Jesus ‘too controversial’ for Silver Screen?

The Christian Post, which bills itself as “the largest Christian newspaper in the world featuring world,” is not known for original reporting. It’s certainly no Christianity Today in terms of journalistic quality. They are largely scrapers, rewriting the news as reported by other media outlets and appropriately given credit. It is, however, a decent clearinghouse for Christian news.

What is fascinating is that this isn’t always a bad thing. At least not when compared to an originally reported story as confusing and dull as this one from the Orange County Register.

The subject of the story was a commercial that Compass Bible Church made to attract people to its Easter service. The ad was rejected by a local movie theater because it was “too controversial” — a phrase that, even if it’s what the theater said, basically means nothing without specific details.

And the reader is not given a single detail until the sixth paragraph of a story that is only 12 paragraphs longs. Even that section is pretty muddled.

Turns out the video, which the church published on YouTube and you can watch above, flashes doubts about Jesus’ death and resurrection — “the disciples stole the body,” “perhaps the disciples hallucinated” — and asks “Did it Really Happen?”

This certainly doesn’t seem “controversial.” I mean, this is Orange County, the Land of Saddleback Church. Though I would find this ad to be a little odd before the showing of, say, “Hall Pass.” Still, it didn’t violate the guidelines Compass was given — basically no drug use and no sex, which might actually make this church ad controversial.

Anyway, the OC Register delivered these details and this story in the most circuitous manner possible. On the other hand, the Christian Post, while apparrantly borrowing all facts from ABC, delivers the news like an old pro in a story that is twice as long:

A pre-movie advertisement promoting an Easter church service was banned from local theaters because of its mention of Jesus.

Compass Bible Church in Aliso Viejo, Calif., created the 30-second ad to air for three weeks on 45 movie screens across Orange County starting April 1, paying more than $5,000, according to ABC.

The commercial posed questions about what some conspiracy theorists believed may have happened to Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago. Claims like “the disciples stole the body” and “Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross” were mentioned.

It asked moviegoers “Did it really happen?” And ended with “Why we actually believe in the resurrection.”

But the money was returned and the ad was pulled for its “controversial” material, mainly its mention of Jesus, and its failure to comply with specific guidelines set by National CineMedia.

By comparison, the OC Register story didn’t even mention the content of the ad until the paragraph that would have come after the last paragraph above. The Christian Post also didn’t make the mistake of referring to the ad as “too controversial” at first and offering no further details. The opening line of this story actually stated why theater execs thought the ad was controversial: its mention of Jesus.

What is the religion-reporting lesson here? I’m not sure. But I do know that if newspapers want to slow the loss of readers to Internet start-ups (the Christian Post was founded in 2000), they need to stop doing a worse job delivering the news.

Surprise! Jews pick Lutheran college

What makes a story newsworthy? Impact, relevance and timeliness are at the top of the list. But editors also love novelty.

Often this desire for man bites dog devolves an approval of the apparently curious. Why this is a problem — other than the fact that shrinking newshole is being devoted to what can be meaningless content — is that often these novel stories aren’t as odd as they seem. It’s just that the surface-level oddity tricks the reporter from digging a little deeper.

Without a question, I’ve made this mistake. And I think the Associated Press did it in this story about the large proportion of Jews comprising the population at a Lutheran liberal arts school. Here’s the lede:

One of the hottest college campuses in the U.S. for Jewish students is also one of the unlikeliest: a small Lutheran school erected around a soaring stone chapel with a cross on top.

In what is being called a testament to word of mouth in the Jewish community, approximately 34 percent of Muhlenberg College’s 2,200 students are Jewish. And the biggest gains have come in the past five years or so.

Perhaps equally noteworthy is how Muhlenberg has responded: offering a kosher menu at the student union, creating a partnership with the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and expanding its Hillel House, a social hub for Jews.

“What makes us stand out is that we actually enjoy our diversity,” said Randy Helm, the college’s president, an Episcopalian. “Our close-knit community has embraced differences rather than pulling into its shell or fracturing along religious, ethnic or other lines.”

