I hate goodbyes, so … so long

From God Blogging I came, and to God Blogging I shall return.

Actually, I never left The God Blog, but when I joined GetReligion just over two years ago, I had to learn a new trade. I had been a reporter, then a religion reporter and then a religion reporter who blogged about religion.

But blogging about religion reporting, well, that was a different animal.

The emphasis became not only what did the reporter do right, but what did he or she do wrong; not just the details that were included but those that were omitted. The process of identifying these holes seriously challenged me to think about how I, as a religion reporter, approached similar stories.

Sometimes my advice back to the reporter through this forum would be couched with the disclaimer: Do as I say, not as I now realize I wrongly did in the past.

I think I picked it up (though some of you might disagree), and I hope that a few of the posts I wrote meant something. (There was at least one drum I hopelessly kept banging.)

These five likely were my favorites in chronological order:

It takes a columnist
Helen Thomas undone
The gospel of easy money
‘Journalists can play with quotes’
Northwestern prof: Sorry you’re stupid

Religion reporting was, is and will remain something I care deeply about. As I wrote on The God Blog before joining the GetReligionistas:

Once considered a backwater of journalism, the God beat feels to me quite chosen, home to immensely important and interesting news. Religion, after all, is the rubric through which each person uniquely sees the world. Science, education, politics, entertainment—it regularly serves as an undercurrent in these fields. (That was, in fact, part of my pitch at The Sun three years ago when they were looking for a reporter for the newly created position and I was eager to get out of Rialto.) The religion angle also is occasionally relevant when trying to understand peoples’ beliefs in God, their perspectives on the life hereafter and that which gives every day meaning.

Think of the God beat as the Jerusalem of journalism. Seriously.

So, 210 posts later, this will be my last for GetReligion. I fought this reality for a while, not wanting to give up something I truly enjoy nor to walk away from a mission I strongly support. But the day has finally come when I can no longer give GetReligion the attention it deserves.

I begin my third year of law school in a month, and with that comes classes, revising two articles for the UCLA Law Review (one of which I’m hoping will save some news reporters’ jobs), yada yada yada, and then studying for the Bar and, you know, working those ridiculous lawyer hours.

I will, of course, keep reading GetReligion, and will continue to root my former colleagues on as they strive to help the media get religion. They’re certainly needed.

See you in the comment threads.

Anti-Christian Christian movements?

The Economist, which I don’t often look to for its religion reporting, has an article this week that is rich on scene-setting descriptions and bland on substantive reporting.

The focus of the article was a festival in the forest of “alternative” Christians. Not hipsters, so much as people somewhat on the fringes. Here’s a snippet :

Visitors could learn from Tom Prasada-Rao, a singer, how to chant “Om” and “Hallelujah Hare Krishna”, or hear Paul Fromberg, a pastor from San Francisco, talking about his 2005 wedding to another man. “God is changing the church through the bodies of gay men,” Mr Fromberg told a packed session on human sexuality. Also under discussion was “religious multiple belonging”—in other words, belonging to a clutch of different faiths at once.

Several disillusioned evangelical leaders attended. One was Jay Bakker, son of Jim and Tammy Bakker of the defunct-Praise-the-Lord-TV-network fame, who gave meandering talks on growing up fundamentalist. Frank Schaeffer, who has made a career out of criticising his evangelical parents Francis and Edith Schaeffer, called the Bible “Bronze-Age mythology” and confessed he had a “conflicted ambivalence” about abortion.

OK, I’m a sucker for colorful details. And this article has that in spades.

But it also leaves unanswered some big questions. Starting with: Who are … these people?

Some are described as liberal Christians, but what do they actually believe? This could be a really, really fascinating article about some new-fangled movement in Christianity. All that we are really told, though, is that this hippie festival Wild Goose Festival targeted “artists and musicians, nonconformists, post-Christians, non-Christians, disaffected evangelicals and a liberal evangelical subset known as the ‘emergent’ church.” Nothing there represents a new movement.

Regardless, where does the belief of guys like Schaeffer come from? When the festival director says “We’re a laboratory for justice, spirituality and art in the way of Jesus,” what is he basing that on?

