5Q+1 visits with new Tennessean

SmietanapicThat would be GetReligion reader Bob Smietana, of course, along with the rest of his family.

You see, Smietana has just made a very interesting and rare leap from the world of the denominational press back into a mainstream newsroom. He has joined the Tennessean as the new religion reporter in the very symbolic city of Nashville — which is known as guitar town, the Baptist Vatican and lots of other names. (I interviewed for that same job a long, long, long time ago and the statistics on religion in that zip code are amazing.)

Smietana has been a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a correspondent for Religion News Service, and for eight years he served as features editor for the Covenant Companion, a Chicago-based publication of the Evangelical Covenant Church. He received more than a dozen national awards from the Associated Church Press for his work there.

A native of Attleboro, Mass., Smietana has a degree in religion from North Park University in Chicago, and he earned a master’s degree in communication from National-Louis University in Chicago. In 2001, he completed a summer program in reporting on religion news at Northwestern University’s the Medill School of Journalism. His freelance credits are extensive and he will soon begin blogging at GoodIntentionsBook.com, in support of what he calls a “Freakonomics-style” book on poverty, immigration, global warming and other related issues.

So here are his answers to the usual 5Q+1 questions from your GetReligionistas:

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

These days I’ve been missing Ted Olsen’s mighty, mighty weblog at Christianitytoday.com, which seems to have been phased out these days. It was a great spot to get a ton of coverage, all in one place, and it’s sorely missed.

RNS remains a great source — Kevin Eckstrom and Adelle Banks do great work. And the denominational press — Baptist Press, Presbyterian News Service, United Methodist News Service, etc. — give an insider’s view of what’s happening in those groups I just did a story on the effect of the weak dollar on missionaries and international relief groups, and got the inspiration from something the Baptist Press ran.

The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, Business Week, all do great coverage when they take religion. And usually there’s something in those publications that will spark a God-beat story. Religion is one of the world’s largest industries, and the trends, like the weak dollar, that effect big for-profit companies also effect churches.

Probably the most important sources are religious folks themselves, especially the clergy and lay leader who know what’s going on below the surface.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

Here’s one story that I, as newly minted member of the mainstream media didn’t get — the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. This year, Southern Baptist hope to raise $165 million, or more than half their annual budget, in that one offering, taken in December. In effect, every year they wager the future of their world-wide missionary enterprise, which is 5,300 missionaries strong, on this one offering. This past decade, they’ve raised more a billion dollars through the Lottie Moon offering. If the money doesn’t come in every year, they are sunk. It’s a fascinating story, one that reveals the priority that Southern Baptist place on missions. They have about 15 million members and 5,300 missionaries. The Methodists, with 8 million members, have about 400 missionaries. And Lottie Moon, who was a China missionary in the 1800, is an icon for Southern Baptists, who are the largest Protestant group in America. I’ve covered religion professionally since 1999 and had never heard of her before coming to Nashville.

I’m not sure the major mainstream media — the New York Times, CNN, ABC, etc. — get evangelicals or the faith of believers in general. They don’t get the personal and grassroots nature of religion, and spent too much time looking at religious celebrities and not enough time looking at the day to day the lives of believers.

My younger brother died last year, suddenly and unexpectedly, while in the Philippines to finalize the adoption of his daughter. During that time, our church family, kept the faith for us. They carried us through that time of almost unbearable grief, with acts of kindness great and small. That close knit, grassroots community was our lifeline. (I wrote about it afterwards), and I can’t imagine trying to go through that experience without faith and without the company of ordinary believers.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

At least three stories come to mind.

One of these days, and it will probably be soon the Southern Baptist are going to stop growing and begin shrinking. That’ll be a huge story for them.

The growth of multi-site megachurches. They are becoming the Wal-Marts of the church world, and it’s putting a tremendous amount of pressure on small congregations, some of whom are giving up and reinventing themselves as franchises of the brand-name megachurches.

