Merry Christmas, Irv Sutley!

grinchAh, yes, fewer than two shopping days 48 hours left to fire your salvo in the 2009 Christmas wars! To that end, The New York Times has a colorful little report on an order to remove seasonal religious symbols displayed in a public building and California. Only this time, there was no cross, creche or menorah:

“I was turning around in the lobby, and I noticed the tree,” Mr. Sutley said. “And then, I noticed the angel.”

Mr. Sutley, an atheist, said he then went to the office of the county Board of Supervisors. “And there was a star,” he said.

Technically, neither stars nor angels belong to any particular religion. But to the mind of Mr. Sutley, 65, a veteran who has fought to keep religion out of public meetings and buildings, the symbolism was clear.

“For most people, a star atop a tree at this time of season represents the star of Bethlehem, which is a cult symbol, the cult being Christianity,” he said, adding that the government should be neutral on religion.

As a Christian, I happen to be extremely skeptical of civil religion — so I’m not altogether unsympathetic to those who want to draw strict lines between the state and religion. Though as pragmatic matter, I don’t often see the harm in letting community standards guide such decisions. But California holiday protester Irv Sutley’s objection to the use of stars seems to be really reaching. The Times gives us a bit of perspective:

Mr. Thomas cited a 1989 Supreme Court decision, Allegheny v. A.C.L.U., which stated that while Christmas trees could be seen as secular, they could also be seen as religious if decorated with religious symbols.

All of which pleased Mr. Sutley, who said he had found about a half-dozen other stars around the building in Santa Rosa. He said he found none in the social services department, in which he found a religious placard during the holidays last year. (It, too, was removed.)

But perhaps the most interesting thing about the article is how subtle, yet effective, it is in portraying Sutley as an insufferable busybody who patrols public buildings making sure they don’t offend his strict sensibilities. (Note the “All of which pleased Mr. Sutley…”) However, the reporter finally tips his hand a bit in the final graf:

Readers of The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, which first reported the county’s decision on Monday, were mostly naughty, not nice, in their comments. “I hope,” one reader wrote, “a reindeer runs Irv Sutley over.”

Now I’m not sure I entirely approve of the ethics involved in shading a story this way, but as a journalist I have to tell you this involves real skill and craft. If you can write a story such as this one that is so defensibly straightforward and still wink to the reader about what you really think — it’s impressive.

And finally, it’s worth highlighting the fact that the reporter here with the Christmas spirit is writing for The New York Times! I didn’t see that coming.

God and man at the box office

avatar-poster-neytiriNEWSFLASH: Sometimes movies deal with religion and, sometimes, lots and lots of Americans buy tickets to see them.

OK, so I didn’t exactly surprise anyone with that observation, but please forgive my sarcasm as I introduce this story by McClatchy reporter Robert Butler:

Seeing the might of the box office, Hollywood is finally getting religion

Call it religion. Or if that makes you uncomfortable, go with the more general “spirituality.”

Whatever you call it, it’s everywhere at the multiplex these days.

In movies as varied as the dead serious “The Road,” the uplifting family picture “The Blind Side,” the biting comedy “The Invention of Lying” and even James Cameron’s sci-fi opus “Avatar,” issues of faith and morality and mankind’s place in the universe are all the rage .

Not all of these movies embrace religion. Some question human gullibility. Some ask for evidence of a higher purpose in what often seems a random universe. But whether they encourage prayer or doubt, they’re all part of the zeitgeist.

But why now?

Yes — why now indeed. Are religious themes in movies suddenly more a part of the zeitgeist than usual?

