Christ, the church and Christian marriage

A few weeks ago, there was a bit of a brouhaha over Byron York’s question to Rep. Michele Bachmann at a Republican debate in Iowa. She’d previously made a comment about her interpretation of what it means to be a submissive wife. He asked her about it. The crowd booed. The media began writing up stories about submission. None of them terribly good.

But Bob Smietana over at The Tennessean had a piece on different ideas about gender roles. Mostly it looked at “complementarianism,” the idea that men and women are equal but have different roles that complement each other. And unlike a lot of those other pieces, it’s a good and worthwhile read.

At the beginning, readers are introduced to the Roses, a couple that explains how this works in their marriage:

Scripture doesn’t give husbands a right to be jerks, said the Rev. Jeremy Rose, pastor of the Axis Church in Nashville. And it doesn’t mean women have to do whatever their husbands say.

Instead, Rose said, men are supposed to love their wives and put their wives’ needs first when making decisions.

“If you quote that verse to your wife, you are not in a good place,” said Rose, 32.

If the Roses disagree, it’s Jeremy’s view that prevails, although he said he breaks the news as gently as possible.

He believes that men are in charge in the church and in their homes, a view known as complementarianism. It often appeals to younger men like Rose, teaching them to grow up and be better husbands and fathers.

And he’d be fine with a woman president. So would his wife, Jill Rose, 31. She thinks that most people don’t understand what the Christian idea of submission means.

“Men and women are created equally,” she said. “People have this stigma of the male chauvinist domineering over the wife, and that’s not what the biblical perspective is at all.”

Instead, Jill Rose said, the Bible passage about submission is about trust and respect, something that was missing in the early days of the Roses’ marriage. Jeremy Rose spent most of his time at work or out hunting, playing sports and hanging with his friends. His wife drove herself to the hospital to deliver their second child while he wrapped up a softball game.

“It was a very low point,” she said.

Things changed after Jeremy Rose took a class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. The class focused on an often-overlooked part of the Ephesians passage. Women are to submit, according to the passage, while men are to love their wives in sacrificial ways.

As someone who is part of a couple that attempts to have a Christian marriage, I was pleasantly shocked to read this. It’s my experience that the male role of sacrifice for his wife is infinitely more difficult than the female role of submission. But frequently the male role — though so important — isn’t even mentioned in stories about this.

The article goes on to explain how this point is lost on many people and how a Christian marriage is about each spouse attending to each other’s needs. There’s a bit of a discussion about how much responsibility men in Christian marriages have, being held accountable for when things go wrong. Again, these are things that are typically not mentioned in stories.

The article includes various perspectives on gender roles, including some who hew to a rather strict interpretation of submission and leadership and some who reject it outright. I didn’t quite understand either of these group’s arguments, but space is tight in these stories.

The one thing I thought intriguing was what wasn’t mentioned in the story: Jesus Christ and the church. There is a reference to a part of a Bible verse that instructs wives to submit to husbands as to the Lord. But the passages about the roles of men and women in marriage are almost impossible to understand without understanding their relationship to what traditional Christianity teaches about Christ and the church.

It’s so much a mystery that this is the word used to describe it — a great mystery.

The book of Ephesians tells us that marriage is an image of Christ and the church. After telling all Christians to give thanks always to God for all things and to submit to one another in the fear of God, wives and husbands are given particular roles. The image used is how Christ loves the church and how the church receives that love from Christ. Men are to sacrifice as Christ sacrificed for the church (which, you might recall includes his own death by crucifixion) and wives are to submit as the church submits to Christ.

Now, after the Bachmann thing happened, and I wrote that I aim to be a submissive wife, I had a few radio and television producers contact me asking me to go on air to discuss this. When you’re contacted by producers, they pre-interview you to see if you’d be good for a given show. The pre-interview is particularly important for the television shows.

