Perfectly pedestrian polygamists

SecretStoryIf I were queen of the world, I’d forbid reporters from using any variation of the they’re just like you and me theme for stories. It’s bad enough when Us Weekly does it with a photo package of celebrities shopping and walking their dogs. But when mainstream reporters do it, it’s embarrassing.

Back when Big Love — HBO’s drama about attractive and perfectly pedestrian polygamists — debuted, critics all emphasized how normal their marriage seemed. And a recent New York Times article on gay parents and their reproductive donors forming multi-parent families also emphasized normalcy.

This style of reporting smacks of advocacy, which is one reason I oppose it. But it also betrays a lack of understanding about why some people oppose polygamy or various other lifestyle choices. Certainly people are troubled by the rampant child sexual abuse and abandonment of young males that plagues polygamous communities. But it’s possible to oppose polygamous marriage on principle and for far more nuanced and subtle reasons then thinking “them people sure are weird.”

Which brings us to a New York Times story by Lee Jenkins about a young basketball star whose parents are in a polygamous marriage. The well-written and interesting story ran in the sports section and began this way:

When the cheering section for Joe Darger is at full strength, it includes his father, his mother, his 18 siblings and his father’s other wife.

They wear red T-shirts, blow on red noisemakers and wave red pompoms. They appear no different from any other group in the U.N.L.V. family section — only larger and louder.

Really? I thought they would have horns and green skin!

College basketball has plenty of experience with nontraditional family structures: parents in jail, parents in shelters, parents missing entirely. Joe grew up with three parents in the house.

See, Darger’s experience is no different than anyone else’s! Are we getting the message yet?

“I know the kid really well, and I like him a lot,” said Rick Majerus, a former Utah coach, who recruited Joe in high school. “I met the family, and they were very nice people — certainly loved their son and cared about him.”

polygamyWhich surprised me, since I figured his parents loathed him.

John Darger is a 60-year-old real estate developer with bushy gray hair, a thin goatee and a deep singing voice. He grew up with 46 siblings. His father had several wives. Polygamy was passed down like a family heirloom.

When John met Carollee 32 years ago, he was a construction worker and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They were married in the Salt Lake Temple. For anniversaries, John still writes songs for Carollee.

John considers himself a Mormon, but he is no longer recognized as one. Because polygamy is illegal and the church renounced the practice more than a century ago, John said that he had been excommunicated. His children, however, remain active members of the church and have given no indication that they will practice polygamy.

See, they’re even more romantic than most couples! They’re not just normal — they’re better. I must mention that I appreciate the way the reporter concisely explained the polygamists’ relationship with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I also find it interesting that the children are active Mormons while the parents aren’t. For one thing I wonder how the children can be part of a church that condemns the polygamy of their very family and whether that causes any friction. Does this happen frequently where excommunicated Mormons have children in the church?

As Carollee relaxed on the beanbag chair, children came and went. Her sons cooked burritos. Her daughters gave each other massages. When polygamy was raised as a topic of conversation, they laughed. They say they think it is amusing that people are so fascinated by it.

“We are just people,” Carollee said. “We are normal people.”

Okay, we get it. Polygamists put their pants on one leg at a time. People with unorthodox marriages are normal. They’re less threatening than the Red Hat Society. It’s been beaten into me. I relent.

I feel a bit of regret for being so negative about this story. It’s a generally well-written feature on the sports page, and I’m sure most readers were just entertained by the novelty of it all.

But this “everyone is normal” theme is just overdone. Is it too much to ask for a new approach with stories about groups such as these? If everyone is normal, after all, then no one is newsworthy.

Congratulations! AP does fine

GorskiOne more than a few occasions we (I?) have highlighted the work of talented Denver Post religion reporter Eric Gorski.

He’s had quite the exciting few months recently as he’s broken stories about sexual infidelities of area pastors and written a fair-minded series on the shady finances of a local megachurch.

So it is with great pleasure that I read the following story today:

Eric Gorski, the religion writer for The Denver Post, has been named to cover the beat for The Associated Press. The appointment was announced Monday by AP National Editor Brian Toolan.