Butler’s story never establishes any baseline showing that somehow religious topics and themes are invading the movies at an increased rate. In fact, here are the top 10 highest rated films of all-time over at IMDB:

RankRatingTitleVotes
1.9.1The Shawshank Redemption (1994)461,132
2.9.1The Godfather (1972)375,293
3.9.0The Godfather: Part II (1974)220,458
4.8.9Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo. (1966)139,267
5.8.9Pulp Fiction (1994)376,649
6.8.8Schindler’s List (1993)249,444
7.8.8One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)192,039
8.8.812 Angry Men (1957)101,765
9.8.8The Dark Knight (2008)408,773
10.8.8Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)254,283

Now by my count, seven of those movies over a span of 50+ years — Shawshank, The Godfather movies, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Schindler’s List, Pulp “And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee” Fiction and The Empire Strikes Back — have pretty explicit religious themes or references. And for what it’s worth, LOTR: The Return of the King is number 11. I imagine there might be religious angles to the rest of the top ten, but my memory of some of these films is a bit hazy. (I’m pretty sure that, like 95 percent of American’s who can claim to have seen 12 Angry Men, it was in high school and I was probably in the back of class reading Guitar World’s special “Grunge!” issue trying to avoid the teacher’s gaze.)

In any event, even if you do accept the premise, Butler defines the influence of religion pretty broadly. To wit:

Sister Pacette pointed to “Up in the Air,” in which George Clooney plays a loner whose job is to fire downsized employees and who has attempted to insulate himself from all human commitment.

“In some ways it’s a modern ‘Christmas Carol,’ with Clooney’s character becoming a bit more human, becoming more aware of himself and others.”

I haven’t seen Up in the Air yet, but it’s my understanding that it’s not particularly religious. And if any film where the protagonist faces a moral dilemma is somehow an example of how religion is inordinately influencing Hollywood these days, I think we’re casting way too wide a net. Now Butler does quote the proprietor of a site called HollywoodJesus.com who does think we’re seeing more faith-related films — but again, with no explanation of whether or why this is happening:

“Hollywood is all about cycles. This one will pass,” he said. “The films that really matter, that actually have something to say, are the indie titles that sneak into the Hollywood distribution system or make their way to home video or the film festivals.”

To be fair to Butler, there is some interesting discussion of Hollywood and religion and I’m pleased to see this topic getting any attention, so go read it for yourself. I just wish the article wasn’t framed with such a “Gee whiz, I just noticed this phenomena” approach — especially since some of the missed opportunities here are genuinely timely and novel. There’s just one mention each of Avatar and The Invention of Lying, and yet no corresponding mentions of Hinduism or atheism. A more in depth discussion of the unique religious themes in either movie would have done wonders for an otherwise casually interesting story.

If you want to get a better idea what I’m talking about, see National Review film critic, New York Times columnist and GetReligion interviewee Ross Douthat’s column yesterday on Avatar, wherein he argues:

But [Avatar is] not the Christian Gospel. Instead, “Avatar” is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world.

True, Douthat is an opinion columnist — but I think his penetrating piece could provide ideas for other journalists to follow-up on and provide some more trenchant reporting on religion in Hollywood.

On the banks of the Yamuna

yamunaThe Washington Post foreign service — which thankfully still exists – sent out this story on Thursday: “New Delhi’s filth continues to choke once-sacred Yamuna River.” It’s a very interesting and well-timed piece in light of all the talk this week at the U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen about getting better environmental controls in rapidly industrializing countries, particularly in China and India. The story does an excellent job illustrating the environmental problems and challenges in contemporary India. Can’t fault it there:

With his blue-gloved hands, Rizwan Ali lowered the forked dredging tool slowly into the foul-smelling river and pulled out rotting marigold garlands, shoes, plastic bags, decaying fabric, gooey industrial waste and broken bangles.

“This is the first time I have come to the river. It is black and full of filth. There are no fish. Is it a river or a drain?” Ali said, before turning to teach a group of children how to clean the Yamuna River, as part of a volunteer drive to revive New Delhi’s lifeline. “Because of our lifestyle and neglect, the river is breathing its last breath.”

But the headline refers to the “once-sacred” river. I thought we might get some interesting religious perspective; after all religion has a large role in shaping how people interact with the natural environment. Here’s what the Post says about that:

The relationship between the holy Yamuna River, said to be a manifestation of a Hindu goddess, and the Indian capital is a complex one. Most residents are aware of its plight but rarely visit the riverbank, except to make Hindu religious offerings during festivals and funerals.