As far as I could tell from reading this article, this festival is more about celebrating the Bible as philosophy and mythology than as a compass for life. Simply saying that evangelicals disapprove of this festival and the theology of its congregants doesn’t really cut it:

Most evangelicals do not view the emergents so kindly. The few conservatives at the festival privately complained that the panels were stacked with liberals and that issues dear to them, such as abortion, were neglected. Greenbelt has often met similar criticism in recent years.

Again: Why? Better yet: Show me the conflict, don’t tell me that it’s there.

Hanging ten with the Virgin Mary

Here’s a fun one. A few days before Easter, the Surfing Madonna mysteriously appeared in a seaside city north of San Diego. The mural attracted a lot of attention, and, when it was ordered removed, the Los Angeles Times wrote this story:

She arrived seemingly out of thin air — beautifully rendered in a 10-foot-square mosaic of stained glass and stone that had been attached to a concrete railroad bridge without anyone noticing.

Mother Mary’s stance in the tube of a Tahitian-sized wave indicated she was no amateur. Her right foot forward on the board made her a goofy foot. Who knew?

“Save the Ocean” was spelled out down the artwork’s left side. Locals in this funky San Diego County beach town called her the Surfing Madonna. Pilgrims paid tribute, taking photos and leaving flowers and the occasional votive candle.

It’s a fun, quirky story, filled with religious language and references. But, unlike the LAT’s story about Ron Artest’s name change, this story about surfing and art and the Virgin Mary was written by a news reporter.

It also asked some good questions.

Turns out, Patterson is mild-mannered non-Catholic “free-ranging spiritual thinker” with a love for the ocean who left his corporate job to follow an artistic vision.

He had long carried a sketchbook in which he doodled. The Surfing Madonna first appeared in its pages in 2005. Why? Patterson doesn’t know. The inspiration returned in 2009 in a much more refined image.

To be sure, this article does not go into depth about the Virgin Mary has inspired artists; or about why the Virgin Maryis the favored apparition of choice. It’s a bit more efficient in its all-inclusive reporter of these news story.

The article also never explains why Patterson chose the Virgin Mary or why he settled on the title “Surfing Madonna.” But that’s because, as the reader is told, the reporter doesn’t know why — and apparently neither does Patterson.

Sure, saying that Patterson is a “free-ranging spiritual thinker” (a quote) is more opaque than saying he isn’t Catholic. We don’t really know what that means.

But I like that reporter Mike Anton didn’t just settle for clever turns of phrase that open the article ora the trivial treatment that troubles stories like this one. Anton asked the main question that I wanted to know: Why the Virgin Mary?

And that’s something.

Ron Artest: Buddhist or bizarre?

If it’s not bizarre, it’s not Ron Artest. That’s the theory, at least.

Last week the poor man’s Denis Rodman continued to make news for his actions off the basketball court. This time it wasn’t about his Hyundai pimped out in Lakers’ purple and gold or about his falling down the stairs at home or about the Pacers-Pistons brawl or about his Hebrew hairdo. Artest made news for filing papers to change his name — to Metta World Peace.

And I had to wonder whether Ron Ron would get a fair shake in the reporting of this story. After all , when reporters write about people infamous for their bizarre behavior, it’s difficult to take anything they do seriously. That often comes across in the writing, which is tongue-in-cheek, and the treatment, which is brief.

Exhibit A, from the Los Angeles Times:

Just when you thought you had seen it all regarding Ron Artest …

The Lakers forward filed paperwork Thursday in Los Angeles County Superior Court to legally change his name to Metta World Peace.

“Metta” is a Buddhist term. One definition for the word is “a strong wish for the welfare and happiness of others.”

The article is, in sum, nine paragraphs, which probably about correct. First, this is a story for the sports pages, yet it’s only connection to sports is tenuous. Second, this story is quirky so maybe it would otherwise have legs, but it’s more likely that the same story would not appear in, say, the California section if it was about an Average Joe.

But there were two things — one a pretty big ghost — that should not have been omitted from even another short, quirky story about the soon-to-be athlete formerly known as Ron Artest.

The article mentions that several other professional basketball players have changed their names, noting Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bison Dele, but did not reference World B. Free, who as an NBA star had the same idea that Artest did 30 years ago. How is that possible?

Further, though the article mentions other name changes, it does not report that Kareem, formerly Lew Alcindor, changed his name to an Arabic one out of Muslim conviction, or that Dele changed his name to honor his ancestry. It also, more glaringly, did not explain why Artest is changing his name.

