Readers lost in Sea of Reeds?

parting red seaWhile I was covering the religion beat for The Charlotte Observer long ago, one of my editors stressed that I should not write in a story that a man said that a key moment in his life was when he “walked the aisle” and “accepted Jesus as his personal savior.”

It did not matter that these terms were used in an evangelical context and were explained. It also didn’t matter to the editor — a Unitarian, by the way — that the newspaper was in a city in which one of the major roads is named after that famous local guy named Billy Graham.

This is, however, an example of a crucial issue for professionals on the Godbeat.

How do we know what our readers understand and what they do not understand? Does it matter if a reporter uses religious language accurately if a large percentage of readers do not know what the words mean? Where do we cross the line between writing with authority and simply sliding — “inside baseball style” — into niche language?

Please consider this example on the left side of the sanctuary aisle.

GetReligion reader John L. Hoh Jr. recently sent us an interesting Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story about rites held for five women who never been able to celebrate bat mitzvah ceremonies. Here is a crucial passage in the story:

(At) one point, Rabbi David Brusin surprised the people at Congregation Shir Hadash by having the five women take tambourines and move through the parting, swaying crowd in a symbolic re-enactment of Miriam crossing the parted Sea of Reeds with Moses.

The idea for Saturday’s event originated with the congregation’s Rosh Hodesh women’s group, named after the monthly appearance of the new moon in the Jewish calendar. It is celebrating its 13th anniversary this year, the age at which girls in this Reconstructionist congregation normally have a bat mitzvah ceremony.

Having these adult women become b’not mitzvah (the plural of bat mitzvah) was a meaningful way to mark the anniversary, said Sara Shutkin of Whitefish Bay, who is a founder of the group. Most grew up when such public ceremonies were not commonly offered for girls in Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative congregations in their areas.

I have some questions. It helps that the story makes an attempt to define, in some way, the small Reconstructionist movement (the modernist, progressive wing of Judaism). Still, readers are given little to work with in terms of where this movement fits in with Reform or Conservative Judaism, let alone the various forms of Orthodox Judaism. Do readers know things like that?

And what about the Sea of Reeds? I assume that people who have taken a biblical-studies class or two in college or graduate school would understand that reference. But many, many more people are likely to be confused. They are familiar with the parting of the Red Sea, as described in thousands of churches and synagogues (not to mention a certain Hollywood movie and plenty of other forms of populist art).

Should the reporter pause and explain the background of that “Sea of Reeds” reference? Should it be placed in the context of debates between premodern and modern forms of the Jewish faith? In other words, for whom is this story written? How much do these readers need to know in order to read their daily newspaper?

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Here’s a W library starting point

20040115 7 neworleans1 515hThe last time we tuned in the Southern Methodist University soap opera involving the George W. Bush presidential library, we were seeing lots of people claim that, for the faculty, this was an issue of academic freedom and, for a vocal chorus of Methodist clergy, it was a fight over W’s sins against “Methodist values” in foreign policy and a hot cultural issue or two.

The key quote came in a letter published by some professors at the Perkins School of Theology, who said:

“Do we want SMU to benefit financially from a legacy of massive violence, destruction, and death brought about by the Bush presidency in dismissal of broad international opinion? … What moral justification supports SMU’s providing a haven for a legacy of environmental predation and denial of global warming, shameful exploitation of gay rights, and the most critical erosion of habeas corpus in memory?”

That sounded like culture wars language to me, some of it, at least.

In response to that earlier post, GetReligion received this comment:

As a mid-90s Perkins alum, I can say that several of our faculty then excelled at mining the decades of (John) Wesley’s writings to proof-text anything they cared to believe. His exclusivist views on salvation and other ideas that might be embarassing to our modern and all-open, all-affirming ears were overlooked or consigned to the classrooms of a few of those wingnut types who still believed such things.

The amusing thing is that there is suddenly a concern among Perkins faculty about SMU’s Methodist image. That image is strong enough to survive a booze-drenched Greek system, a push to use the university’s initials rather than its name (so as to not ruffle those who might be uncomfortable being associated with a church) and years of athletic department abuses that brought about the NCAA’s only “death penalty” sanction. But it can’t survive this, it seems. …

Posted by Brett at 5:04 pm on January 27, 2007

So is this fight about the Iraq war? Yes.

Is this about other political issues? Yes.

Is this conflict also about the doctrinal and moral issues that are rocking the United Methodist Church, especially in a city where you have a liberal school of theology surrounded by, well, Texas?

In a word, yes. The best answer is “All of the above.” So how do you capture that in simple language in a short daily news report? Impossible, right?