Gay bishops get all the press when it comes to Mainline churches, and but I’m more curious about demographics and finances of those institutions. The denominational feuds are fueled as much or more by money and fannies in the pews as they are by sex.

Rockygloves(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

Journalists are supposed to ask who, what, where, when and why. You can’t get to why without asking about religion.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

It’s got to be the Rocky boxing glove, which was sent out to pastors in order to promote Rocky Balboa as a faith-based film and attract some of the Passion of the Christ crowd. There was even a website, rockyresources.com/, with preaching tips, banners and even a video message from Sylvester Stallone for church leaders. Stallone was pitched as a true believer, with quotes like, “If you don’t have a great relationship with God, you can go off the deep end.” He must have been thinking about the new Rambo film.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

In coming to the Tennessean, I moved from the magazine world, and mostly religious publications, to a daily newsroom. I’ve been amazed by the skill of my colleagues, who day after day produce quality news under unrelenting deadlines. As a magazine editor and writer, I had the luxury of time to dig deep into stories. I don’t have that luxury anymore, and it’s given me a greater respect for longtime daily journalists.

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5Q+1 as David Crumm shifts into overdrive

David Crumm Column PhotoGetReligion’s friend David Crumm sent email this week with the news that he will take a months-long leave of absence from the Detroit Free Press to develop a project called Read the Spirit. To call Read the Spirit a blog focused on religion news would be an understatement.

Here’s how David described it:

In August, we hosted a national conference in Ann Arbor for a network of writers, editors, artists, web gurus, scholars, clergy who’ll be working with us over the next year or two on a whole new approach to religion in media.

The tip of our iceberg is up online already — the “daily voice” of our new project. Over the coming year, we’ve got online projects lined up, some innovative publishing projects, etc. Even a new documentary film unit that’s formed.

. . . This week, we’re running a 5-part multimedia series on A Pilgrimage to Iona, based on reporting I’ve just done with a photographer and videographer.

To gain a further sense of what David and his many friends have in store, read their Ten 21st-Century Principles of Religious Publishing.

I’ll miss David’s sharp insights in the Free Press, but with that loss comes the gift of an important new voice on the Web.

Terry took the opportunity to invite David’s participation in our 5Q+1 feature, and David jumped right in.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

I listen to National Public Radio, BBC especially, because they’ve got the biggest global reporting network these days. I read Atlantic, New Yorker, New York Times every day, Vanity Fair, Weavings, National Catholic Reporter, PC Gamer. Most importantly, I walk through the magazine, book, music and DVD aisles of Target stores once a week. I walk through Borders’ religion-spirituality sections at least once a week plus their DVD and magazine sections. I cruise comic book racks, graphic novel shelves — and I try to walk through mystery novels sections at least a couple of times a month. If you check New York Times Book Review sections weekly, you’ll find that Americans read more murder mysteries than any other single category of books — so discerning themes that show up in mystery novels says a lot about Americans’ spiritual imagination.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

There are many. But the Goliath story that we don’t get — and that will affect all of us — is understanding the aging process. Just admitting that we are aging — and that this is not a disease — is a huge transformation that’s starting. We’re just on the leading edge of this story — and those voices who explore aging in terms of its spiritual gifts — not merely its diseases to be cured — will be the beloved prophets in media who we’ll look back to as pioneers in the years to come.

I’m working on that right now myself — and welcome others.

Think of how Dr. Spock saw the Goliath of child care after World War II.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

I’ve already said that I’ll be watching the aging story. Also, I’ll be watching closely the way that American media covers what we seem to call Third World peoples. Not just big-picture stories in which a reporter parachutes into some corner of the world or analysis pieces by scholars — but I want to see how the voices of real people emerge from these communities in our media. Can we even see or hear them over here in the States? This, to me, is an enormous challenge in an era when much of American media is going through a historic transformation — and we’re pulling back many of our outpost reporting bureaus.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

Religions — and, more broadly, spiritual aspirations — are key components in the fuel that drives individuals, communities, nations.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

