Writing well is the best revenge

truth and beautyWe had a discussion in the comments on a post last week that has stayed with me. I had written that generic refrains of bias at given newspapers bother me because they fail to take into account how individual reporters perform their jobs differently. I also said that some complaints fail to take into account other things that are important when writing a story, such as writing well.

Reader Larry Rasczak disagreed:

This goes to the fundamental purpose of a newspaper. Lets face it, there are three reasons for a newspaper to exist. The economic one (print something in between the advertisiments that will attract readers), the old style journalistic one (if what you print between the ads is accurate and dependable over the long run you will attract more readers and you can charge more for the ads), and the public service one (our republican form of government depends on a well informed electorate making well informed decisions in the voting booth).

So when I purchase a newspaper, the primary thing that I am looking for is ACCURATE news. I want to know what is going on in D.C. and Fubaristan; and I don’t need William Faulkner or Henry James to do that.

I replied that I saw no conflict between writing an accurate story and writing an interesting and well-constructed story. But mean ol’ Rasczak was having none of it:

But the news business isn’t writing . . . it is data transmission. 5W’s. News is like heavy artillery, accuracy is EVERYTHING.

I’m tempted to agree with Rasczak on this since my writing style for straight news tends to fall into the accurate camp rather than the well-written camp. One of my dear friends told me once, “Your analytical stories are never that exciting, but I always fully understand what you’re trying to convey.”

I’m curious what other readers think about this. How important is it to you that stories be well-constructed? Do you even notice different levels of quality in writing? How does writing quality rank in how you determine whether a news story is good?

Photo of Ann Patchett’s book via McBeth on Flickr.

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Getting rid of parishioners . . . on purpose

Rickwarren 01Rick Warren, who pastors the Saddleback megachurch in California and has sold a gazillion copies of Purpose Driven books, is frequently named a top evangelical by a variety of publications. He advocates using business practices to drive church growth and his teachings are widely followed by fellow Southern Baptists and folks from all denominations who want to increase their church rolls. He encourages pastors to preach about day-to-day problems rather than the historic Christian themes of sin, redemption and atonement. Warren could not be more popular.

Wall Street Journal religion reporter Suzanne Sataline came up with an interesting angle for her story on the Warren empire. She spoke with evangelicals who disagree with Warren’s business-minded approach:

But the purpose-driven movement is dividing the country’s more than 50 million evangelicals. Some evangelicals . . . say it’s inappropriate for churches to use growth tactics akin to modern management tools, including concepts such as researching the church “market” and writing mission statements. Others say it encourages simplistic Bible teaching. Anger over the adoption of Mr. Warren’s methods has driven off older Christians from their longtime churches. Congregations nationwide have split or expelled members who fought the changes, roiling working-class Baptist congregations and affluent nondenominational churches.

Last summer, the evangelical church of onetime Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers split after adopting Mr. Warren’s techniques. That church, Valley View Christian Church in Dallas, wanted to increase membership and had built a huge sanctuary several years ago to accommodate hundreds of people. Church leaders adopted a strategic plan built around Mr. Warren’s five “fundamental purposes”: worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry and evangelism. One goal was to make sure more than 19% of the church’s members were adults in their 20s and 30s, says the pastor, the Rev. Barry McCarty.

The Rev. Ron Key, then the senior minister, says he objected to the church’s “Madison Avenue” marketing. “I believe Jesus died for everybody,” Mr. Key says, not just people in a “target audience.” He says the leaders wanted church that was more “edgy,” with a worship service using modern music. Mr. Key was demoted, then fired for being divisive and insubordinate.

purpose driven booksWhen President Bush made his curious Supreme Court selection a year ago, it seemed like the story of Ms. Miers’ church split would be interesting. I wouldn’t have suspected it had to do with Rick Warren.

Anywhoo, Sataline looks at several churches whose experiences with Warren’s methods have had varying degrees of success. I liked how she explained the core beliefs and rituals of this modern American Protestant approach:

Mr. Warren preaches in sandals and a Hawaiian shirt, and he encourages ministers to banish church traditions such as hymns, choirs and pews. He and his followers use “praise team” singers, backed by rock bands playing contemporary Christian songs. His sermons rarely linger on self-denial and fighting sin, instead focusing on healing modern American angst, such as troubled marriages and stress.

The most interesting part of the story, though, was how conflict is considered part of change management. Difficult customers are expected, and you may be surprised how they are dealt with:

Some pastors learn how to make their churches purpose-driven through training workshops. Speakers at Church Transitions Inc., a Waxhaw, N.C., nonprofit that works closely with Mr. Warren’s church, stress that the transition will be rough. At a seminar outside of Austin, Texas, in April, the Revs. Roddy Clyde and Glen Sartain advised 80 audience members to trust very few people with their plans. “All the forces of hell are going to come at you when you wake up that church,” said Mr. Sartain, who has taught the material at Mr. Warren’s Saddleback Church.