Gorski, 37, has worked the religion beat for nine years, first at The Gazette of Colorado Springs and then at the Post, where he began work in 2003. He twice has won major honors from the Religion Newswriters Association — the Supple Award for Religion Writer of the Year in all circulation categories and the Cornell Award for Religion Writer of the Year for mid-sized papers.

A 1992 graduate of the University of Kansas, Gorski also has reported for The Oregonian. Gorski, who will be based in Denver, replaces Richard N. Ostling, who retired last year. He will be teamed with Rachel Zoll, who has been based in New York covering religion since 2001.

Ostling has big shoes to fill, but Gorski is an excellent choice. I’m particularly pleased that he will be stationed in Denver rather than on one of the coasts. I believe the wonderful Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times is based there, as well. Must be something in the air.

We are family

parents understandMy husband and I are expecting a baby this August. During the AFC Championship Game in January, we were having a conversation with a friend who decided that if the baby is a boy, we should force him to become a football kicker. Our friend’s reasoning was that even relatively bad professional kickers make $400,000 a year. I told him to stop any such discussion because I hate it when parents force their children to fulfill the parents’ desires. Besides, I added, I want him to become a pastor.

The Wall Street Journal‘s Katherine Rosman had an interesting story about a different kind of relationship between parents and children. When children are more devout than their parents, relationships can get strained, she reports.

The parents of 16-year-old Kevin Ellstrand are self-described secular humanists who shun organized religion. Two years ago, Kevin says, he “started following Christ with all my heart.” He has taken a missionary trip to Mexico and participates in a weekly Bible study group.

In a time when many teens are having sex and taking drugs, his parents mostly consider his piety a blessing. They get upset, however, when Kevin explains that he doesn’t believe in evolution. “To me, this is appalling,” says his mother, Karen Byers, who has a doctorate in strategic management and was raised a Methodist. “We get into arguments, and voices get a little louder than they should.” Kevin says: “I don’t want my parents to go to hell for not believing in God. But that is what’s going to happen, and it really scares me.”

Rosman includes quite a few such stories about Christian, Jewish and Muslim youth. As far as the anecdotes go, the story is compelling. But her attempts to turn the reportage into a trend society are a bit disappointing:

While statistics on the number of devout young people are hard to come by, some groups that minister to the young report big gains. Young Life, an evangelical Christian ministry that focuses on children “disinterested” in religion, says more than 106,000 teens attended its programs on a weekly basis during the 2005-2006 school year, up from 66,362 12 years ago. “Mecca and Main Street,” a new book by Geneive Abdo, a senior analyst at the Gallup Organization’s Center for Muslim Studies, argues that a significant number of young U.S. Muslims are becoming substantially more devoted to Islam than their parents. In the Jewish community, a growing number of formerly secular young people are embracing an Orthodox lifestyle.

Rosman shows how some immigrant parents are particularly reticent to accept their children’s devotion. One Honduran immigrant is upset that her son is forgoing a psychology career for the Christian ministry because he promised her when he was a boy that he would support her. The son of Taiwanese immigrants was sent to Harvard with the expectation that he would become a corporate attorney. When he opted for Christian ministry his mother threatened to kill herself.

Holidays are particularly hard for families with different religious beliefs. Rosman looks at a secular Jewish family where one daughter became a Baal Teshuva (Hebrew for “master of return”). Rosman says that’s the name Orthodox Jews give to secular Jews who become observant:

Last year, Philip Ackerman of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and his wife wanted to take their three children and all of their grandchildren on a cruise to celebrate his 70th birthday. Among Mr. Ackerman’s children is Azriela Jaffe, who is a BT and the author of a book about how newly observant Jews can get along with their less-observant relatives, “What Do You Mean, You Can’t Eat in My Home?” Because the cruise ship didn’t offer kosher food, and the itinerary would require travel on the Jewish Sabbath, Mrs. Jaffe and her family declined the invitation.

