About Jim Davis

Members mourn Atlanta church; why don’t they talk?

Friendship Baptist ChurchWhen a congregation has to leave its church building, it’s like moving away from home. Members remember all the things that happened there. They think of fun and funny anecdotes, and the crises they weathered. They recall what the church meant to the community.

All that is even more intense when the church is 152 years old, as is Friendship Baptist Church in Atlanta. Which makes a New York Times story on its last service all the more puzzling.

The story has not a single quote from any longtime members, although it says that up to four generations of members were at the farewell service. It offers some appetizers on the church’s influence, but doesn’t serve the main course. And even after three readings, I didn’t see a clear reason the building was to be demolished.

Not that the story lacks some telling details. The lede paints Atlanta as a city so proud of its racial harmony that it neglects its heritage:

So it was perhaps not surprising that Friendship Baptist, the city’s oldest African-American Baptist church, founded by former slaves with help from whites and still thriving, found itself in the path of bulldozers that will raze the Georgia Dome as its replacement rises next door. The church is to be taken down, as early as Monday, 152 years after it was established.

Friendship, one of two churches whose multimillion dollar relocation/reconstruction tab will be covered by the city, is steeped in history. Two historically black colleges, Morehouse and Spelman, held classes in its basement, Morehouse moving into the church from Augusta in 1879 and Spelman starting there two years later. Trained musicians led the flock in song, with an emphasis on preserving old Negro spirituals. Nine other houses of prayer spun off Friendship, earning it the appellation “mother church.”

Kneeling at its pews were up to four generations of families; one longtime worshiper died recently at age 108. Prominent judges, politicians, educators and entrepreneurs attended, filling the collection baskets to the brim. (The church’s security guard said he saw a check for $50,000, someone’s annual tithe.)

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Portland, part II: Saving kids from ‘fundamentalist sect’

boybible02My colleague Bobby Ross Jr. picked the better article. As much fault as he found with a story in the Portland Oregonian about Child Evangelism Fellowship, the Associated Press version of the flap is even worse.

CEF does a lot of summer Bible programs, rather like those conducted by the nation’s thousands of churches. The difference is that the Fellowship does it outside church walls. That’s what got a group in Portland upset — and apparently the AP, as well.

As the AP sees it, CEF wants to “convert children as young as 5″ in places like “apartment pools and public parks other gathering spots this summer.” That’s “got some residents upset,” the story says:

They’ve banded together in recent weeks to warn parents about the Child Evangelism Fellowship’s Good News Club, buying a full-page ad in the local alternative weekly to highlight the group’s tactics.

“They pretend to be a mainstream Christian Bible study when in fact they’re a very old school fundamentalist sect,” said Kaye Schmitt, an organizer with Protect Portland Children, which takes issue with the group’s message and the way it’s delivering it.

Let’s pause for a little dissection. Besides asking how many is “some” residents — A hundred? Twenty? Five? — why use a military term like “tactics,” when something less pejorative like “methods” would suffice?

Then there’s the loaded phrase “very old school fundamentalist sect,” meant to make us readers go “DUN-dun-DUNNN!” Yes, it was a direct quote. But an alert reporter — not a mere recorder — would have asked for clarification: ” ‘Scuse, but what is a fundamentalist sect? And how does Child Evangelism Fellowship fit that category?”

And how does CEF pretend? It’s not like the group hides its motives. As its website says, CEF has been around since 1937 and says it reached more than 15.6 million children in 188 countries just last year. Doesn’t sound like some sneaky whatever.

On the other hand, AP is also lax in citing the other side …

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UCLA study literally tries to sell gay marriage in Texas

gay marriage 05Help gays marry and boost the economy: That’s one of the newest pitches in gay rights circles. A new story in Houston Chronicle says legalizing same-sex marriage could boost state income by $180 million over three years.

The thorny issues are explored in this reprint from the Texas Tribune, a non-profit journalistic think tank. The story is interesting, intelligent and mostly fair to conservative and liberal sources alike. But it does leave a few questions.

The news peg is a study by UCLA researchers. It “predicts that more than 23,000 same-sex couples in Texas would marry within three years if the state allowed them to,” the article says. According to the study, those 23,000 couples would add nearly $15 million in sales tax over three years. And if Texas beat neighboring Louisiana and Oklahoma, the state might reap even more.

It’s a clever tactic, especially for a state that has fought gay marriage at least since Texas passed a constitutional amendment against it in 2005. Here’s a pro-gay reaction from the story:

The report, which applies Texas population data to a model based on states where gay marriage has been legalized, provides a financial argument for same-sex marriage, said Kevin Nix, a spokesman for Freedom to Marry, a gay rights group.

