About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

What he said! Yes, Hollywood wants more Christian $$$$

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In this morning’s email newsletter from the folks at Religion News Service, editor Kevin Eckstrom raised his eyebrow high (no, honest, you can sense it in the copy) and quipped:

Pretty sure we’ve seen about 5,429 versions of this story already.

Right. We get it. Hollywood is trying to lure Christian audiences to the cineplex. Again. Meanwhile, it other news …

Well, “this story” was the new feature in The Los Angeles Times that ran under an oh-so-predictable double-decker headline that proclaimed:

Hollywood tries to win Christians’ faith

With the box-office success of ‘Son of God,’ ‘God’s Not Dead’ and the controversial ‘Noah,’ more faith-based movies are in the works. But experts warn not to treat Christians as a monolithic audience.

Now, the only part of Eckstrom’s quip that I question is that very precise number — 5,429.

Don’t get me wrong, he may have done the hard work online and in LexisNexis and come up with a list of 5,429 previous urgent mainstream news reports ever since 1965 (I picked that date because of the breakthrough release of “The Sound of Music” that sent legions of evangelicals rushing to theaters to see a movie about a nun) describing the various ways Hollywood producers have tried to understand the Christian audience and get it to show up on cue.

I don’t doubt that there have been that many stories. Trust me on that.

Still, I sent Eckstrom this email reply in which I focused on a more symbolic total.

I was going to say 666 versions of that story and just let it go at that.

But one more time, let’s roll out the epic language for the obvious:

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That ‘mysterious’ NYTimes stance on Boko Haram

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Here we go again. There has been another horrific act of violence in Nigeria with militants bombing a bus station in Abuja, which is the capital of this painfully divided country. At this point, officials are reporting 71 deaths and scores wounded.

Here is a key piece of the New York Times report on this massacre:

Top Nigerian officials, whose offices are a short distance away, immediately attributed the bombing to the Islamist group they have been battling for years, Boko Haram.

If that turns out to be the case — and the group itself rarely acknowledges its actions — Monday’s bombing would represent a significant amplification of Boko Haram’s bloody campaign to undermine the Nigerian state. Over the last two years, it has largely confined its attacks to remote areas of the country’s northeast, killing scores of civilians in the region’s towns and villages. …

Despite frequent government claims of victory against the group, the killings have continued, with bombings, shootings and nighttime massacres of students at state schools, one of Boko Haram’s preferred targets.

Yes, here we go again. Note the reference to the frequent attacks on state schools. One can assume that a “state” school is, in this case, the opposite of some kind of a “religious” school?

Think it through. Why would militants from a group known as Boko (“books”) Haram (“forbidden”) keep attacking secular schools?

Nevertheless, later in the report the Times team repeated its mysterious mantra about this hellish conflict between these Islamist radicals and Nigeria’s secular authorities.

Boko Haram’s exact goals, beyond a generalized desire to undermine the secular Nigerian state, remain mysterious. Spokesmen purporting to be from the group sometimes release rambling videos, but these offer few clues of a coherent program or philosophy.

If that language sounds rather familiar to GetReligion readers, here is why. Just over a month ago, the Times used almost identical language in a report on another series of massacres.

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Bizarre AP wording in update on Overland Park shootings

If you are of a certain age, as I am, and you grew up deep in the heavily Protestant Bible Belt, like I did, you can probably remember running into some people way back when who — to be blunt about it — used to draw a verbal line of distinction between people who were “Christians” and those who were “Catholics.”

It’s hard to imagine that now, isn’t it? This is especially true after the admiration that so many evangelicals and other conservative Protestants openly poured out on the Blessed Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI in recent decades.

Truth is, I rarely ever hear that kind of talk anymore, no matter where you find conservative Protestants gathered. When I do hear it, other Protestants quickly leap to the defense of the Catholics who are listed as, well, non-Christians.

That’s why I was stunned when a faithful GetReligion reader, and religion-beat pro, sent me the following Associated Press story about the tragic shootings in Overland Park, Kansas. I am sure most of our readers have seen these stories by now, but here is the top of the report for context:

Never one to keep his hatred to himself, Frazier Glenn Cross for decades sought out any soapbox to espouse his white-supremacist beliefs, twice running for federal office with campaigns steeped in anti-Semitism.

Yet there’s scant evidence the Army veteran and retired trucker with Ku Klux Klan links ever resorted to violence before Sunday, when authorities say Cross — armed with a shotgun and pistol — opened fire outside two Jewish sites near Kansas City. None of the three people killed turned out to be Jewish.

The 73-year-old, who shouted a Nazi slogan at television cameras when arrested minutes later, is jailed awaiting charges that investigators said could come as early as Tuesday. At some point, a federal grand jury is expected to review the slayings, which investigators now deem a hate crime.

Investigators are, of course, considering calling this a hate crime because the shooter’s motives seemed clear, in light of reports that the alleged gunman was heard yelling “heil Hitler!” as he was arrested. Some witnesses said he asked people he encountered during his rampage if they were Jewish.

Nevertheless, the people killed were not Jews, which adds a layer of complications to the telling of this tragic story.

