Who? What? When? Where? Hunh?

I am confident I found the weirdest religion news story of the month.

The This Is Somerset (UK) news site had a story about a darts fan who “bears an uncanny resemblance to Jesus” getting “kicked out of a major tournament as he was putting off the players.”

Bearded darts fan Nathan Grindal was kicked out of a live televised final after the 4,500-strong crowd interrupted play by chanting about him.

Mr Grindal was enjoying the clash between Phil Taylor and Kim Huybrechts when some of the audience spotted his likeness to the traditional portrayal of Jesus.

Chants of “Jesus” quickly spread through the rowdy crowd packed into the venue on the Butlin’s resort at Minehead on the Somerset coast.

Security staff were called amid fears that Mr Grindal’s presence was upsetting the concentration of ex-world champion Taylor and his Belgian rival.

The labourer was close to tears as six bouncers removed him from the Cash Converters Players’ Championship, which was being broadcast on ITV4.

As he left, a chant of “Stand up if you love Jesus” broke out, with many of the crowd getting to their feet.

Mr Grindal, 33, was escorted to a nearby bar where the security staff bought him a pint and told him to watch the rest of the final on television.

Absolutely the only problem with this story about darts fans spotting a Jesus look-alike in the crowd is that, far as I know, the man in question bears precisely no resemblance to popular or even unpopular depictions of Jesus Christ. Unless having hair on your head counts for being a look-alike.

The article explains all the key details, including what Grindal thought of getting ejected for doing nothing wrong. The quotes are almost as if the piece is attempting to be an Onion-type satire, but I don’t think it was. I was sure the entire This is Somerset web site must be for laughs, but it’s not. For what it’s worth, I found the story when it was picked up by ABC News.

Now, if the guy in the photo — which I went ahead and clipped from (source here) — looked like Jesus, no additional explanation would be needed. But unless there are wildly popular depictions of Jesus as a blonde man with a ginger beard, the story definitely needs to explain what in the world was going on.

It would take a lot of alcohol-fueled darts excitement to confuse this guy for Jesus, no?

The Guardian does not get Tim Scott

Amongst your GetReligion correspondents I was the last to board the twitter train. Now I knew about this micro-blogging tool and had heard of tumblr and instagram — and I even had a Facebook page. But I was slow to utilize these communication tools in my reporting. I cannot explain this reticence, for since I was a child I have been fascinated by these tools.

One of my memories of childhood was accompanying my father to his club in the city. I would wait for him in the smoking room where amidst the smell of strong cigars I would sit by the stock ticker and teletype machine and read the news as it came over the wire. I still remember the thrill of hearing the bell ring three times and the machine begin to chatter as it printed a breaking story.

Half a life time has passed since those days. Stock tickers, teletype and Telex machines are gone and I expect fax machines will soon pass away. Yet the thrill they gave me of instant access to a wider world I find in Twitter. This item from Byron York of National Review caught my eye.

York was tweeting the press conference where South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley announced that she was appointing Rep. Tim Scott to serve out the term of Sen. Jim DeMint. Approximately 45 minutes earlier I had read a breaking story from the Guardian on the news of the appointment.

Printed on the Guardian‘s website at 11:26 AM, the article entitled “Tim Scott appointed to fill Jim DeMint’s Senate seat for South Carolina” was a introduction of the new senator to Britain — the first African American Republican Senator in 30 years and the first from the old Confederacy since Reconstruction. The 700-word story was thorough. It reviewed his political career in Charleston and Congress, support from the Tea Party movement and speculated on his future prospects.

The Guardian also spoke to Scott’s personal story.

Some in the Republican party have drawn parallels between Scott and Barack Obama; his rise has been nurtured in recent years by the Republican party’s leadership, impressed by the carefully spoken and deeply conservative Charleston native, raised, like Obama, by a single mother. … Born in Charleston, Scott’s parents divorced when he was seven, and he attributes his belief in conservative values to his mother, a nurse.