I’m amazed by all of the stories of “change” — folks like Anthony Flew and Frank Schaeffer who’ve made changes in their spiritual lives — and this seems to be an occasion for milestone media coverage — when the irony is that most of us do change over time, don’t we? I think it’s ironic that news of someone changing their spiritual stance is considered something momentous.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

The Good News for those who cover religion is that, while media forms and firms are transforming themselves and some types of media may be imploding in this new age — accurate, balanced and insightful coverage of religion and spirituality remains profoundly important — and the World Values Survey data examining countries around the world with objective, scientific measuring tools says that Americans remain overwhelmingly interested in these themes.

There’s a very bright future for us out there in media that focuses on religion and spirituality.

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Time for religious and secular ghosts

vanbiemaIt’s Time.

Anyone who knows the history of religion writing in the American press knows that Time played a major role in proving that religion is, in fact, news and, come to think of it, that cover stories about religion can move large numbers of copies off the store shelves. Cover stories about religion have often fueled debate about American religion (like the old yet still famous “Is God Dead?” story) as well as reflected the news.

These days, the magazine’s senior writer for religion news is David Van Biema, who has written numerous cover stories in his 14 years there — reaching the religion beat about 10 years ago. He is a graduate of Wesleyan University in Connecticut and the Columbia School of Journalism and won awards from the Religious Communicators Foundation, the the Religion Newswriters Association, the American Academy of Religion and the Amy Foundation. His previous journalistic stops included People, Life and The Washington Post Magazine.

I had a chance to talk shop with Van Biema last spring, when I was speaking at a journalism conference in New York City (where Van Biema lives with his wife and son). He promised to take part in our 5Q+1 feature when he had a chance, so here goes. His answers are on the concise side, which makes me now wish I had recorded our conversation that day! It was a delight to spend some coffee and tea time with him.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

AP, RNS, CNS, other wires, assorted blogs, book publishers, my morning paper plus Nexis alerts, magazines and let us not forget colleagues who care.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

It’s not a story, really, but the difference between outsiders’ definition of “evangelical” and insiders’. I’m inclining toward your point that it’s becoming meaningless, but what does one substitute?

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

The two-way globalization of American religion.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

I would emend that to the “roles” of religion; but have you looked at the world lately?

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

Not funny, but the Juanita Bynum situation is certainly replete with ironies.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

I think that just as there are religious ghosts in “secular” stories, there may also be secular ghosts in many religion stories.

TimeMagBibleCover 723686Now that last item really interested me, because I totally agree. There are all kinds of secular or realities that, at first glance, appear to be faith-free that affect religion news. Consider the role of pensions and property costs in shaping much of the Anglican Communion warfare.

So I wrote Van Biema back to ask for him to elaborate a bit. He replied:

I’m actually not sure how many stories it applies to, but in a recent piece I did about Mother Teresa’s long dark night of the soul, the book on which it was based and considerable commentary after the story discussed her condition on strictly faith terms. (Given that the book was edited by her postulator, of course, one would expect nothing else.) I tried to do justice to the faith understanding, but it seemed to me that her case would be seen very differently by a secular psychologist and yet again differently by an atheist. Those views are represented in the story at a graf or two apiece, not as quick brushoffs nor as negating the religious view, but as having a different logic.

I am not trying to get out of my gig by imposing the word “alleged” before every use of the word Resurrection, the way Calvin Trillin’s protaganist did in his classic book, Floater. But part of me wants to suggest that there is a bifurcation: we either talk about religion stories in overly secular terms or unquestioningly remain within the religious frame. At a time where the intertwining of the two is one of the biggest stories we cover, perhaps there is some obligation to open our pieces out in whichever direction seems in danger of being scanted, without effacing either.

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5Q+1 visits the ubiquitous Jeff Sharlet

Jeff ShelerMany years ago I wrote an angry letter to the editor of Rolling Stone, doubting whether that magazine ever would give serious attention to religion and believers. I am glad that, as a contributing editor for both Rolling Stone and Harper’s, Jeff Sharlet has proven me wrong.