The Jaffes celebrate Jewish holidays separately from their extended family because they aren’t observant. Secular holidays such as Thanksgiving are celebrated together when everyone travels to the Jaffes’ kosher home in Highland Park, N.J. “There is no compromise. It’s her way or the highway,” Mr. Ackerman said during a phone interview before abruptly hanging up at his wife’s urging.

Like every Wall Street Journal story I read, Rosman’s article is well written. The stories about Jewish, Christian and Muslim children interacting with their parents were all interesting in their own way. It made me wish that each religion could have had its own story. I know that there are similarities between each, but it would be nice to get an even deeper look into this understandable conflict.

A non-gimmicky religion story

p66 John 1 4In an interesting discussion on how religion reporters should handle self-identification when it’s contested, reader Chris Bolinger — a former stringer — made this comment:

As I have written before, what passes for acceptable journalism (or is even praised on this board as stellar journalism) for stories on religion would result in people getting fired if the stories were on sports. Stories on religion often treat readers as if they know little on the subject, whereas stories on sports understand that readers know quite a bit on the subject.

As a huge sports fan, I have to admit that I have become disenchanted with the popular notion that the best writing in newspapers happens on the sports page. They’re quite fun to read if you follow the sport and team in question, but if you don’t, the stories can be confusing or irrelevant. Frank DeFord is still pretty awesome though.

Anyway, I thought of Chris’ comment when I read a local religion story in the Birmingham Herald that is fantastic for its informative details, assumption that the reader isn’t an idiot, and compelling story line.

Reporter Greg Garrison explains how a local pastor helped the Vatican get valuable ancient manuscripts. Here’s how it begins:

It wasn’t exactly “The DaVinci Code,” but a Birmingham priest recently jetted around the world and helped deliver one of the most important documents in Christian history to the pope.

“It contains the oldest copy of the Lord’s Prayer in the world,” said St. Paul’s Cathedral Pastor Richard Donohoe.

Donohoe assisted in the Vatican Library’s acquisition of two rare pieces of papyrus, including the oldest surviving copy of the Gospel of Luke and one of the two oldest copies of the Gospel of John. They were handwritten by a scribe about 200 A.D. and found in Egypt in the 1950s.

Garrison explains how the documents were obtained from the Bodmer Library in Switzerland — with a bit of high-powered fundraising, armed guards and secret negotiations. He speaks with James Robinson, a scholar of ancient biblical documents currently serving at Auburn University. He says the purchase is the most important New Testament biblical manuscript to have survived. He explains that the Bodmer papyri are remarkably complete, too. Who says local stories aren’t exciting?:

They are written in clear, common Greek.

“It’s written in the archaic Koine, the Greek of the streets; that’s what the gospels were originally written in,” Donohoe said. “It’s very easily read. It’s in beautiful condition.”

They are commonly dated to between 175 and 225 A.D. They were able to survive so long because they were preserved in the dry climate of upper Egypt, like the Nag Hammadi artifacts and the Dead Sea Scrolls found in caves in the region.

“Scholars used to think we’d never find anything earlier than 300,” Robinson said.

I love how Garrison turned a basic human interest story about a priest on a mission into something educational and enlightening. Here was a particularly interesting tidbit:

Robinson believes that the documents are from the first Christian monastery, started near Dishna, Egypt, about 320 A.D. by St. Pachomia. Robinson went to Dishna in his research of the Nag Hammadi codices. Dishna is on the Nile River upstream from Nag Hammadi.

The Greek manuscripts date more than a century earlier than the monastery, he said. “These monks were Coptic-speaking,” he said. “How did all these Greek manuscripts get there?”

Robinson theorizes that St. Athanasius, patriarch of Alexandria, went into hiding at a Pachomian monastery during one of his many exiles from persecution and took books with him from the great library of Alexandria, which later burned.

The reader who passed this story on thought we might not be interested in it because it’s a good example of writing about religion. It seems a good idea to remind people that we consider highlighting good stories a fundamental part of this blog’s mission. I do note that our positive posts elicit far fewer remarks than our negative ones.

