This is how it’s done

prosperity fishAs I mentioned earlier this week, I finally got a chance to read the Time cover story on the Prosperity Gospel. I’m sorry to be so late in analyzing the piece, but I heartily encourage you to read it.

The article is conversational and engaging as it digs deep into theological nuances and doctrinal distinctions. Unlike most newsweekly coverage of religious issues, the focus is theology rather than social or political impact. My mouth actually dropped open a few times as I read David Van Biema and Jeff Chu boldly characterize complex theological views. For instance, after letting each side in the “Does God Want You To Be Rich?” debate defend themselves and criticize opposite views, here’s how the two authors sum up the issue:

As with almost any important religious question, the first response of most Christians (especially Protestants) is to ask how Scripture treats the topic. But Scripture is not definitive when it comes to faith and income. Deuteronomy commands believers to “remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth”, and the rest of the Old Testament is dotted with celebrations of God’s bestowal of the good life. On at least one occasion — the so-called parable of the talents (a type of coin) — Jesus holds up savvy business practice (investing rather than saving) as a metaphor for spiritual practice. Yet he spent far more time among the poor than the rich, and a majority of scholars quote two of his most direct comments on wealth: the passage in the Sermon on the Mount in which he warns, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth … but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven”; and his encounter with the “rich young ruler” who cannot bring himself to part with his money, after which Jesus famously comments, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Both statements can be read as more nuanced than they at first may seem. In each case it is not wealth itself that disqualifies but the inability to understand its relative worthlessness compared with the riches of heaven. The same thing applies to Paul’s famous line, “Money is the root of all evil,” in his first letter to Timothy. The actual quote is, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

So the Bible leaves plenty of room for a discussion on the role, positive or negative, that money should play in the lives of believers. But it’s not a discussion that many pastors are willing to have.

When was the last time you read a mainstream media report that characterizes Scripture as well as that? It’s a fantastically difficult trick to fairly and accurately discuss something as contentious as interpretations of Scripture’s view of wealth, and yet I think they did it very well.

After a colorful description of Joel Osteen’s sermons, theology and crocodile-leather shoes, Biema and Chu provide some needed analysis about how prosperity preaching has changed over time. They also spend hundreds of words looking at fine theological distinctions among Protestants. One of my favorite parts was that they quoted religious leaders and scholars I’d rarely seen in mainstream media before — and lots of them. Again, look at how the two reporters get what bothers prosperity teaching’s critics:

Most unnerving for Osteen’s critics is the suspicion that they are fighting not just one idiosyncratic misreading of the gospel but something more daunting: the latest lurch in Protestantism’s ongoing descent into full-blown American materialism. After the eclipse of Calvinist Puritanism, whose respect for money was counterbalanced by a horror of worldliness, much of Protestantism quietly adopted the idea that “you don’t have to give up the American Dream. You just see it as a sign of God’s blessing,” says Edith Blumhofer, director of Wheaton College’s Center for the Study of American Evangelicals. Indeed, a last-gasp resistance to this embrace of wealth and comfort can be observed in the current evangelical brawl over whether comfortable megachurches (like Osteen’s and [Rick] Warren’s) with pumped-up day-care centers and high-tech amenities represent a slide from glorifying an all-powerful God to asking what custom color you would prefer he paint your pews. “The tragedy is that Christianity has become a yes-man for the culture,” says Boston University’s [Stephen] Prothero.

One reader did send along this critique, but I think it’s a remarkable piece. By doing such a good job of characterizing doctrinal distinctions, the authors highlight the barrenness the religious coverage in the current media landscape. Let’s hope they’re working on their next cover story already.

Disclosure: Though I’ve only met him once, I should mention that coauthor Jeff Chu and I were in the same class of Phillips Foundation journalism fellows.

Prosperity fish decal via The Door.

Why not hire O.J. as the crime reporter?

simonand garfunkelIf you had a reporter who was an abortion-rights activist, spoke publicly against religious conservatives and George Bush, and wept openly at a recent Simon and Garfunkel concert, what beat would you assign her?

Certainly not music — and certainly not the Supreme Court, right?

Think again. The New York Times has no problem at all with keeping Linda Greenhouse in just that plum beat.

Ever since she marched in a 1989 abortion-rights rally, readers who don’t share her political opinions have questioned Greenhouse’s coverage of politically divisive court rulings.

NPR’s awesomely named David Folkenflik had a fascinating story on All Things Considered that raises new issues arising from a June speech Greenhouse gave at Harvard:

Greenhouse went on to charge that since then, the U.S. government had “turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and toward creating law-free zones at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha and other places around the world — [such as] the U.S. Congress.”

