Great teachers are everywhere … not

textbooksAs a teacher, I really care about teaching.

As a college teacher, I really care about trends in all of the schools that send me students — schools both public and private.

As a teacher in the global Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, I am concerned about trends in religious education at all levels and, frankly, how religious schools compete with those in the secular marketplace.

So I read with interest, on the airplane to the left coast today, the large USA Today spread announcing this year’s top teachers from coast to coast. Here is the top of the report by Tracey Wong Briggs:

It’s 6 a.m. and All-USA Teacher Team members Benita Hackett Albert and Amber Larkin already are arriving at work. …

Albert and Larkin start early and never stop in their relentless efforts to help students learn. They are two of 20 educators honored today in the newspaper’s teacher recognition program. All 20 teachers named to the 10th annual All-USA Teacher Team receive trophies and share $2,500 cash awards with their schools as representatives of all outstanding teachers.

“Few professions can rival teaching for its long-term impact on young people,” says editor Ken Paulson. “USA TODAY is honored to recognize the members of the All-USA Teacher Team for their professionalism and passion in educating a new generation.”

Team members were chosen from K-12 teachers nominated nationwide. In a two-step process, judges considered how well teachers identify and address their students’ needs and, most important, the impact they have on students and learning.

The 20 teachers demonstrate that great teaching thrives in all sorts of places.

Bibles StackGreat teaching does not, it appear, thrive in Catholic places, Lutheran places, Jewish places, evangelical places, Christian Reformed places or in other settings in which faith is seen as a natural partner to learning.

Am I missing something in this package? Are there any teachers on the team from religious schools? Has this gap existed in the past?

Don’t get me wrong, if USA Today wants to name a public-school all-star team — that’s great. Go right ahead and let’s all cheer.

What got my attention was that this was supposed to be a national all-star teaching team and (a) there are no religious school stars named and (b) the package does not say these teachers were not considered in the contest. Did I miss a reference somewhere that made that exclusion clear?

Again, I am asking a journalistic question about the package — not questioning the newspaper’s right to create a much-needed program to honor public-school classroom stars. Got the difference?

What did I miss? Please correct me.

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Hannah, why do you weep?

rachleahAnn Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is a prolific religion writer. Using the hook of a seminar scheduled at a Roman Catholic seminary, Rodgers looks at the pain endured by religious adherents suffering from infertility.

This is precisely the type of story I wish more media outlets would cover. Even from a secular perspective, the lack of understanding about in vitro fertilization is problematic. How many people understand that couples create a number of embryos and discard the ones they don’t, uh, need? For many years it was impossible to find that fact in mainstream media reports. I wonder why churches don’t talk about the ethics of infertility treatments more, too, but I suspect many religious leaders find it too difficult, considering their prevalence. Rodgers begins her story by mentioning that various religious traditions object to some infertility treatments:

For Catholics, whose church raises the widest array of concerns, it can be especially daunting, said Eileen Kummant, a family practice physician in White Oak who helps Catholics treat infertility without violating church teaching.

Even the most faithful, who often seek her practice because of her values, are tempted to ignore moral concerns when their own efforts to conceive have failed, she said.

“A lot of people are really hurting when they have infertility problems. Sometimes they just don’t want to think about anything that might say they can’t do whatever is necessary to have a baby — especially when it seems that other people have no problem with it,” she said.

“It seems like a hope that they are told they can’t have.”

Rodgers looks at the aforementioned objections to embryo destruction, which is frequently the case with IVF. Others, such as Orthodox Jews, object to masturbation to collect semen, she writes. The most widespread qualms concern the use of surrogate mothers, she adds. Here she looks at the local conference:

At Saturday’s workshop, church teaching will be explained, but so will medical solutions that the church accepts, said Susan Rauscher, head of the diocesan Social Awareness Office.

One example is lower tubal ovum transfer, where a blocked egg is moved from the upper to the lower part of the fallopian tube and fertilized there.

The article is very thorough, looking at the stress infertility — and infertility treatments — can cause in a marriage. I particularly liked the ending:

The Bible has many stories about infertility. The story of Rachel and Leah illustrates the great jealousy that can arise when an infertile woman’s sister has children, he said. But one problem for those who turn to the Bible for comfort is that its infertility stories often end with a miracle baby. This can make couples feel that their infertility is due to a lack of faith or that God doesn’t love them.

