, “I hate it when Michele Bachmann makes me defend her,” but hold on to your hats for a Leblancian edit (bolded phrases are my own) of the religion-related parts of New Yorker‘s smear by Ryan Lizza.

Bachmann belongs to a generation of Christian conservatives whose views have been shaped by institutions, tracts, and leaders not commonly known to secular Americans, or even to most Christians.

Oh really? What’s his basis for this claim?

Her campaign is going to be a conversation about a set of beliefs more extreme than those of any American politician of her stature, including Sarah Palin, to whom she is inevitably compared. Bachmann said in 2004 that being gay is “personal enslavement,” and that, if same-sex marriage were legalized, “little children will be forced to learn that homosexuality is normal and natural and that perhaps they should try it.”

Bachmann wasn’t the first to consider sin enslavement, even if you might agree or disagree with her interpretation. How does Lizza know that her campaign will be focus on a set of beliefs? Is the media making this the focus?

…The trip [to Israel] gave her a connection to Israel, a state whose creation, many American evangelicals believe, is prophesied in the Bible. (St. Paul, in the Letter to the Romans, says that Jews will one day gather again in their homeland; modern fundamentalists see this, along with the coming of the Antichrist, as presaging the Rapture.)

Who are modern fundamentalists and what do they have to do with Bachmann? Is there any evidence that Bachmann holds the idea of pretribulation, midtribulation, or posttribulation rapture? Or maybe she’s postmillennial or even amillennial.

These ideas get complex, so things get muddy while trying to summarize an entire belief system on eschatology in a paragraph when the reporter doesn’t offer evidence for those beliefs.

In the fall of 1975, Bachmann enrolled at Winona State University, a small school in southeastern Minnesota, where she became more devout and tried to lead her dormmates to Christianity.

Regular readers know we hate the d-word. And, of course, part of being an evangelical often means evangelism, so this isn’t exactly breaking news or terribly unusual.

Then the reporter examines the beliefs of the late Francis Schaeffer, who was kind of a big deal for many evangelicals. Now, Bachmann has said before that Schaeffer has strongly influenced her views, so the association here makes sense. What’s strange is how the reporter portrays him as fringe. Here’s the reporter’s explanation for part of a video Schaeffer produced.

In the sixth episode, a mysterious man in a fake mustache drives around in a white van and furtively pours chemicals into a city’s water supply, while Schaeffer speculates about the possibility that the U.S. government is controlling its citizens by means of psychotropic drugs.

How much of that video consisted of speculation? Is there any indication that Bachmann holds this belief?

Lizza uses Schaeffer’s son Frank to explain his father’s beliefs, but he should at least acknowledge that Frank has also taken his own ideological shift. For example, Frank recently blamed the shootings in Norway on conservative evangelicals and warns that evangelicals could be planning similar attacks in the U.S. Hmm.

In 1981, three years before he died, Schaeffer published “A Christian Manifesto,” a guide for Christian activism, in which he argues for the violent overthrow of the government if Roe v. Wade isn’t reversed.

I’ll defer to Ben Domenech.

… I find this depiction of Schaeffer’s position is just a vicious smear.

What Schaeffer called for were acts of civil disobedience if Roe v. Wade was not overturned. He repeatedly and specifically stressed that violence was not justified – “overreaction can too easily become the ugly horror of sheer violence”, he wrote.

Oops. You don’t have to agree with Schaeffer to wonder whether he is unfairly maligned in this piece. The reporter then jumps to Bachmann time at Oral Roberts’ former law school.

For several years, the school could not get accreditation, because students were required to sign a “code of honor” attesting to their Christian belief and commitment.

Does anyone know whether this is really the reason why the school couldn’t get accredited? This surprises me, considering that lots and lots of colleges that have variations on a religious “code of honor” are accredited (BYU anyone?).

The law review published essays by Schaeffer and Rousas John Rushdoony, a prominent Dominionist who has called for a pure Christian theocracy in which Old Testament law—execution for adulterers and homosexuals, for example—would be instituted.

Here are more attempts to prove guilt by association. I’m guess that, for example, our friend Mr. Brad Greenberg does not believe everything a professors who write for a law review from UCLA produces, but maybe he does. Did the law review publish essays calling to execute homosexuals and adulterers? Did she believe these claims in any way?

