The ongoing spectacle of NYTimes contempt for religion

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Yes, this was a piece of commentary. In other words, it was not a news story that automatically fell into GetReligion territory.

Yes, this mini-essay was about a new reality-television show way off in the outer reaches of cable land.

But, well, it was also a piece that was published with a staff byline in the pages of The New York Times under one of those double-decker headlines that simply demands attention, right this very moment:

Seek and Ye Shall Find a Hottie

In ‘It Takes a Church,’ the Congregation Helps Pick Your Date

Said review also contained an out-of-the-blue statement that, well, you just knew GetReligion readers were going to bring to our attention again, and again, and again, world without end, amen. More on that in a moment.

Nevertheless, your GetReligionistas passed the URL around for a day or so and we concluded that we would let this one pass us by. Then GetReligionista emeritus M.Z. Hemingway jumped in, over at The Federalist, and went all GetReligion on it. Thus, we are choosing to pass along what she had to say.

So what’s this all about? The Times explains:

Each week the show visits a congregation and matches up one of its single members with a prospective mate. The first episode travels to the Rock Worship Center in Charlotte, N.C., where 30-year-old Angela laments, “I can’t find a man.” Apparently, she hasn’t been looking very hard, because when the TV cameras come to town one Sunday, bachelors pop up from the congregation like weeds, each accompanied by a “matchmaker” — his mother or some other advocate — extolling his virtues.

The gimmick of the show is: It’s not Angela who does the initial winnowing. It’s the congregation, though the criteria the parishioners are using to thin the field are not clear. Anyway, after the elimination round, the usual shallow banter ensues — here, devoid of the sexual innuendo common on other dating shows — and Angela eventually picks one fellow for a date, the results of which we do not learn.

M.Z., tongue only slightly in her cheek, noted that this scenario does not sound all that unusual to her. Why is that?

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We don’t need no religion education, or do we?

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I’m on the road this week, sunburned and tuckered out.

So rather than do a normal GetReligion critique, I’m going to ask a couple of journalism questions that are related to what we do here.

First question: Do you know any journalists who could benefit from advanced study of religion?

If so, I have terrific news. The Religion Newswriters Association invites journalists to apply to its Lilly Scholarships in Religion Program. According to an RNA news release, the scholarships give full-time journalists up to $5,000 to take any college religion courses at any accredited institution at any time.

What a deal!

More from the news release:

Religion headlines are dominating news coverage—politics, religion, Islam in America — now is the perfect time to dig deeper into today’s hottest stories. More than 290 people have already taken advantage of RELIGION | NEWSWRITERS’ Lilly Scholarships in Religion Program for Journalists.

Topics reporters have studied include: Religion & Politics in the 20th Century and Beyond, God & Politics, Buddhism in the Modern World, Politics of International Religious Freedom, Religion and Social Justice, Violence and Liberation, Muslim-Christian Relations in World History and many more.

“The courses led to dozens of story ideas and new resources. I came out a sharper researcher and writer, two benefits I was not expecting going in,” said Eric Marrapodi of CNN who took four Lilly scholarship courses in three years at Georgetown University.

The scholarships can be used at accredited colleges, universities, seminaries or similar institutions.

Read on for more info.

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Whoa! Religion chapter added to AP Stylebook

Big news for Godbeat style geeks: The Associated Press Stylebook — the journalist’s Bible — has added a religion chapter.

The Poynter Institute reports:

The 2014 edition of the Associated Press Stylebook comes out Wednesday, with about 200 changes and additions, including a new chapter devoted to religion, updates to social media terms, weather terms and the chapter on food.

Some of those additions include (sic)MERS and Buffalo wings, “B is capitalized in Buffalo,” said Sally Jacobsen, AP Stylebook editor, in a phone interview with Poynter. (AP puts the word “selfie” on the edition’s cover.)

“The key thing is the new chapter on religion,” she said. “We have 208 entries in that chapter.”

AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll reported those entries out for the Stylebook editors, speaking with religious scholars, communication specialists within denominations and AP reporters in different regions, including Jerusalem and Haiti. The goal is to be respectful to the groups themselves, to listen to them, Zoll told Poynter in a phone interview, but ultimately to be clear for the journalists for whom the book is made.

The Stylebook changes and grows with both language and culture, and this year, the new religion chapter includes an entry on Coptic Christians, for instance, and a more detailed entry on Easter, which acknowledges that not everyone using the Stylebook may be familiar with the holiday.

AP itself notes:

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Seeking “Help!” on five venerable world religions

JAEDE ASKS:

I need to know the founder, area of the world it’s in, what their holy book is called and their holidays, for Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Shinto.

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Jaede headlined this item “Help!!” and was probably sweating over some school exam or term paper so this comes too late. Nonetheless, a sketch of these five Asian creeds might be informative since they’re lesser-known than the much larger Hinduism and Buddhism. The Guy is grateful that Jaede didn’t ask about their complex belief systems and practices! And after some research The Guy failed in attempts to summarize their many regional and local holidays. Much more could be said but here are a few basics.

The five are listed below in order of adherents as of 2010, estimated by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell seminary, a standard data source.