What motivated him? Is Artest a Buddhist? Is this some religious transformation for a former bad boy of the league? If so, why does his name change play in and why have I not heard of other Buddhists changing their names? If not, why did he choose a Buddhist word?

And many more religion-related questions …

Crystal Cathedral’s Latino revival?

I feel like I just commented on a Los Angeles Times story about Crystal Cathedral. Oh, that’s right. I did.

Here now comes something a little different. Call it the silver-lining-in-the-crystal-cloud-in-bankruptcy-court story. The LAT reports:

As the Crystal Cathedral fights to survive its descent into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, this is its untold success story: a Spanish-language service led by a dynamic Argentine pastor, Dante Gebel, who inspires comparisons to the church’s founder, Robert H. Schuller.

Since Gebel arrived two years ago, the cathedral’s Hispanic Ministry has grown from no more than 300 people to 3,000, far outstripping the traditional ministry led by Schuller’s daughter, Sheila Schuller Coleman. The brash, shaggy-haired Gebel is seen on television in some 70 countries; his Facebook page is “liked” by more than 800,000 people.

The really interesting part of this article comes next. Reporters Mitchell Landsberg and Nicole Santa Cruz speculate that Gebel’s soaring popularity probably won’t save the Crystal Cathedral. What’s so interesting, though, is that Gebel doesn’t really seem to care. He comes off in the story as a gun for hire.

“I haven’t been called to save the Crystal Cathedral, so that isn’t my goal,” he said in an interview in his office on the cathedral grounds. He thinks about just one thing, he said: “Preaching to the Hispanic people.”

He likens the cathedral, with its soaring, light-filled vault, to a borrowed tuxedo. “I would say the same thing here as in Bolivia or Argentina,” he said, “but here, I have a better suit.”

To me, this image is a lot more compelling and worth probing than any recitation of the difference between English- and Spanish-language services at a single church. It’s old news that American churches, even if not especially the most-famous megachurches, have mixed identities across what can be a bifurcated congregation.

What is best about Landsberg and Santa Cruz’s article is that while they discuss the differences between Crystal Cathedral and Catedral Cristal, they do so by framing the differences within the personalities of the separate communities and their pastors.

The tension in this story is heightened nicely by the ongoing — and likely fatal — struggles of the English-language Crystal Cathedral service and the original worship space.

(As an aside, though, I wonder if “groused,” as used here — “If I wanted to hear rock ‘n’ roll, I’d go to a nightclub,” groused a retired airline pilot one recent Sunday.” — was an appropriate word choice. I like it, but I think it works best of this retired pilot was a real curmudgeon and not just unhappy.)

And the reporters do a great job showing, not just telling the reader, the ways in which the Spanish-language service is thriving and the ways in which the English service has gone cold.

Sheila Schuller Coleman, who has taken over for her father, figures heavily in this story. And she is quoted as saying her heart if for the needy and that her church needs to change to remain relevant, but without giving specifics about how. One voice generally missing, though, is Gebel’s.

Gebel is cited briefly in describing where he came from. But it seemed that the reporters missed an opportunity to do more of a mini-profile of this charismatic preacher who has stirred something in the Garden Grove, Calif., Latino community.

I also found this passage bizarre:

One recent service featured a guest appearance by self-proclaimed prophet and faith healer Cindy Jacobs, who purported to cure ailments that included deafness, depression and infertility. Her brand of fundamentalism once would have been unlikely in a Schuller pulpit. Coleman said she wasn’t aware of Jacobs’ visit and had never heard of her, although programs featuring Jacobs’ name and face were widely available around the church campus.

Using a Spanish interpreter and citing God as her source, Jacobs prophesied that Gebel’s ministry would grow to 10,000, then 20,000, then spread nationally, leading a Latino-based revival of Christianity in America.

For one thing, just because some claims to be a prophet and healer does not mean they are a fundamentalist. Jacobs might be, but I wonder how that description was decided upon. As interchangeable with “evangelical?” As a pejorative term used to refer to someone who might be considered nutty for God?

More important, though, is what Jacobs was doing at the Spanish-language service and why her visit would have been “unlikely in a Schuller pulpit.” Crystal Cathedral started in the Reformed Church in America, and I think it’s still in good standing, and that is definitely not a denomination associated with fundamentalism.