Some Americans discourage talk of politics, religion and sex — the unholy trinity for people who are convinced that nothing, absolutely nothing, is worth an argument. One thing I admire about Jeff is how much he defies that skittishness:

My religion writing career began in 1998 when I quit my first serious job as editor in chief of Pakn Treger, a magazine of Jewish history and culture, when my boss told me to lay off stories about politics, religion, and sex. Of course, that’s all I wrote about as a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. In 1999 I co-founded a little webmagazine, Killing The Buddha (which has just recently ended its run), and spent much of 2002 traveling the country with my co-author, Peter Manseau, working on a “spiritual state of the nation” called Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible, published by Free Press in 2004.

My second book, also started in 2002, will come out next spring from HarperCollins; it’s tentatively titled In the Shadow of the Cross: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of America’s Civil Religion. Since 2003, I’ve been editing and writing for a website I created called The Revealer, published with support from NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, Religious Studies Program and the Department of Journalism. The Revealer is on summer break now, and its future is up in the air — I’m leaving NYU in the coming year to finish my next book, The Hammer Song, and work on more stories about politics, religion, and sex for Rolling Stone and Harper’s.

Jeff occasionally offers comments on our work here at GetReligion, and we’ve sometimes been in touch with him via email. Our respective blogs approach the terrain rather differently, but it’s a difference that keeps me on my toes.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

All the usual suspects, of course – like GetReligion, I’m as interested in how the media covers religion as in the actual details of the story. That means I think a clumsy New York Times piece — like, say, the Michael Luo profile of Hillary’s faith that seemed to divide the U.S. up into clear camps of piety and absolutist secularism — is as useful to understanding what’s going on in religion as would be a better-reported story, such as the late Michael Kelley’s classic 1993 New York Times Magazine Hillary profile, “Saint Hillary” in which the particular, and rather unique, shape of her beliefs was more fully revealed.

I read Christianity Today for the same reason — there’s plenty of good reporting in that magazine, but there’s also plenty of reporting that can clue readers into presumptions as well as the actual details of a given story. Finally, I look for religion news in some more unconventional places, as well — I subscribe to the Christian Newswire emails, a rather undiscriminating source of press releases from groups, many of which can’t be described as anything but fringe (which makes them a useful reflection of the mainstream).

For Jewish news, I like cultural pages — Forward’s arts section, Jewcy, and Guilt & Pleasure. The real news in American Jewish life, I think, isn’t about the endless battles between organizations, but about the — well, guilt & pleasure of ordinary Jews.

I don’t know a really good source for news about Islam, generally, but I tend to find more useful stuff in the radical left press, for the simple reason that it more often publishes work by real live Muslims, crazy as that sounds, sometimes even talking to other real live Muslims. Check out this report from inside Pakistan’s Red Mosque, for instance, by Fawzia Afzal-Khan. Sloppy? Sure. Beats the pants off the more “responsible” media? Absolutely. Political websites, little magazines, small city alt weeklies, denominational newsletters — that’s where it’s at for raw data.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

The slow but sure formation of a new evangelical Protestantism that will shape American life and politics — and thus the life and politics of the world — for decades to come. I think it’s a cultural story, though, not one to be measured by voting blocs or witnessed at election time. Which means the press just won’t get it.