Well, take a look at this section of a Religion News Service story by reporter G. Jeffrey MacDonald that moved the other day. The wrinkle is that, this time around, it is the conservatives who are playing the “tolerance” card. Can’t SMU allow some diversity? That leads to this:

What began as an internal flap at SMU became a national debate for Methodists after a library site-selection committee in December named SMU the sole finalist. Critics fear a privately funded policy institute, or think tank, will tie the Methodist name to a partisan public relations enterprise. Opponents are calling on the Methodist Church to forbid use of SMU property for such a purpose.

The Bush brouhaha brings out familiar fault lines between theological liberals and conservatives across the 8 million-member denomination. Methodists have battled for years over issues such as gay clergy and abortion.

The same people who have argued for pluralism within the denomination on matters of doctrine are insisting on a particular brand of ethical purity in the public square, supporters of the Bush library say.

It’s easy to argue about that last statement. But the key is the “fault lines” material in the middle of that passage. That is part of the Bush library battle. That’s a fact and that part of the story needs to be covered, in order to grasp the emotions stirred up by the conflict in Dallas pews, pulpits and classroom podiums. Can I get an amen?

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The Harvard way of getting religion

crew at harvard The smart folks over at Harvard University came out with their report on how to overhaul the general education curriculum, more commonly known as the core curriculum. As expected, the requirement asking students to study religion as a particular subject was dropped.

I found it curious that The Boston Globe ignored the religious angle until the ninth paragraph, but that did not stop the Associated Press and Reuters from proclaiming that the subject of religion would be included in the curriculum, just not as previously proposed. If you’re confused about the difference, you’re not alone. As best I can tell, the members of the committee found it best to tuck religious studies into a broader category:

An earlier proposal would have made Harvard unique among its elite Ivy League peers by requiring undergraduates to study religion as a distinct subject, but that was dropped in December.

The changes to the general-education requirements, imposed on students outside their major, still address religious beliefs and practices. Study of those issues, however, would be folded into a broader subject of “culture and belief.”

How is this different from what Harvard has now? Neither article told us, but I’m told that under the existing curriculum students had to take a class under the category of Moral Reasoning, which included some courses about religion but others that were closer to secular philosophy.

After my first post on the issue, reader Eric Chaffee asked why Moral Reasoning was dumped. That’s a good question reporters haven’t really answered. My impression is that the university is making the change for the sake of change, but it is definitely worth following up on.

What is most interesting in the AP and Reuters stories on the report is this fact:

“Harvard is a secular institution but religion is an important part of our students’ lives,” it said. It noted that 94 percent of Harvard’s incoming students report that they discuss religion “frequently” or “occasionally,” and 71 percent say that they attend religious services.

While that is a rather vague stat, one has to wonder how it compares with other secular universities. There is a story to tell about the status of religion at Harvard, and I’ll be waiting for someone to tell it.

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One chapel altar, minus one cross

virginia70This may sound like a strange question, but I think it is one that needs to be asked and, if asked, it could add some needed depth to a hot-button story in Virginia higher education.

Ready? Why does anyone think that there should be a cross on the altar of the nondenominational, multi-faith Wren Chapel at the College of William & Mary?

I realize that this is an emotional issue for many people, including alumni, donors, parents and a few students. I know that this 313-year-old school was founded as an Anglican institution (and I will avoid any cheap jokes about the role of the cross in modern debates between Episcopalians and Anglicans). But the fact is that — whatever its heritage — William & Mary is now a public school. It’s a state school.

Unless the school has other chapels available for members of other faiths, what is the church-state argument (other than historical) for a state school to have a Christian cross in its multi-faith chapel? After a quick run through the school’s website, I cannot find evidence of other chapels.

I raise this because of a page-one story by reporter Natasha Altamirano in the The Washington Times, under the headline “Bow to diversity leaves altar empty.” The hook for the story is the tense atmosphere at the back-to-school State of the College address by President Gene R. Nichol. Here is a key part of the story:

“I modified the way in which the cross is displayed in the ancient Wren Chapel seeking to assure that the marvelous Wren — so central to the life of the college — be equally open and welcoming to all,” Mr. Nichol told roughly 400 students, alumni and faculty packed into the college’s Commonwealth Auditorium.

Mr. Nichol said the decision has received wide support but “many, many have seen it otherwise” and have asked him to reconsider.

. . . Mr. Nichol said removing the cross has raised broader questions: “Does the separation of church and state at public universities seek a bleaching of the importance and influence of faith and religious thought from our discourse?” and “Can a public university honor and celebrate a particular religious heritage while remaining equally welcoming to those of all faiths?”