So … a good story but one that left some questions unanswered. However, it probably won’t be the LAT’s last on the Crystal Cathedral.

IMAGE: Via Wikimedia Commons

Dear Mohler: Welcome to Weinergate

I’ve heard that a comedian can make a whole career in Hollywood out of wiener jokes. I wonder if the same could be said for the media and Weiner jokes.

This post from Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today, however, is not so much about what U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner did, but about what the congressman’s actions inspired the Rev. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, to do. It began with this tweet from Mohler:

Dear Congressman Weiner: There is no effective “treatment” for sin. Only atonement, found only in Jesus Christ.

To which Grossman responded with a post at her Faith & Reason blog titled “Baptist to Jewish Weiner: Christ is the only ‘treatment.’” Mohler read that post, and thought that Grossman had misunderstood him. He said he was not proselytizing on Twitter to a politician whom he doesn’t know and responded with what Grossman called a “thoughtful column.” He wrote

As far as I know, Rep. Weiner is not among my “followers” on Twitter. I did not assume that he was reading my posting. My message was mostly directed at my fellow Christians as a reminder of this very concern — that the American impulse is to seek treatment when our real need is for redemption.

(Who even knows who follows them on Twitter? Grossman made that point earlier as Weinergate began to unravel.)

Mohler’s response garnered to some media attention, from CNN to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. But Grossman still was not buying his explanation. This morning she responded with the latest volley in this online back and forth.

So, Mohler wasn’t targeting Jews, he was using a Jewish person in crisis as a sermon springboard to preach to his known flock to return to traditional faith. Right?

But he didn’t begin “Dear Christians…” He addressed his pitch to someone he knows is Jewish and then professes to be shocked when people notice.

All this background leads me to the point of this post. (Talk about burying the lede.) It’s a combination of GetReligion and GetSocialMedia.

Grossman understands why Mohler would be religiously motivated to reach out to Weiner with the Good News at such a bad time. As she says, “Evangelism is Mohler’s job description,” though often times Christians leaders do offer unconditional support, at least in the short term.

But I think that Grossman missed a pretty common nuance of speech in the Digital Age. In fact, I can appreciate her either not noticing this or just disagreeing that Mohler was employing it because I find the gimmick of “Dear ____” so annoying.

At least once a day I see a Facebook update from a friend that, more or less, begins “Dear super rude tool talking on your cell phone in the checkout at the grocery store, no one wants to hear about your super-duper important life.” Except for maybe in the instance of my most passive-aggressive friend, the aggrieved does not know the rude individual and certainly does not expect them to get the message.

Mohler’s tweet seems to be in that vein. It should come as no surprise that Mohler saw Weiner’s fall as a teachable moment. It’s also hard to imagine the same interpretation if Mohler had written on his blog something like “Weiner needs Jesus.” The difference here is just the gimmicky address of “Dear Congressman Weiner” and that Mohler used the 140-character confines of Twitter.

To me, it seems that Mohler was addressing his Christian followers on Twitter, but that he didn’t open with “Dear Christians” because he was trying to use that social media gimmick of “Dear ____” as a point of reference for his comment.

To be sure, I’m not saying that Grossman doesn’t get social media. (I also should disclaim that I graduated college just before UCLA got The Facebook.) She spends more time on Twitter and blogs more frequently than most any other mainstream religion reporter. I just think she misinterpreted Mohler on this one.

IMAGE: #weining on Zazzle

Insert conservative Christian cliche here

Maybe you’ve heard: Conservative Christian voters are going to be a big deal in the 2012 U.S. presidential election.

This isn’t really news. It’s be a reality for a few decades now, and it’s been heavily covered since the rise of George W. Bush. But is the role of conservative Christian voters — often mistakenly just called “evangelicals” — such old news that daily newspaper readers can be assumed to know all the background without it being spelled out?

For instance, this story from the Los Angeles Times gives an OK survey of how most of the Republican presidential candidates played at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington. But it never gets below the surface of how conservative Christians feel about these candidates and it doesn’t even explain why these candidates care.

Reporter Paul West’s lede is painfully weak:

Competition for the hearts and votes of Christian conservatives is as wide open as the broader 2012 Republican contest, if a two-day gathering of political activists is any indication.