It’s important to remember that the stories aren’t trying to explain infertility, but to show God’s power, [Karl] Schultz[, a Catholic writer from the North Side with a background in pastoral psychology] said.

“The biblical authors knew that things did not always turn out well [for infertile couples]. They are pointing in the long term to God’s plan of salvation,” he said.

There are so many religion stories like this one that affect countless readers and viewers. I hope for fewer stories about who various religious groups are thinking about voting for and more stories about the real drama in the lives of religious adherents.

Art: Michelangelo’s Rachel and Leah

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What would Reinhold drive?

Reinhold NiebuhrLast week I expressed my disappointment in Paul Elie’s essay for The Atlantic on various efforts to claim the mantle of Reinhold Niebuhr. Wilfred McClay — who was one target of Elie’s essay and a friend of this blog before this blog even existed (i.e., a friend of mine through email) — dropped me a note to express his dismay about Elie’s treatment of his remarks.

On Monday he posted a withering rejoinder at On the Square, the weblog of First Things. McClay describes receiving a call from Elie in February:

It was a good conversation for the most part, though I came away bothered by Elie’s repeated efforts to force me to discuss my views about specific points of foreign policy, particularly the war in Iraq, rather than my views of Niebuhr. Indeed, despite a lengthy conversation, I was not sure he grasped my perspective on Niebuhr, and I emailed him a lengthy follow-up memo, for which he thanked me. Many months passed, and I wondered if the project had died. But now it has finally appeared in the November issue of the Atlantic as “A Man for All Reasons.”

McClay especially takes issue with this passage:

McClay wholly supported the war on terror (“When the President says, ‘Let’s roll,’ I’m ready”), and he was sure that Niebuhr would have, too. “What might we learn from Niebuhr about our current challenges, which are so different from those presented by the Cold War?” he asked rhetorically. “First and foremost, that it is right and just for Christians to support this war. Indeed, they have an obligation to do so.” He went on to say that he suspected “Niebuhr might well approve of President Bush’s remarkably skillful and sensitive handling of the events of the past few months.” . . . McClay’s Niebuhr was a muscular Christian in a Humvee, ready to roll.

McClay writes, in response:

What Elie has culled and spliced from my text, however, are unrepresentative and misleading fragments. Consider his mention of my assent to the words, “Let’s roll.” Leave aside the fact that, in the next sentence, I insist that we should not in the process forget about some of the morally troubling aspects of our own country. Concentrate instead on “Let’s roll,” which Elie uses to make a wisecrack about Humvees and muscular Christianity.

It’s not a good sign for a journalist when the subject of a story, even a critical report, believes his remarks have been subjected to misrepresentation. Some level of protest may be expected in an expose of a crime or some other scandal, but this is a report about ideological and political disagreements. I will be eager to see if Elie responds to McClay’s protest. Considering McClay’s vigorous defense, and the link to the text from which Elie drew his conclusions, McClay appears to have a valid complaint.

Finally, in the same email, McClay pointed out that though Stanley Hauerwas has resigned from the First Things board, “he has continued to publish and get a hearing at FT, and indeed, an article of his appears on the cover of the October 2007 issue.”

This is encouraging news about Hauerwas and his long-term dialogue with First Things.

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Exchanging one caricature for another

WillsCoverIn the Oct. 8 New Republic, Alan Wolfe of Boston College reviews Head and Heart: American Christianities, the latest book by Garry Wills. The argument of Head and Heart, as condensed by Wolfe, should gladden the heart of anyone who has night sweats because of the Religious Right:

American Christianity in general, and American Protestantism more specifically, has always contained two currents, two wings — one that appeals to logic and reason, and another that appeals to emotion and belonging.

Wills gives these two movements the shorthand labels of Enlightened and Evangelical, and predictable generalizations ensue:

In one corner stands biblical literalism, pre-Millennialism, male chauvinism, American exceptionalism, anti-Catholicism, and political conservatism. In the other: biblical scholarship, post-Millennialism, internationalism, religious toleration, gender equality, and political liberalism.