What was hilarious was when people asked me to explain why I believe in this understanding of marriage, and I began explaining this passage from Ephesians and about Christ and the church, they basically didn’t want to talk any more. I’m not blaming them but just pointing out how incredibly difficult it is to explain even basic (but mysterious) church teachings. And certainly many television shows no longer know how to discuss religion in any meaningful way. It made me long for a television show like the Phil Donahue Show I watched growing up where opposing sides got the time to actually explain their beliefs in longer than 23-second soundbites that were repeated — via shouting — three times in segment.

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MLK: Struggling sinner or skilled liar?

As you would imagine, folks here inside the DC beltway take monuments pretty seriously — especially those linked to the National Mall.

Thus, mainstream journalists are devoting, and rightly so, quite a bit of attention to subjects linked to Martin Luther King, Jr., and the rites that will eventually be held (delayed by Hurricane Irene) to dedicate the new Tidal Basin memorial site in his honor.

Most of these stories, of course, are dedicated to the cultural, political and ethical impact of King’s life and work. Thus, the reflect a certain journalistic tendency to edit “the Rev.” from his name and title.

Over at the digital Washington Post page called “On Faith,” the former editor of the website offered some articulate reporting on why that is inappropriate, if not tragic, if the goal of the MLK National Memorial is to promote national understanding of King’s message and legacy. Here is a key part of that David Waters piece, from right up top:

Let’s hope one essential fact won’t be lost in the hubbub … This will be the only national memorial in Washington dedicated to a gospel preacher.

Indeed, King’s son, Martin Luther King III, told the Post this week that he believes his father was “anointed,” and “chosen by God to make the kind of impact that he made.”

“If we overlook the fact that Dr. King was a man of God, a follower of Jesus Christ, we miss the point of his life and his death,” said Kelly Johnson, founder of Two By Two prayer ministries in Memphis. … Johnson and others believe the ultimate legacy of King, a fourth-generation Baptist preacher, will be more theological and less social or political.

King, of course, knew this and once explained: “In the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher.”

By all means, read Waters’ piece. Note in particular the emphasis on how King tried, in his “I Have A Dream” speech, to focus his oratory on political themes — before setting his prepared text aside and launching into what can only be called a Bible-driven sermon.

However, the most interesting Post piece I have read so far on King was written by columnist Anna Holmes and ran under the headline, “Martin Luther King Jr., the advice columnist.” This piece focused on a large body of King’s words that has often been overlooked, namely the “Advice For Living” columns he wrote in 1956-58 in response to letters from Ebony readers, mostly from middle-class African-Americans.

This is a daring piece, in large part because it deals with tensions between King’s beliefs, his words and the details of his own moral life. However, I would argue that this essay falls short in grasping one crucial element of King’s — yes — prophetic ministry of truth telling. Here is how this crucial part of the story begins:

“Advice for Living” was also remarkable in terms of its content. King did not purport to have all the answers, and, for the most part, avoided making blanket condemnations, perhaps because of the dualities and hypocrisies in his own life. In response to one reader, a preacher’s wife concerned by the amount of female attention bestowed upon her husband, King said, “Almost every minister has the problem of confronting women in his congregation whose interests are not entirely spiritual … but if he carries himself in a manner representative of the highest mandates of Christian living, his very person will discourage their approaches.”

“Remember, this was an era when a common joke was that any upstanding preacher negotiated with the deacon board for a salary, parsonage and pick of the choir,” says Taylor Branch, author of the prize-winning trilogy “America in the King Years.” “But he couldn’t talk about that, because he was trying to make his name known and establish a record of wholesome conservative values for the civil rights movement.”

This leads to a crucial quotation, one that I believe would be disputed by many scholars who have studied King’s life and thought:

“There are a lot of contradictions between what he wrote and his personal philosophies,” says Tamura Lomax, a professor at Vanderbilt University with specialties in African American studies and feminist theory. “He was kind of in a prison. He couldn’t say, ‘Look, when I’m on the road, I have relations, as well,’ so he had to present this idea of the pristine figure, this kind of public piety.”

What, precisely, is meant by the phrase “his personal philosophies”? Is the author saying that “philosophies” equals “convictions” or even his Christian “beliefs”? Or is the point that King publicly professed one set of traditional Christian beliefs on matters of moral theology and failed to consistently live them out in his own life?