Ok, not terribly specific. Later the story tells us this:

Almost all of India’s major rivers have suffered because of population growth, development, industrial and urban waste, as well as religious rituals in which residents toss flowers, fruits and coconuts into the water.

That’s all we get about how Hindus interact with their sacred rivers. Which is odd, because others seem to think religion is very important for understanding the pollution problems in India. I found River of love in an age of pollution: the Yamuna River of northern India by Indiana University Religious Studies Professor David L. Haberman on Google books. Allow me to quote from the first paragraph of the book on he says that the religious cultures of sacred rivers in India offer a unique avenue for approaching environmental restoration. The book is all about the overlap between religion and ecology.

Good concise info on the Yamuna river’s religious significance appears to be beyond the limited time I have to research it but, from what I’ve gathered, the God Krishna is often attached to the river. From The Book of Krishna (part of a larger Penguin series on Hindu Gods), I learned that “In the waters of the Yamuna as it flowed on the shores of Vrindavan, there was, so the lore goes, one viciously noxious pool.” The book then goes on to quote the Harivamsa’s description:

Even a God could scarcely have crossed it. The pool was deep and blank as a motionless sea. It’s surface burned with the brilliance of a bushfire. It’s stagnant depths were impenetrable, like the sky thick when with clouds. It was difficult to walk along its shore which was pitted by large snake holes. The air above was empty of birds. Fumes rose from the water like smoke from a putrid fire.

Eventually Krishna heroically dives into the “toxic waters” and subdues Kaliya, the five-headed king of the serpents that was living in the pool, eventually banishing him to the ocean. The incident greatly burnished Krishna’s legend.

This is but one important story relating to the river’s religious significance and it’s, uh, oozing with environmental symbolism. The Washington Post story admirably fulfills it’s primary purpose of describing environmental challenges in India, but I felt like feinting towards the fact the river is considered sacred — in the headline no less — fleshing out this aspect of the river’s cultural significance was a very big missed opportunity.

When “specifically” needs specificity

jesus-censusIt’s a cliche for a reason — sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. Suffice to say, I quickly understood what this Washington Post story was about before I even read it thanks to the picture included with the story (and reproduced here to the right). It’s about a poster produced by the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) and distributed to some 7,000 churches in an effort to get Hispanics to increase participation. As you can see, the poster has stirred a bit of controversy.

The story is perfunctory and does a fine job of noting the objections of religious leaders to the poster but it does a really bad job of summing up the nature of the controversy, which has a lot to do with whether illegal immigrants should participate in the census. In fact, the Post story doesn’t even mention the word “immigrant.” Aside from that, though, there were two religion-related things of note. The first is this:

Luke 2:1-4 says Jesus was born during a census ordered by Caesar Augustus. Although historians question the accuracy of the account, Luke stated that everyone had to return to his ancestral town to be registered for taxes and that Joseph and Mary left Nazareth for Bethlehem.

Emphasis mine. Really? I wonder whether that qualifying phrase is really all that necessary, but even so — what about the accuracy of the account is it that historians dispute? Jesus’ birth? That there was a census? That is was ordered by Caesar Augustus? That they had to return to Bethelem? That the purpose of the census was to register for taxes? The lack of specificity there is dismaying. And what about the historians that don’t question veracity of the account? Historians don’t think as a block, so either get specific about the objections of particular historians or at the very least write it as “Although some historians question…”

The other aspect of the story that seemed worth looking at was near the end where, after quotes from a number of religious leaders objecting to the poster, we get this:

Marcus Borg, a historical Jesus scholar at Oregon State University, said the narrative of Jesus’s birth is often used for secular purposes.

“Take Christmas cards, if they say, ‘Peace on Earth,’ and don’t say anything specifically Christian,” he said. “I can’t imagine why anyone would take issue with the poster on grounds of irreverence or blasphemy.”