There’s no one story here, either — the schisms of mainline denominations are part of it, the decline of the old Christian Right is part of it, lifestyle evangelicalism is part of it, the return of poverty to the forefront of evangelical consciousness is part of it, etc., etc. Piece by piece, none of these stories compares to, say, the question of what’s up with the bellicose branches of Islam, but taken as a whole, American Protestantism will still do more to shape the world, for better and worse, than any other faith.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

Not the above, actually. This is a strictly personal answer: Having spent the last five years thinking about the transformation of American Protestantism, I’m eager to get back to the much smaller, more peculiar stories of lived religion. I’m spending the summer thinking about the next book, which I hope will be geographically-bound — that is, an exploration of various beliefs, traditions, rituals, etc., within a locality, rather than any kind of trend story. So I’ll be looking for the quiet signals that hide in the back pages of newspapers rather than following, say, the evangelical soul-struggle over global warming.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

Here’s a cynical answer: It’s not. Understanding religion is not a way to get ahead in mainstream media. I say that as a guy for whom religion has proved, among other things, a path to a decent career in journalism. But I got lucky — for most people, religion is a dead end. Not because of an anti-religion bias in newsrooms — lots of journalists and editors are privately religious — but because of a narrative loop in which media “consumers” hunger for “breaking news.” Religion doesn’t usually break, it unfolds; understanding is achieved not through investigation, but immersion; the story is best told not in news prose, but in narrative. Mainstream media is a machine that simply doesn’t perform those functions well; it was never meant to.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

It’s from the Red Mosque story I mentioned above: when Fawzia Afzal-Khan, an English professor from Montclair State in New Jersey, finally manages to win access to the home of the so-called “Burqa Brigades” — the squads of ultra-conservative Pakistani Muslim women who police morality with staves — she finds a flirty male leader and young girls eager to debate Adam Smith with her. One needn’t have any sympathy for the violent, bullying tactics of these Muslim fundamentalists to find it ironic that what American media long assumed (incorrectly) about American fundamentalists — that they were driven by economic rage as much as by religious belief — seems to be true in spades within the ranks of Muslim fundamentalists, who here want to discuss not the proper covering for women, but the wages of cab drivers and the price of butter.

Bonus: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

Tune in — more good religion reporting is broadcast on radio than is printed in most major papers.

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5Q+1 exclusive: Mother Teresa has been ‘beautified’

KimLawtonInTurkeyKim Lawton is managing editor and correspondent for Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly on PBS, where she has worked since 1997. She began her career as a religion writer by covering the fall of PTL’s Jim Bakker in the late 1980s. She has written for United Press International, Religion News Service, News Network International, Christianity Today and International Media Service.

She answered GetReligion’s 5Q+1 with characteristic self-effacing humor.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

I monitor AP and Religion News Service every day, along with skimming the highlights from the major papers. (I unabashedly steal news ideas from my fellow members of the Religion Newswriters Association-in the most ethical way, of course.) And I get deluged with news releases and “pitch calls” from religious folks all the time. Many of our viewers offer story suggestions on our website.

I also try to read the news services and publications tied to religious denominations and movements: Catholic News Service, National Catholic Reporter, Christianity Today, Charisma, Christian Century, the Forward, Jewish Weekly, Tricycle, Episcopal News Service, Ecumenical News International, just to name a few. I make an effort to glance at the what-seems-like billions of religion-oriented blogs, but that quickly gets exhausting. The very best way I get news is by keeping plugged into a wide network of people who are plugged into what’s going on in the world of religion. (And sorry, I’m not going to divulge who all is part of that!)

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

Sadly, there are many. I don’t think a lot of the reporters covering the conflicts in Iraq and the Middle East fully understand all the religious factors at play there. I also think much of the reporting about faith and politics here in the U.S. is too simplistic. So many political stories just don’t convey the complexity and nuances of the religious dimensions.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

I’m watching the seemingly-growing acceptance of religion and religious expression in public life. One of the most interesting manifestations of that right now is the 2008 presidential election season (see answer #2). Then, there’s also the seemingly-growing atheist-secular backlash!

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

Faith has an impact on virtually every area of life. As a religion reporter, I have covered institutional religion, spirituality and worship, but I’ve also covered wars and politics, natural disasters, human rights, philanthropy, music, pop culture, travel, business, and yes, even fashion and sports! If you don’t “get religion,” you don’t fully get virtually all of the best, most compelling stories of our times.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

Funny? It’s not exactly lately, but one of my all time favorites: In reporting on the Vatican beatification ceremony for Mother Teresa, a local news anchor said that she was being “beautified.” It made me want to check the tape for telltale Botox marks.