If so, Holmes really needed to talk with a scholar more familiar with, or more sympathetic to, King’s preaching and convictions.

It is one thing to say that King was a sinner who failed to live up to the truths that he so brilliantly argued in his sermons on matters of faith and personal morality. Anyone who knows anything about church history knows that more than a few prophets and even a few saints also struggled with temptations that often bested them.

But does this mean that King did not believe the words that he spoke and wrote? Not necessarily. To say that King was, at times, a hypocrite does not mean that he deliberately preached lies. In fact, it could be evidence that he knew the truth and also knew the pain of not being able to live according to that truth, day after day.

Let me stress that this does not lessen King’s legacy, this evidence that he was a sinner and that he knew he was a sinner. This section of the Post piece ultimately suggests that, due to changed elements of his “personal philosophies,” King did not believe that his private behavior was, in fact, sinful.

Many King scholars would consider that statement heresy, if not slander.

Why hear only one voice on such a crucial, controversial, topic about this pivotal figure in American history and, yes, our nation’s religious history? Trust me. There are other voices out there to engage in this debate. It would have been easy to find them and quote them.

IMAGE: The MLK National Memorial.

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Could church make you skinny?

Back in March, we tackled that age-old question: “Could church make you fat?”

That post explored media coverage of a study claiming that young adults who attend religious activities are 50 percent more likely to become obese by middle age than those with no religious invovlement.

Six months later, fat people in the pews are again making news — this time in The New York Times.

The headline:

Preaching a Healthy Diet in the Deep-Fried Delta

The top paragraph of the 1,200-word story:

HERNANDO, Miss. — Not much seems out of place in the Mississippi Delta, where everything appears to be as it always has been, only more so as the years go by. But here in the fellowship hall of a little Baptist church on a country road is an astonishing sight: a plate of fresh fruit.

“You get used to it,” said Arelia Robertson, who has been attending the church for almost eight decades.

Despite a dirge of grim health statistics, an epidemic of diabetes and heart disease and campaigns by heath agencies and organizations, the Delta diet, a heavenly smorgasbord of things fried, salted and boiled with pork, has persisted.

It has persisted because it tastes good, but also because it has been passed down through generations and sustained through such cultural mainstays as the church fellowship dinner. But if the church helped get everybody into this mess, it may be the church that helps get everybody out.

Now, that first sentence impressed me as vague beyond belief. My first response: “Huh?” But the piece picks up a little steam with the mention of a plate of fresh fruit in the second sentence.

Then there’s the opening quote, which seems less than overwhelming. Why not give the woman’s age and compare the fruit to the chicken-fried main dish served at fellowship meals 80 years ago? That might add some life to the story up high.

Keep reading, and we get to the nut graf:

For over a decade from his pulpit here at Oak Hill Baptist in North Mississippi, the Rev. Michael O. Minor has waged war against obesity and bad health. In the Delta this may seem akin to waging war against humidity, but Mr. Minor has the air of the salesman he once was, and the animated persistence to match.

Years into his war, he is beginning to claim victories.

The National Baptist Convention, which represents some seven million people in nearly 10,000 churches, is ramping up a far-reaching health campaign devised by Mr. Minor, which aims to have a “health ambassador” in every member church by September 2012. The goals of the program, the most ambitious of its kind, will be demanding but concrete, said the Rev. George W. Waddles Sr., the president of the convention’s Congress of Christian Education.

Nowhere does the story mention that the National Baptist Convention is the nation’s largest African-American denomination. For journalists, the question of when race is relevant in a story is always touchy. In this case, however, the omission seems strange.

The reference to this program as “the most ambitious of its kind” made me wonder: What other smaller programs like this are out there? Is Waddles the source on the “most ambitious” statement? Or did the Times determine that this is the “most ambitious” program of its kind. Even if it’s true, I’m not sure I’m clear on what it means.