This brings us to the passage spotted by the reader:

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Pod people: So what could reporters cover during Lent?

Long, long ago, back at the beginning of Lent, I put up a post that asked a simple question: In all of those stories about more and more Americans deciding to “do Lent,” what did it actually mean to say that one was going to “do Lent”?

The answer, of course, was that whole “give up one thing for Lent” deal, the whole do-it-yourself plan in which an individual creates his or her own personal Lenten challenge. The problem, as you may recall, was that this pseudo-tradition actually has nothing to do with the traditional spiritual disciples (click here for a modernized list from the Western church) linked through the ages with the observance of Great Lent — such as prayer, worship, fasting, alms giving, acts of penitence, etc.

But the create-your-own-Lent thing is very, very American and it’s quirky, creative and even funny, at least as practiced by lots of Americans who, well, enjoy strutting their Lent stuff in social media.

Now we are reaching the end of the season of Lent and we’re heading into Holy Week. Thus, Crossroads podcast host Todd Wilken and I kind of looked in the rear-view mirror at Lent 2014 this week and discussed that the mainstream press could have done this time around, in terms of Lenten news coverage. Click here to listen in.

The bottom line: What could news pros have done instead of merely focusing — as I mentioned in a second post linked to Lent, the one with the infamous Hooters sign picture — on a few style-page features on fried fish and other matters related to food? What else was there to cover that was newsworthy, in any conventional sense of the word?

Well, Wilken and I concluded that the key word was “confession.” No, seriously.

Now, “confession” — or penitence in general — is a big part of Lent, as understood by the church through the ages. But how is that topic newsworthy?

Good question. I thought of two potential story hooks.

First of all, the ongoing collapse in the number of Roman Catholics who go to confession — ever — is one of the biggest and most important stories in the life of the church today. Remember that wise old D.C. priest I interviewed who, when asked to evaluate the whole “Catholic voter” angle in political coverage, stressed that the press needs to understand that there are really four different kinds of Catholic in American life today. Remember his typology? Here is a simplified version with the politics trimmed out:

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WPost: Confessions of a (liberal) Christian film critic

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The following observations have little to do with the normal work that we do here at GetReligion, since our goal is to dissect the mainstream press coverage of religion news, seeking the good, the bad and the ugly.

Nevertheless, I think faithful readers of this blog will be interested in a new essay by Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday, which ran under this provocative headline: “Confessions of a Christian film critic.”

Right. And this very interesting essay opens with the following passage, which is long — but essential.

“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

It may come as something of a surprise for Washington Post readers to learn that these are the words I silently invoke every time I sit down to write.

It would surely shock the gentleman who recently e-mailed to castigate me for the “evil” review I wrote of the film “Son of God,” the screen adaptation of the “Bible” TV miniseries. “You will have much to account for the day you meet God,” the e-mailer wrote. “It is now evident you cannot write a review without your personal biases surfacing. That is not professional.”

My correspondent’s words stung — not only because something I had written had caused such obvious distress. In just a few short sentences, he summed up the tensions, contradictions and fleeting moments of grace I have experienced as a film critic who also happens to be a practicing Christian.

The truth is, my angry e-mailer had good reason to assume I’m not religious. I don’t make a habit of professing my faith in my writing — a reticence I chalk up to denomination and profession. A cradle Episcopalian, I grew up within a tradition that’s notoriously chary of proselytizing; as practitioners of that most mainline of mainline Protestant denominations, we tend to prefer evangelizing through our lives and actions rather than showier protestations.

Yes, that sound you are hearing is members of some other flocks — you know, the people in all those shallow flocks that are into that whole “showier protestations” and proselytizing thing — snickering just a bit.

In other words, try to imagine a film critic drawing a paycheck at the Post who is a cradle, oh, member of the Assemblies of God or a Catholic who is active in Opus Dei writing a similar essay and feeling free to express sentiments that are exactly the opposite of this.

Then imagine them feeling free to write this next passage in the same essay:

I don’t hide the fact that I attend church regularly — in fact, I’ve been fairly active in my Baltimore parish for the past dozen years, as a member of our pastoral care committee, as a Eucharistic visitor and as a Sunday School teacher (a fact that will surely strike terror into the hearts of those readers who weren’t so crazy about my “Noah” review, either). …

But my resistance to invoking God, Jesus Christ and matters of the spirit in my writing also has to do with something the “Son of God” e-mailer correctly identified: the journalistic habit of not allowing my personal biases to surface, thereby inappropriately using my work as a religious platform and alienating those readers who don’t share my faith or have no faith at all. Those individuals have every right to read a movie review or essay without feeling sermonized, excluded or disrespected.

Wait, there is more:

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So who is Stephen Colbert really? Maybe ask a priest?

A decade ago, when I started writing a Washington Journalism Center syllabus on the history and future of news, I wanted to include a full day of material focusing on some element of the whole “entertainment as news” trend. I wanted to argue that the political commentary featured in settings such as Comedy Central represented, not the future of news, but the future of the old-school op-ed page.

