Does the president, and the press, get theodicy?

There’s an old joke preachers tell about the man who was depressed and opened the Bible randomly to a page to see what God would say to him. He put his finger on a verse and read, “And Judas hung himself…” Horrified, he opened the Bible again at random and saw the phrase, “Go and do likewise.” Dejected, he opened the Bible one final time and came to the verse, “What you must do, do quickly.”

I was reminded of that story after reading about a lost Bible discovered in tornado debris last week in Shawnee, Okla. As a local NBC affiliate reported,

Storm chaser, Brandon Heiden, shot video of the storm as it pummelled [Lance] Carter’s home.

Heiden stopped for a moment to make sure everyone was ok, and found a Bible in the debris. He shot this picture, and hoped the owner would be re-united with the good book again someday.

Meanwhile, Gage Ross, a friend of the Carter family came by the property to help with the clean-up effort. Ross stumbled across that same family Bible; it was still open to the very same page, Isiah chapter 32 which reads, ”A man will be as a hiding place from the wind, and a cover from the tempest.”

“The Lord must be with us, I guess.” Ross remembers.

While the Bible only traveled about 100 feet (it belonged to a neighbor who lived on Mr. Carter’s property), the story made it all the way to the White House.

On Sunday, President Barack Obama visited Moore, Okla. to assess the damage done by the recent deadly tornado. According to the transcript of his speech, he said:

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Pod people: Theodicy, pinnochios and the war on women

Last week was not one of the best for the mainstream media. I just wrote a lengthy screed about how awful the coverage, or the lack thereof, was about an Indiana Senate candidate, the administration’s handling of a terrorist attack by Muslim extremists in Libya and a so-called “war on women.” You know which one didn’t receive much coverage from most outlets and which ones did. And you can hear me talk about it on this week’s Crossroads podcast.

The only thing I will add is that the mainstream media missed an opportunity to talk about religion in a mature manner because of their single-minded focus on horserace politics. What I wish we would have seen is what some alternative media outlets excelled at this past week, looking at theodicy and different theological approaches to the question of why good or bad things happen. By wanting to push a political narrative, the media lost the opportunity to educate, inform or even just reflect the values of the communities they seek to serve. And I can’t help but think it’s a great example of why the media have lost so much trust in the public they seek to profit from.

Anyway, I don’t want to spend too much time harshing on the horribly biased week the media had. I had figured I’d have to write a “Got News?” piece about the failure of the media to call out President Obama for a particular statement he’s been making quite a bit. A statement that turns out not to be true. But the Washington Post‘s “fact checker” looked into the statement:

 “You’ve got issues like Planned Parenthood, where that organization provides millions of women cervical-cancer screenings, mammograms, all kinds of basic health care.”  — President Obama during an interview on “The Tonight Show,” Oct. 24, 2012

The media have also made this claim. I will never forget the ABC News piece that led the nightly news with a fabrication about Planned Parenthood providing mammograms. You can read my piece about it here. It’s a common statement from President Obama, as the Post piece explains, providing multiple examples. And all year long this claim has been repeated by the most powerful people in the country.

Only problem? Well, it’s not true. Or, as the Washington Post puts it:

The problem here is that Planned Parenthood does not perform mammograms or even possess the necessary equipment to do so. As such, the organization certainly does not “provide” mammograms in the strict sense. Instead, its clinics provide referrals and direct low-income women toward resources to help pay for the procedure.

It is good to correct inaccurate statements! All year long I have been frustrated by how this inaccurate statement has been bandied about. A casual news reader might be under the impression that Planned Parenthood’s most noteworthy work is the mammograms it supposedly provides (you’ll note how rarely the 300,000 abortions get mentioned or the $500 million in federal subsidies it receives each year get mentioned).

But I want to show how the Post concludes it’s “fact check”:

The president has suggested time and again that Planned Parenthood directly provides mammograms, but the organization only offers referrals and helps women find financial resources for the exams. This suggests an intentional attempt to mislead voters about all the services that are at stake with decisions regarding federal funding for the controversial group.