Golly, the categories are that clear? Someone should send a cease and desist order to all those evangelicals who know their way around biblical interpretation; disagree with each other about Millennialism and gender roles; and celebrate their shared beliefs with Catholics.

Trampling on his own stick-figure argument, Wills assures readers that such a strict separation of head and heart is unnecessary. Wolfe points out the flaws in Wills’ assumption that such a separation has ever existed:

Consider a few of the figures and movements that Wills discusses. Some of them belong to neither the Enlightened nor the Evangelical camp — including Tom Paine, who, contrary to Wills, was about as irreligious as a prominent eighteenth-century writer could be. And others belong to both camps: Jonathan Edwards, to cite only the most prominent example, was an avid reader of both John Locke and Isaac Newton, and at the same time a sympathizer with the Great Awakening. … If what we really should want is a balance between these poles, well, that is to a considerable extent what we always have had.

Toward the end of his 4,200-word essay, however, Wolfe unloads this comparable whopper of dismissing entire swaths of religious culture:

It is true that evangelicals and mainline Protestants disagree politically, but if serious theological differences between them exist, they are hard to spot. Neither camp has produced a serious work of religious thought in decades.

Who cares about Ellen Charry, William Countryman, Marva Dawn, Peter Gomes, Stanley Hauerwas, Alister McGrath, Nancey Murphy, Clark Pinnock and Miroslav Volf? Their theological differences, which are readily apparent to most readers, elude Alan Wolfe.

I am reminded of the hubristic Vizzini in The Princess Bride, who said to Westley, “Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Morons.” Wolfe writes in his essay that he has spent “lots of time visiting evangelical colleges and seminaries and attending megachurch services.” I’m glad he announces this, because it’s not evident in his writing.

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Abortion by the numbers

numbertossDid you catch this story about abortion rates worldwide? It’s based on a new study done by researchers with the Guttmacher Institute (Planned Parenthood’s research arm) and the World Health Institute that was published in The Lancet.

Here is how the Associated Press began its article, “Abortion rates same whether legal or not,” published on MSNBC:

Women are just as likely to get an abortion in countries where it is outlawed as they are in countries where it is legal, according to research published Friday.

Fascinating, eh? Except later on in the AP story we read this:

In North America, there are 33 abortions for every 100 live births, while in Africa, where abortion is illegal in most countries, there are 17 abortions for every 100 live births.

Okay, so let me get this straight. Women are just as likely to get an abortion in countries where it is outlawed as they are in countries where it is legal. But in North America, where abortion is legal, the ratio of abortions per 100 live births is twice as high as it is in Africa, where abortion is mostly illegal. An accompanying graph shows that some regions of the world, where abortion is illegal, have 12 abortions per 100 live births. Other regions, where abortion is legal, have 105 abortions per 100 live births.

Confused? I sure was until I figured out that the numbers in the AP story aren’t rates — they’re ratios! The abortion rate is the number of abortions performed per 1,000 women. That’s a different statistic than the number of abortions per 100 live births. For some reason, the AP story doesn’t substantiate the lede or headline with any supporting rate numbers. The New York Times also wrote up the story. It doesn’t mention what the worldwide abortion rate is, although it mentions those for the U.S. (21), Uganda (54) and Western Europe (12).

The Times piece had its own confusing lede:

A comprehensive global study of abortion has concluded that abortion rates are similar in countries where it is legal and those where it is not, suggesting that outlawing the procedure does little to deter women seeking it.

Reported abortion rates aren’t terribly similar anywhere — they vary wildly, as indicated by the three regions the Times cited. So saying that abortion rates are similar in countries where it is legal and where it is illegal only works if you average the rates in all the countries where it is legal and all the countries where it is illegal — which is a pretty meaningless average, if you ask me. Even in the U.S. reported abortion rates vary wildly. The 50 states reported everything from 2 to 37 abortions per 1,000 women in a 1996 CDC report.