Ironic? A couple of weeks ago, a coalition of moderate and progressive religious groups held a Washington news conference to release a new poll saying that the mainstream media don’t cover their leaders as much as they cover religious conservatives. (Of course, my program had covered every event and person they cited as examples of how they are ignored. But that’s not my major point of irony.) Two days later, one of the groups wouldn’t let me bring a TV camera into a major event they were sponsoring because they had promised an exclusive to CNN!

And it’s not just the liberals. The following week, I had to push to be allowed to bring a TV camera into the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting . . . even though the meeting was theoretically “open” to the media. And I wasn’t allowed to have a camera in a lunch meeting with Republican candidate Mike Huckabee, even though print reporters were allowed to be there. It’s a two-way street, people. If you want the media to do a good job covering you, you have to let us in to do our jobs!

Bonus: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

Although the basic journalistic principles remain the same, expanding technologies are changing the way we cover religion. Visuals and audio are becoming more important, even in traditional text media. This is actually a strength for coverage of religion.

Bonus Bonus

This is the most fascinating, and at the same time, the most challenging beat in the world (see answer #4)!

Image: Kim on location in Turkey.

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5Q+1 soundbites from Fred Barnes

157037Fred Barnes is a Christian conservative who runs an openly conservative magazine and attends a conservative Anglican parish. He also spends a lot of his time in the world of talk television, which means he is used to stating his views in short bursts of information and he doesn’t mind if people disagree.

With all of that in mind, what we have here is a very short and opinionated take on GetReligion’s 5Q+1 questions.

Once again, I think that the crucial point about Barnes — made in an earlier post on this blog — is that he is a religious or moral conservative more than he is a political conservative. He sees religious issues through the lens of his church (even more than through his famous eyeglasses).

Also, let me sound a note of serious, serious doubt about the answer that Barnes gave to question No. 1. Whether you agree with his opinions or not, it’s clear from his writing and editing that he reads much more widely than Christianity Today and World, when it comes to gaining information about the world of religion. I also think it’s interesting — and a glimpse into his own story as an adult convert to real Christian faith — that he lists his own grown children as major influences on how he sees the world. Every time I have ever heard Barnes speak, he has referred to the impact that his own children — daughters, if I remember correctly — have had on his faith and beliefs. Interesting.

So here come the Barnes soundbites. Prepare to fire back at him.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

Mostly at church, The Falls Church in Falls Church, Va. Or from my grown children, all Christians, or from Mike Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who knows everything about religion. Also, I belong to two Bible studies. Oh, yes, I read Christianity Today and World.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

That’s simple. It’s the threat from Islamic radicalism. The media sees it as a problem in Iraq and Afghanistan, but not a real threat to Western civilization and Christianity. The media reports on it without understanding it at all.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

The decline and fall of the Episcopal Church. I belong to a parish that voted to withdraw from the Episcopal Church. It’s a vote I don’t regret in the least.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

Because religion in one form or another drives events in many if not most parts of the world.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

The leaders of the Episcopal Church, who are liberal and politically correct and in favor of multiculturalism, now feel compelled to criticize, and criticize quite stridently and intolerantly, the Anglican leaders in Africa and Asia, who are orthodox believers.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

The coverage is biased against traditional forms of Christian faith.

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5Q+1: Reporter on the hot seat

flockwoodIf you do a search in Google Images for Frank “Bible Belt Blogger” Lockwood you will find nothing that is useful. Zippo.

But if you use Google to search the whole Web, you will find all kinds of interesting things to read. Or Google “Lockwood” and “Jimmy Carter” in Google News for another interesting set of URLs. Go to the White House and mention the name “Frank Lockwood” and they’ll know who you are talking about, too.