After surveying what was happening in fall 2005-spring 2006, I decided to focus on the work of the hip young satirist Stephen Colbert. The question everyone was asking back then, of course, was: Who is Stephen Colbert, really? What does he really believe?

Well, I delivered that lecture on Colbert again last week, while reports began circulating that he would soon sit in David Letterman’s postmodern-humor chair at CBS. Now it’s official that Colbert has the “Late Show” nod and, once again, the dominate question in the coverage is: Who is Stephen Colbert, really? Will we finally find out who Stephen Colbert is now that he has said that he will stop playing that fictional “Stephen Colbert” character?

In other words, there are journalists out there who do not realize that it is quite common to see Colbert drop the “Stephen Colbert” mask and speak for himself. When? It happens almost every time that there is a Catholic guest or a guest who is on the show to talk about moral/religious issues, as opposed to strictly “political” issues. For example, consider the following exchange with Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University, author of “The Lucifer Effect.”

ZIMBARDO: “If God was into reconciliation, he would have said ‘I made a mistake.’ God created hell. Paradoxically, it was God who created Hell as a place to put Lucifer and the fallen angels, and had he not created Hell, then evil would not exist.”

COLBERT: “Evil exists because of the disobedience of Satan. God gave Satan, the angels, and man, free will; Satan used his free will and abused it by not obeying authority; hell was created by Satan’s disobedience to God and his purposeful removal from God’s love, which is what Hell is: removing yourself from God’s love.”

ZIMBARDO: “Wow.”

COLBERT: “You send yourself there, God does not send you there.”

ZIMBARDO: “Obviously you learned well in Sunday School.”

COLBERT: “I teach Sunday School, motherf****r.”

The Catholic side of Colbert’s work has received significant ink over the years, but very few publications are mentioning his faith in their coverage of his new “Late Night” gig. As you would expect — with Rush Limbaugh raising all holy heckfire — publications are asking political questions about Colbert, since politics are real and, well, faith is not really real.

So the New York Times offers this:

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Dear Sun editors: Do you favor a state-endorsed faith or not?

Anyone who has been paying attention to American public life in recent decades knows that lots of people are getting very uncomfortable with that whole First Amendment thing.

Many people are especially uncomfortable with free, even offensive speech about religion in any setting connected with government, public life, tax dollars, etc. Some even act as if religious speech is uniquely dangerous, in comparison with speech about other topics.

This is a serious issue and one that journalists cannot avoid covering, in these times.

The key church-state principle is that the government is not supposed to favor a particular religion. Thus, state officials are supposed to avoid getting involved in decisions — “entangled” is the big word — about which religions and doctrines are acceptable and which ones are not. They are supposed to err on the side of free exercise, but without allowing officials to openly favor one set of religious doctrines over another.

But what happens when some state officials consistently use their free speech rights in ways that offend the religious views of others (in effect establishing a favored, state-endorsed religion)? That’s when people of good will need to evoke “equal access” principles.

Now, I realize that equal access principles — another product of the amazing left-right church-state coalition in the Clinton era — are primarily used in disputes linked to schools and the use of other public lands and facilities. But every now and then you see disputes of this kind show up in other settings. Take, for example, the drama that The Baltimore Sun is currently attempting to cover in nearby Carroll County. Here is the top of the report:

A divided Carroll County board of commissioners voted Tuesday to no longer invoke Jesus Christ in prayers before government sessions, a measure one commissioner said “binds me to an act of disobedience against my Christian faith.”

The measure passed by a 3-2 vote amid legal pressure for the board to stop sectarian references in invocations. A federal judge in Baltimore last month issued an injunction against the practice, which is being challenged in court by some county residents who say the prayers disregard their beliefs. The commissioners resolved Tuesday that prayers may still reference “God,” “Lord God,” “Creator” and “Lord of Lords,” among other monotheistic names. But they must be non-sectarian and led by board president David Roush, who voted in favor of the change.

Richard Rothschild, one of two commissioners who opposed the resolution, said it would force him “to refuse to acknowledge the Son of God,” a statement that drew shouts of “Amen” from the handful of residents on hand.

“I humbly and respectfully declare that I cannot and will not sign a document that forward binds me to enact disobedience against my Christian faith,” Rothschild added.

So what is the problem here, from the point of view of the board’s majority?

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The final days march past: Was there any news in Lent 2014?

Let’s face it folks. There is a very real possibility that this posts exists as a rather flimsy excuse to post this wonderfully ironic Baton Rouge, La., photograph sent by a witty priest to Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher.

Now Lent is almost over, so it’s now or never.

Actually, this photo does symbolize a question — a journalistic question, actually — that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit during Great Lent this year: Do mainstream journalists realize that there is more to Lent than food?

I mean, the U.S. Catholic bishops have in recent years put quite a bit of effort into a public campaign to promote — following ages and ages of tradition — the importance of believers going to Confession during the season of Lent. I kind of expected that this the “light is still on” effort might get more press attention this time around, especially after the media-storm called Pope Francis did a daring thing the other day by choosing to go to Confession in clear view of the world.

So take a look at a Google News search for “Catholics,” “Lent,” “Confession” and “light on.”

Not much, right?

So we’re back to food.

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