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God-shaped hole in big WPost take on RG3

So I was driving through this astonishing Appalachian thunderstorm last night, punching the radio over and over trying to get weather information, when the tuner hit a strong signal and I heard something really bizarre coming out of the car speakers.

It was a National Football League preseason game — the Hall of Fame game, to be precise.

Oh my gosh, is football season almost here? You know, that magical time of year when the sports pages of major news organizations are invaded, time after time, with stories about muscular Christians and other believers whose faith makes them stand out in our crowded media marketplace? These are the stories that drive people on ESPN wild, but when we write about them here at GetReligion the comments pages are usually as quiet as a graveyard.

Sorry folks, but we can’t help it that Tim Tebow is in New York City. We also can’t help it that Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III has taken his right arm, and his study Bible, to the Nation’s Capital.

I predict news coverage.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at a lengthy feature about RG3 that ran the other day in The Washington Post, the first of what will almost certainly be dozens of feature-length reports about the new face of the franchise in the hours, days, weeks and months ahead. (Imagine, if you will, the wave of coverage linked to the upcoming Griffin nuptials, church rites which will almost certainly include all kinds of offensive religious language.)

The focus, in this story, was Griffin’s complex journey from his Texas home to Washington, D.C., and, in particular, this sharp young man’s impressive command of the offensive schemes contained in the legendary, thick, intimidating playbook assembled by Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan and his sports-wonk son, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. It is in that context that the following passage caught my eye:

As he flew between Washington and Texas, perhaps a half-dozen times in all, Griffin usually checked a suitcase, but the playbook — along with an iPad the Redskins gave him, with all the plays in video form — boarded the plane with him, safely tucked in a carry-on bag.

“It’s with me all the time,” he said. “It’s not my bible, but it’s what we live by.”

What we have here is a fascinating mistake linked to a familiar — at least for religion-beat reporters — passage in the Associated Press Stylebook.

You see, what Griffin actually said was that the Redskins playbook may be his “bible,” but it is not his “Bible.” What he said is the opposite of what the Post team reported him as saying.

Thus saith the AP bible. Let us attend.

Bible – Capitalize, without quotation marks, when referring to the Scriptures in the Old Testament or the New Testament. …

Lowercase biblical in all uses.

Lowercase bible as a nonreligious term: My dictionary is my bible.

The lower-case illustration above fits the Shanahan playbook — perfectly. That is exactly what the quarterback is saying. Right?

But at the same time, Griffin made sure that people knew that this was not The Book in his life — The Holy Bible. What RG3 said, rendered accurately, was this: “It’s with me all the time,” he said. “It’s not my Bible, but it’s what we live by.”

So heads up, sports reporters: What we have here is another potential NFL star who will require you to take seriously his style, speech and beliefs. You will need to learn to tune in the religious elements of what he has to say (try listening to Bill Moyers) in order to cover him accurately. So get out the journalism bible, with some yellow sticky notes, and start marking the relevant passages.

Meanwhile, this lengthy Post report did include some material from a highly symbolic event in this young man’s life — his farewell service at the evangelical church in which he grew up. Read carefully this lengthy chunk of the report:

At 7 p.m. on May 9, nearly a thousand congregants packed the Christian House of Prayer Ministries in Copperas Cove, Tex., to hear the church’s most famous member speak, and to bid the young man farewell and Godspeed as he prepared to head east to start a new chapter in his life.

“RGIII!” the pastor, Apostle Nate Holcomb said, using Griffin’s ubiquitous nickname, as the congregation roared and an organ churned out major chords. “Speak to us for a moment!” …

For the church service, Robert Griffin III had brought along the Heisman Trophy, which normally resides in a wooden cabinet, typically hidden from view behind closed doors, in the living room of the modest rancher just outside Copperas Cove where Robert and Jacqueline Griffin had raised their three children.

“When I was young, you always told me [to] never forget where I came from,” Griffin said to Holcomb when he took the microphone, according to an audio recording of the service provided by the church. …

He spoke of his faith, and of the obstacles he had overcome — chiefly a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during his sophomore year at Baylor. When Griffin was done, Holcomb placed his hand on the young man’s shoulder, bowed his head and prayed: “We thank you for this mighty oak in the forest of God … and [ask] that wherever you take Robert, others will see the love of God, and they will come out of darkness and into the marvelous light because of this young man.”

