Let's play "Spot the loaded verb"

Reuters religion editor Tom Heneghan has just used one of those verbs that taints an entire news story. At least, I think that “Pope’s ‘Living Will’ Wants Life Support to the End” is supposed to be a hard news story about the implications of a major papal address. Then again there is this: “The Catholic Church has traditionally taught that doctors and families could end artificial life-extending measures in good conscience if a dying patient’s prospects seemed hopeless. John Paul, who has long railed against a ‘culture of death’ he saw in abortion and artificial birth control, surprised moral theologians in a speech in March 2004 by insisting Catholics can no longer make such decisions even in extreme cases.” Whoa! Spot the loaded verb?

The Miracle Detective outs a believer

sullivan-miracle_detective.jpgDuring the 25 years or so I have been studying the religion beat, I have read more than my share of stories and statistics about media bias. It is still a subject that makes headlines several times a year, with roots running deep into the world of politics as well as religion.

But every now and then you run into someone whose take on this whole, tired, nasty topic breaks new ground. There is something about their experience that transcends the stereotypes and gives us a glimpse of the larger reality — which is that religious faith, in and of itself, drives lots of people in the MSM absolutely nuts. Traditional, ancient forms of religious faith are even worse.

Take, for example, the story of Rolling Stone scribe Randall Sullivan — author of several well-received works of contemporary journalism. He is also the author of The Miracle Detective, a (to me) remarkable volume in which he investigates the Roman Catholic authorities who investigate miracle stories.

What’s the problem? Sullivan tells the story in a first-person essay in Points, the weekly commentary magazine at The Dallas Morning News. It’s edited by friend of this blog Rod Dreher. Here is how Sullivan begins:

When my book The Miracle Detective was published last spring, I felt as if I had come out of the closet. I wasn’t revealing some secret sexual identity, but rather violating a more contemporary taboo — the one against making a public statement about private experiences that result in religious faith.

This prohibition is especially powerful in my particular workplace environment, where the term “religious nut” is a redundancy. If there’s one thing that the vast majority of my colleagues can agree upon, it’s that nobody in his or her right mind would join the ranks of the devout, at least not openly. Churchgoers, after all, are so obviously pathetic, so patently deluded, so totally uncool.

And there I was identifying myself as the worst of this sort, not only writing sympathetically about miraculous claims and mystical experiences, but actually making it clear that my investigation of such phenomena had resulted in a profound respect for certain reports of supernatural contact. My greatest folly, though, was to describe my own numinous moments and how they led me to convert to Christianity.

You have to read the whole essay, if only to enjoy the bittersweet humor of Sullivan — a longtime political progressive — getting stiffed at a reading when he refuses to mock the faith of President George W. Bush. Then there’s his visit to the Air America program of Janeane Garofalo.

Well, at least someone in Hollywood liked the book. There are, after all, lots of theaters in red zip codes. I wonder if it is Icon Productions that is considering bringing The Miracle Detective to the big screen.

And what is the bottom line in this story? Here is Sullivan again:

I was discovering something a lot of people on the right already understand very well, and that is the depth and breadth of America’s cultural divide, especially when it comes to religion. Back when Publishers Weekly praised The Miracle Detective as the rare book “that should appeal to believers and skeptics alike,” I imagined I could bridge this divide. I had a lot to learn.

Shocking! Easter praise for The Palm Beach Post

empty_tomb2.jpgRegular readers of GetReligion may recall that I am not a big fan of my local daily newspaper, The Palm Beach Post. I could cite a number of past complaints, but we will settle for this one (a rant about what I believe is the weakest weekly religion-beat column in America).

However, I appreciate the work of Elizabeth Clarke, the newspaper’s actual religion-news specialist. The problem is that her work is rarely featured by the Post and she is often — sadly — not part of the coverage team for controversial stories about religion and culture. There is more that I could say, based on my interaction with religious leaders in Palm Beach County, but I will leave it at that. The bottom line: If you have a good religion writer, turn her loose.

This past weekend, Clarke had a quartet of stories in the Accent pages based on a simple Easter-weekend theme, captured in the simple headline: “Resurrected lives.” That’s the whole headline. The package deserved more promotion.

The basic idea was to let four Christian believers tell moving, human stories of how they once were lost and now are found. In one case, Bob Teresi went from drug pusher and abuser to playing Jesus in a local Passion play. While watching just such a drama when his life turned around.

. . . (The) crucifixion scene got him.

“As they nailed him to the cross and I could hear the thud, thud, thud, that was the turning point,” he says.

He left with a desire to learn more and he kept going back. When the church Christmas pageant came around that year, Teresi was asked to play Jesus.

“I said, ‘Well, that church has lost it if they think this cat’s going to do that,’ ” he recalls thinking. “I don’t act.”

It’s not a simple story, it just seems that way since it is told in his own words.

The other stories share many common themes. In the case of Father Justin Foster, I knew some of the details since the second-, or third-career Orthodox priest is a friend of mine. He found his faith once again while working in Saudi Arabia, far from the pain of his divorce and earlier life in Hollywood. He ended up in a monastery and, now, leads an Orthodox Church in America mission parish in Palm Beach County.

. . . (Amid) all the symbols and rituals, he’s finally so comfortable in his ancient faith. “It’s a daily journey,” he says. “You have to, every morning, start again. It’s almost like the AA program because we’re all sinners.”

This is not hard news. But sometimes the big religion stories are linked to the quiet, daily details of life — the little miracles that don’t show up on page one. In evangelical circles these stories are called “testimonies.”

Many newspaper leaders are trying to find new, authentic voices of faith to feature in the news pages. This is one way to do it, offering people of different faiths a chance to tell their stories — with little editing. Here is my only fear: It is easy to demote religion from a public force, a public reality, down to a quiet, personal, totally subjective subject with a tiny footprint in hard news.

