AP embraces cliches, labels in seminary prez profile

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Yawn.

Sorry, I just finished reading The Associated Press’ feeble attempt at profiling Albert Mohler on his 20th anniversary as president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

From the start, the story reads like a reporter (in this case, more than one reporter since it has a double byline!) and editor got together and decided to see how many cliches and labels they could mix together in one shallow report. Instead of providing insight into Mohler, the AP settles for presenting a cardboard cutout.

Let’s start at the top:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — For the last 20 years, Albert Mohler has led the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention, restoring it to more conservative principals even though it meant purging faculty who were out of step with his beliefs.

Unless I’m missing something, doesn’t the AP mean “principles” and not “principals?” But I digress.

I hope you caught the “conservative” label in that first sentence. That’s just the first of seven times that word appears (five times as an adjective) in this 800-word story.

The second sentence:

He expressed satisfaction with the transformation as he recently welcomed a new crop of students to the Louisville campus of stately brick buildings and perfectly manicured lawns. Donations, enrollment and the school’s budget have grown dramatically since Mohler took the helm, and there’s no sign of him leaving.

Stately brick buildings and perfectly manicured lawns? Dear cliches, welcome to the party!

Let’s get to the meat of the story (or what passes for it):

Mohler took over as president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1993, when he was just 33. He is married and has two children.

When he speaks, it’s often rapid fire, with vigor and emotion. He talks about the seminary’s current prosperity as a sign of God’s blessing on the institution because it rejected liberal trends in society. He returned it to more conservative social ideas, such as the submission of women to their husbands, and a more strict interpretation of the Bible, such as the literal belief in Adam and Eve.

Serious question: From Mohler’s perspective, is the submission of a woman to her husband a social idea? Or would he characterize it as a biblical teaching (“strict” or not)? Also, if the AP sees this issue as an important one to mention, why not allow Mohler an opportunity to explain — in his own words — what he believes and what the seminary teaches concerning women?

As for the reference to Adam and Eve, doesn’t the term “strict” drip with opinion — not usually a good idea for a news story? Would a phrase such as “a literal interpretation of the Bible, such as the belief in Adam and Eve” provide less editorialization and better accuracy?

Keep reading, and the story makes the inevitable sweeping statements about how Southern Baptists are losing members (with no context on where that denomination’s numerical decline fits into the wider context of American religion) and political influence:

But his personal growth and the seminary’s is in contrast to the Southern Baptist denomination as a whole. Although still the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, with a declared membership of 16 million people, the SBC does not wield the same political influence it did when President George W. Bush addressed the group’s annual meetings.

And while the SBC’s return to a conservative theology at first coincided with growth, in 2012 the denomination saw its sixth straight year of declining membership.

Honk if you’ve read similar descriptions in a dozen other media reports.

This story seems to scream: NOTHING NEW TO SEE HERE! MOVE ALONG, PLEASE!

Yawn.

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.

  • Rory Tyer

    Sigh. What could have been an interesting biographical sketch of someone very influential to a fairly large American demographic is instead cliched and shallow.

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Exactly.

      • tmatt

        But, hey, conservative is accurate. Fundamentalist would have been inaccurate in this case. Smaller sins!

        • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

          Maybe conservative is accurate.

          But it’s overused and vague.

          Better journalism would be to show, not tell, that someone is conservative.

          • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

            But the point — here and by a few folks on Twitter — is well taken that conservative is a term used by many Southern Baptists (such as Mohler) to describe themselves.

            And in reviewing an SBC story I wrote for AP a decade or so ago, I noticed that I used the term about 11 times myself.

            So …

            Mea culpa.

            In general, I just found it frustrating that this story used a lot of signposts (such as “conservative”) without a lot of actual insight or reporting to provide any real depth to the story or the profile subject.

        • FW Ken

          From what I understand, Dr. Mohler is a fundamentalist, in the technical sense of the word.

          • tmatt

            It’s really hard to be a doctrinaire Calvinist and a Fundamentalist, in the historic sense of the word.

          • FW Ken

            I meant fundamentalist in the sense of the Five Fundamentals. It does appear, however that Dr. Mohler adheres to biblical inerrancy, from which the other four fundamentals proceed, as well as TULIP Calvinism.

            http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/october/3.18.html?paging=off

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