“By the time I entered high school, I was completely off track. My mother was working hard, trying to help me to realize that there was a brighter future, but I really couldn’t see it,” Scott wrote in 2010 at the launch of his congressional campaign.

Then, he says, he had the good fortune to meet the owner of a Chick-fil-A fast food franchise next door to the movie theatre where he worked. “He taught me that if you want to receive, you have to first give. Embedded in that conversation, I came to realize, was the concept that my mother was teaching me about individual responsibility.”

The article closes with Scott’s decision not to join the Congressional Black Caucus.

Thanking the Democratic-dominated caucus for its invitation, Scott said: “My campaign was never about race.”

All in all this was nicely done, up to a point. It gives British readers some flavor of the newest American Senator and rising star of the Republican Party. Yet, the story is only half told of Tim Scott.

What role has faith played in Scott’s life? What were the values taught to him by his conservative mother? Should not the mention of Chick-fil-A have rung some bells in the Guardian reporter’s head? Taken in conjunction with Scott’s avowal of his Christian faith at the press conference, the absence of faith from the Guardian story about Tim Scott leaves the story half finished.

Now the article is not faith free. It mentions Scott’s work as a county commissioner in having the Ten Commandments publicly displayed outside the council chambers. But the Guardian describes this action as being a regional political affectation. And curiously it describes his appointment to the Senate seat in the lede of the article as a “remarkable turnaround”. Yet it also notes:

In 2012 he was elected unopposed, winning 99% of the vote, with policies mirroring those of his party in the South: deep opposition to tax increases, Obamacare, unions, abortion and immigration reform.

In what way was Scott’s appointment a turnaround? Winning reelection with 99 per cent of the vote speaks not to political misfortune. The bottom line with this article is that although it has most of the facts, it misses the story. The Guardian does not understand American politics as seen by its discussion of the Republican Party of the South and in the role faith plays in the life of Tim Scott (and for many Americans for that matter.) Not the best outing from the Guardian, I’m afraid.

Coming soon to a TV near you: ‘The Bible’

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It only took 2,000-plus years, but ‘The Bible” is making news.

Seriously, both USA Today and the Wall Street Journal  ran features today on the epic miniseries scheduled to air next year on the History Channel.

From USA Today:

Famed television producer Mark Burnett tackles his projects with passion, but The Bible is a special labor of love.

The 10-hour, five-part docudrama, which premieres March 3 on the History Channel, will span the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, presenting some of its best-known stories, including Noah’s Ark, the Exodus, Daniel in the lions’ den and the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

Former Touched By an Angel star Roma Downey, Burnett’s wife and fellow executive producer, heads a large international cast in the role of Mother Mary. Keith David, an Emmy winner for voice-over performances, will narrate with a musical score by Oscar- and Grammy-winning composer Hans Zimmer.

“In terms of importance, nothing we’ve ever done, not Touched By an Angel, not Survivor, not The Voice, not The Apprentice, none of this could possibly compare toThe Bible,” Burnett says. “To us, as a family, we love the Bible. This is not a TV show to us. It’s images and sound and sacred text that people will still watch, way after our grandchildren are old people.”

USA Today’s relatively short story appeared on the Life section cover and did not jump. Given its brevity, it left me with a number of unanswered questions — including details about Burnett’s faith background and exactly why he loves the Bible.

As this television event draws closer, I’d love to see more reporting — by Godbeat pros or otherwise — on the specific stories chosen, the facts portrayed and the biblical and historical accuracy (or not).

The Wall Street Journal provides a little more insight into Burnett’s motivation, but not much:

Mark Burnett made his name as the power behind such reality-television hits as “Survivor” and, more recently, “The Voice.” Now he is turning his attention to a different kind of TV: biblical.

Mr. Burnett is nearing completion of a 10-hour miniseries, “The Bible,” based on stories like Noah’s Ark and Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Scheduled to air next spring on the History Channel, the series is Mr. Burnett’s first effort in scripted television programming.

It is also a project close to Mr. Burnett’s heart. In the past couple of years the 52-year-old former paratrooper says he has become deeply religious, a transition he credits to Roma Downey, his wife since 2007. “It wasn’t until I met Roma that I truly understood my faith and it’s been a dynamic shift for me,” Mr. Burnett said.