Obama’s campaign points out that the incumbent was referring in each case to Planned Parenthood’s broader role as a health-care provider. But that doesn’t make his remarks any less inaccurate.

We wavered between Two or Three Pinocchios but ultimately decided the president earns Three Pinocchios for his mammogram remarks on “The Tonight Show.” He has repeated them too many times in one form or another for this to be considered just playing with words to generate a misleading impression.

This is what annoys me — the awarding of a subjective Pinocchio score. Just tell us what the politician said and then tell us whether it comports with the facts. If there are differences of opinion on how to interpret something, go ahead and include that. But this Pinocchio thing? I can do without it.

Also, while the mainstream media is obviously anything but curious about why Planned Parenthood doesn’t do mammograms but does do 300,000+ abortions each year, you can read the pro-life press for more (e.g. “Abortion is 125 to 165 times more profitable than mammography.”) And back to the GotNews? thing … did anyone see mainstream coverage of the pro-life event “Schedule Your Imaginary Mammogram Day“? I didn’t.

Media embarrassingly ill-equipped to cover rape, theodicy

The whole point of this website, since day one, has been to help mainstream journalists “get religion.” So I guess I should not be utterly disgusted and disappointed by so many reporters’ coverage of the big Richard Mourdock-theodicy kerfuffle right now. Instead I should view this as a great teaching opportunity.

Every educated person should know the fundamentals of the major world religions. Every American journalist should have a working knowledge of the basics of Christian and Jewish thought.

So everyone open your Bibles and go to Genesis. We’re hoping to end up around Genesis 50:20. In the preceding chapters, we learn about Joseph, one of Jacob’s 12 sons. His brothers really hated him and were filled with jealousy so they conspired to kill him before deciding instead to sell him into slavery. Jacob, believing Joseph had been killed, was left in anguish and grieving.

Joseph somehow becomes the most powerful man in Egypt next to Pharaoh. He does all sorts of wise and judicious things and saves all sorts of people from a brutal famine. Long story short, he ends up meeting up with his long-lost brothers again. They are really worried that he’s going to react poorly. And so:

But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.

“As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” is one of the most well-known passages in Scripture. The teaching that God causes good to result from evil is just basic, basic, basic stuff.

You don’t have to agree with this verse if you’re a reporter, but you should be familiar with it. If you are a reporter and you’re not familiar with the story of Joseph, or the story of Job, or the story of Jesus, you may be surprised at how easy they are to quickly catch up on. I’m not saying you’ll be able to plumb the depths in an evening, but just read Genesis, read Job, read the Gospels. These are foundational to understanding how the vast majority of the people you cover understand God’s will. With further study, you may learn about how Jews and Christians have struggled with understanding God’s will over the millennia. Turns out there is a lot written about it. Books, papers, you name it.

And here’s another thing: Meet someone who identifies as pro-life and ask them a few questions. You may learn that they believe all human life is equally valuable and sacred. You might learn that they affirm that human life begins at conception. You might learn that they really abhor the taking of human life, even at its earliest stages. You might learn that they’ve grappled with “the difficult cases” — whether unborn children should be protected if the circumstances of their conception involved rape or incest, whether unborn children should have any rights if their mother’s life is in danger. You might learn that there are different approaches to how they wrestle with these cases.

If you do these two things — bone up on just the very lowest level basics of Christian teaching on theodicy and meet a pro-lifer and find out what they really think — you might not lead your newscasts with a mangling of the news that some pro-lifers really believe (gasp!) that the circumstances of your conception and birth do not determine your worth and that every single child in the world is created and loved by God. You might learn about this newfangled ancient teaching that God causes good to result from evil.

I want to make it clear that if Democrats want to claim that Mourdock said God intends rape or that he didn’t say it was tragic, that’s their business. We have two weeks to go until election and people are getting a bit antsy. But reporters need to separate themselves from their deeply held ideological leanings and just report. There were bad things, such as the Huffington Post lying by saying that Mourdock told voters that God intends rape.

The Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin explained to reporters (who she suspected of partisan outrage on this story):

The essence of religious monotheism is that everything comes from one God, which naturally leaves humans befuddled when “Bad things happen to good people.” The faithful nevertheless persevere in their faith, believing that God is unknowable to human minds. This is the essence, for example, of the Book of Job, which I felt compelled to reread this afternoon. (It is a deeply disturbing story precisely because it raises these fundamental issues about the nature of God, good and evil, etc.)

At Business Insider, a reporter said this story exemplifies what she hates about media coverage of abortion:

Anyone is free to disagree with Mourdock’s position — and to make him explain and defend it — but the media’s surprise and outrage, disguised under the mask of “journalistic objectivity,” is disingenuous and irresponsible.

We all saw the biased coverage yesterday, the curious decision by the media to drum up outrage about Mourdock’s comments while downplaying other gigantic stories. “Abortion distraction for Romney,” said the CNN chyron at one point — precisely as it attempted to achieve just that. You really must read Andrew Ferguson’s attack on such journalism:

The Heisenberg Principle of Journalism puts the lie to all that. You see it at work whenever a news anchor announces that “this story just refuses to go away” or a headline writer insists that “questions continue to be raised” about the conduct of one hapless public figure or another.

The story refuses to go away, of course, because the anchor and his colleagues won’t let it; and the questions that continue to be raised are being raised by the headline writer and his editors. Reporters create more news than anybody, just by pretending they’re watching it unfold.

My favorite were the “stories” that said “Romney campaign says he still supports Mourdock, won’t ask Indiana Senate candidate to pull ad.” Do you have to be a willful partisan to take that approach to writing a story? (“Still supports” a consistent pro-lifer? You don’t say!) Or do you just have to not know that Americans views on abortion aren’t perfectly mirrored in the narrow confines of your newsroom? There were others all tied to the idea that Mourdock needed to apologize for his remarks. Mourdock’s views on abortion are less extreme — relative to the American population — than Barack Obama’s, which include thrice voting to keep a form of infanticide legal. When was the last time you saw a reporter suggest that Obama needed to do anything other than celebrate his views?

Like I said, we’re close to the election and that means that journalists struggle even more with keeping their political views in check. We’re human.

But since the forces in favor of aborting the products of rape have been overly represented in the last couple of days, let’s think of some good ideas for media coverage.

For instance, how about talking to any of the many fellow humans in our midst who are products of rape. They don’t have to be famous like Eartha Kitt was or like one of Angelina Jolie’s adopted daughter is or like Martin Sheen’s wife Janet. They might be just the normal people in our newsrooms, in our churches. We saw journalists make hay of the idea that God intended for them to be born and that their lives are gifts from God. Would we do that if they were in front of us?

Do Mourdock’s political opponents — up to and including President Obama — believe that these lives are not a gift from God? Do they believe that God didn’t intend for them to be born? Would stories framed that way lead the morning and nightly news? If they wouldn’t (and to be sure, I’m speculating about a fantasy world where all candidates are asked the same questions that consistent pro-life candidates are), what does that say about the news judgment displayed thus far? Are discussions of theodicy to be trifled with, mangled, used for partisan purposes? Are they maybe a bit more sensitive than the media outlets were letting on?

Painting via Wikipedia.

Brazil’s faith in football: What happens after the apocalypse?

If you know anything about the sport the world calls “football,” then you know that an apocalyptic event took place yesterday in Brazil.

If you know anything at all about the host nation for the 2014 World Cup, then you know — everyone chant the mantra together — that football is the true religion of Brazil. Here is a typical blast of this faith language, drawn from today’s Los Angeles Times piece about Germany’s 7-1 shredding of what is left of this year’s battered Brazilian team.

It had been 64 years since Brazil staged a World Cup at home. And in a country so passionate about the sport it is worshipped like a religion, even now that 1950 final loss to Uruguay is remembered as a national tragedy.

This year’s team, though, was expected to erase that stain. And when the Brazilian government lavished a record $11.5 billion on the preparations for this World Cup, the pressure on the national team increased. A World Cup title was seen as the only way to justify the cost. So hundreds of fans began gathering daily outside the gates of the team’s training facility while hundreds more lined the roads when the team’s bus would pass.

All of them were seeking deliverance as much as they were a championship.