It’s not a bad story. It provides some interesting insight on society’s overall obesity problem and some nice examples of Delta churches fighting obesity. But for a story about churches, it lacks much in the way of actual religion.

We’ve got Minor waging war from his pulpit, but no clear idea of exactly what it is he’s saying — from a spiritual or biblical perspective, that is. In other words, is this a religious undertaking — or a secular campaign that just happens to occur at a church?

More from the story:

When he began preaching his health gospel right from the start, he was met not by outright resistance — that would have been rude — but by a polite disregard. This is the way people have always cooked here, church members said, and they ignored him.

He argued that while the food may be the same, people’s lifestyles had changed, and few put forth the physical effort that life in the Delta once required. Preparing pork chops used to involve raising and slaughtering a pig; now it requires little more than a trip to the grocery store. But he eventually realized he would have to adjust his strategy.

Around 2000, he began enlisting his ushers and those from other churches to go after hesitant pastors with a baldly practical line of argument.

“Your sick members can’t tithe,” he said with a laugh.

Health gospel? What are the tenets of that gospel? Any actual biblical references or spiritual principles attached to it?

Did anyone — anyone at all — mention God? 

Photo taken just now by my wife, Tamie, of a cup of fruit. I’d prefer a chocolate chip cookie.

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Any, um, Baptists in Alabama?

Pretend for a moment that you’re a New York Times reporter. You’re going to do a story on churches’ reaction to a tough new immigration law in Alabama.

What church groups might you include as part of your reporting?

You may recall a story earlier this year in which The Associated Press suggested that “you can spot a Baptist church from almost any hilltop in Alabama.” Hmmmm, that almost makes me think there might be a few Baptists in Alabama.

But for a Times story over the weekend headlined “Bishops Criticize Tough Alabama Immigration Law,” the reporter apparently did not stand on any hilltops or come across any Baptist churches.

Up high, the story summarizes opposition to the law:

Thousands of protesters have marched. Anxious farmers and contractors have personally confronted their lawmakers. The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups have sued, and have been backed by a list of groups including teachers’ unions and 16 foreign countries. Several county sheriffs, who will have to enforce parts of the new law, have filed affidavits supporting the legal challenges.

On Aug. 1, the Justice Department joined the fray, contending, as in a similar suit in Arizona, that the state law pre-empts federal authority to administer and enforce immigration laws.

And on that same day, three bishops sued.

An Episcopal bishop, a Methodist bishop and a Roman Catholic archbishop, all based in Alabama, sued on the basis that the new statute violated their right to free exercise of religion, arguing that it would “make it a crime to follow God’s command to be Good Samaritans.”

“The law,” said Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi of Mobile, “attacks our core understanding of what it means to be a church.”

Later, there’s this:

To some church leaders — who say they will not be able to give people rides, invite them to worship services or perform marriages and baptisms — the law essentially criminalizes basic parts of Christian ministry.

And this:

The politics of this are unusual, with those opposed to the law, mostly coming from the left, arguing that the statute falls short of biblical principles, and the law’s supporters, mostly from the right, arguing that secular laws and biblical law cannot always run on the same track.

And the politics are thorny for ministers, who acknowledge that the immigration law is broadly popular. Congregations are not in lock step behind their leaders.

The story feels a bit too one-sided in its portrayal of the thoughtful religious opponents vs. the seemingly non-religious politicians (although a Methodist lawmaker who supported the law is quoted).

But search the story for these two words — Southern Baptist — and you’ll come up with no matches at all. In fact, the only reference to Baptists at all is this one line:

Bob Terry, the president of The Alabama Baptist newspaper, wrote in a column that the state was trying to dictate Christian ministry.

Why does that omission strike me as strange? For one thing, the governor who pushed for the law’s passage is a Southern Baptist deacon and Sunday school teacher. Is that fact not relevant in a story such as this?

For another thing, Alabama has roughly four times as many Southern Baptists as United Methodists, eight times as many Southern Baptists as Roman Catholics and 30 times as many Southern Baptists as Episcopalians. Would it not make sense to at least mention Southern Baptists in a story on churches responding to this new law? Of course, Southern Baptists aren’t the only Baptists in Alabama.