Deeply religious? What exactly does he mean by that? What does he believe? And how does the miniseries reflect his beliefs?

The Journal doesn’t delve into such questions, but it does note:

In recent years Mr. Burnett and Ms. Downey have become friends with celebrity televangelist Joel Osteen, who preaches at a church in Houston that is home to the largest congregation in the U.S. Mr. Osteen is advising Mr. Burnett on the show.

“He’s been to [our church] several times and we come over to their house for dinner and things like that,” Mr. Osteen said.

Despite the short length of its story, USA Today managed to make reference to the Connecticut school massacre:

He hopes the project brings comfort after the Sandy Hook school shootings. “What happened Friday is absolutely the saddest tragedy imaginable,” Burnett says. “Our prayers are with the families and friends. We hope The Bible, by shedding some light into the world, can help in some small way to try and stop the darkness.”

Tell me, GetReligion readers: Does tying this miniseries to the fresh tragedy make the story seem more timely? Or does the reference impress you as a stretch? Or even pandering?

So a rabbi and a priest and 20 parents walk into hell

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So, how many GetReligion readers will be able to forget watching the Robbie Parker press conference, accompanied by the image of his blue-eyed, angelic lost daughter Emilie?

Not me, that’s for sure.

I was struck by his early reference to the gifts given to her by “her Heavenly Father” and, while that is very standard Christian language, the minute the network aired a picture of the young family, with it’s three young daughters, I immediately wondered if they were Mormons. I, for one, have not seen a clear reference on that point, but the fund in memory of Emilie Parker is based in Ogden, Utah. Also, did anyone else note the poignant reference to his final chat with his daughter?

Here is The Washington Post on that subject:

One parent who lost a child, Robbie Parker, spoke to reporters Saturday evening. He expressed sympathy for Lanza’s family, saying, “I can’t imagine how hard this experience must be for you.”

Parker said that Emilie, the daughter he lost, was blond and blue-eyed and could light up a room. “All those who had the pleasure to meet her would agree that the world was better because she was in it,” Parker said. He recalled the last time he saw Emilie, on Friday morning as he headed to work. He had been teaching her Portuguese, and so their last conversation was in that language.

“She said that she loved me, and she gave me a kiss and I was out the door,” said Parker, whose family moved to Newtown eight months ago. “I’m so blessed to be her dad.”

One wonders why this young medical worker had learned Portuguese. There could be a missionary link in there, somewhere.

But never mind, as in many reports on his remarkably graceful press conference, the faith content and language vanished in the Post copy. One can only ask why.

The memorial rites and funerals will, of course, contain plenty of religious images and passages, with a heavy emphasis on issues of theodicy. This is well and good. I’m writing on an issue related to that myself, this week, for Scripps Howard.

While many have mentioned the close-knit clergy of this community, I keep waiting for evidence that this is more than a mainline Protestant, Jewish and Catholic town. Has anyone seen evidence of those serving evangelical, Mormon or Pentecostal believers?

The New York Times and Washington Post each offered clergy stories, which, together, gave readers a kind of “so a rabbi and a priest walk into hell” scenario. The top of the Times piece appears to be an eyewitness report from a reporter standing silently on the edge of a quiet room in the funeral home:

It was early Sunday, the first time that Veronique Pozner had seen the boy’s body since he was shot to death in his first-grade classroom two days before. A sheet covered his body up to his neck, and a social worker had urged Ms. Pozner not to remove it. She obliged, but began to wail, alternately telling her son to leave this “dark, horrible world,” and beseeching him to come back.

Rabbi Praver began to speak softly. He told her that though Noah had physically left this world, he was not lost to them because his soul lived on. He asked her if she remembered her 6-year-old self and when she said she did, he told her that “when we become adults, our 5- and 6-year-olds didn’t die with us; they’re contained within a larger vessel.”

He was offering, he said, a kind of “spiritual morphine.”