And you’re five or six paragraphs into the story before you realize that there’s no nut graph here. Not unless you consider this meaningless quote from Ralph Reed to be a nut graph:

Social conservatives aren’t “any different from other primary voters. A huge number of them are just totally undecided,” said Ralph Reed, a longtime religious-right strategist who founded the sponsoring group, designed to bring evangelicals and “tea party” voters under the same tent.

Huh. See how “conservative Christians” became “social conservatives,” which became “evangelicals” — all without explanation. To be sure, there is a lot of overlap. But those are three distinct groups.

You might also be wondering what’s with the quotation marks around “tea party.” Bizarre. But, actually, you’ll find lots of one-off quoted words in this story. What I can’t tell is if they’re scare quotes or just a reporter being overly cautious. That reporter is Tribune Co’s national political correspondent for all its papers, so I wouldn’t really suspect the latter. And, to be honest, I can’t say I’m not scared by lots of aspects of the tea party movement. But back to the journalism …

A bright note in Paul West’s story is his depiction of how these candidates played to what we have to assume are the political interests of those political activists who attended this conference. (Folks like this guy.) Take for instance this section, starting with U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann:

Bachmann, expected to announce her presidential intentions this month in Iowa, repeatedly brought the crowd out of its chairs with a blend of red-meat rhetoric and autobiographical detail. She attacked Planned Parenthood as a “corrupt organization,” swore a tireless commitment to repeal of “Obamacare,” deplored what she claimed was Obama’s “shocking” betrayal of Israel, and finished up, eyes closed, with a two-minute prayer.

Also addressing the audience were former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who described the federal debt as a “moral tragedy,” and former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, who touted his record as an abortion foe and tax cutter while governor of Utah. Both are Mormons, which, according to a recent Pew Center opinion survey, puts them at a disadvantage in seeking support from white evangelical Protestants.

Huntsman, a day after leaving the event, said he planned to skip Iowa’s caucuses, where evangelical Christians cast as much as 60% of the vote. Romney has not committed to competing aggressively there either. That apparent skittishness led a prominent social conservative to question the sincerity of their appeals for evangelical support.

Interesting details. This is also as close as the story gets to explaining why anyone in this race cares about conservative Christians/social conservatives/evangelicals. But there is much more that could have been said. And, despite all we already know, I think that in this case it should have been.

IMAGE: Get the shirt at Zazzle

Big bucks, even in bankruptcy

We at GetReligion have had a few stories about the Los Angeles Times’ coverage of problems at the famed Crystal Cathedral since the church filed for bankruptcy.

Some good, some bad.

This post deals with both subjects but has little to do with the substance of the story.

Instead, it focuses on the questions raised by this paragraph toward the end of the story about the church’s efforts to survive bankruptcy restructuring. Reporter Nicole Santa Cruz writes:

A reorganized ministries leadership will be led by CEO Chief Executive Sheila Schuller Coleman, the founder’s daughter, whose salary will be set at just under $70,000 a year. The church will also hire a chief financial officer whose salary will be capped at $300,000 a year and tasked with overseeing revitalization of the church’s revenues.

Come again. The CFO can make how much?

I know they are accustomed to big salaries at Crystal Cathedral, but the fact that the CFO could make that much money is a bit shocking. Talk about a different kind of gospel of wealth.

To be sure, church ministry is an economic market, and the more desired one is, the more money they will command in the open market. (That’s the same argument for why university presidents can make more than half a million.) Maybe Crystal Cathedral needs a big gun running their finance department because only a big gun can work a miracle on their balance sheet and income statements.

But doesn’t that paragraph from the LAT story make you more than a little curious about why Crystal Cathedral could need to pay that much for a CFO? And what the going rate is for a megachurch CFO? And what religious considerations come into play when church officials make that kind of money?

One of the first things I learned when I joined my college paper and started attending journalism conferences was to enterprise stories by not just sourcing them out but sometimes reading them out. This is a perfect example.

Often, a great story will be hiding — in this case, not very well — in a few lines, maybe a few words, of a related story. By simply reading the news, reporters can find stories worth pursuing. Hopefully someone will see what I saw in this story and follow it up with a piece that answered a lot of the questions the LAT story raised about church compensation.