“There is a fiscal component, and there is also a families component,” he said. “Allowing gay people to marry is actually a conservative value. It’s about limited government and it’s about stronger families.”

And lookit that: two paragraphs from the opposition. I like The Texas Tribune already.

Gay marriage opponents have a different view. Jonathan Saenz, executive director of the socially conservative group Texas Values, said the study used a model that wouldn’t apply to Texas.

“For 10 straight years, Texas has been ranked as the top state for business. It’s no surprise that Texas has also defined marriage as between one man and one woman in its constitution during these same 10 years, since 2005,” Saenz said. “California, a state that performs homosexual marriages, is ranked as one of the five worst states for business in 2014. Case closed.”

We then get a reply from Christy Mallory, one of the authors of the UCLA study. (Yep, The Texas Tribune did more than read and parrot a press release.) Mallory says that business ratings use a “variety of factors,” not just marriage.

Much of the rest of the article recaps the struggle in Texas: Legislators have stopped every effort to legalize same-sex marriage, but a federal judge in San Antonio ruled against the constitutional ban (but stayed the effect of his ruling).

An insightful paragraph:

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Study: Religious kids believe the Bible and other ‘fiction’

Is this Clutching at Straws Month? Because I don’t know how to dress or what to buy for it. I do know how to celebrate, though. Just publish a study that counters traditional beliefs. And don’t ask questions that might uncover flaws.

The latest example emerged this week in the July issue of Cognitive Science. Three researchers alleged that young children who are “exposed to religion” — gotta love that wording — have trouble telling fact from fiction.

This claim is in an appallingly brief, 291-word article in the Huffington Post — which, true to form, swallows and regurgitates the stuff without chewing. We’ll get to that in a bit.

First, here’s how it went down:

Researchers presented 5- and 6-year-old children from both public and parochial schools with three different types of stories — religious, fantastical and realistic — in an effort to gauge how well they could identify narratives with impossible elements as fictional.

The study found that, of the 66 participants, children who went to church or were enrolled in a parochial school were significantly less able than secular children to identify supernatural elements, such as talking animals, as fictional.

By relating seemingly impossible religious events achieved through divine intervention (e.g., Jesus transforming water into wine) to fictional narratives, religious children would more heavily rely on religion to justify their false categorizations.

“In both studies, [children exposed to religion] were less likely to judge the characters in the fantastical stories as pretend, and in line with this equivocation, they made more appeals to reality and fewer appeals to impossibility than did secular children,” the study concluded.

Now let’s dismantle this, starting with the sampling. I don’t often resort to italics, but c’mon — sixty-six subjects? I saw several times that many kids yesterday at one Vacation Bible School. A sampling of 66 children is pretty small for an attempt to generalize to all children.

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The Mosul purge: How good is the media coverage?

The purge of Christians from Mosul in northern Iraq — home to thriving Christian communities almost since biblical times — is a historic human rights abuse. Yet mainstream media have done comparatively little coverage on it, probably because they’re stretched thin with the twin stories of the airline shoot-down in Ukraine and Israel’s invasion of Gaza. Also, of course, the Islamic State is in no mood to allow access to the “kafir” media.

Still, some reports have emerged, and some are brave, sensitive and frank on what the Christians are suffering.

The New York Times is often tone-deaf on religion in the U.S., but the newspaper has distinguished itself in stories like this one. Tim Arango’s newsfeature opens with an anecdote on the loss shared by Iraqi Christians and many Muslims:

BAGHDAD — A day after Christians fled Mosul, the northern city controlled by Islamist extremists, under the threat of death, Muslims and Christians gathered under the same roof — a church roof — here on Sunday afternoon. By the time the piano player had finished the Iraqi national anthem, and before the prayers, Manhal Younis was crying.

“I can’t feel my identity as an Iraqi Christian,” she said, her three little daughters hanging at her side.

A Muslim woman sitting next to her in the pew reached out and whispered, “You are the true original people here, and we are sorry for what has been done to you in the name of Islam.”

The warm scene here was an unusual counterpoint to the wider story of Iraq’s unraveling, as Sunni militants with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria gain territory and persecute anyone who does not adhere to their harsh version of Islamic law. On Saturday, to meet a deadline by the ISIS militants, most Christians in Mosul, a community almost as old as Christianity itself, left with little more than the clothes they were wearing.

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Changing climate — of church views on the environment

USA Today has been eroding its standard of short, shallow stories. And for a complex newsfeature like its recent story on religion and global warming, that is an exceedingly good thing.