So in order to determine, as the Times hopes to, whether outlawing abortion in a given country deters women from it, we’d need a longitudinal study. We’d need to look at the change in a given country’s abortion rate after a change in laws governing abortion. Only then could we tell whether outlawing abortion deters women from seeking it. Near as I can tell, that was beyond the scope of the Guttmacher/WHO study so it should be beyond the claim made in a mainstream media report.

It’s another part of the AP article that I found most surprising, though:

Worldwide, one in five pregnancies ends in abortion, and nine out of 10 women will have an abortion before age 45.

The statistic — that one in five pregnancies ends in abortion — is not impossible to believe, although the study’s author is about to give a presentation in Washington that says, in part, “About 1 in 10 pregnancies ends in abortion.” It’s just numbers, right?

It’s the second statistic that completely shocks me, though. Ninety percent of women will have abortions during their childbearing years? This just doesn’t sound right to me. Even when you factor in China, where a significant percentage of the female population is forced to have abortions. If it’s true, shouldn’t there be some explanation to that? Such as, “Although this number seems blatantly false on its face, here’s why it’s true.” Instead, it just goes on to some other point. Shouldn’t the reporter help explain that number?

The folks at the Guttmacher Institute tried to calculate how many American women would have an abortion during their childbearing years. Here’s what they came up with:

Each year, two out of every 100 women aged 15-44 have an abortion; 48% of them have had at least one previous abortion.

About half of American women have experienced an unintended pregnancy, and at current rates more than one-third will have had an abortion by age 45.

Emphasis mine. So in the U.S., Guttmacher estimates that more than 33 percent of women will have at least one abortion during their lifetime. But worldwide it’s 90 percent? Even though abortion rates in the world vary drastically — to be both higher and lower than the U.S. average? How is that number true? What am I missing?

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Another seminary homemaking story — not

20051102 12 table1jpg 1 515hIt would be hard to imagine a news story that would offend a higher percentage of people in modern mainstream newsrooms than the trend, on Southern Baptist seminary campuses, to create “homemaking” classes to help women learn how to serve their husbands and the church as pastors’ wives.

This is a five-star superstory, complete with waves of potentially snarky ideas and images. These stories have to contain bite, because the Baptist world is bitterly divided over a host of issues linked to gender. Go for it.

So here is the top of a recent Los Angeles Times story — dateline Fort Worth, Texas — on this issue:

Equal but different.

You hear that a lot on the lush green campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. God values men and women equally, any student here will tell you. It’s just that he’s given them different responsibilities in life: Men make decisions. Women make dinner.

This fall, the internationally known seminary — a century-old training ground for Southern Baptists — began reinforcing those traditional gender roles with college classes in homemaking. The academic program, open only to women, includes lectures on laundering stubborn stains and a lab in baking chocolate-chip cookies. Philosophical courses such as “Biblical Model for the Home and Family” teach that God expects wives to graciously submit to their husbands’ leadership.

Attention. Draw swords. Open your Bibles.

You already know what this story is going to be like in the typical newspaper, don’t you? At least, you probably think that you do.

However, as we often note on this site, there are professional religion writers out there (and we like to praise them) who don’t like to settle for the same old images. And this article was reported and written by one Stephanie Simon — who just loves the tensions and paradoxes that circle hot topics like this one.

Thus, in this story you also get to read the following:

In the undergraduate college — which opened two years ago — every student must take Greek or Latin, plus seminars that explore works by Sophocles and Shakespeare, Machiavelli and Marx, Darwin and Dostoyevsky. The other day, Sarah Babler, an 18-year-old freshman enrolled in the homemaking program, was writing a paper on the Trojan War for one class. For another, she was parsing Proverbs 31 — on the attributes of a godly woman.

She and others in the homemaking program devote about 20% of their classroom time over four years to courses such as “Clothing Construction,” “Meal Preparation,” and “Value of a Child.” Such classes went out of style at most secular colleges half a century ago, but undergraduate Quincy A. Jones said he considered them essential in a world where too many families are fractured and unhappy.

OK, how many of the undergraduate programs at the other colleges in the area — in the stereotypical degree plans of today — require source-material reading in “Sophocles and Shakespeare, Machiavelli and Marx, Darwin and Dostoyevsky”? Obviously, there are elements of a “great books” program built into this school.