Why is she Catholic?

prochoicecatholicNew York Times religion reporter Neela Banerjee profiled Frances Kissling who is stepping down as president of Catholics for a Free Choice. The group, which she has been with for almost 30 years, supports abortion and artificial contraception. The Roman Catholic Church has different doctrines.

The headline — “Backing Abortion Rights While Keeping the Faith” — leaves a bit to be desired. As the article points out, Kissling believes she’s keeping the faith. But Catholics who support church teachings on the sanctity of life would certainly disagree. The headline shouldn’t take sides. Imagine if it said “Backing Abortion Rights While Losing the Faith.” At my newspaper we’re not allowed to say we don’t write the headlines since we can disapprove them. But I don’t know how that goes at the Times.

Most articles where the hook is someone leaving a leadership position are a bit fawning for my taste. I remember when Kate Michelman left NARAL Pro-Choice America least year and The Washington Post ran multiple tributes. I’m all for speaking well of the dead, but why must these pieces be so puffy while the subjects are still walking and talking?

Having said that, I actually thought Banerjee’s article was well-balanced and nicely written. Consider how she begins:

Frances Kissling has been called the “philosopher of the pro-choice movement” by her friends and an “abortion queen” by her critics.

But the name Ms. Kissling wears most defiantly, to the consternation of many religious believers, is Roman Catholic. For 25 years, as president of Catholics for a Free Choice, she has angered the church hierarchy and conservative Catholics by criticizing fundamental teachings on sex.

“I’m so Catholic, I can’t get away from it,” said Ms. Kissling, who was once in a convent. “How I construct concepts of life, of justice, it all comes out of being Catholic.”

Catholics for a Free Choice is a group with more political sway than Heathens for a Free Choice because people expect Catholics who emphasize their religion to support church teachings against abortion. A point of debate between Catholics who support church teachings on abortion and those who oppose them is whether it’s accurate for Kissling and her group to claim church affiliation.

Banerjee notes that the group is not well-known among lay Catholics and that it is supported mostly by large secular foundations. Here’s how she sets up the debate in the church surrounding the group:

On Wednesday, Ms. Kissling, 63, will step down from her post, relinquishing her role as one of the most vocal of the so-called bad Catholics, those who manage to accommodate the opposing sentiments of love for the church and anger at much of its doctrine.

“The constant refrain in this office is, ‘Are we really Catholic?’” Ms. Kissling said here in a recent interview. “I know with every ounce of my being that you don’t have to agree with the positions of the church on issues of abortion and contraception to be Catholic.”

Many Catholics passionately disagree. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued statements challenging the right of Catholics for a Free Choice to call itself Catholic. Critics dismiss Ms. Kissling’s organization as a mouthpiece for bigger, secular abortion rights groups and a front for anti-Catholic bigotry.

catholicprochoiceSo far we have Kissling saying that she’s so Catholic, she can’t get away from it, that she constructs concepts of life and justice out of being Catholic and that she doesn’t have to agree with the church about abortion in order to be Catholic. Later on we get other tidbits about Kissling. She is “unequivocal” in her distaste for the church hierarchy.

Yet she left the convent because she disagreed with church teachings on divorce and birth control. That was before she ran an abortion clinic in Pelham, New York. Then there’s this:

“There are days when I think I can’t be a Catholic and that I want to go join a community where I am welcomed, honored, where I can join a parish,” she said. “But in the end, I don’t want to be a Methodist. I’m a member of the greatest religion in the world.”

I love how much religion was included in this profile but I was surprised by the lack of substance in two parts. Considering Kissling’s lack of support for the church and some of its teachings, I wish the article had mentioned her reasons for wanting to stay in the church.

Further, I’m sure both Kissling and her critics in the church have reasons for their positions about whether she is Catholic. Beyond “I know with every ounce in my being that I’m Catholic,” that is. But substantive arguments aren’t mentioned. In the very last paragraph we learn that Kissling isn’t even a member of a parish. That would seem to support the church’s position. But what’s the response of Kissling and her cohorts?