She also observed a “sustained assault on women’s reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism. To say that these last few years have been dispiriting is an understatement.”

A few weeks after that speech, the Supreme Court knocked down some of the government’s assertion of executive powers involving detainees at Guantanamo. And the court will soon hear arguments in an abortion case.

I think it’s interesting that this speech was given in June to 800 people and the first most anyone has heard about it is months later. Greenhouse’s political biases aren’t exactly hidden, but it is also surprising that she’s this open about her leftist views.

I noted problems Greenhouse had in covering a January abortion ruling, but her personal biases aren’t necessarily reflected in her coverage.

Still, it’s hard to imagine a reporter with similarly extreme conservative views having such a plum position at the Times or winning a Pulitzer.

Folkenflik’s piece had a few other great nuggets:

Sandy Rowe, editor of the Oregonian and a past chairwoman of the executive committee of the Pulitzer Prize board. Rowe praises Greenhouse’s work — but questions her judgment.

“If she or any other reporter stakes out a strong position on an issue that is still evolving both in society and before the courts, yes, I think that is problematic,” Rowe says.

Greenhouse tells NPR, “I said what I said in a public place. Let the chips fall where they may.”

Again, can anyone imagine where the chips would fall for a New York Times Supreme Court reporter who equated abortion to murder?

Jack Nelson, former Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, blanches at hearing of Greenhouse’s remarks, but agrees with her tough critique of the White House.

“If I was the Washington bureau chief and she was my Supreme Court reporter, I might have to answer to the editors in L.A. for that,” Nelson says. “But I would do my best to support her.”

Asked if he would defend Greenhouse had she said something he disagreed with, however, Nelson laughed — and said he would take issue if she had backed Bush policy.

What is Jack Nelson thinking? He would support reporters who expressed one bias but not another? People who’ve read surveys of reporters personal political views aren’t necessarily surprised by such statements, but shouldn’t these people be keeping these things secret?

Anyway, great story idea. It will be interesting to see if Times editors take any action here.

Purpose-driven response

Rickwarren 01Well, friends, I am back from my honeymoon. I have declared it the Best Honeymoon in the History of the World — but I don’t have much to compare it to. Tanned, rested and ready, I am. And married. And operating under a new name. So many changes.

Please bear with me as I get back up to speed on media coverage of religion. You’ll be pleased to know I had the chance to read the entire Time cover story on the Prosperity Gospel while away, so I look forward to highlighting that.

In the meantime, I have to share my favorite comment received in response to a recent posting on a Wall Street Journal story about Rick Warren’s church growth methodology:

RICK WARREN’S COMMENT
I hate to spoil the party, but the Wall Street Journal article was filled with errors and incorrect statements. Actually there were too many errors to mention all of them.

Journalist are often rushed, so instead of taking the time to fact check everything, the repeat things they read from previously printed articles, without bothering to confirm if it was actually true. So errors get repeated.

For the record:
1. I have never encouraged any pastor to kick out any member of any church. In fact, in the Purpose Driven Church training, we teach the EAXCT OPPOSITE. Leaders must love everyone in the flock and lead them gently. The premis of the entire article was absurd in this respect.

2. I have never taught any pastors to “remove the pews” or any of the other claims mentioned. My staff got a real laugh out of that

3. I have never “preached in sandals” in 26 years as a pastor. Anyone who has attended Saddleback would know that. But the WSJ reporter read that error somewhere and didn’t check it.

4. Over 400,000 pastors worldwide have taken the Purpose Drive Church training over the past 26 years. resulting in tens of thousands of testimony letters about the positive effects.

This article tried to make a “TREND” out of 3 or 4 failures at implimentation. Anecdotes are not trends. How about the hundreds of thousands of healthy churches on the other side of the scale?

5. A failure at implimentation does not mean a failure of the concept. It’s just poor leadership.

I could go on, but people believe what they want to believe. rick warren

Particularly in light of the spelling and grammatical errors, I wasn’t sure it was really Rick Warren. But the IP address checks out, for what it’s worth.

I thought Suzanne Sataline’s article delivered what it promised — a picture of congregants who don’t get on board with the Purpose Driven message. I wonder if Warren delivered these complaints to the paper and to what effect. Anyone know?

The God of nice things

Time coverTime‘s David Van Biema and Jeff Chu have a cover story about the Prosperity Gospel this week. I can’t wait to read the whole thing, but the full article requires a subscription. So I’m writing based on CNN’s summary. The story appears to take a rather hard look at advocates of the strain of teaching that God wants people to make it rich:

In three of the Gospels, Jesus warns that each of his disciples may have to “deny himself” and even “take up his Cross.”