To get the basics on the celebrated Lockwood interview with former President Carter, click here to flash back to a recent GetReligion post.

Let me cut to the chase. To celebrate this mini-firestorm, I went ahead and did what I was planning on doing soon anyway — I got in touch with Lockwood to ask him to do one of our 5Q+1 mini-interviews.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

AP and Religion News Service, Baptist Press, other newspapers, Christianity Today and Charisma, GetReligion.org and TitusOneNine, the Religion Newswriters Association‘s blog aggregator, visitors to my blog, church bulletins and newsletters, Christian radio and religious bookstores. Christianity Today‘s Ted Olsen, the folks at the Dallas Morning News, Gary Stern of the Journal News and Brad Greenberg of the Jewish Journal are among the religion bloggers I monitor.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

flockwoodReligion coverage is a whole lot better now than it was a few decades ago. Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal sent me a story his paper ran on Jerry Falwell in Dec. 23, 1975. The writer begins: “Dr. Jerry Falwell, a husky, 42-year-old television preacher from Lynchburg, Va., took the pulpit at Louisville’s Beth Haven Baptist Church yesterday and delivered an old-fashioned, Bible-thumpin’, smoke-spewin’ sermon. Dressed in a conservatively cut brown suit, his face taut with grim emotion, Falwell unloaded a half-hour harangue on the excesses and decadence of modern society.”

Could you imagine that crummy story running today in one of the nation’s 50 largest papers? Probably not. Certainly not if a reporter like Peter Smith is covering the event.

So we’ve made progress. But there’s a lot of progress still to be made. There are far too few evangelicals (or Mormons for that matter) writing in America’s major newsrooms — and far too few writers who understand America’s largest religious bloc. As a result, you see silly mistakes in major publications.

Back to the Mormons: a major newsweekly last week had a picture of the Mormon Tabernacle and referred to it as the Salt Lake Temple. It wasn’t. They’re two very different buildings. A major West Coast daily a couple of years back botched the name of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in one of its stories — especially embarrassing in Oregon, where the LDS church is the second-largest religious body. Silly mistakes like these wouldn’t happen if there were a few more Mormons in big city newsrooms.

On a related note, I think the major media is figuring out that the Mitt Romney story is more complex than just, “Are Romney’s opponents bigots?” They’re looking at his faith — and his opponents — in more nuanced ways.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

flockwoodI really look forward to following the presidential election. I’m curious if evangelicals will stick together as a voting bloc, or whether they’ll fragment in 2008. My guess is that they’ll never be more homogeneous than they were during the last election.

By the way, I’m always somewhat amused when major publications “discover” born again Christian voters, as they did when Carter was elected in 1976 and in 2004 when President Bush won a second term. These evangelicals — tens of millions of them — didn’t immigrate to America during our bicentennial year nor did they go into hibernation after President Carter’s victory. They’ve been here all along and they’re not going anywhere — at least in the near term. They’re only “discovered” at election time because that’s the only time some journalists pay attention to the territory between LA and Manhattan. We’ve seen a series of books and a documentary or two recently warning that “religious extremists” are taking over America.

Well, polling doesn’t back that up. Gallup’s polls don’t indicate that the America is turning into a more conservative or more religious society or that Americans are shifting to either the far right or the far left.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

Religion isn’t going away and it’s not getting less important. You can’t understand the world if you’re spiritually illiterate. Does that mean journalists need to be able to quote [theologian] Paul Tillich? No. But they should know basic demographics. They should be able to tell the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. They should know the differences between, say, Catholicism, mainline Protestantism and Evangelical Christianity. They should be able to name most of the Ten Commandments and recognize most of the major U.S. religious denominations.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

flockwoodEasy. The Los Angeles Times op-ed piece by Larry Flynt paying homage to Rev. Jerry Falwell. The two men were buddies, traded dieting tips, called each other to chat. Who’d have guessed? It’s a strange world.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

Yeah, if you’re a new religion journalist or an aspiring journalist, you need to find out about an organization called the Religion Newswriters Association. These folks helped me tremendously when I first was assigned to the religion beat. They hold great workshops for newcomers and their annual convention is one of the highlights of my year — right behind Christmas. They offer scholarships so people from financially-strapped papers can attend and they bring together the very best religion writers in the country. This year it’s in San Antonio and it’ll be a blast.

