The worst religion story of the year

While struggling to find words to adequately describe the worst religion article of the year, I was reminded of a brilliant exchange in an otherwise atrocious movie, Billy Madison.

Principal: Mr. Madison, what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

Billy Madison: Okay, a simple “wrong” would’ve done just fine.

While I’m sure I’m now dumber for having read the Daily News article, “Southern Baptists about to ‘plant’ a church in the fertile soil of Brooklyn,” I won’t say that it’s insanely idiotic or that it contains no rational thought. Instead, I’ll follow the lead of Billy Madison and simply say it’s wrong – wrong on almost every conceivable level. From the captions to the quotes, this article sets a new low in local religion reporting.

Like Alex Haley, I try to find the good and praise it. However, for this feature I had to settle for finding the least worst thing to praise: The headline is not as bad as it could have been. Yes, they put unnecessary scare quotes around “plant.” But they could have also put them around “Southern” or “fertile soil” too. So there’s that.

Then there is the photo caption placed below an image of a young family smiling and standing in front of the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center:

Southern Baptist proselytizers Jon and Bonnie Carr, and their two kids, Kayla and Emily love Jesus, but they also love New York, enjoying our parks and our pizza.

Carter’s Law of Religious Labels states, “Use a religious label a person would use to describe themselves and avoid using ones they would not.” Although it has not been written into the federal code or added to the AP stylebook (at least not yet), I think it is a rule that most journalists intuitively understand and apply. I’m not a betting man (I too am Southern Baptist and we’re not allowed to gamble) but if I were, I’d bet the Carrs have never in their life described themselves as “proselytizers.” In fact, I would double-down and bet that the three times the article uses that term (seriously, three times) is probably the first time the word has been applied to the Carr’s evangelistic efforts.

And that is only the second worst photo caption in the article.

The first is under an odd image of a man pressing his hands together:

Baptists are praying for us.

Wait, who is the “us” referring to? New Yorkers? Residents of Brooklyn? The people of “Gomorrah on the Hudson”? (Yes, the article actually uses that phrase in reference to New York City.)

By this point you may wish not to continue. I completely understand. So before we get to the actual text — the part with the actual reporting — I should warn you of what to expect. Imagine a parody article like you’d find in the The Onion, only without the wit, humor, satire, or intelligence. But also a straight-news story and not a parody. In a (sorta) real newspaper. That makes you feel dumber for having read it.

Okay, you’ve been warned. Here goes:
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Kudos for Quartz’s coverage of business and religion

“Business is religion, and religion is business,” said Maltbie Babcock. “The man who does not make a business of his religion has a religious life of no force, and the man who does not make a religion of his business has a business life of no character.”

While few people today would completely agree with the 19th-century Presbyterian preacher, business and religion are indeed closely tied together. This connection, though, remains largely unexamined by major media outlets. It’s refreshing to find, then, a new publication that has already done an impressive job of showing how to adequately cover the intersection of religion and business.

Quartz, a “digitally native news outlet” owned by the publisher of The Atlantic, bills itself as a site for “business people in the new global economy.” Recently, they ran an article explaining why Chrysler’s .Ram domain “might just offend a billion people.”

At the most recent meeting of the GAC in Durban last week, India again made clear (pdf) its discomfort with the idea of a .ram domain name. To many outside India, this is baffling. Why does India care about a line of pick-up trucks named for a male sheep?

The objection arises from an unfortunate homonym: Ram, pronounced with a long “a,” is also the name of one of Hinduism’s chief gods. “What if someone registers a domain name such as http://www.sex.ram? It could create a lot of communal tension in the country,” a government official told the Business Standard newspaper. India has argued that under the nation’s laws, trademarks can be denied if they stand to hurt religious sentiments.

The argument might sound disingenuous, but Indians often lose their collective sense of humor when it comes to matters of religion. Moreover, Ram is also a politically sensitive issue. In 1992, Hindu extremists destroyed a 16th-century mosque claiming that it was the birthplace of Lord Ram. The act led to weeks of Hindu-Muslim violence across India, resulting in the deaths of hundreds.

In three brief paragraphs, Leo Mirani puts the religious, business, and political implications in a helpful context for those of us unfamiliar with Eastern religious concerns.

Another Quartz feature, published on the same day as the .Ram article, explains how “Buddhist monks are buying into Thailand’s new religion: consumerism.”
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Snickering at FoxNews while getting duped by ‘Zealot’ author

Many of us who came of age during the birth of New Media are reflexively defensive about the medium’s journalistic credibility. We defy the outdated notion that real journalism is printed on paper or broadcast on TV screen. Quality journalism is as likely to be found on a blog as in a newspaper or in a web video as on a cable news channel.

At least that’s the theory.

The reality is that much of what passes for journalism on the Internet is substandard. A prime example can be found in both an interview on FoxNews.com online show Spirited Debate and the New Media responses to it.