But including Southern Baptists in the story would have given the Times piece credibility and probably not hurt its story’s thesis, based on a mid-July report by the AP. From the earlier AP story:

The state’s largest denomination, the Alabama Baptist Convention, hasn’t taken a position publicly and likely won’t since it doesn’t speak for individual churches.

“I am concerned about the language concerning giving a ride in an automobile to an illegal immigrant or allowing children of illegal immigrant parents to ride on a church bus to Sunday school, vacation Bible school, or church camp,” said convention president Mike Shaw, pastor of a church in suburban Birmingham, in a statement.

“Should we ignore people who are injured or have broken down on the side of a busy interstate highway and have small children in sweltering heat with no family or friends to help them?”

Seriously, would the Times do this same kind of report in Utah and neglect to include Mormons?

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Memory eternal: Sen. Mark Hatfield

Let me begin with a moment of confession.

When I began coming to Washington, D.C., to teach journalism my first class sessions were held in the Mark Hatfield Library at the national headquarters of what has become the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. As a pro-life Democrat, I greatly admired the senator from Oregon, in part because of his willingness to infuriate people on both the political right and left.

Needless to say, I am paying close attention to the obituaries that are running after Hatfield’s death. Suffice it to say that journalists still do not know how to label him.

But journalists will keep trying. The sprawling Los Angeles Times headline proclaims:

Mark O. Hatfield dies at 89; longtime Oregon senator was bedrock of moderate Republicanism

Hatfield was a devout Christian who opposed prayer in the public schools and managed to negotiate common ground among the environmentalists, loggers, anti-abortion activists, death penalty foes, business owners, farmers and antiwar protesters who were his constituents.

Yes, that’s all in the headline. The “anti-abortion” language is a bit painful, I think, since Hatfield was someone who was known as a consistently pro-life public figure.

This language even showed up in the Washington Post obit — which elected to call Hatfield a “liberal,” in the context of the Republican party.

Former senator Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon, whose liberal Republican politics during five terms in Congress made him an increasingly rare breed within his party, and who used his chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee to denounce what he considered the “madness” of excessive defense spending, died Sunday evening in Portland, said Gerry Frank, a longtime friend and former aide. He was 89.

As a young Navy officer during World War II, Mr. Hatfield saw the devastation wrought by atomic warfare in the Japanese city of Hiroshima. That experience, coupled with his Baptist faith, were defining forces in shaping Mr. Hatfield’s political views during nearly half a century in elected office. He became an opponent of abortion, the death penalty and war — a “consistently pro-life” politician, said Oregon political scientist Bill Lunch, “who took the religious injunction not to do harm to others seriously.”

During his three decades on Capitol Hill, Mr. Hatfield was one of the Senate’s most unwavering pacifists.

Meanwhile, the New York Times all but ignored the senator’s faith and the role that his pro-life beliefs played in his achievements and struggles inside the DC Beltway (especially in terms of his strong support for science funds). Glance at it, if you wish. It’s disturbingly shallow, for such a complex public figure.

It’s interesting to watch journalists attempt to make sense of this man, struggling to figure out if he was a “cultural conservative” or not. He was consistently anti-war, yet he was also opposed to violence against the unborn (and, yes, I worded the second half of that sentence the way that Hatfield would have worded it). He was opposed by the Religious right, at times, but always remained close to Billy Graham and influence him quite a bit in the post-Watergate era.

For me, there are two keys to judging these obits. The first is obvious — is the content of Hatfield’s faith discussed, perhaps even in his own words.

The second is a pivotal biographical detail, as illustrated in this passage from the Los Angeles Times obit:

He joined the Navy and served as a landing craft officer during the World War II invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He was one of the first U.S. troops to enter Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped.

Those “inhuman, shock-ridden” scenes, as he later described them, inspired a lifetime of activism against war and nuclear weapons.