What Borg says really demands some explanation and clarification. The assertion that the phrase “Peace on Earth” isn’t “specifically Christian” probably had a lot of people scratching their heads when they read that — starting with one of my colleagues. While the sentiment may seem universal, the phrase “peace on earth” as a Christmas wish comes from Luke chapter 2, already noted above as being a Nativity account: “And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” As to whether that Christian desire for peace on earth was meant is understood to be anodyne enough to be agreeable to all men, I can only quote Jesus himself in Luke 12:51: “Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division.”

To be fair, perhaps Borg meant to say that it wasn’t explicitly Christian, in that the phrase doesn’t mention Jesus or — at least when taken out of context — explicitly assert the primacy of the Christian faith over others and thus might be considered not especially offensive to non-Christians. On the other hand, I’m not sure what that would have to do with the poster, which is headlined “This is how Jesus was born.” The whole quote seems somewhat out of place. If Borg’s remarks are to be included, some context and clarification are in order.

Crouching Tiger, hidden ghosts

nailemIf I may indulge in an awful pun, Tiger ain’t out of the woods yet.

Aside from our unhealthy interest in the cover pictures of the New York Post’s latest documented bimbo eruption, I’ve noticed a bizarre phenomenon surrounding the Tiger Woods scandal. As a topic of discussion, a good many of us seem less concerned with the human tragedy involved and instead we’re trying to outdo everyone else in the office’s fantasy crisis public relations league, dreaming up ever more creative ways the famous golfer “needs to get out in front of the story more” before he loses even more sponsors and “damages his brand.”

(As you might expect, journalists have made a cottage industry out of this speculation about Woods’ endorsement career post-scandal — James Surowiecki’s column in the New Yorker on the economic impact of the Woods scandal is a pretty sophisticated example of what I’m talking about.)

I’ve been caught-up in these shallow conversations with friends and colleagues, only to walk away wondering after the fact whether the impulses behind these conversations are indications that we have a unhealthy cultural dialogue when it comes to sin and redemption.

This weird and increasingly prevalent desire to Monday morning quarterback celebrity scandal is the topic of Michael Hiltzik’s excellent Los Angeles Times column. The column has a fairly anodyne headline — “Tiger Woods’ path to redemption has been blazed by many who preceded him” — but Hiltzik has done some pretty interesting analysis here. Here’s the meat of it:

The comeback trail for Woods has been blazed by many who preceded him; in fact, it’s been obvious almost from the first.

What’s required is the public confessional. Fortunately, one thing our culture has in surfeit is public confessors.

My prediction is that Tiger will eventually go on a national TV program and confess all. Undoubtedly, he will have his pick of venues, all of which are probably already clamoring to offer him a platform on his terms. He need only settle on his preferred atmospherics.

He can talk to Oprah Winfrey if he wants nurturing commiseration. Larry King for a veneer of newsiness. Diane Sawyer for condescending solicitude. Matt Lauer for sensitive, manly contrition. Barbara Walters to display inner turmoil and personal growth.

The key is to produce a foundational narrative encompassing (a) the nature and scale of his offense (adultery); (b) the events of Nov. 27, with all the weird aspects credibly explained even if barely so (i.e., where was he going at 2:30 a.m. and what was his wife really doing with the golf club?); and (c) an apology.

If done right — and we must assume that Tiger is finally consulting with professionals — this procedure will accomplish some very important goals. It will allow him to deflect queries on the subject forever after, by referring questioners to the ur-narrative on videotape. It will satisfy the public’s demand that process be respected — give most people, at least, what pop psychologists like Oprah herself call “closure.”

If done right, it might even enable him to turn the tables on the curious by making them seem the churlish ones. By the way, whatever show he’s on will rack up the ratings of the season.

There are two things that are interesting here. One, Hiltzik breaks everything down with a precision and a matter-of-factness that I think are just spot on. And two, isn’t it striking how this narrative of the celebrity public apologia is almost the antithesis of religious narratives of redemption? Rather than measuring your failings against some objective standard and earnestly confessing your sins and apologizing to the people you have wronged, in Hiltzik’s narrative the whole point is to manipulate the construct by which you are judged. You choose your forum for confession on the basis of how flattering it is to you. And if you really succeed, you deflect future criticism by arguing that the greater crime is not your own sin but the willingness of others to cast judgment.