So I guess we should also be surprised that Jewish students go to Princeton and that non-Jews go to Brandeis. Similarly, Chapman University, which is affiliated with the Disciples of Christ, offers a minor in gay and lesbian studies and I’ve been told by friends who attended that LGBT students have a large population.

Why would this surprise readers, or the reporter for that matter? Particularly with the mention that the college president is an Episcopalian and that the school as a broad ecumenical feel anyway. The story notes that this school is only tangentially connected to a church in Lutheran spectrum, without noting that is the more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The story also notes:

The campus chapel is used to this day for both worship and annual student convocations. But there are no required religion classes, and there is no mandatory church attendance.

Here’s another question: Would traditional LUTHERANS feel comfortable at this college?

At least in part, students with common interests and worldviews tend to end up at the same colleges for the same reasons that new U.S. immigrants settle in clustered communities: They may already know people there and they are likely to build a new social and communal network of like-minded people with common experiences.

That doesn’t mean the AP’s story isn’t interesting or newsworthy. In fact, I really enjoyed learning about Muhlenberg and how this community of Jewish students has swelled in recent years. But it’s not that unlikely.

Shiva Sisters: Jewish ritual without religion

The way this story from the Los Angeles Times opens, it gives the impression that the Shiva Sisters are like the Jewish mourning version of Batman & Robin.

They deal with death — specifically, Jewish mourning — with an only-in-L.A. panache. They arrange catering, equipment rentals and general assistance for after-funeral gatherings, including valet parking, video production, personal shopping and — there is no better way to say it — Jewish mothering.

“They kind of just swoop in and mother you,” said Michael Berman, Lee Weinstein’s partner of 30 years, who hired the Shiva Sisters on the advice of Rabbi Howard. “They’re not just planning a party and an event, but they’re compassionate and understanding at a time when people are grieving.”

It’s an interesting story from religion reporter Mitchell Landsberg, who does a nice job explaining what shiva means in Jewish tradition and in the Hebrew language.

The story also explains how the Shiva Sisters, Danna Black and Allison Moldo, whom I assume are Jewish but the story leaving ambiguous, help with Jewish rituals after the funeral. That is when they take over, primarily in organizing and overseeing a post-funeral catered affair. They don’t plan funerals; they don’t sit shiva. They deal with the “meal of consolation.”

Their name aside, the Shiva Sisters don’t usually have much to do with shiva, at least not in any traditional sense. Their clients tend to be people who are Jewish by birth, maybe by upbringing, but not usually by practice.

In L.A., Landsberg reports, that means Pizzaria Mozza more often than kugel.

The story does a good job generally, but it never really explains why “People who haven’t set foot in a synagogue in years want a Jewish funeral, with a rabbi presiding, and some kind of Jewish gathering afterward” when a loved one dies.

I don’t think there is a lot of mystery there. Being Jewish means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. (Obviously.) But it is an interesting issue, something that could have been further explored or at least explained to the reader in brief sentence or even appositional phrase.

I also was curious about how the gatherings organized by the Shiva Sisters would compare to similar gatherings organized for religious Jews. Landsberg notes that the rabbi touched on Jewish themes but did not say a prayer, not even the Kaddish prayer. That gives some perspective, but I would have liked a little more cross-denominational comparison.

IMAGE: The Shiva Sisters are not a part of Shiva Connect, an online service for mourning and sending condolences

Rob Bell latest: devil’s in the details

I’ve been fascinated by the Rob Bell no-one-goes-to-hell controversy, and I was particularly captured by this lede from the Associated Press:

When Chad Holtz lost his old belief in hell, he also lost his job.

The pastor of a rural United Methodist church in North Carolina wrote a note on his Facebook page supporting a new book by Rob Bell, a prominent young evangelical pastor and critic of the traditional view of hell as a place of eternal torment for billions of damned souls.

Two days later, Holtz was told complaints from church members prompted his dismissal from Marrow’s Chapel in Henderson.