In support of this prediction, he contrasts the fleeting pleasures of today with the promise of eternity: “For what profit is it to a man,” he asks, “if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?”

Generations of churchgoers have understood that being Christian means being ready to sacrifice. But for a growing number of Christians, the question is better restated, “Why not gain the whole world plus my soul?”

Zing! The story says the movement has been percolating among Pentecostal Christians and goes by the name Word of Faith, Health and Wealth, Name It and Claim It and Prosperity Theology:

[I]ts emphasis is on God’s promised generosity in this life. In a nutshell, it suggests that a God who loves you does not want you to be broke.

The story says that “Prosperity” first blazed to public attention in the 1980s with televangelism. But what about Rev. Ike? He’s featured in the photo essay accompanying the 9,000-word article (1 picture=1,000 words, right?) on the website. He was broadcast all over the dial in the 1970s. And Oral Roberts (shown first in the photo essay) has been a popular preacher for many decades. In fact, many people trace the current incarnation of prosperity theology in America to New England preacher E.W. Kenyon, famous for coining the phrase “What I confess, I posess.” Kenyon was around well before the turn of the 20th century, and numerous other contemporary and early 20th century preachers followed him.

Perhaps the full article has more historical perspective. But the cover is subtitled “The debate over the new gospel of welath.” Too often it seems that journalists write as if the American evangelical and Pentecostal traditions sprung forth 25 years ago when a heretofore unseen group of people came out of the woodwork and elected Reagan.

Also of note is how three of the four biggest megachurces in the country — including Joel Osteen’s — preach prosperity. I’m a bit curious why the editors thought it would make a good cover story. I’m also curious why, with colorful personalities like Osteen and Joyce Meyer, the cover art is so inanimate:

“Who would want to get in on something where you’re miserable, poor, broke and ugly and you just have to muddle through until you get to heaven?” asks Joyce Meyer, a popular television preacher and author often lumped in the Prosperity Lite camp. “I believe God wants to give us nice things.”

Writing well is the best revenge

truth and beautyWe had a discussion in the comments on a post last week that has stayed with me. I had written that generic refrains of bias at given newspapers bother me because they fail to take into account how individual reporters perform their jobs differently. I also said that some complaints fail to take into account other things that are important when writing a story, such as writing well.

Reader Larry Rasczak disagreed:

This goes to the fundamental purpose of a newspaper. Lets face it, there are three reasons for a newspaper to exist. The economic one (print something in between the advertisiments that will attract readers), the old style journalistic one (if what you print between the ads is accurate and dependable over the long run you will attract more readers and you can charge more for the ads), and the public service one (our republican form of government depends on a well informed electorate making well informed decisions in the voting booth).

So when I purchase a newspaper, the primary thing that I am looking for is ACCURATE news. I want to know what is going on in D.C. and Fubaristan; and I don’t need William Faulkner or Henry James to do that.

I replied that I saw no conflict between writing an accurate story and writing an interesting and well-constructed story. But mean ol’ Rasczak was having none of it:

But the news business isn’t writing . . . it is data transmission. 5W’s. News is like heavy artillery, accuracy is EVERYTHING.

I’m tempted to agree with Rasczak on this since my writing style for straight news tends to fall into the accurate camp rather than the well-written camp. One of my dear friends told me once, “Your analytical stories are never that exciting, but I always fully understand what you’re trying to convey.”

I’m curious what other readers think about this. How important is it to you that stories be well-constructed? Do you even notice different levels of quality in writing? How does writing quality rank in how you determine whether a news story is good?

Photo of Ann Patchett’s book via McBeth on Flickr.

Getting rid of parishioners . . . on purpose

Rickwarren 01Rick Warren, who pastors the Saddleback megachurch in California and has sold a gazillion copies of Purpose Driven books, is frequently named a top evangelical by a variety of publications. He advocates using business practices to drive church growth and his teachings are widely followed by fellow Southern Baptists and folks from all denominations who want to increase their church rolls. He encourages pastors to preach about day-to-day problems rather than the historic Christian themes of sin, redemption and atonement. Warren could not be more popular.

Wall Street Journal religion reporter Suzanne Sataline came up with an interesting angle for her story on the Warren empire. She spoke with evangelicals who disagree with Warren’s business-minded approach:

But the purpose-driven movement is dividing the country’s more than 50 million evangelicals. Some evangelicals . . . say it’s inappropriate for churches to use growth tactics akin to modern management tools, including concepts such as researching the church “market” and writing mission statements. Others say it encourages simplistic Bible teaching. Anger over the adoption of Mr. Warren’s methods has driven off older Christians from their longtime churches. Congregations nationwide have split or expelled members who fought the changes, roiling working-class Baptist congregations and affluent nondenominational churches.