Lizza quotes professor John Eidsmoe whom Bachmann worked for at Oral Roberts (ORU).

When I asked him if he believed that Bachmann’s views were fully consistent with the prevailing ideology at O.R.U. and the themes of his book, he said, “Yes.” Later, he added, “I do not know of any way in which they are not.”

That’s a pretty generic question he’s answering. It doesn’t get into if she believes in criminalizing adultery or homosexuality, which seems to insinuate. Then Lizza touches on Bachmann’s foster parenting.

Bachmann’s motivation seems to have been to save the girls, in the same way that she had been saved.

Again, not terribly shocking for a Christian foster parent, but even if this was her motivation, how she did this would be more relevant. Is there any evidence that she coerced the children in any way?

In the late nineteen-nineties, William Cooper, a wealthy bank executive and conservative activist, became chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party, and started to demand more ideological purity. “He began a purge of people like me,” Laidig said. “No abortion, so if your daughter is raped or if you find out your child is going to be permanently a vegetable you have the kid. Not every abortion is birth control, O.K.? So really hard-core stuff.”

Maybe he did, but did this Republican leader really want to “purge” people that supported abortion in cases of rape and if child is a permanent “vegetable?” How does this apply to Bachmann?

Here’s another journalist using guilt by association with a very tenuous basis on reality to take shots. I could go on and on about the problems in the piece and how it could have been improved, but for now, we’ll ponder why these sections weren’t edited more thoroughly.

Pieces like this do little to illuminate Bachmann’s beliefs or how they apply to her policy stances, but NPR doesn’t mind highlighting it (audio will be available later today). Better watch out who you’re friending on Facebook. You never know what they said 20 years ago that will come back to haunt you in your next job interview.

All “advice” must include abortion

This is a lede to a New York Times story that ran this past weekend. The article is headlined, oddly, “Politicians Open Front on Abortion in Bay Area“:

SAN FRANCISCO — Seeking to stem what they call misleading advertising, San Francisco officials on Tuesday began a two-pronged attack on “crisis pregnancy centers,” which are billed as places for pregnant women to get advice, but often use counseling to discourage abortions.

Yes. Scare quotes for “crisis pregnancy centers.” Scare quotes! Now, is this a reflection of how sensitive the New York Times is to euphemisms in the “abortion” wars? And I’m not just wondering about the use of the euphemism “abortion,” the word we now use to describe the intentional killing of an unborn child. What does the New York Times do when it’s talking about “family planning”? Do we get scare quotes there? No.

Does anyone in the story question whether these centers serve women facing “crisis pregnancies”? No, not at all.

The news writer reveals his bias in the last phrase. These places are billed as places for pregnant women to get advice but they discourage abortion.

So advising women carrying children that abortion might not be their best option and that there are, in fact, other options for women facing unplanned pregnancies — options that the pro-life movement is frequently criticized for supposedly not offering, such as adoption, financial assistance, employment counseling and the like — is not “advice”? (I recently met a man who adopted all three of his daughters from women who had given birth to them after visiting his local crisis pregnancy center.)

Come again?

Now, I am fully aware that the pro-choice movement has declared war on these crisis pregnancy centers. In the face of many legislative successes for the pro-life movement, this is the front on which they’re attempting to have some successes of their own. And that’s a really important story and one that needs covering. New York City passed a law in conjunction with NARAL efforts this past spring that would have required crisis pregnancy centers to disclose more information about their services but a federal judge blocked its enforcement a few weeks ago, saying it violated free speech rights, was motivated chiefly by politics, and risked discriminatory enforcement.

The story of this front in the abortion wars is important but it should be told with straight up news reporting, not something using language where we redefine “advice” to mean something that pro-life people are incapable of providing.

The ghosts at Grantland

Grantland is Bill Simmons’ new website for long-form sports journalism. The articles and essays aim to connect sports stories to larger cultural trends and ideas. They aspire to make sense of sports stories.

I’ve enjoyed the site but a reader sent in a recent story with a huge religion ghost. And considering what Grantland is all about, it’s a disappointing miss.