Thus, this man was a soldier who knew war and who also saw Hiroshima with his own eyes. And his faith commitment? This is a few paragraphs after the Hiroshima reference. As a young man and a political scientist:

… Hatfield tells of having reached a crisis in his faith akin to the “born again” experience of many evangelicals, but which in his case was more rational than emotional. If Jesus Christ is truly a divine savior, he reasoned during an intense moment of reflection, then the only possible response was to offer his entire life to that service.

“Define your own spiritual commitment,” Hatfield wrote later in “Against the Grain: Reflections of a Rebel Republican,” which he wrote in 2001 with Diane Solomon. “Energize your conscience. Use loving spirituality to infuse your personal, public and political acts. Take advantage of spiritual stewardship when dealing with political issues such as the environment, the needs of humans, the dangers of war.”

Former staffer Lon Fendall, who wrote a book about what he describes as Hatfield’s evangelical progressivism, “Stand Alone or Come Home” — the advice Hatfield’s father gave to his son about facing tough moral choices and relentless peer pressure — compared his boss to the 18th century British politician William Wilberforce, whose evangelical Christian convictions spurred him to lead the fight to abolish slavery. Hatfield himself, who read widely in history and political biography, was keenly aware of Wilberforce’s legacy and had written a preface to an abbreviated collection of his work.

“He said, ‘You know, I’ve been doing these things in my life in particular ways, and I’ve come to the realization that here’s a person centuries ago that did exactly the same things for many of the same reasons,’ ” Fendall said in an interview. “I think Hatfield was drawn to him because they both came to their personal faiths while already in politics and on their life pathway, and began to ask themselves, ‘What is my life pathway?’ I think Hatfield’s calling as a believer was to take on a variety of issues that many other believers weren’t ready to face.”

To write about Hatfield, a journalist has to wrestle with Hiroshima and with the content of the senator’s moral convictions — all of them.

How many of the obits got this done? Please use the comments pages to share URLs. But stick to the journalism issues in the obituaries and tributes. We are not interested in comments that bash Hatfield from the left or the right.

Image: A 2007 file photo of Hatfield, visiting the Oregon legislature.

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There goes the F-word LA Times, again


Let’s start with the obvious: There were more than a few believers who could accurately be described as “fundamentalists” at the Gov. Rick Parry’s combination prayer rally and pre-White House campaign trial balloon festival.

Let’s start with something just as obvious: There were plenty of people at the rally (simply based on the official list of those who signed on) who could not accurately be described as “fundamentalists” under the historic — and, thus, Associated Press Stylebook endorsed — definition of the term.

Thus, it is appropriate to ask what in the heckfire the editors of The Los Angeles Times were thinking when they approved this lede for their main hard-news report on this controversial event:

With Rick Perry likely to enter the Republican presidential race within days or weeks, thousands of fundamentalist Christians cheered the Texas governor Saturday at a stadium prayer rally that appeared to boost his standing with religious conservatives, a key GOP voting bloc.

Perry organized the daylong service of prayer and fasting, featuring appearances by prominent figures on the Christian right. Stadium officials said the crowd exceeded 30,000, far more than any event staged by the announced Republican presidential contenders.

I realize that most GetReligion readers who work in journalism almost certainly know the following passage by heart now, but let’s take another look at the AP stylebook’s wise and historically accurate advice on how to handle the term “fundamentalist.”

fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

That stated, a glance at the official national endorsement list (a source tapped in few, if any, news reports) for this event reveals that some true fundamentalists were, in fact, in the house.

At the same time, there were evangelicals present — author Max Lucado leaps to mind — who could never be called a “fundamentalist.” Then again, perhaps the dominant stylistic influence on the event came from charismatic churches and, trust me, there are scores of important and divisive theological differences between Pentecostal believers and true fundamentalists. And what does one do with retired Bishop John Yanta of Texas, Sam Brownback and the few other Catholic leaders (clergy and laity) who dared to endorse the event?

The obvious question: Have we reached the point where any Christian believer whose doctrine of scripture and church tradition is high enough to believe that sex outside of marriage is a sin will now be called a “fundamentalist”?