The old policy at the college was that the 2-foot-high, century-old bronze cross stayed on the altar unless someone requested that it be removed for a special event. Now, that policy has been flipped. Those using the chapel can request that the cross be taken out of storage and returned to its place on the altar.

Before, the bare altar was optional. Now, the cross is optional at William & Mary.

Some people are upset by the symbolism of the change. I am asking about the legal reality. Why have a cross in a multi-faith, state-funded chapel?

If parents, students and donors are upset, they should support private schools where the presence of the cross is normative. That is their choice. It would be interesting to ask if any William & Mary supporters are planning to do that. Can Nichol please both sides?

However, if the opponents of this move have arguments that are deeper than symbolism and tradition, I would be interested in reading them. I hope reporters at the Times and elsewhere will ask that question.

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The Safety Dance

no dancing signSo if it’s Monday, that must mean I write about something from The New York Times Sunday Magazine. And so I will. Mark Oppenheimer used the hook of a nondenominational university in Arkansas permitting dance for the first time as a way to explore some Christians’ view of dancing. The piece is ridiculously smooth and well-written and looks at the issue from a number of angles.

Mark Oppenheimer edits In Character, a thrice-yearly journal that looks at a single ethical concern each issue. He has written for The Believer (not a religious publication but a pretty awesome one), The New Yorker, Harper’s, Slate, The Wall Street Journal and The Christian Century. He’s not ideological per se but he clearly has a healthy respect for religion and ethics. And The New York Times Sunday Magazine found him although he’s never written for Mother Jones.

He has a Ph.D. in religious history from Yale and his two books are Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America and Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture. Here’s how he begins:

On the first night of December, an unseasonably cold one in the Ozarks, the boys and girls of John Brown University primped in their zoot suits, suspenders, waistcoats, spats, faux-hawks, pompadours, knee-length pleated skirts, nylons, snoods and inch-high black heels and marched through snow drifts to their gymnasium in the Walton Lifetime Health Complex, one of northwest Arkansas’s monuments to the Wal-Mart family’s generosity. Inside, the gymnasium was decorated with rows of Christmas lights strung overhead across the width of the basketball court, from one railing of the mezzanine jogging track to the other. The occasion, which would last from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., was a dance, the first of its kind at this small, nondenominational Christian college.

He contends, with the help of various evangelical scholars, that schools that formerly banned dancing are more accepting of the practice as foreign enrollment increases. He explains how some fundamentalists and other Christians came to ban drinking, smoking and dancing. But he also shows how dancing is lauded by some of the same type of Christians:

For conservative Christians, dancing is also a way to teach the virtues. Students are schooled in chivalry, taught always to walk a lady to and from the floor, applaud the band and ask the girl standing by herself for a dance. A swing, ballroom or square dance usually takes place in a well-lighted space. The swing dancers of yore may have been escaping supervision, but now dancing is a family affair: Nathan [Cozart] and Craig [Congdon] both dance with their siblings. (Craig danced with his mom.) Unlike Christian rock, the music for these dances is palatable to older generations too. Formal dances require instruction in the proper steps, which creates a role for parents or teachers. And of course, the sexuality of dance can be a positive thing, if it provides a sexual release without the sex.

It’s obvious that Oppenheimer took the time to get to know his subjects. He understands their diversity, their unique viewpoints and their biblical approach. In fact, the reader ends up pulling for various dancers in the school’s dance contest because they’re made so human. This is a minor quibble, but since I do street dance, I have to complain. Oppenheimer writes:

Still it’s hard to imagine that hip-hop dancing would ever be acceptable at J.B.U. — if too sexual, it wouldn’t be Christian, and if too Christian, it would be laughable.

This could only be written by someone who doesn’t understand hip-hop dance. There is nothing that makes hip-hop a more sexual category of dance than any other. But this is GetReligion, not GetDance, so I’ll stop.

Anyway, let me know what you thought of the article. It certainly didn’t paint these people in a glowing light, although it was sympathetic. I’d be curious how some of you Shaw Moore (John Lithgow in Footloose) types feel about the portrayal.

Photo via iambrain.dk on Flickr.

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Those SMU wars over Bush values

perkinschapelBack when I was in graduate school at Baylor University in the late 1970s, I had a classmate who was considering doing graduate work at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. This student was not a fundamentalist at all and, in fact, I believe that he soon converted to the Episcopal Church. As often happens, we lost touch after graduate school.