Such numbers are controversial, and aspects of these faiths influence much broader populations, reflected in higher numbers from such sources as www.patheos.com/Library.html. Apart from the statistics, The Guy relied especially on The Encyclopedia of Religion (1987). Conventional years and centuries are designated here by the multifaith B.C.E. (Before Common Era) and C.E. (Common Era) rather than the familiar B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini, “Year of the Lord”).

SIKHISM (10,678,000 adherents) was founded in India by Guru Nanak (1469-1539 C.E.) and developed by a series of nine authoritative successors through 1708 C.E. Its center is the Golden Temple in Amritsar, near today’s border with Pakistan. Most Sikhs live in India but the faith has spread to Sikh communities worldwide (where the men stand out by wearing obligatory turbans). Though a distinct world religion, Sikhism shares some concepts with Hinduism (e.g. reincarnation and the law of karma) and Islam (worship of one all-powerful God). Its scripture is the Adi Granth (“First Book”), also called the Granth Sahib, collected hymns and poems of the Guru and others. This is supplemented by collected life stories about the Guru as well as manuals of conduct.

Further info at www.thesikhencyclopedia.com.

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Concerning that gathering called by the Ecumenical Patriarch

“Journalism is the first rough draft of history,” according to a famous quote by publisher Philip Graham of the Washington Post. If so, shouldn’t journalists have a sense of history? Especially when the history stretches over centuries?

Like when Reuters reports on a recent conference of Orthodox patriarchs. It starts out OK, then degrades quickly:

Patriarchs of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians ended a rare summit in Istanbul on Sunday calling for a peaceful end to the crisis in Ukraine and denouncing violence driving Christians out of the Middle East.

Twelve heads of autonomous Orthodox churches, the second-largest family of Christian churches, also agreed to hold a summit of bishops, or ecumenical council, in 2016, which will be the first in over 1,200 years.

Here’s where to hit the “pause” button.

Are we talking about an “ecumenical council” or an Ecumenical Council, as in a meeting of the leaders of the ancient patriarchates called by the Ecumenical Patriarch? In this case, the upper-case letters really matter.

Either way, this is big news.

But watch how ya throw that term around, buddy. An ecumenical council — no big E, no big C — would be one called by the leaders of all faith groups to settle church-wide matters. And as Theopedia shows, only seven councils — the last in the year 787 — have been honored by Orthodoxy, Protestantism and Roman Catholicism alike. Of course, those events took place before the Great Schism of 1054.

Adds the site:

Many Protestants (especially those belonging to the magisterial traditions, such as Lutheranism and Anglicanism) accept the teachings of the first seven councils, but do not ascribe to the councils themselves the same authority as Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox do. Supporters of the councils contend that they did not create new doctrines but merely elucidated doctrines already in Scripture that had been misinterpreted by heretics. The primary value of these early ecumenical councils is their documentation of the early consensus of doctrines regarding the nature of Christ and the Godhead.

Nor does the roster for the upcoming meeting include Oriental Orthodox churches, which accept only the first three “ecumenical” councils. The Oriental Orthodox include a couple of newsmakers, the Copts of Egypt and the Armenians. Other notables include the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox in east Africa, and the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church in India.

What’s the deal? Well, none of these churches are currently in communion with the Eastern Orthodox churches (although talks with the Copts are getting interesting) and the Ecumenical Patriarch. Thus, they are not being invited to this gathering of the Eastern Orthodox bodies that are in communion with one another. It would help if the story explained some of these differences.

All told, that’s a lot of Christians to overlook, when it comes to the information in this story. There are some holes.

Dare I add a little finger-waggling on the need to hire religion writers who actually know something about religion?

To be fair, this Reuters story gets a lot right.

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AP finally spikes infamous Nazi Christian Youth (not) photo

It took a while, but the final shoe dropped the other day in the mysterious case of those — What did Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher call them? — Nazi Christian Youth in a church in North Richland Hills, Texas.

I am referring, of course, to that Associated Press photo what showed a group of Train Life boys standing in a circle singing the song “Taps.” It’s an old end-of-the-day Scouting tradition and it involves a symbolic, sun-setting gesture, too.

Alas, the original AP cutline missed, or hid, that fact:

ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, MARCH 2, 2014 AND THEREAFTER — In this Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014 photo, Trail Life members form a circle and recite the organization’s creed during meeting in North Richland Hills, Texas. Trail Life USA, the new Christian-based alternative to the Boy Scouts of America, excludes openly gay members. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

A later cutline, used by the San Jose Mercury News, helped a bit:

In this Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014 photo, Trail Life members move their arms as they sing “Taps” in a circle during a meeting in North Richland Hills, Texas. Trail Life USA, the new Christian-based alternative to the Boy Scouts of America, excludes openly gay members. (LM Otero/AP)

So what is the problem, readers might ask (if they have not been following this story)?

Click here to see the photo in question, complete with what appears to be a salute, shall we say, drawn from World War II-era Germany.

As I wrote in a post the other day:

Isn’t it amazing that journalists at the Associated Press decided to focus on this precise and rather dangerous — in terms of negative symbolic content — moment in the arc of those slowly descending young arms? What a coincidence!