So yes, we all know the celebrity-industrial complex is morally bankrupt, but this really made me sit-up and notice how seriously, seriously messed up the celebrity redemption narrative is. I came to this realization in part because Hiltzik explains things very accurately, but also because his clinical tone is borderline unsettling:

As for his now-obligatory response, let’s not be too cynical about it. The machinery of the public apology has developed over decades, to the point where its moving parts are very well understood by practitioners and their audiences.

I agree that excess cynicism is a bad thing, but I’m not sure that we should blithely accept this amoral kabuki dance because a) we’re complicit in it to the point we understand its “moving parts” and b) Tiger Woods is just treading down a path “blazed by many who preceded him.”

The fact is that there is an alternative redemption narrative out there, and even Hiltzik can’t explain the Tiger Woods scandal without at least employing the language of religion — there’s a brief discussion about whether “transgression” is a “weasel-word” compared to confessing the specific sin of infidelity; there’s Tiger’s “path from perdition”; and much discussion over the meaning of the “public confessional.”

Now I hardly expect a full-blown theological discussion of the Tiger Woods scandal, but this story’s got more ghosts than an abandoned insane asylum built atop an Indian burial ground. The absence of this perspective is why the end of the column is so jarring:

The spectacle of Tiger Woods being tormented by scandal hasn’t been uplifting or edifying. It may be natural, but it isn’t civilized. Woods is a paragon of physical grace, hard work and athletic achievement, and the best outcome for him would be his speedy return to the tour.

The best outcome is a speedy return to the PGA Tour? Come again?

Granted we’re coming at things from a very specific perspective here at GetReligion, but in a better world I hope the best outcome involves saving Tiger Woods’ immortal soul and somehow making his family whole again.

High horse at Ground Zero

SlightContradictionGiven that 30 Rock has cemented its place as a critical darling*, I imagine this joke from last week’s episode was rather cutting:

Jenna: You’ve got to lie to her, coddle her, protect her from the real world.

Jack: I get it. Treat her like the New York Times treats its readers.

I didn’t expect to revisit the Islam vs. the West issue so soon, but it along comes the New York Times right on cue trying to protect its readers from the complexities of the real world.

But before I can get into discussing what’s wrong with wrong with “Muslim Prayers and Renewal Near Ground Zero” — let it be said that the most of the occupants of the Times newsroom really do know how to write. Here’s the lede:

On that still-quiet Tuesday morning, the sales staff was in a basement room eating breakfast, waiting to open the doors to the first shoppers at 10 a.m.

There was no immediate sign of the fiery cataclysm that erupted overhead starting at 8:46. But out of a baby-blue sky suddenly stained with smoke, a plane’s landing-gear assembly the size of a World War II torpedo crashed through the roof and down through two empty selling floors of the Burlington Coat Factory.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attack killed 2,752 people downtown and doomed the five-story building at 45 Park Place, two blocks north of the World Trade Center, keeping it abandoned for eight years.

But for months now, out of the public eye, an iron gate rises every Friday afternoon, and with the outside rumblings of construction at ground zero as a backdrop, hundreds of Muslims crowd inside, facing Mecca in prayer and listening to their imam read in Arabic from the Koran.

The building has no sign that hints at its use as a Muslim prayer space, but these modest beginnings point to a far grander vision: an Islamic center near the city’s most hallowed piece of land that would stand as one of ground zero’s more unexpected and striking neighbors.

The article goes on to discuss how Sufi Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is leading the drive to build the Islamic center because it “sends the opposite statement to what happened on 9/11″ and further quotes Faisal saying, “We want to push back against the extremists.” The article notes that FBI has praised Faisal for helping the law enforcement agency in its Muslim outreach. As far as Muslim leaders go, Imam Faisal seems like a relatively decent guy and I’m all for giving moderate, tolerant Muslims their due so media attention isn’t relentlessly focused on Islamic extremism.