However, I do remember that his visits to Perkins raised some major questions in his mind. He found it interesting that there were very, very few professors there who believed in the resurrection of Jesus, at least not in any literal, historical sense of the word. It was also clear that hardly anyone there believed that “evangelism” — at least in the sense that John Wesley used the word — was an important subject, since the various world religions were all paths to the top of the same divine mountain, etc. etc. He knew that these beliefs were common, of course. He was simply surprised to find that they were so dominant at SMU, which is located — I stress again — in Dallas.

I bring this up because of the really interesting story that is unfolding at SMU, where a coalition of United Methodist ministers and faculty are mounting an attack on the construction of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and think tank. The latter would require the assigning or hiring of actual faculty members who would be willing to, I assume, argue in favor of any of the beliefs or actions of someone like Bush.

The key is that Bush does not represent “Methodist values.” There is also a crucial academic question at stake — the creation of the independent Bush Institute.

This story has been getting lots of coverage, and most of it has been pretty good. The assumption, of course, is that the division at SMU (Laura Bush’s alma mater) is rooted in the Iraq war. Here is a key passage in a recent piece by Miguel Bustillo of the Los Angeles Times:

The debate took off in November, when the SMU Daily Campus printed an opinion piece titled “The George W. Bush Library: asset or albatross?” The authors — William K. McElvaney, a professor emeritus, and associate professor Susanne Johnson, both of the Perkins School of Theology — made clear where they stood.

“Do we want SMU to benefit financially from a legacy of massive violence, destruction, and death brought about by the Bush presidency in dismissal of broad international opinion?” the two wrote. “What moral justification supports SMU’s providing a haven for a legacy of environmental predation and denial of global warming, shameful exploitation of gay rights, and the most critical erosion of habeas corpus in memory?”

That is an interesting set of political and moral issues, and they are all valid. I have no doubt that there are other issues that would cause tension at SMU. I’ll go even further than that and say that the same issues would cause some tension — slightly less, I think — in the faculty (and a few students) at Baylor, which could end up with the Bush library if SMU rejects it.

john wesley 1What’s my point? I am sure the Iraq war is a crucial factor in this story. However, I would be stunned if the basic division here isn’t rooted, just as much if not more, in religious and moral issues. The division, in a way, is between the world of mainline Protestantism and the evangelical world that helped elect Bush in the first place. In a way, this division has existed for a long time between SMU/Perkins and the dominant religious culture of Dallas and Texas. There are divisions among United Methodists, as well, that affect these kinds of debates.

So — you knew this was coming — I think it would be interesting to ask the ordained generals on both side of the Bush Library war the blunt questions in the tmatt trio:

1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

Thus, it is valid to debate whether Bush represents “Methodist values” on key issues.

However, it would also be interesting to find out if many of the same faculty and ministers who oppose this library would also have questions about whether the beliefs proclaimed by the evangelist named John Wesley are consistent with “Methodist values” as currently defined by many at SMU.

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More than a name at Harvard

Crew and DunsterWhat happens at Harvard University matters to journalists covering higher education. Whether you like it or not, as Hahvad goes, the rest of American academia goes, as the saying goes.

The debate at Harvard on what to do with the institution’s longstanding yet controversial core curriculum drew the attention of Newsweek‘s BeliefWatch section. Lisa Miller writes that new recommendations for the core curriculum will sustain “considerable damage from the culture wars.”

The skirmish centers on what to do with the traditional requirement that students take a course intended to teach them about religion and ethics. Why? Well, because religion matters in the world. But if you read the Newsweekpiece you’re led to believe that the battle is over what to call this segment of the curriculum. We are encouraged to ask, What’s in a name?

A friend of mine who attended Harvard in the 1990s said the requirement was called “Moral Reasoning” and included courses about religion and others that were closer to secular philosophy. My friend took a course on the Jewish philosopher Maimonides and one on the Old Testament.

A task force that will likely decide the issue of the core curriculum decided that all students should do some coursework in an area they would call “Reason & Faith,” according to the Newsweek piece. But some folks at the institution did not like that much:

Criticism was loud and immediate — and came largely from the science faculty. “There is an enormous constituency of people who would hold that faith and reason are two routes to knowledge. It is a mistake to affirm that,” says Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker. “It’s like having a requirement in ‘Astronomy & Astrology.’ They’re not comparable topics.” Pinker is not just splitting hairs. In a 2006 study of the religious beliefs of science professors at elite universities, SUNY Buffalo sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund found that many are infuriated by what they see as a widespread erosion of belief in proven scientific theories, such as evolution. “Some of the faculty I talked to wanted to suppress discussion of religion in the classroom,” she says. Pinker says he’s all for teaching students about world religions, just not as a requirement.