And then, in the Post, there is the spiritual minefield in which Msgr. Robert Weiss has living for several days now:

The 66-year-old priest is known as Father Bob to the 3,500 families who belong to St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church. On Sunday, what Father Bob craved — after long hours of counseling and grieving and not enough sleep — was a good Scotch and a place to let go. Half of the 20 children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary were members of Weiss’s congregation, and he had baptized many of them.

After the 10:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday, in a rectory full of law enforcement officers and priests, Weiss wept.

Nothing at seminary had trained him for this week. Nothing about his 13 years at St. Rose. Nothing about his understanding of the world.

“I thought about Paul,” said Weiss, his black clergy shirt unbuttoned and his white collar in his shirt pocket like a pen. “Paul said, ‘In my weakness I find my greatest strength.’?”

Can we assume, in this day and age, that readers will know that “Paul” is actually St. Paul and that the priest is offering a broad paraphrase of the famous imagery in 2 Corinthians 12:9?

And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.

I would assume that many readers needed the missing details, but I could be wrong.

This story includes quite a few eyewitness details that I have not seen in print before, since the monsignor arrived on the scene at Sandy Hook Elementary School very, very quickly with two other priests. He was there as the reunions between parents and surviving children slowed and slowed and then stopped. Try to imagine watching this scene:

Reunion after reunion whittled the lines down, leaving only parents, empty-handed and desperate. They were taken to the nearby firehouse where the Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company operated.

Weiss walked over, too. He knew half the parents from St. Rose. He had officiated at their weddings and the baptisms of their children, some of whom were now unaccounted for. Inside the firehouse, parents texted relatives, called babysitters to stay late and called around to likely places where their missing children might have gone.

That room, too, was whittled down.

Soon, the parents needed a priest, right then and there:

In the room of folding chairs, time passed. Weiss felt the tension rising in equal measure to the sense of dread. Parents started coming to him with regrets.

A mother said she shouldn’t have taken her daughter’s DVD player away. “She wasn’t a bad child,” the mother told Weiss. Another mother who came to Weiss said it was her fault she sent her daughter to school that morning. She blamed herself, telling the priest she wasn’t fit to raise her other children.

About 3 p.m., Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy came into the room. The gruesome announcement was his to make: 27 people inside the school had been killed, and 20 were children. All would be taken to the medical examiner’s office.

With the news came the most raw display of human grief that Weiss had ever seen or imagined — wailing, weeping, screaming, people sinking to
the floor. …

In all those hours of counseling and comforting, no one asked the priest, “Why?” The question came later, starting on Sunday, and Weiss did not have an answer.

And that’s the end of the story. I, for one, would like to know more about what the priest said at that point.

Perhaps he truly was silent or said that he had no answer, no answer at all. I have my doubts about that. Then again, I grew up in the home of a pastor who finished his career as the chaplain in the Texas Children’s Hospital, working with the parents of young cancer patients. I know that chaplains rarely offer simple answers. But I have heard few settle for silence.

Telling Newtown’s story sensitively

I hope you can see the picture here. If you can’t, please click here for a larger image. I saw it on Adam Gabbatt’s Twitter feed on Dec. 15. He’s a reporter for The Guardian. He added:

Now at special service at St John’s church in Sandy Hook. Bunch of over-zealous photographers were just asked to leave

You don’t say! I can not imagine what it would be like to be trying to worship in peace at a time of such horrific tragedy while a half dozen cameras were pointed straight at my face. I can’t imagine being a video or photo journalist and thinking such behavior is appropriate.

I have some questions on this, but first will mention I’ve had a great deal of difficulty writing about the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy. I think it must be very difficult to be a reporter covering this story. I want to be humble about the challenges they face while having a discussion about how the media have performed on this story.

It’s also true that I can’t remember a story where almost every detail initially reported turned out to be wrong. Throughout Friday and Saturday, I was reading stories that directly contradicted each other. The mother of the shooter was a kindergarten teacher, then a 1st grade teacher, then, no, she was just a teacher’s aide. Someone was quoted saying she had never worked at the school. Someone else was quoted saying she was wonderful to work with there. I found the whole enterprise incredibly frustrating even in a world where we know early reports on tragedies are problematic.