But the article sort of unravels at the end. Here are the last two grafs:

Joy Levitt, executive director of the Jewish Community Center, said the group would be proud to be a model for Imam Feisal at ground zero. “For the J.C.C. to have partners in the Muslim community that share our vision of pluralism and tolerance would be great,” she said.

Mr. El-Gamal agreed. “What happened that day,” he said, “was not Islam.”

Despite the article being exceptionally well-written for the most part, it seems rather clumsy at the end. Would the Jewish Community Center agree that what happened on September 11 was not influenced by Islam? I highly doubt it.

And while that quote about September 11 not being Islam makes for a nice pat ending in keeping with the article’s emphasis on “renewal” — should an assertion like that really be let to stand without being challenged?

conflictFor instance, I did a bit of quick Googling and found this article about Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf from the Sydney Morning Herald:

“The Islamic method of waging war is not to kill innocent civilians. But it was Christians in World War II who bombed civilians in Dresden and Hiroshima, neither of which were military targets.”

Imam Feisal said the bombing in Madrid had made his message more urgent. He said there was an endless supply of angry young Muslim rebels prepared to die for their cause and there was no sign of the attacks ending unless there was a fundamental change in the world.

Imam Feisal, who argues for a Western style of Islam that promotes democracy and tolerance, said there could be little progress until the US acknowledged backing dictators and the US President gave an “America Culpa” speech to the Muslim world.

Whatever good Feisal may be doing, his views appear to be a lot more complex than the relentlessly upbeat and uncritical Times story would have you believe. Feisal’s comments here are kind of disingenuous and ahistorical; however controversial Hiroshima and Dresden might have been — it’s pretty hard to argue these regrettable episodes were motivated primarily by explicitly Christian impulses given all of the secular political baggage of World War II. And even if you do consider them atrocities, whatever American wrongdoing was committed here still has to be weighed relative to the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

Now let’s talk about the Islamic method of waging war. “The Mohammedan conquest of India,” wrote historian Will Durant in The Story of Civilization, “was probably the bloodiest story in history.” The 12th Century conflict was driven pretty explicitly by a desire to spread Islam, killed some 80 million Hindus — much of which amounted to the wholesale slaughter of innocents, and had zero to do with the pernicious influence of the West that Feisal claims is somehow responsible for turning what would otherwise be peaceful Muslims violent. Is this also not Islam? Obviously, I’m not saying Islam has to be inherently violent or the West hasn’t wronged Muslims, but would be nice if the story spoke honestly about what can be done to ease tensions between Muslims and the West without uncritically included double talk about the moral superiority of one religion.

Times reporters Ralph Blumenthal and Sharaf Mowjood really should have probably asked some more complex questions about what is motivating the construction of prayer center — but instead were too willing to buy into the symbolism of the story and take a lot of platitudes about tolerance from Imam Feisal and his associates at face value. While the development of Imam Feisal’s prayer center near Ground Zero may be encouraging on some level, the reality of the story is much more complex and less reassuring than the Times would have you believe.

*I swear I wrote this a few days ago, before I was mentioned by name on last night’s 30 Rock. Still have no idea why or how that happened, but can’t complain about being a pop culture reference.

A little less equivocation

elvis-shot-up-tv-792381I’m generally a bit frustrated with how the Western media covers Islam. Just this weekend I caught a bit of venerable PBS travel writer Rick Steeve’s special on Iran. Say what you want about that nation’s terrible government, Iran is a large and beautiful country. The scenes of mountains and ornate 17th Century domes looked pretty glorious in HD.

Then Steeves’ visited a mosque where he surveyed the scene and helpfully explained, “A seemingly innocuous yellow banner in the background proclaims ‘Death to Israel.’ This disturbing mix of politics and religion apparently results from a deep-seated resentment of Western culture imposed on their world.” So that’s why Arabs and Jews don’t get along! As I understand it, the Mideast was the picture of tranquility until Churchill started arbitrarily carving up borders and the West started hegemonically forcing corrupting cultural exports such as, say, penicillin down their throats.

Needless to say this provoked a response in me such that even absent fistfuls of barbiturates and a .45, I understood Elvis’ penchant for shooting televisions. With a new 50-inch plasma, it would be hard to miss.