The article is about left-handed pitcher Barry Zito and how his latest visit to the disabled list has sparked whispers that the Giants might release him. Esquire‘s Chris Jones tells the sad tale that begins quite nicely by showing how Zito got his amazing seven-year, $126 million contract. His agent had put together a binder with statistical analysis making the case for that kind of money:

Barry Zito is a believer in totems. In those days, he had a replica of Reggie White’s Green Bay Packers jersey draped over the back of his couch for inspiration. He had a shrine built to Sandy Koufax in his bedroom, near his own Cy Young Award from 2002. A portrait of Carlos Santana was on the wall nearby. And now there was this blue binder sitting on his kitchen counter.

That binder destroyed Barry Zito.

We learn about Barry’s father Joe, a musician and composer who gifted his son with “belief.” Here’s a quote from his father:

“Baseball is not a game of chance. Nothing is left to chance. If you create the psychological state, it will become a physical fact. Whatever you see in the visible world, it started in the invisible world, in the mind. The universe took care of the rest.”

We learn about “mystical moments of inspiration” and how baseball was the same sort of creative mystery or “Spiritual Art” as music. Take this section:

Barry was at his best when he was blank, less a man and more a vessel. He had written a reminder inside his cap: LET IT DO THE WORK THROUGH ME. Those words were pressed against his forehead every time he took the mound. Barry could make himself better than he might have been given the power of his own belief, but ultimately he was just an instrument to be played. So long as he remembered that much about himself — so long as he felt his way through his life rather than plotting it, rather than thinking his way through it — he could be transcendent.

Only once had Barry’s faith in himself and the planets and the stars been tested: He began the 2001 season badly, managing a record of only 6-7 through late July. “He forgot who he was and how the universe operates,” was Joe’s explanation. Father and son locked themselves away for four days. They read to each other; they talked to each other; they listened to music; and they marveled again at those nights when the songs came pouring out.

“It’s really hard to be consciously unconscious,” Barry said. “But that’s what you have to be.”

Gosh, it’s almost like there’s some kind of system of belief that they’re talking about there, right?

The reader who submitted this story comments:

“Let it [what is "it"?] do the work..”? “Consciously unconscious”? “How the universe operates”? These seemed like more than just quirky slogans to me, so I looked up Zito on Wikipedia:

“He plays guitar, surfs, practices yoga, and follows Zen. He has done yoga poses in the outfield, and meditates before games. In 2001, Zito espoused a universal life force that he credited with his midseason turnaround. His mother Roberta named him after her brother Barry, a beatnik “freethinker” and acolyte of Zen who mysteriously vanished in 1964 at the age of 22 near Big Sur, California.”

Jones seems to miss this huge influence in Zito’s life: not his “faith in himself,” but Zen Buddhism and other religious influences. As a result, he also misses a key question directly relevant to his article. Zito has become famous in baseball for his career struggles and his enormous salary – do his religious beliefs have anything to say about that?

I couldn’t have said it better. It’s disappointing enough when a typical sports stories misses the religion angle to an intriguing sports story. That it would happen at Grantland is somehow worse.

Memory eternal: Sen. Mark Hatfield

Let me begin with a moment of confession.

When I began coming to Washington, D.C., to teach journalism my first class sessions were held in the Mark Hatfield Library at the national headquarters of what has become the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. As a pro-life Democrat, I greatly admired the senator from Oregon, in part because of his willingness to infuriate people on both the political right and left.

Needless to say, I am paying close attention to the obituaries that are running after Hatfield’s death. Suffice it to say that journalists still do not know how to label him.

But journalists will keep trying. The sprawling Los Angeles Times headline proclaims:

Mark O. Hatfield dies at 89; longtime Oregon senator was bedrock of moderate Republicanism

Hatfield was a devout Christian who opposed prayer in the public schools and managed to negotiate common ground among the environmentalists, loggers, anti-abortion activists, death penalty foes, business owners, farmers and antiwar protesters who were his constituents.

Yes, that’s all in the headline. The “anti-abortion” language is a bit painful, I think, since Hatfield was someone who was known as a consistently pro-life public figure.