Finally, if you know anything about football in Brazil, if you have watched any of the national team’s matches over the past decade or more, then you know that many members of the team are outspoken Christians. In fact, several of the young superstars are part of the emerging face of born-again and Pentecostal Protestantism in this historically Catholic nation.

In a fine feature before the Germany match, BBC covered the essential facts and added some color, as well. The first statement is crucial:

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After more bullets in Baltimore: ‘Why couldn’t God stop this?’

Long ago, I was talking to an inner-city pastor (a priest, actually) in Denver who made a very interesting, insightful and depressing observation about his work. One thing that African-American clergy in major cities have to live with is the reality that — as a rule — there are only three things they can do that will ever be seen as newsworthy by their local news media. They can:

(1) Make a political statement of some kind. Everyone knows that African-American church life centers on politics, way more than on the Gospel.

(2) Start some new and innovative form of ministry to the poor, which would be seen as newsworthy because helping poor people is really all about politics (as opposed to obeying the clear call of scripture). See reason No. 1.

(3) Preach in the funeral of a person, the younger the better, who has been gunned down in their neighborhood.

I added that the clergy person could, of course, commit some kind of crime and that would be considered newsworthy. We both laughed, sharing rather tired smiles. Yes, that would be newsworthy, too.

I thought of that when working my way through a stack of newspapers after returning to Baltimore after a few days on the road. The first story that grabbed my attention was a perfect example of African-American Church News No. 3, complete with an agonizing, and appropriate, does of pull-quote-worthy “theodicy.” For an update on the meaning of this theological term, click here. Here’s the top of that Baltimore Sun story, including the crucial leap to theodicy:

Craig David Ray and his cousins believed they were beating the odds. Growing up in Baltimore, they knew many young black men who were gunned down or sent to prison. As they entered their 30s, Ray and his family members were thankful for their health and welfare with each passing year.

“That’s behind us,” cousin Larry Barganier said he told Ray not long ago as they talked about the family’s good fortune. “We beat the statistics.”

But the gray coffin cradling his cousin on Wednesday was a cruel reminder that the “streets are cold,” Barganier told mourners at Ray’s funeral. Authorities said Ray, 34, was shot to death, after he called the police on a Westport neighbor who refused to turn down loud music. He was trying to rest before his shift as a Maryland Transit Administration bus driver.

Ray’s death left his family grasping for meaning. He was steadily building his life, they said, planning to get married. On Feb. 24, the night that he died, he was at his girlfriend’s house watching her kids.

“Why couldn’t God stop this?” the Rev. Samuel Ray, an uncle, asked. “He couldn’t. There’s some things God doesn’t give us the answer for. That doesn’t mean we lose faith.”

Now this is, in my opinion, a rather well done story in this tragic genre. I was struck, over and over, by the connections between this young man and elements of both the church and civic establishment.

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What was the demon Adam Lanza locked in that hard drive?

From the beginning, there was a familiar moral tension at the heart of news coverage of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. It’s hard to ponder such a hellish act without wanting to be able to name the demon, to link the actions of the young gunman to some kind of logical motive.

Was religion involved? Maybe. Maybe not.

Did faith play any role in the dramas inside the silent home in which Adam Lanza and his mother Nancy lived those final years of their lives? Her funeral was held in the First Congregational Church of Kingston, N.H., but that could have been a simple matter of convenience — choosing the historic church in the middle of the typical New England public square.

Was evil involved in this tragedy? Yes. But what kind? As I wrote early on, in a post here at GetReligion:

In most cases, debates about massacres of this kind 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.

At the very least, Newtown was another one of those stories that — logically enough — pushes people to ask that ancient/modern question: Where was God? As your GetReligionistas noted at the time, there is a theological name for that puzzle and, tragically, anyone who wants to cover the religion beat needs to know it:

the·od·i·cy noun …

: defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil

The painful, dry New York Times report about the final Sandy Hook report makes it perfectly clear that the investigators have not been able to name that evil and they refused to speculate about Lanza’s motive, even though it it is clear that his actions were premeditated.