To that end, I rather enjoyed this New York Times story about the town’s invasion by media figures. It mentioned the many problems with the early reports.

And then there were the reporters interviewing children. They were asking grieving parents “How do you feel?” The whole enterprise was unseemly. Of course, a few bad microphones can spoil the whole vocation.

The New York Times looked at this. From the beginning of the story:

NEWTOWN, Conn. — Wolf Blitzer understands that his presence here is not appreciated by some local people, who wish that the TV satellite trucks, and the reporters who have taken over the local Starbucks, would go away and leave them to ache, grieve and mourn in peace.

But he also knows that the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School ranks with the national tragedies he has covered: Oklahoma City, Sept. 11, Virginia Tech. So for now the most intimate and heartbreaking of catastrophes and the insatiable, unwieldy beast of global news media are locked in an awkward union in a bucolic New England town that never expected to encounter either.

Mr. Blitzer, the longtime CNN anchor, said the few exhortations to go home he had heard while working here had been far outnumbered by comments from people who thank him for telling Newtown’s story sensitively and who want the world to know what happened here. Still, he said, Newtown is providing a particularly vivid laboratory of how the media report this kind of tragedy.

“If you have people bringing dolls or flowers to makeshift memorials and they’re crying, that’s a powerful image, it’s part of this story, it’s part of our history right now, and we have to deal with it,” he said on Sunday.

This town, of course, has been transformed by unimaginable tragedy. But in a more mundane and presumably transitory way, Newtown and particularly the small community of Sandy Hook have also been transformed by those coming to report on it, a news media presence that has clogged quiet roads, established glowing encampments of lights and cameras, and showed up in force at church services and public memorials.

I think the line above about “telling Newtown’s story sensitively” says it best. I don’t much like the descent upon this town or the general frenzied approach to most media coverage. The key, if you’re on this story, is to tell it sensitively, no?

It’s not specific to religion, but you may also be interested in this, where the BBC’s Charlie Booker examines the problems with the way the media hype tragedies. For a different take, the Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple tries to defend the media.

Not all ‘nones’ are atheists

In England and Wales, there were 37.3 million Christians in 2001, representing 72 percent of the population. In the most recent census (2011), that had dropped to 33.2 million or 59 percent of the population.

Religion News Service had a brief story about this that included these graphs:

Figures from the 2011 Census show the number of people declaring themselves to be atheists rose by more than 6 million, to 14.1 million.

“It should serve as a warning to the churches that their increasingly conservative attitudes are not playing well with the public at large,” said Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society. “It also calls into question the continued establishment of the Church of England, whose claims to speak for the whole nation are now very hard to take seriously.”

However, those statistics are not right.

As reported in The Telegraph:

The number of people specifically identifying as Atheists was 29,267, while over 13.8 million refused to identify with a faith at all, ticking the “No religion” box on the census form.

While reporting no religion might sound similar to atheism, there is no way for journalists to know if respondents are atheists, agnostics, unaffiliated or otherwise.

But there is a big difference between 29,267 reporting atheism and 14.1 million. For more on the rise of the nones, check out The Friendly Atheist’s blog post here.

So, ‘broader societal problems’ in Newtown, or not?

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It goes without saying that the GetReligion crew has been closely watching the coverage of the massacre in Newtown, Conn., waiting for religion shoes to drop. So far, other than coverage of the vigil services, the emphasis — especially at CNN — has been gun control, gun control, gun control.

Since I know readers will bring this up, let me stress that, personally, I am in favor of much stricter gun control laws than we currently have in America. However, the fact that this horror took place in Connecticut, a state with rather strict laws, has made the media coverage even more poignant. The guns were legal.

As Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher said, in complete frustration:

Absent a total and draconian ban on weapons, how do you write a gun control law that can prevent a middle-aged suburban Connecticut woman who enjoys target shooting from buying guns?

