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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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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Should pro-choice activists be asked Gosnell questions?

The New York Times Sunday Magazine ran a Mother’s Day interview with, who else, the head of Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood does a few things that people either love or hate, but none so much as aborting more than 300,000 unborn children each year.

The media are firmly on one side of this issue and have done quite a bit to help out Planned Parenthood, a truth laid painfully bare during the Komen Foundation for the Cure situation last year, which I chronicled extensively. That was when the private foundation devoted to fighting breast cancer decided to pull out of funding the country’s largest abortion provider. The media didn’t view this as a story with two sides but went to the mat to force Komen to cave in. It worked. Within days, they were bullied into relenting and agreed to give money to Planned Parenthood.

Some media outlets perpetuated a falsehood about Planned Parenthood — that the organization offers mammograms. It doesn’t. Months (and years) after those mistruths were shared (by Planned Parenthood, President Obama and the media), some media outlets corrected the information. See here, here and here.

That cozy relationship is also shown in this Times magazine piece. These interviews are generally fluffier for friends of the paper than foes, but fluffy in general.

You can see where that might be a problem when dealing with the head of an organization that, again, aborts more than 300,000 unborn children each year. If, you know, you think that’s troubling.

But even so, the interviewer does not in any way shy away from political questions. That could be a good thing.

Do we see tough questions about whether the Cleveland kidnapper should be charged with murdering his unborn children by forcibly aborting them? No.

Do we see any questions, tough or non, about the biggest abortion-related story of the year — the murder trial of abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell? Dear reader, I have to tell you. The answer is no!

Just by way of example, Catholic news director Anna Mitchell is having trouble getting anyone at Planned Parenthood to accept her interview request. She offers these sample questions for journalists who are able to get interviews with Planned Parenthood:

First, I read a report that Gosnell’s lawyer, during cross-examination, downplayed the procedures in his clinic by saying they were common in the abortion industry at-large. Is this true? If Gosnell’s procedures are not standard to the industry, what is standard procedure? The latest string of videos from Lila Rose’s Live Action confirms at least that Gosnell’s is not the only clinic that would be willing to let a baby die after a botched abortion (http://www.liveaction.org/inhuman/videos/) – are there more? Should these doctors be punished if the evidence proved they did not provide life saving care for the child?

Second, the conditions in Gosnell’s clinic were revolting, to say the least. He could quite possibly become a poster child for legislation that would require abortion clinics to have the same standards as hospitals. I know that most – perhaps all – abortion rights groups have opposed these bills in the past, saying it would force too many clinics to shut down. In light of the Gosnell case, will that position change? Wouldn’t hospital-like requirements ensure that every clinic provides a clean, safe environment for women? Wouldn’t it be better for a woman to travel farther away if it meant lessening her risk of STDs, infections or even death? If you remain opposed to these kinds of standards, why?

Instead, you won’t believe the hot-off-the-presses questions that New York Times interviewer Andrew Goldman and his editors signed off on instead of anything on, say, Gosnell:

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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.


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