If there was a motive, it almost certainly was contained in one particular computer hard drive that Lanza destroyed, doing such a meticulous job that investigators were not able to recover the contents. The lede describes the key location in this story, which was the computer-driven Lanza’s darkened haven from the outside world:

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That holy ghost in Baylor head coach’s guilt and grief

Right now, Baylor University coach Art Briles is one of the hottest leaders in college football, the creator of the hottest offense in around. Last night, the No. 6 Bears clawed the No. 10 Oklahoma Sooners to the tune of 41-12, even while losing three of their top four players on offense to injuries of various kinds.

Yes, I am a Baylor alum, one who a decade-plus ago thought my alma mater faced certain gridiron doom if it stayed in the Big 12.

Crazy things are happening. GetReligion readers who follow sports will have noticed that.

Meanwhile, what can we make of ESPN’s important story about the amazing personal story behind Briles and his work? This feature includes some fine work, even if — surprise, surprise — it offers no major insights into the obvious faith issues at the heart of this story.

So what is the heart of this story of God, grief and eventual glory (in terms of success on the field)?

The first act of the drama is, of course, right at the top where it should be.

WACO, Texas — Reminders of the worst day of Baylor coach Art Briles’ life come every year like clockwork. There are a few dates on the calendar — his parents’ birthdays, their wedding day, holidays and, of course, the anniversary of their tragic deaths — that tug the painful memories from the back of his mind.

Briles, 57, has never forgotten how much his life changed on Oct. 16, 1976. Nearly four decades later, the deep emotional wounds still fester because he never allowed them to heal. How could they? Briles still shoulders much of the blame for the deaths of his parents, Dennis and Wanda, and his beloved aunt, Elsie “Tottie” Kittley, who was more like a grandmother to him.

“I think about them every day, every second,” Briles said, while sitting in his dark office last month. “I can sit here right now and know that tomorrow is the anniversary of it. It never leaves you.”

It was a car wreck on a Texas highway. His loved ones were driving a long way to the Cotton Bowl on the chance that the 20-year-old Briles would be able to play wide receiver for the Houston Cougars, after fighting hard to win a fight with an achy knee. They didn’t make it after a collision with an out-of-control tanker truck. It could have been worse: Briles’ girlfriend, and eventual wife, almost made the trip with them.

Frequent GetReligion readers can probably sense where this is going: theodicy.

So who or what is to blame? God, man or the sickness of a fallen creation?

Briles blamed himself, and still does. That brings us to the key moment in the ESPN piece:

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Following up on the Sikh temple shooting

I’m a sucker for a good follow-up story and the Associated Press hit this one out of the park. It’s a follow-up to the horrible shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin last year. Religious perspectives are woven throughout the piece, including in this lede:

OAK CREEK, Wis. (AP) — Sikh temples generally have four doors, one on each side of the building, as a symbolic invitation to travelers in every direction. But after a lone gunman walked into a Milwaukee-area Sikh temple last year and killed six people, some of the survivors suggested rethinking their openness.

After consideration and contemplation, temple members kept the policy, deciding it was important to show the world the best way to stand against violence was to respond with love, peace and compassion.

Still, officials at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin took precautions. A guard now works three days a week in the lobby, opening the door for visitors and keeping watch on the grounds and parking lot. Additional security cameras and lighting have been installed. Doors and windows are now bulletproof, and the locks have been upgraded.

But even as temple members prepare to mark the one-year anniversary of the shootings on Monday, the Oak Creek temple remains open to everyone. All members of the community, Sikh and non-Sikh alike, are always welcome to join them for meditation and free meals, temple member Harpreet Singh said.

“We will always welcome people,” Singh said.

Tragic and horrific as shootings or other violent crimes are, the way they affect a community is a story best told over the long term. The AP used a series of a memorial events in connection with the one-year anniversary as the news hook for this piece. In it, we learn about “chardhi kala” — a Punjabi term that refers to a state of constant optimism. We learn why Sikhs believe this is important, with a mention of theodicy.

The story covers the important details and mentions how Sikh understanding of forgiveness, compassion and understanding come into play.

Toward the end we learn about “akhand paath,” a ceremonial Scripture reading that can take two full days.

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