Ok, ok — so I know things are more complicated in the Middle East than Rick Steeves’ rose-colored liberalism or any snarky response I might shout at the television. But I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like the Western media is making a serious error every time they twist themselves into pretzels trying to divorce Islamic religious thought from political violence in the name of being perceived as multicultural and tolerant. It happens a lot.

So, boy was I glad to see this story in the Los Angeles Times Monday morning: “U.S. sees homegrown Muslim extremism as rising threat.” The headline doesn’t candy coat the religious aspect of terrorism, but also notes that it is “extremism” — reinforcing the idea that obviously a very small faction of the world’s 1 billion+ Muslims represent a threat. It’s a very good story.

Further, the impetus behind the story is long overdue. When Major Nidal Malik Hasan went on his Ft. Hood shooting rampage, it frustrated me to no end that it seemed to take days before anyone remembered that Hasan’s attack was the second attack on American soldiers in the U.S. by a Muslim this year. (Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad’s attack which killed a soldier outside a recruiting station was the first.)

That said, here’s a minor but I think justifiably irritating quibble. Even with the connection between religion and terrorism made explicit by the article’s headline, why is it so hard for the Los Angeles Times to stop equivocating about the connection between Islamic extremism and violence?:

Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan — accused of killing 13 people in a Ft. Hood, Texas, shooting rampage last month — has apparently suffered emotional problems. But in interviews, officials and experts have also raised his Muslim beliefs as an alleged motive.

Let’s unpack this one sentence at a time. First, did Hasan have emotional problems? The better half did a great job unpacking that question and despite some erratic behavior, actual evidence he was emotionally disturbed is awfully scant so far. However, the Times is willing to say he had emotional problems in the absence of definitive evidence. But then they hedge their bets in saying “officials and experts” have “raised” the issue that his faith may have been an “alleged motive.”

And the thing is that whether or not Hasan’s faith may have played a role in the killing isn’t just a matter of conjecture. There’s pretty tangible — though perhaps not conclusive — evidence that it did. For instance, there’s Hasan’s communications with Anwar Awlaki — a former imam who’s wanted by Yemeni authorities because of suspected ties to Al Qaeda. Now to be fair, the Times does mention al-Awlaki, but it’s buried in the 25th graf of a 33 graf story. Here’s how they handle it:

In proportion to population, extremism still appears less intense in the United States. But the Internet functions as the global engine of extremism. Websites expose Americans to a wave of slick, English-language propaganda from ideologues such as Anwar Awlaki, the Yemeni American described as a spiritual guide for the accused Ft. Hood shooter and other Westerners.

As it happens, Awlaki is a former Imam so I suppose “spiritual guide” is a reasonably accurate way of describing him. However, Awlaki’s alleged Al Qaeda ties go unmentioned. Also unmentioned is that among the “other Westerners” he’s allegedly served as a “spiritual guide” for include three 9/11 hijackers. And notably, Awlaki called Hasan a “hero” after the shooting saying, “Nidal Hassan Did the Right Thing” on his blog. I feel like “ideologue” and “spiritual guide,” while not inaccurate, downplay the very well-founded suspicion that Awlaki could be an Al Qaeda recruiter. This soft-pedaling of well-reported facts about Awlaki denies the reader the opportunity to consider the evidence that Hasan may have been motivated by religious views.

That said, while I wish the article was a little more upfront in places about the connection between Islamic extremism and terrorist acts — through most of the article the connection is explicit enough. And it’s one of the very few mainstream media reports I’ve seen that tries to assess the causes of and potential threat of Islamic terrorism in a America. So for that, I commend the Times and author Sebastian Rotella on a job well-done.

Life and Death in the D

book-depositoryOne of the most dazzling high-wire acts in American journalism is Charlie LeDuff. Once upon a time, LeDuff was a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter. LeDuff was poised to breathe the rarefied air of the upper echelons for some time to come.