Before we get to a clip of the show, let’s look at some of the reactions. The Atlantic Wire says the “whole ordeal was embarrassing for Fox News” while Buzzfeed called it “The Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done.” “This Fox interview with Reza Aslan is absolutely demented (& he handled it with remarkable calm)” said The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum on Twitter. Wired’’s Steve Silberman called the interview “embarrassing” and Digg editorial director David Weiner said, “Please, please watch this if you haven’t yet. It’s amazing.”

These critics are right about the interview — it is a mess. But while these New Media journalists were snickering at FoxNews.com, they failed to notice that the person being interviewed was pulling one over on them by getting away with misrepresenting his credentials.

Here is a representative clip from the segment.

The first question by host Lauren Green on why a Muslim would want to write about Jesus isn’t as out of line as the Fox critics seem to think. It’s a fair question — a softball question — that allows the interviewee to explain away any apparent bias. But Green should have moved on after asking it and not made Aslan’s religious background the primary focus of the interview. More importantly, if she had been better prepared she could have called Aslan out for at least one blatant and seemingly undeniable untruth.

After being asked the first question by Green, Aslan responds:

Well, to be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, and fluency in biblical Greek, who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades, who also just happens to be a Muslim. So it’s not that I’m just some Muslim writing about Jesus I am an expert with a PhD in the history of religions.” Later in the video he says it’s his job as a “professor of religion including the New Testament. That’s what I do for a living, actually.” And to make sure we get the point, he later adds, “I am a historian. I am a PhD in the history of religions.

At this point, Green should have stopped him and asked him to clarify since he appears to be misrepresenting his credentials.

For starters, he does not have a PhD in the history of religions. Aslan has four degrees: a Bachelors of Religious Studies from Santa Clara University; a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School; a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Iowa; and a PhD in sociology of religions from the University of California, Santa Barbara (his dissertation was on “Global Jihadism: a transnational social movement”).

Why would Aslan claim he has a PhD in history when his degree is in sociology? Does he not understand the difference between the two fields of study?

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NPR’s curiously biased quest for the historical Jesus

Did you know that Jesus wasn’t really God? Despite what his disciples claim, he never believed he was the Messiah, much less God incarnate. He was a merely a Jewish revolutionary that was crucified by the Roman Empire and later deified (quite literally) by people who really didn’t know him.

That’s not a new claim, of course, but it’s getting new attention because of a new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan. Many media outlets have covered the book or interviewed the author. But one of the most peculiar is an interview by Terry Gross on NPR:

Writer and scholar Reza Aslan was 15 years old when he found Jesus. His secular Muslim family had fled to the U.S. from Iran, and Aslan’s conversion was, in a sense, an adolescent’s attempt to fit into American life and culture. “My parents were certainly surprised,” Aslan tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross.

As Aslan got older, he began his studies in the history of Christianity, and he started to lose faith. He came to the realization that Jesus of Nazareth was quite different from the Messiah he’d been introduced to at church. “I became very angry,” he says. “I became resentful. I turned away from Christianity. I began to really reject the concept of Christ.”

But Aslan continued his Christian scholarship, and he found that he was increasingly interested in Jesus as a historical figure. The result is his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth — a historical look at Jesus in the context of his time and Jewish religion, and against the backdrop of the Roman Empire.

From that introduction you might get the impression that Aslan is a historian and an unbeliever, probably an agnostic or atheist. So you might be surprised to hear that Aslan is a devout Muslim and a professor of creative writing at University of California at Riverside. While Aslan has a PhD in sociology of religions, he is not a trained historian. Rather than a work of “Christian scholarship” the book is merely one Muslim’s opinion about the historical figure of Jesus.

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Can’t headline writers and reporters get on the same page?

We live in an age of unprecedented communications technology. With access to cell phones, Skype, email, Twitter, etc., it is has never been easier for people to communicate with one another. So why then is it so hard for reporters and headline writers to talk to each other?

Headlines that mislead or that do not fairly represent a writer’s article are a perennial problem. A recent, especially egregious example can be found in the U.K.’s The Telegraph. Here is the headline and subhead on an article by religious affairs editor John Bingham:

Religion told to halt weddings over gay rights

The future of traditional Indian weddings in Britain is in doubt because of the fallout from gay marriage passing into law, it has emerged.

An entire category of human experience – “religion” — is told to halt weddings? By whom? And if the headline is intended to refer to a specific religion, why not just say so?

Perhaps the subhead is intended to provide a clue by mentioning “traditional Indian weddings.” But that doesn’t really narrow it down since India is the birthplace of four of the world’s major religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism.

It’s advisable to never use a nationality as a stand-in for any religion, but since the headline does, can we assume it’s a reference to Hinduism? Since Hindus account for 80 percent of the population of India that must be the religion that holds “traditional Indian weddings,” right? Well, no. This article is about Sikhism, which is not only a minority religion in the U.K. (accounting for only 0.8 percent of the population) but is a minority religion in India too (only 1.9 percent of Indians are Sikhs).