The question of why this woman felt that she needed an assault weapon will be discussed, for sure. The mind boggles.

But back to the purpose of this blog, which is the discussion of religion-news coverage in the mainstream press.

In most cases, debates about massacres of this kind often devolve into discussions between gun-control liberals, gun-freedom libertarians and various kinds of cultural conservatives who see evidence of various forms of social decay — from violence in our movies, to splintered homes, to increasingly value-neutral schools, to first-person-shooter video games that resemble the programs our military leaders use to make soldiers more willing to pull triggers in combat. Then there are people like me whose beliefs fall in more than one of these camps.

However, The Washington Post has run a short story based on Pew Research Center data that claims to offer evidence of a shocking, and apparently growing, two-way split in the American population:

In the wake of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, one of the central questions being asked is what this horrible incident tells us about who we are as a country.

Not much, if you look at the polling conducted on this matter since the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007. Since that time, the tendency for people to call these sorts of mass murderers isolated incidents without any broader meaning has soared just as those saying the events are indicative of broader societal problems has ebbed.

Here’s a chart from Pew Research Center detailing polling in the aftermath of the three previous high profile incidents of violence committed with a gun.

Following the Aurora movie theater murders, two-thirds of people said it was an isolated act committed by a troubled individual. That’s a significant increase from the 47 percent who said the same following the Virginia Tech incident.

“Isolated incidents” is supposed to be the conservative, pro-guns option. The assumption, then, is that the “broader societal problems” option is the politically and culturally liberal option in this survey.

That’s interesting, in light of the fact that so many cultural and religious conservatives have, for years, seen these tragic evidence of broader, frightening cultural trends in American life. The Post story, and perhaps the Pew data, does not seem to take this into account. Instead, we read:

Among those who said that Aurora represented a broader societal problem, roughly six in ten believed the priority should be controlling gun ownership rather than protecting gun rights. Among those who viewed it as an isolated incident, just more than 40 percent prioritized controlling the ownership of firearms.

The simple truth, at least according to this poll data, is that the increasing tendency in the wake of shootings like the one in Connecticut is to chalk it up to a troubled person and move on.

In short, I think this story organizes America’s frustration and pain on these issues into TWO CAMPS, when there are at least three.

Where are the religion ghosts in that equation? That would be among the cultural conservatives who see the horrors of Newtown and similar visions of hell as evidence of, well,”broader societal problems” that are moral and spiritual, as well as cultural and political.

Ghosts? I would say.

Pod people: Forgiveness is such a simple word

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Forgiveness is such a simple word

But it’s so hard to do when you’ve been hurt 

The above lyrics from Kellie Pickler’s “I Wonder” provide a fitting introduction to this post.

On this week’s Crossroads podcast, host Todd Wilken and I discuss forgiveness and media coverage of it. We focus on two recent GetReligion posts touching on that subject.

The first related to my critique of a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story that opened this way:

STOVER, Mo. — Last Sunday, the Rev. Travis Smith paced First Baptist Church’s sanctuary, decorated for the holidays with poinsettias and a Christmas tree. He addressed his congregation, speaking to them about forgiveness.

Smith read verses from the Gospel of Matthew that follow the Lord’s Prayer:

“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you,” he said.

Since Smith’s arrest in October on sexual abuse and statutory rape charges, which follow similar allegations from 2010, forgiveness from his congregation has become critical to his survival as its pastor. It is this group of about 100 souls — not a bishop, nor a disciplinary committee nor national church leaders at a faraway headquarters — who will decide Smith’s future in the Southern Baptist Convention.

The second concerned my critique of a CBS News report on someone forgiving someone else for — at least based on the news account — some unknown reason.

As my original post noted, that report contained a major ghost.

Also on the podcast, Wilken and I talk about my critique of a USA Today story on a business marketing its products using an R-rated word.

We recorded the podcast before the tragedy in Connecticut, so I was thinking more clearly than I am now. However, I did forget the question about three or four sentences into one long-winded reply — but please don’t tell Wilken!

Anyway, check out the podcast and hug your children.


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