Then he threw it all away in 2007 and moved back to his hometown Detroit to write about the civic tragedy that unfolding there. Truth be told, I didn’t pay much attention to LeDuff prior to this — I knew him as a hotshot New York Times reporter who’d won his Pulitzer for participating in Howell Raines’ soporific Race in America series. (Even for the New York Times that series seemed to be less an example of quality journalism in the public interest than a craven attempt at winning a Pulitzer Prize. It worked, so I don’t know whether that justifies my cynicism or just confirms why I’ll never win a Pulitzer.)

Then Matt Labash — a casual acquaintance of mine and tragically underrated journalist in his own right — wrote an amazing piece on Detroit, “The City Where the Sirens Never Sleep.” Much of Labash’s piece centered on LeDuff and his largely unsung attempts to chronicle the city’s descent into Mad Max-ian absurdity:

One night over dinner, Charlie admits that he knows most people think he’s gone back to a dying newspaper in a dying town. But he feels he has work to do here. Not the kind of work that makes Gawker. Real work. He’s always wanted to write about “my people,” as he calls them — Detroiters in the hole — but he wasn’t ready before. Now he is. …

He says there has to be room for the kind of journalism “where it’s not a fetish, where it’s not blaxploitation, where you are actually a human being with a point of view. The city is full of good people, living next to [expletive].” But most media-types don’t bother to ask since they view those people as “dumb, uneducated, toothless rednecks. They’re ghetto-dwelling blacks. Right? They’re poor Mexicans. They’re a concept, not a people.”

Regardless of media-industry misfortunes, work lies before him. “God gave me something to do, and I’m not turning my back on it. I’m trying really hard. Maybe I’m not great. I’m always nervous, never sure if it’s any good. But I’m just trying. What’s wrong with trying?”

Suffice to say, I realized if I hadn’t paid attention to LeDuff before, it was imperative I do so now.

LeDuff and his body of work in Detroit has been nothing short of heroic. And I do mean heroic — LeDuff had to send his family out of town last month when he wrote this incredible story about a drug syndicate killing a murder witness. Obviously, much of what LeDuff covers is really, really tragic stuff, such as this story from last winter about a homeless man who dies frozen in a block of ice in an abandoned building. But while there’s no shortage of pathos among the wreckage of Detroit to exploit, LeDuff’s real talent as a writer lies in finding the humanity necessary to pull meaning out of despair.

So that’s a heck of a build-up. Why is this blog discussing LeDuff? Well, his latest story for the Detroit News, Detroit woman seeks resting place for grandchild’s ashes” is about a poor woman’s difficulties burying the dead members of her family.

Martha Ann Barnett’s 15-year-old granddaughter was killed in a drive-by in January of 2008. Since then her remains have been kept in a box, “inside the linen closet near the bathroom, above the rolls of toilet paper and dirty laundry.” Her grandmother is too poor to bury her. Not surprisingly, the story is going to touch on religion:

Barnett pays her rent with a Social Security check and lives with her infirm daughter — Little Martha’s mother — who shuffles in and out of the bedroom where Martha used to sleep, listening to a radio, occasionally going to the stove to light her cigarette. The first time I visited, she caught her hair on fire.

“I know my grandbaby’s in a better place,” Barnett said. “Absent from the body. Present with the Lord,” she said quoting the New Testament.

“But still I’d like to bury my little lamb proper. Return her to the dust from which he comes. Maybe near her granddaddy. Could you help me?”

I promised I would try to make some arrangement. No child deserves to die like Little Martha did. No child deserves to drift in death. It is Christmas, after all.

“I know I ain’t the only one who’s known pain,” Barnett said. “Lord knows I ain’t the only one.”

This isn’t a story that deals with complicated theological issues or delves deeply into the woman’s faith, but the religious elements are woven so smoothly into the piece it’s almost as if they’re grace notes — not in the metaphorical sense, but as actual examples of someone finding strength in God through their faith. I knew LeDuff was a great writer, but I walked away from this story thinking this man Gets Religion. Go read the rest — now.

*photo of Detroit’s abandoned public shool book depository — the same building where LeDuff found the frozen homeless man — taken from joguldi’s flickr page


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