Let me stress that this rally included some fringe folks, for sure. However, instead of accurately quoting these beliefs and, even better, asking the mainstream evangelicals and Catholics to critique them, the Los Angeles Times led the way (correct me if I missed worse, providing URLs) in settling for multiple uses of foggy terms such as “extreme views” — instead of actually citing on-the-record references to those views.

At one point, there was this missed opportunity:

… Perry and other speakers were careful to avoid overt partisan appeals. To applause, the 61-year-old governor expressed his view of a “personal God” whose “agenda is not a political agenda. His agenda is a salvation agenda.” Chuckling, he added, “He is a wise, wise God, and he’s wise enough to not be affiliated with any political party.”

Perry read several Bible verses, including from the book of Joel, a minor prophet whom he cited as the inspiration for the rally.

Uh, “his view” of a “personal God”? The governor has his own view on that basic Christian belief about the nature of the Almighty? Please, Times crew, share the details. Perhaps this newspaper’s inner ring believes that Catholics, for example, do not believe in a “personal God”?

And about those Bible verses read by Perry. I, for one, would like to know what one or two of them were — in case he mangled any of them or used them out of context (Elizabeth Tenety of the “On Faith” site at The Washington Post has many of these details, as usual). The angels (and the demons) are in the details.

I am sure that some readers would question elements of The New York Times report on the event, but at least these editors avoided yet another inaccurate use of the F-word in their short report. This is strong praise, in these times.

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Skirting at edges of faith

I love to read stories about real people.

Even better, stories about people who hit rock bottom and find their way out of the pit appeal to me.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram had just such a story over the weekend — filled with color, emotion and drama, not to mention s-e-x.

The top of the 1,200-word feature:

COLLEYVILLE — Lynn Kiselstein seemingly had it all — a big house, slick car, expensive clothes and a country club membership.

A stripper at clubs in Fort Worth and Dallas, she was rolling in cash.

“At first it was fun,” she said. “I was making money hand over fist, bought a Corvette, built a house and had the wedding of my dreams.”

But the job that afforded her luxuries also led her down a path of self-destruction, causing her to lose her home, marriage, possessions and self-worth.

Now 42, Kiselstein is working in a resale store in Irving and studying for her GED certificate thanks to help from We Are Cherished, a nonprofit that helps women get out of the sex industry by providing encouragement and resources.

Now, I have written a few stories along these lines in my career. In 2002, I did a profile for The Oklahoman on a former stripper’s bumpy road to ministry. In 2006, I did a feature for The Christian Chronicle on a minister’s escape from sexual addiction. In each case, the F-word — faith — played a starring role in the person’s transformation.

As I read the Star-Telegram story, my immediate suspicion was that religion was — or should be — a key element of this piece, too.

Sure enough, we find out pretty quickly that there’s a religious tie to the “nonprofit”:

She was released from jail in February and through a friend was led to the faith-based organization that is headquartered in the Cherished House in Colleyville. The house was donated by First Baptist Church Colleyville, which also provides financial support to the organization.

“We had dinner; they greeted us with gift bags. It was amazing,” said Kiselstein, who plans to eventually attend culinary school. “From the moment I walked in, it literally felt like arms were around me, but no one was standing next to me.”

The ministry is the brainchild of Polly Wright, 38, who is a member of the church.

So, we’ve got a faith-based organization. There’s a church involved. The dancer felt like “arms were around” her. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a spiritual reference.

Nevertheless, this story — purposely or not — skirts at the far edges of faith, its religion ghosts exposed for all the world to see.

We read about one of the ministry co-founders “selling her soul” to earn a ton of money dancing. We see a reference to “emptiness in her life” but never learn precisely how she filled it. She “became a Christian.” A “God thing” led her to meet the ministry’s co-founder. But it’s all very vague and antiseptic — as if really getting religion might make the story too real.

I love to read stories about real people.

But please enlighten me on what really makes them tick, even if it’s religion.

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Scribe with big feet joins GetReligion

The powers that be tell me that I must introduce myself as the new GetReligionista.