That’s great stuff and I mean, of course, the strong, vivid, often infuriating facts in this story on both sides of the issue. This is why the religion beat needs talented professionals.

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Where’s God in the ORU mess?

Little mention of religion appears in the coverage by The New York Times of a lawsuit filed by three former Oral Roberts University professors. According to the article, the professors are alleging “financial, political and personal irregularities” by Richard Roberts, the president of the Christian liberal arts university in Tulsa, Okla.

The ex-professors, citing a secret internal report by an official of the Oral Roberts Ministries, linked to the university in Tulsa, Okla., sued on Oct. 2. They also contended that the Roberts house on the campus had been remodeled 11 times in 14 years, that the university jet took family members on trips and that the family’s university-paid cellphones sent text messages to “under-age males — often between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m.”

The plaintiffs said “some of the more salacious entries” were omitted from the suit “to preserve, as much as possible, the remaining positive image of the university.”

A plaintiff, John Swails, a 14-year tenured professor and the chairman of the department of history, humanities and government, said by phone he had been fired after providing a copy of the report to the university provost, Ralph Fagin, and the university’s Board of Regents in July. “It was the first they saw of it,” Mr. Swails said.

First off, reporters should not include unspecified allegations as a basic rule of thumb. Essentially what that second paragraph says is that Richard Roberts did something really really bad, but we’re not saying since it would hurt the reputation of the institution we so love. Right. Or maybe you can’t substantiate it with any evidence?

Much of the reporting plays off an interview Richard Roberts and his wife, Lindsay, did for CNN’s Larry King Live Tuesday night. A lot of people that you’d think would have interesting things to say were either unavailable or had no comment.

Overall, though, this was a difficult story for the NYT to report, and more details are certainly to emerge in the coming weeks. The big thing missing in this story about a Christian university led by the son of a Christian television evangelist is, well, religious issues. Little is said of the university’s charismatic perspective and even less is said about its connection with the Word of Faith doctrine, which is a close cousin of the doctrine of prosperity.

Could that explain the corporate jet Richard Roberts is standing next to in the NYT photo and the allegation that his home has been remodeled more times than most people deep clean their homes? And why does this story seem so familiar?

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Would Niebuhr subscribe to First Things?

Reinhold NiebuhrPaul Elie’s latest essay for The Atlantic, a 6,400-word report on the variety of political thinkers who cite the late Reinhold Niebuhr as their hero, starts off strong but spends too much time waist-deep in the big muddy of debates about the Iraq War.

The essay is a fine crash course in Niebuhr and his thinking. Considering that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama also name-check Niebuhr, I think Elie missed an opportunity to explore other political uses of the heavily influential pastor and political philosopher. (Elie mentions only Obama’s enthusiasm for Niebuhr, and then only as an aside.)

Instead, we are treated to the entertainment of reading about Richard John Neuhaus and First Things (which Elie calls “the house organ of the theocons”) invoking Niebuhr while rebuking Stanley Hauerwas, the highly principled theologian and pacifist who sat on the First Things editorial board — until then.

Elie’s reference to First Things as a house organ is one of the first warnings that his essay will be a bit too predictable in its criticisms. There is, for instance, the clockwork invocation of Jerry Falwell and Ronald Reagan as villains:

On the surface, our society is thick with religion, but it is religion whose history is merely decorative, like the fiberglass pillars and aluminum gaslights of a McMansion in the suburbs. The Christianity that has a voice in official Washington has as its patriarchs Reagan and Falwell, not Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and yet it has managed to make the nation’s longer biblical history repulsive to the liberals who once acknowledged it as a basic fact of our heritage.

There’s also this breathtaking generalization about the supposed complicity of churches in the Iraq War:

To an astonishing degree, churches have underwritten the war in Iraq, recasting the biblical tradition in accord with the policies of the White House. They’ve replaced two millennia of thinking about war and peace with grade-school tutorials on Islam and facile comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam, attempting to make a usable past out of events that are hardly even past.

Jim Wallis, Pope Benedict XVI, leaders of mainline Protestant churches, authors of every anti-Religious Right book published in the past 18 months: Call your publicists, then have them call Paul Elie.

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