The lede just doesn’t explain why Holtz would lose his job, at a United Methodist Church no less, for simply voicing support on Facebook for Bell’s book. It doesn’t say he was preaching that there is no hell, or beating people over head with it, or that he doesn’t believe hell is real. It merely quotes Holtz saying he doesn’t believe God would subject any of his people to “an eternity of torment.”

So I’m left to wonder why he was fired.

The pastor declined to discuss the situation with AP reporter Tom Breen, and I could sense from the start that Breen was writing around some ambiguity in the details. But this paragraph further down in the story casts real doubt on whether Holtz was fired simply because he “lost his old belief in hell.”

Church members had also been unhappy with Internet posts about subjects like gay marriage and the mix of religion and patriotism, Holtz said, and the hell post was probably the last straw. Holtz and his family plan to move back to Tennessee, where he’ll start a job and maybe plant a church.

Ahhhhhhh. So this was, as I suspected, likely about more than just supporting Rob Bell’s view of hell.

It had to be, as the inestimable Ann Rodgers noted in an insightful comment on Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s Facebook page:

Polity problem here. Unless there has been a change I don’t know about, a United Methodist pastor can’t be fired. He or she can only be removed by the bishop, and then is guaranteed another appointment somewhere. I would suspect that if the bishop moved so quickly after these complaints, that there might have been some previous controversy in the congregation.

The Sanctus blog, written by a former United Methodist minister, echoes Rodgers and goes all GetReligion on Breen’s story.

Under the normal procedure, Holtz would simply be sent to another church or, if worst came to worst, be given a desk job at the conference office. The fact that he is moving out of state and starting a new church is all the more evidence that this story is about a lot more than a Facebook post.

In short, Holtz couldn’t have been fired for supporting Bell’s concept of heaven and hell. He likey wouldn’t even have fired for his other views. There was a lot more to this story than what simply meets the eye.

That’s not necessarily the easiest thing for a reporter to see. After all, Breen is presumably not Methodist and even if he was he likely is unfamiliar with church polity; more importantly, the pastor has refused to speak with him and the subject of the story, Holtz, is the one who gets to frame his leaving the church as a firing.

One thing Breen could have done — it’s something I used to do when I had the time and when I was reporting on a religious issue that I wasn’t well-versed in — was consult with a third-party to see if what Holtz was saying made sense. This could be a Methodist scholar or simply an unassociated Methodist church leader or informed lay person.

That might seem like an unnecessary luxury when on deadline. But it’s no less so than double-checking names and titles, even if a little more time-consuming.

IMAGE: A little satire from Collideoscope

What hath the LAT wrought

We mentioned last week that people were trying to make sense of the tragedy in Japan. I noted that a few celebrities did a very bad job blaming the Japanese for angering God; the specific ESPN story I discussed broached but did not address the theodicy question.

This story from the Los Angeles Times tries to answer that question. Its structure reminds me of one I wrote for San Bernardino’s The Sun after Hurricane Katrina and the Sumatra tsunami. However, reporter Mitchell Landsberg doesn’t cast his net as wide, talking primarily to theological conservatives, and only from the Christian and Jewish traditions.

Overall, the story is a good read, and includes thought-provoking and insightful quotes like this one from Erik Thoennes, a Biola University theology professor and an EV Free pastor:

“Is God judging Japan?” he asked. “Well, no more than He’s judging me.”

Yet, this story was not without its problems. Unfortunately, they come at the beginning of the article and belie the foundation upon which the story was reported:

If there is a God, and if He (for the sake of convention) is all-powerful, what in God’s name was He thinking?

This is perhaps the oldest of theological questions — the one that may, in fact, explain the nearly universal human yearning for faith, what evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering calls “the belief instinct.” How can we explain the inexplicable? How can we make sense of suffering?

Atheists say we can explain life’s complexities through science, and that there is no meaning in suffering. It just is, and we should do our best to alleviate it.