Last summer, the evangelical church of onetime Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers split after adopting Mr. Warren’s techniques. That church, Valley View Christian Church in Dallas, wanted to increase membership and had built a huge sanctuary several years ago to accommodate hundreds of people. Church leaders adopted a strategic plan built around Mr. Warren’s five “fundamental purposes”: worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and evangelism. One goal was to make sure more than 19% of the church’s members were adults in their 20s and 30s, says the pastor, the Rev. Barry McCarty.

The Rev. Ron Key, then the senior minister, says he objected to the church’s “Madison Avenue” marketing. “I believe Jesus died for everybody,” Mr. Key says, not just people in a “target audience.” He says the leaders wanted church that was more “edgy,” with a worship service using modern music. Mr. Key was demoted, then fired for being divisive and insubordinate.

purpose driven booksWhen President Bush made his curious Supreme Court selection a year ago, it seemed like the story of Ms. Miers’ church split would be interesting. I wouldn’t have suspected it had to do with Rick Warren.

Anywhoo, Sataline looks at several churches whose experiences with Warren’s methods have had varying degrees of success. I liked how she explained the core beliefs and rituals of this modern American Protestant approach:

Mr. Warren preaches in sandals and a Hawaiian shirt, and he encourages ministers to banish church traditions such as hymns, choirs and pews. He and his followers use “praise team” singers, backed by rock bands playing contemporary Christian songs. His sermons rarely linger on self-denial and fighting sin, instead focusing on healing modern American angst, such as troubled marriages and stress.

The most interesting part of the story, though, was how conflict is considered part of change management. Difficult customers are expected, and you may be surprised how they are dealt with:

Some pastors learn how to make their churches purpose-driven through training workshops. Speakers at Church Transitions Inc., a Waxhaw, N.C., nonprofit that works closely with Mr. Warren’s church, stress that the transition will be rough. At a seminar outside of Austin, Texas, in April, the Revs. Roddy Clyde and Glen Sartain advised 80 audience members to trust very few people with their plans. “All the forces of hell are going to come at you when you wake up that church,” said Mr. Sartain, who has taught the material at Mr. Warren’s Saddleback Church.

During a session titled “Dealing with Opposition,” Mr. Clyde recommended that the pastor speak to critical members, then help them leave if they don’t stop objecting. Then when those congregants join a new church, Mr. Clyde instructed, pastors should call their new minister and suggest that the congregants be barred from any leadership role.

“There are moments when you’ve got to play hardball,” said the Rev. Dan Southerland, Church Transitions’ president, in an interview. “You cannot transition a church … and placate every whiny Christian along the way.”

Mr. Warren acknowledges that splits occur in congregations that adopt his ideas, though he says he opposes efforts to expel church members. “There is no growth without change and there is no change without loss and there is no loss without pain,” he says.

I don’t know how Sataline got those quotes, but they confirm that she had a good story on her hands. Baptist Press had a complaint, though.

On blind spots

zarathustraLaurie Goodstein has a fascinating article in The New York Times about Zoroastrians. Their ancient and formerly sizable religion is facing a crisis of dwindling numbers. These followers of the prophet Zarathustra — and devotees of the divine being Ahura Mazda — are worried about the survival of their Persian religion.

It’s remarkable to note even the decline in their numbers and importance from the first Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893, when it was considered one of the top ten religions. Now, other than the late Freddie Mercury (a.k.a. Farrokh Bulsara), how many Zoroastrians do you know of? The article says the numbers are down to fewer than 200,000 globally.

Goodstein spends time in the community to get a feel for the internal struggles they face. Zoroastrians tend against evangelization. They also suffer losses from intermarriage. I was struck by how well Goodstein revealed the feelings about intermarriage. I get the feeling that most opponents of intermarriage are characterized as intolerant bigots or backward relics. By contrast, look at how Goodstein treats the conflict:

Despite, or because of, the high intermarriage rate, some Zoroastrian priests refuse to accept converts or to perform initiation ceremonies for adopted children or the children of intermarried couples, especially when the father is not Zoroastrian. The ban on these practices is far stronger in India and Iran than in North America.

“As soon as you do it, you start diluting your ethnicity, and one generation has an intermarriage, and the next generation has more dilution and the customs become all fuzzy and they eventually disappear,” said Jal N. Birdy, a priest in Corona, Calif., who will not perform weddings of mixed couples. “That would destroy my community, which is why I won’t do it.”