This language even showed up in the Washington Post obit — which elected to call Hatfield a “liberal,” in the context of the Republican party.

Former senator Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, whose liberal Republican politics during five terms in Congress made him an increasingly rare breed within his party, and who used his chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee to denounce what he considered the “madness” of excessive defense spending, died Sunday evening in Portland, said Gerry Frank, a longtime friend and former aide. He was 89.

As a young Navy officer during World War II, Mr. Hatfield saw the devastation wrought by atomic warfare in the Japanese city of Hiroshima. That experience, coupled with his Baptist faith, were defining forces in shaping Mr. Hatfield’s political views during nearly half a century in elected office. He became an opponent of abortion, the death penalty and war — a “consistently pro-life” politician, said Oregon political scientist Bill Lunch, “who took the religious injunction not to do harm to others seriously.”

During his three decades on Capitol Hill, Mr. Hatfield was one of the Senate’s most unwavering pacifists.

Meanwhile, the New York Times all but ignored the senator’s faith and the role that his pro-life beliefs played in his achievements and struggles inside the DC Beltway (especially in terms of his strong support for science funds). Glance at it, if you wish. It’s disturbingly shallow, for such a complex public figure.

It’s interesting to watch journalists attempt to make sense of this man, struggling to figure out if he was a “cultural conservative” or not. He was consistently anti-war, yet he was also opposed to violence against the unborn (and, yes, I worded the second half of that sentence the way that Hatfield would have worded it). He was opposed by the Religious right, at times, but always remained close to Billy Graham and influence him quite a bit in the post-Watergate era.

For me, there are two keys to judging these obits. The first is obvious — is the content of Hatfield’s faith discussed, perhaps even in his own words.

The second is a pivotal biographical detail, as illustrated in this passage from the Los Angeles Times obit:

He joined the Navy and served as a landing craft officer during the World War II invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He was one of the first U.S. troops to enter Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped.

Those “inhuman, shock-ridden” scenes, as he later described them, inspired a lifetime of activism against war and nuclear weapons.

Thus, this man was a soldier who knew war and who also saw Hiroshima with his own eyes. And his faith commitment? This is a few paragraphs after the Hiroshima reference. As a young man and a political scientist:

… Hatfield tells of having reached a crisis in his faith akin to the “born again” experience of many evangelicals, but which in his case was more rational than emotional. If Jesus Christ is truly a divine savior, he reasoned during an intense moment of reflection, then the only possible response was to offer his entire life to that service.

“Define your own spiritual commitment,” Hatfield wrote later in “Against the Grain: Reflections of a Rebel Republican,” which he wrote in 2001 with Diane Solomon. “Energize your conscience. Use loving spirituality to infuse your personal, public and political acts. Take advantage of spiritual stewardship when dealing with political issues such as the environment, the needs of humans, the dangers of war.”

Former staffer Lon Fendall, who wrote a book about what he describes as Hatfield’s evangelical progressivism, “Stand Alone or Come Home” — the advice Hatfield’s father gave to his son about facing tough moral choices and relentless peer pressure — compared his boss to the 18th century British politician William Wilberforce, whose evangelical Christian convictions spurred him to lead the fight to abolish slavery. Hatfield himself, who read widely in history and political biography, was keenly aware of Wilberforce’s legacy and had written a preface to an abbreviated collection of his work.

“He said, ‘You know, I’ve been doing these things in my life in particular ways, and I’ve come to the realization that here’s a person centuries ago that did exactly the same things for many of the same reasons,’ ” Fendall said in an interview. “I think Hatfield was drawn to him because they both came to their personal faiths while already in politics and on their life pathway, and began to ask themselves, ‘What is my life pathway?’ I think Hatfield’s calling as a believer was to take on a variety of issues that many other believers weren’t ready to face.”

To write about Hatfield, a journalist has to wrestle with Hiroshima and with the content of the senator’s moral convictions — all of them.

How many of the obits got this done? Please use the comments pages to share URLs. But stick to the journalism issues in the obituaries and tributes. We are not interested in comments that bash Hatfield from the left or the right.

Image: A 2007 file photo of Hatfield, visiting the Oregon legislature.


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