Or perhaps this was an innocent mistake.

Apparently, folks at AP have decided that something did, in fact, go wrong in the editorial process — somewhere.

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Pod people: Continuing the Elevation Church debate

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At this point, I am not sure what the Rev. Steven Furtick was thinking when he declined that interview request from NBC Charlotte, which was researching a report about those mass, quickie baptism services at his Elevation megachurch.

It’s possible that he genuinely distrusted this news outlet and reporter Stuart Watson, even though the station claims it made the following offer:

Elevation Pastor Steven Furtick asked me for a face-to-face, off-the-record meeting with me to ask me not to run this report. I spent an hour on the telephone and two more hours in person discussing my reporting, his church and his concerns. Pastor Steven said I have been unfair and this report in particular would hurt Elevation Church members.

I asked Pastor Steven to consent to an unedited, on-camera interview.

I offered to let Elevation’s cameras record the interview. I offered to stream the interview in its entirety online. I offered to air a half-hour unedited interview on television. And WCNC held this report while waiting for Pastor Steven to respond.

The church’s leadership team responded with a printed public-relations statement.

It’s possible that the Elevation team genuinely thought that this wall-of-silence approach — a classic religious organization gambit — was the quickest way to make an unwanted story go away. Yeah. Right.

Obviously, that isn’t what happened. Check out this Google search.

Included in that digital wave was 6,000 or so social-media connections to my original GetReligion post on the story, which actually offered a mild, theoretical defense of the church, noting (with a nod to Billy Graham history) what may have been going on those staged baptism services. Click here for a refresher course on that.

So who were those 15 plants in the congregation, those church volunteers whose job was to immediately move forward in response to the altar call, taking the longest, most visible route possible? What does it mean that the instructions for their work told them to join the “celebration team” down front? Were they counselors? Were they mere back slappers who — to newcomers in the crowd — appeared to be ready for baptism?

Are we talking about a megachurch event with careful staging or tactics that were truly deceptive? I am still not sure that we know, at this point. I do know that free-church evangelicals are free to do pretty much whatever they want to do when it comes to doctrine and worship. Instant baptisms? That makes my skin crawl (as a former Southern Baptist deacon who is now Eastern Orthodox), since the ancient church baptized people after long, careful preparation as catechumens.

Meanwhile, the online debates continue and host Todd Wilken and I discussed the fallout from that NBC Charlotte report during this week’s GetReligion “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to listen in.

I am still pondering Furtick’s decision to decline the NBC interview request, under the conditions offered. However, all of this reminded me of a discussion long ago here at GetReligion focusing on a showdown between Archbishop Charles Chaput (a friend of mine for many years) and The New York Times.

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So there: Rod Dreher goes and writes a GetReligion post

So, yes, I’ll admit that I was a bit disappointed (stage cue: slight choke in voice) to find out — while reading Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher’s usual 10,000 to 15,000 words of daily blogging output — that I was not one of the two newspaper columnists that he consistently gets to read. But, hey, I run in small- and mid-sized newspapers and I know that Rod’s a very busy guy. I mean, really, look at his blog: He must read 10 books and journals a day!

So, what really interested me was that, right in the middle of that particular post (a meditation on whether news columnists still matter during these online-commentary-saturated days), the working boy went and produced a genuine chunk of fantastic GetReligion work.

So without further ado, I hereby claim said chunk of type as a guest column.

So there.

You probably have examples in mind from your own experience of ways that current newspaper columnists could make their work more inspired, and therefore inspiring. I’d like to hear them. Whether you and I, readers, are coming from the left or the right or somewhere in between, I think we can agree that the uniformity of consensus opinion in our newspapers and on TV is a big part of the problem. And it’s not only uniformity of opinion about the left-right boundaries of our discourse. It’s a uniformity of opinion about what constitutes news.

Let’s take Fox News for example. This is supposed to be the conservative news network, but their idea of what constitutes conservatism, and news of interest to conservative viewers, is deeply Washington-centric, and deeply centered in the media class and its prejudices. In this, they’re no different from the competition; it’s just that as someone who has been part of the conservosphere for most of my adult life, it frustrates me to see how much Fox is ignoring for the sake of observing media conventions. For example, I’ve long marveled over the lack of religion and culture coverage on Fox. By religion and culture, I don’t mean the “War On Christmas” and other tabloid staples. I mean any sort of serious, sustained coverage, both in reporting and commentary, of stories emerging out of the world of religion and culture — stories that tell us, for better and for worse, something important about the world we’re in.

Here’s an example. In my little Southern town, the Methodist church is about to get a new minister — a woman pastor. She follows a woman pastor, who broke the clergy gender line at the church. My folks, who attend there, gave me the news the other night, and I mentioned to them that they will probably not live to see another male pastor at that parish. I explained to them that this is partly because of their age, but also because in mainline Protestant churches, the clergy class is becoming more and more female. Women make up about 20 percent of the clergy in mainline Protestant denominations, including Methodism — but that is fast changing. According to a 2006 New York Times report:

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