. . . The peril and the hope for Zoroastrianism are embodied in a child of the diaspora, Rohena Elavia Ullal, 27, a physical therapist in suburban Chicago.

. . . Ms. Ullal’s college boyfriend is also the child of Indian immigrants to the United States, but he is Hindu. [They married on Saturday and had two ceremonies -- one Hindu, one Zoroastrian.] But Ms. Ullal says that before they even became engaged, they talked about her desire to raise their children as Zoroastrians.

“It’s scary; we’re dipping down in numbers,” she said. “I don’t want to hurt his parents, but he doesn’t have the kind of responsibility, whereas I do.”

It’s a great story, with notable attention to doctrine and history. It’s also, as always with Goodstein, very well written. One of the things that bothers me about generic refrains of bias at The New York Times is the failure to give credit to those reporters who do a fantastic job on their beats. Cries of bias also frequently fail to take into account other things that are important in reporting, such as writing quality. It’s harder to write well than to write without bias, in my opinion. And reporters who spend time and energy constructing complex religion stories well — such as Goodstein — don’t get enough credit for it.

Ed Laskey at the American Thinker criticizes Goodstein as follows:

But the article completely omits one of the notable reasons behind its decline: severe persecution in Iran, where the religion was founded. If there is any nation in the world where one of the central principles of the Zoroastrians (the sharp distinction between good and evil) might be usefully applied it is Iran — which has mercilessly oppressed its native Zoroastrians (as well as Bahais, Jews, Christians, Sunnis, and Kurds). Will the New York Times ever find any acts by Iran objectionable?

It’s not true that Goodstein completely omitted this, although it is true she doesn’t focus on modern persecution. Here’s what she says:

In Iran, after Muslims rose to power in the seventh century A.D., historians say the Zoroastrian population was decimated by massacres, persecution and conversions to Islam.

It was the centuries-old oppression by Muslims more than the ongoing Muslim treatment that is most responsible for Zoroastrianism’s decline. As such, I don’t think it’s fair to say Goodstein had a blind spot here.

One extreme or the other

Adam Gadahn 20060922This weekend, while many Americans were wrapping up their last summer vacations, another American was seen on an Al Qaeda propaganda video. The video, featuring ex-Californian Adam Gadahn, warned Americans to convert to Islam before it’s too late.

I have not read a full translation of the 48-minute video, but apparently it’s a long encouragement — aided by the threat of force, sure — for Americans to renounce Christianity and convert to Islam. It’s almost as if al-Qaeda is trying to tell Americans something. It’s almost like they think this a religious war. It’s almost like the pattern of forced conversions or threats of violence add up to something.

Let’s see what the mainstream media do in the wake of this latest religious missive. Hmm, that’s a curious headline from the Associated Press’ Salah Nasrawi — “Latest al-Qaida message seen as PR bid“:

The new al-Qaida video featuring an American calling for his countrymen to convert to Islam raised fears it signaled an imminent attack, but experts in the region said Sunday it is more likely a bid to soften the terror group’s image.

A public relations bid to soften the terror group’s image? That doesn’t seem to match with the rhetoric from the video, does it? I watched a bit of CNN this weekend where one of the talking heads wondered if the video weren’t an appeal to be better understood. Nasrawi didn’t quote from the video.

The way much of the media treat these Islamic terrorist threats is imperialistic. They apply Western values and constructs to Muslims who view the public square rather differently. These Muslims could not be more clear about their religious aims. But when the media try to analyze them for American audiences, we get insights such as these:

There have been widespread reports that some Muslim religious figures strongly criticized al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden over the Sept. 11 attacks, saying he failed to follow directives in the Quran that require potential victims be warned that conversion to Islam could save them.

The criticism led to speculation after Gadahn’s appearance that the Saturday video meant a warning was being issued and a new attack was imminent.

But experts discounted those fears.

If the reports are so widespread, how come they are not identifiable here? If this unverified criticism led to speculation, could the reporter share with us who was doing the speculating? Or are we just supposed to believe it without any evidence? And finally, who are these experts?:

“This is not a warning for an attack. It is rather a speech aimed at winning the Americans’ sympathy and understanding,” said Gamal Sultan, editor of the Islamic magazine Al Manar.

Columnist Mishari al-Thaydi of the London-based newspaper Asharq Al Awsat agreed, saying al-Qaida is trying to portray itself as a group with a religious mission, not a terrorist movement.

Who are these people? What is Al Manar? What is Asharq Al Awsat? Is it too much to ask for a few more details here? And as much as I hope that this latest violent threat is not carried out, did Salah Nasrawi try to get perspective from folks who are more concerned about it than the ones quoted?