Aside from the confusing and grammatically suspect headline (what does “it has emerged” even mean?), the article itself does a commendable job of reporting on the controversy without editorializing:

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The AP discovers the Christian hipster pastor

Does your pastor wear v-neck shirts, have tattoos on both forearms, and ride a fixed-gear bike? Is the building where you go to church on Sunday morning a tavern/microbrewery on Saturday night? Are the communion wafer at your church gluten-free?

Probably not, because you (i.e., the typical GetReligion reader) are old and no longer cool. But if you hang around with young evangelicals long enough, you’ll recognize the tropes associated with “hipster Christianity.” Although hipster churches have been around a long time, they’ve only recently begun to develop into the pinnacle of evangelical ecclesiological success, the megachurch.

Yesterday, the AP wrote a profile about the pastor of one of the fastest growing megachurches in America, a congregation located at the heart of the Hipster Kingdom: New York City.

Carl Lentz is not your typical pastor.

Along with his half shaved head and slicked back Mohawk, he’s dressed in his usual Sunday attire: black jeans and an unbuttoned denim shirt with a tank top underneath. His tattooed arms, including one with two guns crossed, peek out from under his rolled-up sleeves.

There seems to be a missing adjective between “typical” and “pastor.” Typical compared to what? The typical Baptist pastor is typically different than the typical Episcopalian, Catholic, or Unitarian pastor. And while Lentz’s style of dress may not be typical of most evangelical pastors, it’s not all that different from many typical evangelical worship leaders or youth pastors. It’s also rather typical (or at least fits the stereotype) of many hipster pastors in urban areas.

While the article is brief and focused mainly on Lentz, it does a decent job of putting Hillsong Church in context of a broader trend. For instance:

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Gay rights, street preachers, and narrative preferences

When I was 12-years-old I developed an unhealthy addiction to Choose Your Own Adventure novels. Perhaps due to my own lack of imagination, I became hooked on the books where an author would frame a story in which I was the hero. (In case you’re too old or too young to remember this Gen-X genre favorite: each story is written from a second-person point of view, with the reader assuming the role of the protagonist and making choices that determine the main character’s actions and the plot’s outcome.) Although each book could have up to forty possible endings — some were “good” (e.g., I save the day) and some “bad” (e.g., I die an ignoble death) — the only endings I considered to be “real” were the ones that aligned with what I’d call my “narrative preference” (i.e., I’m a hero).

Now that I’m all grown up, my taste in books have changed, but my bias toward my narrative preferences remains firmly intact. As an editor at a small town newspaper, I found myself framing stories that fit the preferred narrative I had about my local area. Crime stories were treated as deviations from the norm, while heroic actions were presented as every day occurrences among noble citizens. That more people were likely to be mugged than saved from drowning was a fact I never let impose on my preferred “reality.”

Narrative preference is one of the common biases of journalists – and one of the most difficult for us to recognize. When we are accused of being “politically biased” we often scoff and point to our nonpartisan treatment of the issues. But that often misses the point, for it is not the politics that we are being criticized for, but for having narrative preference that differs from our critics.

Take, for example, a recent incident in Seattle, Washington in which two street preachers are assaulted at a gay pride rally. Here is the report by local ABC affiliate, KOMO 4.

If you haven’t heard about this story, it’s because it did not make the national news. But should it have? Normally, I would say that is was just a local crime story. But Denny Burk, associate professor of Biblical studies at Boyce College, raises an interesting question:

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What The Economist Gets Wrong About Calvinist Baptists

Image source: Christian Post

Today is the 504th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin (July 10, 1509) — and the 497th anniversary of misunderstanding Calvinists.

To commemorate the event, let’s look at a recent notable example provided by The Economist. The article is out-datedly titled, “Dippers divided” and the subhead is “Where evangelicals disagree.” Where evangelicals disagree, apparently, is on whether to maintain,

the “theocon” alliance in American politics between Catholics and evangelicals, who have set aside their doctrinal differences (over the Virgin Mary, for example) to take a joint stand against abortion and in favour of the traditional family.

What could be causing the rift between Catholics and evangelicals. According to The Economist, the alleged culprit is Calvinists in the Southern Baptist denomination.

. . . the effectiveness of the Catholic-evangelical axis may be compromised by a deepening ideological fissure within the evangelical camp; or more specifically within America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, which has about 16m members.

Broadly speaking, the difference is over whether Jesus Christ died to save mankind as a whole, or sacrificed himself only for a particular group of human beings, the elect, whom God had chosen in advance. The latter view is associated with John Calvin, the French reformer of the 16th century; critics find it too fatalistic, and inconsistent with the idea of a loving God. Taken to its logical extreme, some say, Calvinism can lead to an introverted, exclusive mindset: if most of humanity is irrevocably damned, what’s the point of engaging with the world?

Who is this “some” who “say?” Probably the same “some” who claim that premillennial dispensationalists (who are rarely, if ever, Calvinists) also believe that if most of humanity is irrevocably damned (see: the Left Behind novels), there is no point of engaging with the world. Of course, these same groups — Calvinists and dispensationalists — are frequently portrayed as also wanting to create a theocracy in America, so who knows what to believe. The “some” have a tendency to “say” contradictory things.

The Economist adds,

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