During a session titled “Dealing with Opposition,” Mr. Clyde recommended that the pastor speak to critical members, then help them leave if they don’t stop objecting. Then when those congregants join a new church, Mr. Clyde instructed, pastors should call their new minister and suggest that the congregants be barred from any leadership role.

“There are moments when you’ve got to play hardball,” said the Rev. Dan Southerland, Church Transitions’ president, in an interview. “You cannot transition a church … and placate every whiny Christian along the way.”

Mr. Warren acknowledges that splits occur in congregations that adopt his ideas, though he says he opposes efforts to expel church members. “There is no growth without change and there is no change without loss and there is no loss without pain,” he says.

I don’t know how Sataline got those quotes, but they confirm that she had a good story on her hands. Baptist Press had a complaint, though.

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A preacher’s-kid story, writ large

FrequentlyAvoidedChristopher Goffard of the Los Angeles Times has told the pathos-laden story of conflicts between pastor Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa and his namesake son, pastor of Capo Beach Calvary.

Goffard’s story touches on a theme that deserves long-form treatment somewhere: The often awkward role of young people — sons, usually — who inherit the weighty mantle of a celebrity preacher.

The two Chuck Smiths embody so many of the conflicts in contemporary church life, including:

• traditional vs. emergent congregations (emergent guru Brian McLaren endorsed Smith’s wittily titled Frequently Avoided Questions);

• doctrinal watchdogs vs. a man’s loyalty to his son (the younger Smith’s church still appears under the calvarychapel.com domain);

• decades of preaching and waiting for an imminent Rapture of the church vs. a sense that “the Gospels’ core message was real-world compassion, not preparation for the afterlife”;

• the minefield of sexuality debates, which bring so many smiles and hugs and feelings of unity, whether at a church convention or around the family dinner table.

Unlike the story of Billy and Franklin Graham, the account of the Smiths follows the more familiar script of the uptight old man versus the nuanced son who acknowledges murky reality:

From his pulpit in Santa Ana, Chuck Smith’s voice thunders with certainty. He denounces homosexuality as a “perverted lifestyle,” finds divine wrath in earthquakes and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and promises imminent Armageddon in a deep, sure voice.

If his message is grim, the founder of the Jesus People and the Calvary Chapel movement bears the ruddy good cheer of a 79-year-old believer who insists he has never known a day’s doubt or despair.

From the pulpit of Capo Beach Calvary, 25 miles south of his father’s church, Chuck Smith Jr.’s voice trembles with vulnerability and grapples with ambiguity. Without a trace of fire and brimstone, he speaks of Christianity as a “conversation” rather than a dogma, plumbs such TV shows as “The Simpsons” for messages, and aims to reach “generations of the post-modern age” that distrust blind faith and ironclad authority.

But Goffard also shows that father and son express affection for one another:

Reminded of the memo he issued cracking down on his son’s views, the father replies, calmly and amiably, that he and his son are just aiming for different audiences, and he doesn’t want to alienate the one he has. He says their relationship is stronger than ever, even deepened by the controversy.

“I don’t feel that he’s an apostate at all. If he would begin to question that Jesus is the son of God, then I would be concerned.”

. . . His relationship with his father, he agrees, is tighter than ever. He will even write his dad’s biography some day. His challenge, he says, is extricating himself from his dad’s fundamentalist evangelical community without traumatizing his parents.

“It’s like the parents whose child comes out to them and says, ‘I’m gay,’” Smith said. “Hopefully they come around and say, ‘You are our son and we will always love you.’ My parents are no less loving than that.”

Goffard closes his story by referring to a documentary about Lonnie Frisbee, who helped the elder Smith welcome hippies into his congregation in the 1970s and died of complications from AIDS in 1993. I’ve been eager to see Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher since OC Weekly placed it on my radar in April 2005.

Happy news for anyone else who is waiting: Director David Di Sabatino wrote in a recent email that his film will appear on KQED on Nov. 19. On the same day, Di Sabatino will begin selling DVDs of the documentary and The Making of Frisbee through lonniefrisbee.com.

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Stephanie Simon’s fan club meets here

language of GodStephanie Simon has another great story in Thursday’s Los Angeles Times. She’s the faith and values reporter who consistently hits her pieces out of the park.

This piece is on Francis Collins, a Christian physician and scientist who has mapped the human genome. He sees no conflict with his scientific work and his faith, but he has been attacked by people who deny God’s existence and by those who oppose evolution. He believes in both.

I love reading Simon’s reports because she is usually given enough room to share interesting details. She also manages to do a much better job of putting conflicting folks’ statements in a generous light. In so doing, she lets the reader see the opposing views without stacking the deck toward a given side. From a personal standpoint, this enables me to trust her much more than other reporters. In other words, if I read a news story that gets a minor fact wrong, I tend to discount the entire piece. I assume the reporter doesn’t really grasp the issues at play. When I read a reporter’s characterization of a view I hold and they not only get it right but use phrases and concepts I would, I am much more receptive to reading the opposing views in the piece without putting my guard up.