I think it’s an important question to answer because it shows the very real and contentious limits of allowing people to self-identify. This goes double for groups and individuals who claim an affiliation with organizations they disagree with on key issues.

In their own words

TakeThisBreadWe tend to look at mainstream media religion reporters rather than mainstream media religion columnists, but there’s a new religion column in the San Francisco Chronicle that’s worth a look. David Ian Miller writes the column and he came to religion coverage quite recently, after covering city hall, personal finances and technology news. He decided to interview one person each week about their religion.

This week he spoke with Sara Miles, a local writer, lesbian and former restaurant cook. More interestingly, she was a “happy atheist” before converting to Christianity. Now she runs food banks for the hungry. A former editor at Mother Jones, she wrote a book (well designed jacket pictured) about her new life:

In your book you describe your conversion to Christianity as “terribly inconvenient.” How so?

It was inconvenient because I hadn’t been raised as a Christian. I had a lot of disdain for Christians, the sort of litany of complaints that people often make about the bigotry of the church, its narrow-mindedness, its collusion with empire, its willingness to impose its received wisdom on everybody else. This was particularly true for me as a woman and a gay person. And so I stayed away.

Conversion wasn’t what I was planning to have happen. I liked my life just fine. I wasn’t searching for a new one.

He has spoken with tattoo artist Madame Lazonga about her work’s religious implications, Indian untouchable Dharmachari Kumarjeev, who converted to Buddhism to escape the caste system, cemetery owner Tyler Cassity and Sady Hayashida, designer of the Berkeley Jodo Shinsu Center.

Miller’s questions are thought-provoking, resulting in interesting answers from each of his subjects. As the column develops, I hope that we see a wide variety of perspectives. I think a column such as this is one of the best ways to flesh out subtle differences within each religion.

Another thing I’ll be curious to see is how the column treats traditional Christianity. One of the things I’ve enjoyed thus far is the way that Miller seems to have a very sympathetic conversation with each of his subjects. Will that tone be maintained with a subject whose religious views are less acceptable in that community?

Miller shared a bit of the thinking behind his column when it began earlier in the month:

I realize this is a subject not frequently addressed in the mainstream media. Perhaps the old saying about religion not being fit for polite conversation still holds true in the popular consciousness, even as sex and politics have long ago shaken off their taboo status.

Yet, increasingly, it seems clear that spiritual matters form the subtext for much of what’s happening in America today, from your house to the White House.

With that in mind, I will make these conversations as personal and revealing as possible while getting to the heart of what people are thinking and feeling.

I rather think he’s succeeded thus far, and I look forward to future installments.

Keeping religion under wraps

amazinggraceshipAmazing Grace, an overdue tribute to British abolitionist William Wilberforce, opens nationwide today. The film is well worth seeing, particularly if you’re unfamiliar with the Wilberforce story. Like with almost every movie I see, I had some artistic quibbles with it. (And I’m not snooty: I’m hoping to see Reno 911 tonight.) But most surprising to me was how little religion was included in a movie about someone so religiously influenced. Charlotte Allen, who has the same problem, reviewed the film for The Wall Street Journal:

It is rare that a Hollywood film takes up a subject like William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the British parliamentarian who devoted nearly his entire 45-year political career to banning the British slave trade. Alas, a lot of people watching “Amazing Grace,” Michael Apted’s just-released film, may get the impression — perhaps deliberately fostered by Mr. Apted — that Wilberforce was a mostly secular humanitarian whose main passion was not Christian faith but politics and social justice. Along the way, they may also get the impression that the hymn “Amazing Grace” is no more than an uplifting piece of music that sounds especially rousing on the bagpipes.

Her whole essay is worth a read. Andrew Stuttaford hits some of the same points in his review for The New York Sun. But the film is getting good reviews, even from the people complaining about the lack of religion. A particularly good review can be found by Andrew Sarris in The New York Observer.