Enough people agreed with him. In December the task force withdrew its “Reason & Faith” recommendation, substituting instead a category called “What It Means to Be a Human Being.” On the phone, Louis Menand, the English professor who cochaired the task force, sounds exhausted. “It’s noncontroversial that there is this thing called religion out there and that it has an enormous impact on the world we live in. Scholars should be able to study and teach it without getting cooties” — a term of art, not science.

learningNewsweek‘s piece isn’t bad. It captures the main issue on the surface, which I guess is all you can do in a short column, but the substance of the story could have been portrayed more thoroughly. The fuss appears to be just over the name, but it is more than that. It involves what type of courses will fall in this category. For instance, do courses on Kant, Nietzsche or Marx fall into this category?

Harvard isn’t going to stop offering courses in religion anytime soon. The bigger question is whether the students in Cambridge will be required to take courses in that area. If students are no longer required to take courses in that area, department budgets could be affected.

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Hate in a story about embracing diversity

university of marylandThe best thing reporters can hear from editors is that they can have as much space as they need to tell the story. In an era of online publishing, this should be the case every time, but I don’t see reporters or their editors using that opportunity all that often.

In a world where column inches do not matter, reporters face a different challenge of knowing when to stop reporting and writing. In my own experience, a good editor acts as a good stop. A fast-approaching deadline also acts as a fairly reliable stopper.

In an excellent example of how to use the Internet to enhance a reporter’s ability to tell a story, The Washington Post‘s Michelle Boorstein filed two versions of her Jan. 15 article, “A Mission of Understanding: At U-Md., Evangelical Christian Teen Breaks Into the Mainstream, Out of His Comfort Zone.” One went into the morning newspaper, which I enjoyed over eggs and toast, and the other went online which I also enjoyed (sans the food).

Why aren’t newspapers doing this more often? The print version of the article, which I cannot find online, was more concise and more readable. And the online version seemed to read like the version that existed before the Post‘s inch-guardians got their grubby hands on it. The online version rambled a little bit, but it told a more complete story.

The story is about Danny Leydorf, who attended a Christian school in Annapolis since he was in kindergarten. For college he selected the University of Maryland, a secular state school, in an effort to “test his faith in a more diverse world.” This, as the article nicely outlines, is a growing trend among kids raised in Christian educational environments. For the last 30 years, kids coming out of Christian high schools were directed toward Christian colleges or the mission field, and even today there remains hesitancy about secular schools.

After reading the through the first five paragraphs of the article, one does not have to wonder why Christians are hesitating or nervous:

“I feel like I exist to be interacting,” the lanky, towheaded 19-year-old said eagerly one day last summer, shortly after his graduation, “and part of that is just getting out there.”

So he’d deliberately picked a large, secular college: the University of Maryland. But the week before he was to leave, the wider world dealt him a blow.

“I hate evangelical Christians,” read the Facebook.com profile of his roommate-to-be, who had seemed so perfect on the phone. He loved politics and “The Simpsons,” like Leydorf, and they even had the same views about how to set up the room. Could it still work?

We later learn that Leydorf decided to ignore the Facebook comment, concluding that the unnamed roommate was using “evangelical” to describe people like “Jerry Falwell whom Leydorf considers intolerant.” (I guess it just depends on how you define “evangelical,” right?)

facebookCollege kids are not exactly known for their discretion, and this is especially true for freshmen. Saying that you “hate” something on Facebook is not generally taken very seriously. For instance, there is a group on Facebook called “Abortion: Because I Hate Babies” that has 72 members. Another called “ACME employees who hate ACME” has 11 members. The “Adam Sandler Hate Club” has 46 members. You get the idea.

But that doesn’t mean the Post should simply ignore the irony that Leydorf, raised in a Christian school and seeking to learn to live in “a more diverse world,” is facing the hate of the real world before he even steps on campus. Perhaps Leydorf’s roommate will learn a thing or two from his new evangelical Christian friend who seems as willing as anyone to embrace diverse environments.

Go to the Maryland University homepage and you’ll immediately see a link on Diversity. On that page you’re told that this is “your road map to the plethora of equity and diversity undertakings on our campus.”

A huge part of the story is devoted to telling the story of why evangelicals withdrew from secular institutions. Perhaps this lack of interaction has allowed people like Leydorf’s roommate to develop a hate for Christians because they did not know any — or at least any like Leydorf, who is someone that most people would find it hard to hate.

Colleges and universities are burdened with the unenviable task for sorting through the competing values of free speech and protecting diversity and individual rights. Was this a comment that should have changed the direction of the story? I would say no because I think the writer had a better story to tell. But it’s certainly worth looking into in the future. And as I said earlier, time is the big constraint for reporters these days, not column inches.

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