The article focuses on the effort to sell global warming to church people. Religion and the environment is an evergreen topic — I wrote a long feature on it more than a decade ago — but USA Today writer Gregg Zoroya takes the interesting tactic of leading with a rabbi in Kansas:

Rabbi Moti Rieber travels the politically red state of Kansas armed with the book of Genesis, a Psalm and even the words of Jesus to lecture church audiences, or sermonize if they’ll let him, about the threat of global warming.

“My feeling is that I’m the only person these people are ever going to see who’s going to look them in the eye and say, ‘There’s such a thing as climate change,’” Rieber says. “I’m trying to let them know it’s not irreligious to believe in climate change.”

He is at the vanguard of religious efforts — halting in some places, gathering speed elsewhere — to move the ecological discussion from its hot-button political and scientific moorings to one based on theological morality and the right thing to do.

An admiring nod not only to the canny rabbi, for combining verses from both testaments of the Bible, but also to Zoroya for grabbing our attention right from the lede.

The story does a great survey of the environmental wings in the various religious bodies, from Roman Catholic to Eastern Orthodox to United Methodist. Zoroya’s also touches base with veteran para-religious organizations, including the Evangelical Environmental Network and Yale’s Forum on Religion and Ecology. (He bobbles a bit, though, in mentioning an “Episcopalian” priest; it’s “Episcopal.”)

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Should Louisiana priest say what he heard in confession?

Dead men file no lawsuits. They also don’t defend themselves to TV reporters. And live priests don’t divulge what they hear in the confessional.

That frees news media like WBRZ-TV to pile on the bias without being sued or contradicted.

Rebecca Mayeux, 20, told the Baton Rouge station that she was molested when she was 14 by George Charlet Jr., a fellow parishioner at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church. She says she went three times about it to the pastor, Father Jeff Bayhi, only to be rebuffed. “This is your problem. Sweep it under the floor and get rid of it,” she says he told her.

When she finally told her parents, they hired a lawyer, but the case has been complicated by the sudden death of the alleged molester of a heart attack. That puts pressure on Bayhi to talk about what he heard during confession.

WBRZ’s so-called Investigative Unit totally takes Mayeux’s side. It paints her as “an intelligent college student in the prime of her life” and that “reading is one of her favorite hobbies” — as if she’d be less credible if she were old, dumb and illiterate.

Chris Nakamoto, the main inquisitor, er, reporter, switches between saying what happened “according to Mayeux” and assuming that it all happened as she says. He shows a picture of Mayeux and Charlet “during the time frame Charlet was sexually abusing her, and brainwashing her through what she says were emails and scripture.” Interestingly, the text version of the story softens that accusation to “when she claims Charlet was abusing her” (emphasis mine).

WBRZ tries a “gotcha” moment with a TV videoclip of a YouTube homily by Bayhi, in which he urges parents to take action when they learn their children are being hurt. The clip “appears to contradict what he told Rebecca Mayeux,” Nakamoto says, ignoring the other possibility: that it simply contradicts what Mayeux claims the priest would say in such a situation.

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For Cologne archbishop, Reuters emits a scent of bias

The new archbishop of Cologne, Germany, is all about gays.

At least it is, according to a Reuters story on the transfer of Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki there from Berlin. A full 203 of the story’s 430 words deal with what he thinks, or says, or what Reuters thinks he says, about homosexuality:

But Woekli surprised Berliners by saying he respected all people and would gladly meet with gay activists.

A year later, in 2012, he said: “If two homosexuals take responsibility for each other, if they are loyal to each other over the long term, then one should see this in the same way as heterosexual relations.”

Berlin’s Alliance against Homophobia nominated him for its Respect Prize that year, an honour he politely declined by saying it was normal for a Christian to respect all people so he should not receive an award for it.

Reuters starts with the ostensible theme of Woelki, a relatively young 58, as part of a “new generation” of bishops. Drawing their cue from a newspaper in Berlin, they characterize him as “not grumpy and dogmatic … these men speak of mercy and mean it. They’re open to people, even their critics, to a point and have a heart for the disadvantaged. Still, they’re theologically conservative.”

The newspaper may have especially liked Woelki because it disliked his former mentor, the (cliche alert!) “staunchly conservative” Cardinal Joachim Meisner. Still, the setup is a tantalizing appetizer.

So, where does Cologne’s new leader stand on the environment? Pollution and urbanization? Relations with Jews and Muslims? Clerical sexual abuse? Vatican fiscal reform? The aging ranks of nuns? The secularization of Europe? Refugee movements in Africa and Central America? The looming annihilation of Christianity in the Middle East?

Wellllllll, Reuters doesn’t get around to any of that. They’re too busy reading — perhaps reading into — Woelki’s attitude toward gays, and gays’ attitude toward him:

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