Earlier this week, GetReligion reader George Harper sent us a note about a New York Times article on the film. The article misstated William Wilberforce’s religious affiliation as Quaker. He was an Anglican with Methodist leanings. Harper twice contacted the Times about the error. Harper passed along the note he got back from article author Alan Riding:

I have just sent you a note plus a copy of a separate version of the story in the IHT [International Herald Tribune], which avoided this error. We will run a correction in the NYT. Thank you for pointing it out. Best wishes, Alan Riding

PS An editor at the IHT spotted this mistake — but no other reader but you has so far signalled it.

Harper, who notes the correction hasn’t run yet, says he’s surprised that other readers of this blog didn’t call the Times about the error.

It’s a good reminder that readers who criticize media reports should notify reporters of their concerns. The vast majority of reporters will work promptly to correct any errors or clarify any mistakes.

To dust you will return

ashesI always get a kick out of the way my friends and colleagues celebrate Mardi Gras with a fervor not seen since before the Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus. But mere hours later the liturgical calendar is forgotten. These devout observers of Shrove Tuesday can be heard telling the Christians they have “dirt on your forehead.”

The Montgomery Advertiser ran a quick Q&A for readers so that they could learn more about today’s holy day:

1. What is Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday is the day Lent begins in the Catholic faith. It occurs 40 days after Good Friday.

It is rather impressive for the reporter Darryn Simmons to include two errors within two sentences. Of course, Lent begins today for all Christians who follow the liturgical calendar, not just Roman Catholics. And it doesn’t occur 40 days after Good Friday but before. Other papers had some of the same confusion, thinking Ash Wednesday is only celebrated by Catholics. More than one story mentioned the interesting note that many Catholic churches have changed the recitation while marking foreheads from the Genesis verse (“For dust you are and to dust you will return”) to “Turn away from sin and believe the Gospel” or some variant thereof.

Many newspapers had good and interesting articles about Ash Wednesday. Jean Gordon with the Clarion-Ledger looked at how the day is observed in Methodism. Arizona Daily Star religion reporter Stephanie Innes had this delightful lede to her story on how the practice is celebrated in her region.

Probably my favorite story, headlined “Believers give up to grow up during Lent,” came from Newsday‘s Michael Amon, who spoke with various clergy about Lenten disciplines such as fasting and abstinence:

The Venerable Theodore Bean, an archdeacon for the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, made this remark in his monthly newsletter: “I hasten to point out that eating lobster ‘because it is not meat’ really rather defeats the purpose of Lenten abstinence.”

It’s a point about sacrifice that Long Island clergy say they have to make more often.

“We are a society of instant gratification,” Bean said in an interview. “We’re not a society that views giving up things and taking the long-term view as being good for us.”

The article includes an anecdote about a Roman Catholic priest who says his pre-Lenten programs designed to prepare people to sacrifice during Lent probably caused people to leave church.

“People don’t always like to hear about it,” Hanson said. “They want to have control, and sacrificing is giving up control.”

dustThe standard story explaining Ash Wednesday is good and necessary, but Amon really pushed the story forward and gave readers an even better understanding of the significance of the day and penitential season.

Los Angeles Times writer Francisco Vara-Orta took a spin on the traditional Ash Wednesday story by looking into how churches get their ashes. Traditionally churches keep palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebrations, burn them and mix them with oil. But that’s changing, Vara-Orta finds out:

Some churches abandoned the practice because of the fire danger. Some responded to air quality laws.

At Our Mother of Good Counsel Church, a parishioner who for years made the ashes for Ash Wednesday died in the 1980s — and so did the parish’s practice of burning fronds from the previous Palm Sunday for the centuries-old rite.

So Our Mother of Good Counsel, like churches all over the country, began ordering ashes from a church supply store. Some churches buy them in person, others on the Internet.

The lengthy article discusses the church supply store business and extent of selling ashes. The one thing I wanted was a bit more discussion about the propriety of the change. While Vara-Orta quoted some folks defending their decision to purchase the ashes, it might have been interesting to talk to someone who didn’t think it was such a good idea. But it’s still a great new angle on an ancient story.