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Hanging out with Julie ‘Bible Girl’ Lyons

bible girlTime for another 5Q+1 session.

If Russell Chandler, retired from the Los Angeles Times, is one of the gold-standard names in traditional religion-beat work, then our second subject represents a much edgier style of reporting from the post-1960s alternative press. The work being done by Julie Lyons in her Bible Girl columns at the Dallas Observer represents a kind of neo-European, advocacy version of the Godbeat in modern niche media.

Lyons is in her mid-40s and a native of Milwaukee. She received a B.A. in English from Seattle Pacific University and an M.S. in journalism from Northwestern University. Bible Girl and her husband are on the pastoral staff of The Body of Christ Assembly in South Dallas, where, she says she “speaks in tongues, early and often.”

Lyons has been editor of the Observer for 11 years. The newspaper is owned by Village Voice Media and, surely, she is the only Pentecostal editor in that chain. Lyons said that she started writing Bible Girl in August 2006 after an argument with her blog editor, who didn’t think she was writing enough for the staff blog. Bible Girl, she says, draws more posted comments than anything else the newspaper publishes, online or in print.

Well, this newspaper is in Dallas, after all. People there want to read about religion.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

Charisma (especially J. Lee Grady) and Christianity Today magazines; www.getreligion.org (really) and Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Con blog for Beliefnet; Bible Girl readers who e-mail me or post comments; The Dallas Morning News (especially religion writer Jeffrey Weiss) and its religion blog (www.religion.beloblog.com); The New York Times; the religion-related blogs of some writer friends of mine (such as Sandi Glahn: www.aspire2.blogspot.com); but mostly, from being deeply involved in an evangelical church and talking to a lot of people.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

The mainstream media barely have a clue about Pentecostals and how they’re transforming and impacting evangelical Christianity all over the world. They don’t understand: (a) the tremendous variety of traditions and beliefs within the Pentecostal-holiness movement; (b) Pentecostalism’s departure from the Western, rationalistic expressions of Christianity we’re most familiar with; (c) the concern for racial and ethnic reconciliation that still lies at the movement’s core; (d) the emphasis within Pentecostalism on active, practical faith over biblical minutiae; (e) why Pentecostalism is catching on in places in the developing world where non-Pentecostal clergy once decried the shallowness and/or scarcity of Christian conversions; (f) the fact that we’re not superstitious ignoramuses or tongue-babbling loonies.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

How African Pentecostals are calling the Pentecostal movement back to its holiness roots, and a somewhat related story — how Pentecostals are dealing (or not dealing) with the many lurid sexual and financial scandals in their midst.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

There’s a reason why people go to all those churches, and it’s not because they’re stupid or pathetic. Their faith is the driving force in their lives; it’s as real to them as whether they’re black or white, male or female. Even more real.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

Sad to say, I haven’t come across much that’s funny or ironic lately in my reporting and reading. Just some of the most sordid and bizarre scandals involving clergy — stuff I couldn’t make up if I tried. That’s ironic when it involves leading lights in the so-called holiness churches, but it sure ain’t funny.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

Religion coverage may not be selling a lot of ads, but it’s essential to understanding the communities you report on. Get out there and spend some time in churches, from the biggest to the smallest. Understand what makes believers tick — their concerns, their hopes, why they do what they do. Stop relying on quotes from the same list of church leaders.

And while you’re out there, answer me this: Why does every dish at the church potluck feature noodles?

Lyons asked us not to use her photograph, because she is doing some undercover work at the moment. To understand the symbolism of her logo, check out this highly personal, take-no-prisoners “Bible Girl” column.

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