Where to start? My name is Jay Grelen and, while I am not a religion-beat specialist, I may be the only reporter in the history of the journalism racket who has been ordered by a newspaper editor to put more God into a story for a major-market mainstream newspaper.

That story goes like this. As I was finishing up a feature I had written about a street preacher for the Denver Post in the mid-1980s, my boss ordered up a revised version of my text that was so specific the guy could have used it in his street ministry.

The young evangelist walked the 16th Street Mall in Denver, and he was a frequent passenger on the 16th Street Trolleys to Nowhwere. He was gentle, winsome, his brown hair longish but clean, often preaching but never yelling, and highly visible. A natural subject for the sort of people-centric stories that I prefer to write. So I visited with him over several days and at least one mighty fine fried-catfish po-boy (yes, in downtown Denver) and wrote a story.

As always you must when you write about God for a newspaper, you must be careful that you not include too many words about God.

So in telling the story of this apostle’s journey from his upper middle class home up north to his current mission, I was careful. Too careful, as it turned out. When my boss called me in to discuss the story, her primary question concerned one sentence I had written, which was that our young preacher had come from a church-going home but not a “Christian home.”

“How can that be?” she asked.

So I walked her down the basics on Romans and the road to salvation, virgin birth to resurrection, everything but quoting John 3:16.

To which she replied: You need to explain all of that in the story.

So I did.

What’s the point? In my 30-something years in the news business, since my antediluvian graduation from Louisiana Tech, I have found ignorance about things religious among my newsroom colleagues far more often than malevolence. Some co-workers have been hostile, which is not unique to the news business though more consequential; many more, however, simply are without a fact-based clue, which sometimes manifests as hostility in conversation.

More than one editor has told me that I put too much God in my stories, although none ever has redacted God once I had written Him into a story. (I still prefer to capitalize the pronouns.) You see, an editor who insists upon accuracy and thoroughness can’t very well argue that a writer should ignore the facts and language of faith if they are clearly part of a person’s life.

When religion is part of a person’s story, the reporter must note it. Otherwise the report is incomplete, if not dishonest. Facts are facts. Motives are motives. I should also add that never, ever has a reader of my work complained because I think that it’s important to “get religion” in news coverage.

My life and writing, of course, are informed by my life as a Southern Baptist — cradle-(and likely)-to-grave. I am genetically Texan (but never have lived under the Lone Star state) and grew up way Southern. My beautiful young adult daughters have enjoyed the same advantages — Southern and Southern Baptist.

I’ve worked as a reporter and columnist in a host of cities, mostly in the South, and I am currently busy on the copy desk of the Arkansas Democrat. The editors have approved me writing at this blog, but I will be avoiding — of course — critiques of my own newspaper (Hello Frank “Bible Belt Blogger” Lockwood) and others in the immediate vicinity. In other words, I remain active in the mainstream.

When I’m not writing, I’m riding a bicycle or washing driveways and houses with high-pressure streams of water. My mid-life red convertible is a 4,000 psi power washing rig in a little sideline biz I call the Bigfoot Storytelling, Sweet Tea & House Washing Society. (Think Charles Kuralt washes America and I do have big feet — size 14.) I enter the GetReligion family at the invitation of Terry Mattingly, whom I have known since the days he worked for the other paper in Denver (which, by the way, didn’t survive Terry’s departure and has since closed).

I had read tmatt’s work as the religion editor at the Rocky Mountain News for four years before I actually met him. In October 1989, Madeleine “Wrinkle in Time” L’Engle visited Denver for a conference; for a reason long-forgotten, Terry and I interviewed her at the same time, an interview I remember for having met two writers I admired. Not only does Professor Mattingly not remember that meeting as our first, tmatt doesn’t even recall that I was there at all. (Editor’s note: The reality is a bit more complicated than that and there is a tape recording of the session. ‘Tis a mystery.)

But I’m here now, with fresh ribbon in Mama’s old Royal manual typewriter, to join in pleading the case: Journalists who want to thoroughly and honestly write about real people and real events in the real world need to get religion.

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