Monotheists see it somewhat differently. Faith offers answers, if only the unsatisfying: “It’s a mystery.” But there is little consensus among the faithful.

Let’s take that graph by graph.

In the first paragraph, Landsberg is suggesting that God might not be a He, but that is completely irrelevant to, and distracting from, the topic at hand. More importantly, the early tone is way too cute for what should be a serious, even somber, story. Using God’s name in vain to question what He was thinking is pretty close to a pun, and every journalist knows those are to be avoided.

This second paragraph is a nice set up.

But it is oddly followed with a third paragraph about how atheists see suffering. This is a relevant perspective, but I don’t think it belongs right after a paragraph suggesting that inexplicable suffering gave rise to the idea of God.

In the fourth paragraph, I saw two major problems. One is that monotheists don’t see things “somewhat differently” than atheists. They see questions about God and suffering diametrically differently. And, two, is that monotheists don’t just say, “it’s a mystery so don’t worry about it.” They pine for explanation, which they often find in God’s greater plan. Further, Christians and Jews are far from the only monotheists, though they are the only ones whose views appear in this story.

A Sabbath for techies

Before Thursday night, my computer had not been shut down for over two weeks. I think it appreciated the last 70-or-so hours in hibernation. I know I appreciated being disconnected from it, though I did spoil anything resembling a technology fast by pulling my iPhone out of my pocket every five minutes.

Yes, I have a problem. But a lot of Americans, especially from my generation, do. We’re not so much addicted to technology as we are totally dependent on incessant connectivity.

A regular day of rest — a Sabbath for techies — won’t be a bad idea. In fact, someone already had it, as reported in Los Angeles Times story titled “A day of rests enters the Digital Age.”

The article by freelance journalist Nomi Morris focused on the National Day of Unplugging. The Sabbath from technology — smartphones, laptops, whatever else the kids are into these days — was organized by Reboot, an innovative nonprofit that tries to get Jewish to reconnect with the Jewish tradition in meaningful ways.

Though Reboot is non-denominational, its mission is largely built on the Reform doctrinal foundation that Jews are to be encouraged to follow Jewish tradition to the extent they find meaning in it. Morris’ article doesn’t mention that. Instead:

The day of unplugging, now in its second year, grew out of the nonprofit group’s Sabbath Manifesto, a list of 10 once-a-week principles rooted in the Judeo-Christian day of rest, but applicable to people of any faith or no faith at all.

The manifesto, a new take on the Sabbath tradition, asks participants to “avoid technology, connect with loved ones, nurture your health, get outside, avoid commerce, light candles, drink wine, eat bread, find silence and give back.”

A Sabbath Manifesto phone application, which people can use to alert friends and families that they will be offline, appeared in a Mercury News article that Sarah recently discussed in “Angry Birds app v. meditation app.” Morris’ story mentions a bit more about the Sabbath Manifesto app, and to some extent repeats the common stories about God on your iPhone. But it also includes interesting voices from people seeking to grow spiritually by unplugging occasionally.

For example, Courtney Holt, an executive at MySpace:

“I don’t feel a personal need to keep the Sabbath. I do feel a need to have a better connection with my family and disconnect with what I’m pressured with all week,” Holt said. “It’s to be a better person and father. That sounds Jewish to me, although an Orthodox person might disagree.”

Unfortunately, Morris doesn’t explain why Holt doesn’t feel a need to keep the Sabbath or why this act is meaningful to him, why he thinks it sounds Jewish or why an Orthodox person might disagree. Maybe it’s pretty obvious, but I don’t suspect that most LAT readers have the same knowledge of Judaism and Jewish culture.

To start, simply describing the type of Jew Holt generally identifies as — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, secular, other, etc. — would help. Otherwise, it is difficult to interpret why he, or the other voices that appear in this article, find meaning in unplugging.

Cappie’s vengeful God

Speaking of religion and tragedy in Japan, a lot of celebrities should have spoken a little less. In case you missed it, some people have said some stupid things about the tsunami. And some have dragged God into it.