When that happens, the news is warped. Truth is, millions of people take their private beliefs into the public square. Journalists have to find a way to tell those stories, as well.

But kudos to Clarke for these quiet, personal, yet effective Easter features.

Chasing the Monitor

Perhaps The Christian Science Monitor did have a hot story in post-election Iraq. At least, the Los Angeles Times has followed up with a major story, with the headline: “Iraq’s Sunni Arabs Seek Their Voice.” Reporter Richard Boudreaux notes: “The chief, Mazin Jaber Nima, said the Sunni Arab-led insurgency against American troops would falter if Sunni Arabs joined in the U.S.-backed creation of a new political order. Applause filled the Babylon Hotel’s ballroom, but the next speaker was undeterred. “The subject today is how to represent the Sunni people in the political process,” argued Sheik Isam Sheikhli. “Do we do it with slogans? If we go on like this, we will not achieve a thing.” Uh, is it just me or is the time element rather weak in this story? When was this?

You knew this was coming

I meant to put this up earlier, but decided not to double up on the Rt. Rev. LeBlanc’s latest Ashley Smith post. Veteran USA Today religion scribe Cathy Lynn Grossman landed the interview that everyone knew was coming sooner or later — with Purpose-Driven Pastor Rick Warren. As it turns out, he has been counseling Smith via telephone and email, although that took some doing since he was in Africa. Africa is also the beneficiary of many, many of the dollars he has earned with his best-selling books. There are other crisp details in the story, which can be found in the Christianity Today weblog guide to the Smith story. Here is a choice quote from Grossman’s short but newsy story: “Warren steered any credit back to God and the Bible. “There’s not a single new thought in Purpose-Driven Life that hasn’t been said in historic Christianity or Judaism. I’m just a communicator for the 21st century.”

Rise and shine, American Evangelicals

Sunrise reflection.jpgFirst of all, I hope this is a blessed Easter for all of the Western Christians in our readership.

It is another month until Pascha for those of us in Eastern Orthodoxy and this wide gap between the two dates is going to be more common in the future. But that is not the story for today.

No, I want to join the Los Angeles Times in asking American Protestants this question: What time did you get up this morning? Or, if you are in a liturgical church, what time did you get to bed last night or this morning? And did the timing of your alarm clock have anything to do with something called “church tradition” or even “Church Tradition”?

I ask this, because reporter Natasha Lee has taken a lighthearted, but at times disturbing, look inside the fading “tradition” of Protestant churches assembling for sunrise Easter services. The headline was nifty: “More Worshipers Pulling the Shades on Sunrise Service.”

The bottom line is the bottom line: If people don’t want to get up early, and the goal is to gather the largest number of people in the pews (or whatever), then what is the argument in favor of a service at any particular time on the clockface? In the “free church” tradition, what authority is there for any issue in worship?

This is a news story about liturgical majority rule and, to quote G.K. Chesterton, the saints do not have the right to vote. Here is a sample of Lee’s story:

While some Christian churches still faithfully hold sunrise services on Easter, the popularity of such events has waned among younger people and families with children who are reluctant to get out of bed that early.

Traditionally a Protestant practice, sunrise services are held just before dawn in honor of Christ rising from the dead after the crucifixion.

Many Southern California churches prefer to hold outdoor services because darkness turning into daylight is symbolic of Christ shedding his physical body to take on a spiritual form. The image of dawn is significant in Christian theology because it signals the end of the dark days surrounding the crucifixion, said Eddie Gibbs, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

The story only briefly notes that Roman Catholics rarely attend such services. The unasked question is “Why?” Where are they?

It would be interesting to know if Lee realized that there is another story haunting this one. If Protestant sunrise Easter services are fading, many liturgical churches — East and West — are struggling to inspire their people to take part in the truly ancient traditions linked to the Easter or Pascha vigil that begins in the middle of the night, with midnight as the moment when the rites kick into high gear. The breaking-the-fast feast that follows is one of the high points of the Orthodox year. But what if people don’t want to stay up that late?

Meanwhile, it does seem that more evangelical churches are simply putting this Easter issue up to a vote. Others may try to do a better job of marketing these sunrise services. Check out the wonderful section of Lee’s story about the “Espresso Yourself” rites at one church.

This is a fine story, even if it is incomplete. Perhaps Lee can return to this topic in a month, at Pascha.


OK, tell me you did not see this one coming. The digital Talmud? Why not? In fact, I am amazed that there isn’t an entire seminary curriculum loaded onto iPods somewhere. What happens to doctrine when you hit shuffle? Here is a taste of reporter Alex Mindlin’s report in (naturally) The New York Times: “At the door, handing out leaflets beside the Jews for Jesus and the teenage collectors for Jewish charities, was a 23-year-old entrepreneur named Yehuda Shmidman, who was passing out glossy brochures showing a bearded, black-hatted Orthodox Jew, in silhouette, wearing a pair of white ear buds. Shmidman’s product, the ShasPod, is a solution to a vexing question: How does a commuter study a 2,711-page book?”

Common-law polygamy?

Here’s an interesting commentary from a reader: “Does the Schiavo case implicitly, or maybe explicitly, acknowledge the validity of polygamy? . . . I saw a lawyer on the news last night going down a laundry list of Terri’s decisions and rights, and, to my knowledge, all of this flows from her husband speaking on her behalf. If Mrs. Schiavo II could sue him now for wife-like rights should they separate, the state is honoring polygamy.” The state of Florida does not recognize what in some places is still called Common Law Marriage. But a decade or so and two children? What legal status does Michael’s live-in almost-wife have, in the eyes of the state? Meanwhile, Kathleen Parker asks another question: “When is a husband not a husband?”