OK, raise your cyber-hands if you would have been interested in hearing some of the material on this worship-service tape that the Post team simply summarized as, “He spoke of his faith.” Why omit that part of the event, that part of the news story, if the goal here is to help readers understand what makes RG3 tick?

I think that this is a rather interesting hole in a news story about a very interesting young man (and I don’t just say that as a Baylor University alum). One might even say that the story contains a God-shaped hole, or even one of those all-to-common religion ghosts.

RG3 and a tiny glimpse of faith

I’ll be the first to admit that, as a guy from a family that bleeds green and gold, I am slightly freaked out that Baylor University’s Robert Griffin III (that Heisman Trophy guy) will soon be the quarterback for the Washington Redskins. I mean, I dislike the owner of the Redskins almost as much as I dislike the owner of the Dallas Cowboys (as a Tom Landry fan, I still have anger issues).

Nevertheless, it’s clear that RG3 is about to become a very, very important athlete and civic leader here in Beltway land. I imagine the press is going to dig quite deeply into the psyche and soul of this rather remarkable young man. When I say “remarkable,” I am referring just as much to the head on his shoulders as his strong right arm and Olympic-quality feet.

If you have been reading the coverage (here’s some ESPN stuff to surf), you know that both his mom and dad were U.S. Army sergeants. You know that he graduated from high school early, with honors, and from college early, with honors, and he’s finishing a master’s degree in Communications — with law school as his ultimate goal. At Baylor he was the point man for untold hours of service learning work with the poor in Central Texas.

However, I wouldn’t be writing about him here if there wasn’t a strong religious element in this story.

Turns out, there is one. The question is when it will show up in the mainstream press.

Griffin, you see, is not shy when it comes to talking about his faith. At the same time, there has been an element of mystery to it. For example, when and why did the quarterback at the world’s largest Baptist institution of higher learning celebrate touchdowns by making the sign of the cross?

Inquiring minds would like to know.

Thus, I found it interesting that the team at the The Washington Post elected to open one of its first Griffin features (you know that oceans of DC ink will be spilled on this guy between now and week one of the NFL season) with — you got it — a hint of Godtalk.

COPPERAS COVE, Tex. – Robert Griffin III’s car turned off one dirt road and onto another. He was riding shotgun and his fiancee was driving. The blue Chrysler Pacifica has just one embellishment: a bumper sticker for his church.

The car slowly passed a home that features a Washington Redskins flag high atop a flagpole in the front yard — sacrilege here in the middle of Dallas Cowboys country — before pulling into a driveway. “Welcome to the Griffin Estate,” reads the wooden sign on the front door.

In the middle of a grassy, nondescript three-acre lot, the Griffin home is a modest one. Most of the neighbors have no idea, in fact, who was raised here. The only real clues inside are the plaques that hang in the entryway and the Heisman trophy in the curio cabinet behind the couch.

Robert Griffin III’s life will change this week.

Now, you know that your GetReligionistas really think that it’s important, when journalists play the God card at the top of a story, for there to be some kind of factual, relevant faith-driven follow-up later on in the text. If religion makes it into the lede, then journalists need to keep asking questions and give readers some solid facts that link faith into the substance of the story.

In this case, the Post team has broken some new ground, because this report does feature a quotation from the Griffin family’s pastor. Thus, we read:

So no one is surprised Griffin is suddenly on the NFL’s front doorstep, a unique talent who’s about to take the step for which he and his family have invested years of sweat and preparation.

“I could recall prophesying over him,” said Bishop Nathaniel Holcomb, pastor of the Christian House of Prayer Ministries, Griffin’s 5,000-member church. “I felt the Lord said that he would be a rising star. … There was just something unique about him.”

And that, gentle readers, is that.

A visit to the website of The Cathedral of Central Texas — from all appearances a Pentecostal megachurch — offers all kinds of information about its specialized ministries. Glancing at several of them could, I imagine, turn some of the key Post editors into pillars of salt.

But those complications will probably come later. Right now, God is in the lede and the preacher gets to voice a prophesy that the Redskins do, indeed, have a new star and, it appears, this star will guide them.

That’s all the faith information we’re going to get right now. Stay tuned.


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