Cappie Pondexter, a WNBA player, was one of those. On Saturday she tweeted: “What if God was tired of the way they treated their own people in there own country! Idk guys he makes no mistakes.”

She followed by using the racist term “jap” and saying: “u just never knw! They did pearl harbor so u can’t expect anything less.”

The ESPN story giving her apology is worth talking about. After providing the background, ESPN quoted Pondexter’s tweets apologizing. Of relevance, she said:

“I wanna apologize to anyone I may hurt or offended during this tragic time,” the tweet said. “I didn’t realize that my words could be interpreted in the manner which they were. People that knw me would tell u 1st hand I’m a very spiritual person and believe that everything, even disasters happen 4 a reason and that God will shouldn’t be questioned but this is a very sensitive subject at a very tragic time and I shouldn’t even have given a reason for the choice of words I used.

So that raised a big question — it’s actually one of the biggest questions about God. It’s the question of theodicy — a topic that comes up quite often in religion-news coverage and, thus, here at GetReligion. It almost deserves its own category in the archives.

As John Hagee learned, this is a tough, tough subject to deal with in the media. But it’s even tougher when the media totally ignores the issue.

ESPN’s response is weak at best. The reporter didn’t try to interpret what Pondexter was saying; he didn’t make any sort of inquiry into whether Christian theology supports Pondexter’s perspective.

He simply quoted a statement from the Anti-Defamation League that references God but mischaracterizes the premise of Pondexter’s statement. The ADL is an anti-discrimination advocacy organization, which is great, but Abe Foxman isn’t a Christian theologian.

So ESPN leaves readers with the impression that Pondexter’s perspective is offensive but presumably not out of touch with what all Christians believe. In fact, many, maybe even most, Christians don’t believe in a retributive God, and the reporter should have taken a moment to find that out and include it in this story.

Folks, that would have taken one or two telephone calls. Tops.

Altar boy patrolling the paint

Last week, the Oklahoma City Thunder got exactly what they needed to make a serious run at an NBA title: Kendrick Perkins, a defensive enforcer who was a critical piece of the Celtics’ 2008 championship team and is one of the scariest dudes in professional sports.

Jenni Carlson of The Oklahoman had the responsibility of introducing Perkins to OKC readers and Thunder fans with a profile that looked beyond the hardwood to Perkins’ hard life growing up poor in Beaumont, Texas.

Carlson is a sports writer — probably best known outside Oklahoma because Mike Gundy thinks what she writes is garbage — and I don’t know how much occasion she has had to write about religion. But Carlson latched onto Perkins’ days from 7th grade through high school when he became the “world’s tallest altar boy.”

It’s a feature of decent length, but the part that will be of specific interest to those who like stories about religion and sports is a little more than halfway down, after Carlson has introduced early on that Our Mother of Mercy Catholic Church was a critical and stabilizing force as Perkins grew big in his grandparents’ home:

Stand in the front yard of the lemon-yellow clapboard house on Glenwood Avenue, and you can see Ozen High School where Perkins would become a star. Stand in front of the main gym there, and you can see Our Mother of Mercy.

That became Perkins’ world.

The church was the axis. … [I]n seventh grade, he tried his hand at altar service and found a fit.

Over the next six years as Perkins became a superstar at Ozen and the basketball world was telling him how talented and great and special he was, he would go to Our Mother of Mercy and serve the church. Light candles. Carry incense. Hold books. Whatever the priest needed during Mass, he would do.

There are a few poorly chosen stereotypes in this story. Particularly odd for a story about a Catholic was this: “He’s no Holy Roller or Bible thumper either, but he knows what he believes.” I guess even Catholics in Texas are supposed to be fundamentalists.

But overall this is a nice story that gives warmth to a man who on the basketball court seems so cold. More importantly, Carlson saw a massive religion hook to Perkins’ story, and she didn’t let it become a ghost.

PHOTO: Perkins before he was traded from Boston, showing off that famous scowl, via Wikimedia Commons