This is how I imagine most readers of Stephanie Simon must feel. She really takes the time to understand the groups she covers. And we’re all the richer for it. Collins, the man she profiled, recently wrote The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. In it, he argues that there is no need for a chasm between science and faith. Simon’s piece fleshes out Collins’ path from nonbeliever to believer and is chock full of interesting details.

In June 2000, an international team supervised by Collins finished the rough drafts of the human genetic code, a string of 3 billion letters (each representing a chemical compound) that guides the inner workings of every human being.

To Collins, the blueprint was a chance to celebrate God’s wondrous design. But he worried that Christians would use this occasion as another excuse to turn away from modern science.

“I had a great concern that this would be portrayed as though we were taking away room for spirituality, making us out to be nothing more than a mechanical instruction book — robots, machines, victims of our DNA,” Collins said.

Invited to the White House to announce the triumph, Collins tried to signal that those concerned with the soul and the spirit should not take the new science as a threat. “It is humbling for me, and awe-inspiring,” he said, standing at Clinton’s side, “to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God.”

That moment moved Collins — who is married and has two grown daughters — to talk more publicly about his faith and write the book. “It’s been a bit like taking a public bath,” he said.

I just like how she lets people describe things in their own words but also paraphrases their thoughts thoroughly and gently.

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Inclusivity is the new black

GrahamWe all agreed to take a look at Jon Meacham’s lengthy mash note to the sainted Billy Graham. I alternately enjoyed the Newsweek piece and felt it went a bit over the top in luscious praise. But I’m pretty sure I would have hated it if I hadn’t read Meacham’s earlier pieces on the Nativity, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

By that I mean that it took me awhile to get used to Meacham’s style, in which he denigrates biblical literalism, shares his own opinion by quoting other people, and writes in a breezy, nonjournalistic style. He’s basically the ultimate Episcopalian. He understands Christian doctrine but just wants everyone to get along already. So he pushes Christianity’s inclusivity over its exclusivity. But the man can sure write in a lively manner, which helps when you’re reading a gazillion-word piece on someone who never really interested you that much.*

Anyway, there were so many fascinating portions that I hope others highlight, namely the Watergate/anti-Semitism and Two Kingdoms areas. But I thought I would highlight this passage from the piece:

Graham spends hours now with his Bible, at once savoring and reconsidering old stories and old lessons. While he believes Scripture is the inspired, authoritative word of God, he does not read the Bible as though it were a collection of Associated Press bulletins straightforwardly reporting on events in the ancient Middle East. “I’m not a literalist in the sense that every single jot and tittle is from the Lord,” Graham says. “This is a little difference in my thinking through the years.” He has, then, moved from seeing every word of Scripture as literally accurate to believing that parts of the Bible are figurative — a journey that began in 1949, when a friend challenged his belief in inerrancy during a conference in southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains. Troubled, Graham wandered into the woods one night, put his Bible on a stump and said, “Lord, I don’t understand all that is in this book, I can’t explain it all, but I accept it by faith as your divine word.”

Now, more than half a century later, he is far from questioning the fundamentals of the faith. He is not saying Jesus is just another lifestyle choice, nor is he backtracking on essentials such as the Incarnation or the Atonement. But he is arguing that the Bible is open to interpretation, and fair-minded Christians may disagree or come to different conclusions about specific points. Like Saint Paul, he believes human beings on this side of paradise can grasp only so much. “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror,” Paul wrote, “then we shall see face to face.” Then believers shall see: not now, but then.

I think this is trademark Meacham. I mean, I really (really) doubt that Graham used the AP or mainstream media to make his point about how he views the inerrancy, inspiration or authoritative nature of the Word of God. I would not be surprised if Meacham does when describing his beliefs to his friends. So he kind of gets to use Graham to make the point that he has been trying to make in all the pieces I’ve linked. It also manages to downplay exclusivity and literalism in one fell swoop. Finally, Meacham also shows his knowledge of Christianity by mentioning the St. Paul passage.

Like I say, I enjoy Meacham. When I read him, I see the dominance of his personal style and views. I actually think the pieces are better for it. But man if that doesn’t prove tmatt’s point about the need for newsroom diversity.

We tend to look at bias or impartiality when it comes to individual stories. But my experience in the newsroom is that the bias is hidden much more deeply. It’s all about choosing which stories to write and how the story is reported. Think about how a writer like Meacham — who frequently writes against literalism — responds to Graham’s statements. Think about how a reporter who doesn’t believe in God might respond to the statements. Think about how a reporter who believes the Bible is the literal, nonfigurative Word of God might respond. I think most reporters would ask different sets of follow-up questions based on their given biases, education and perspective.

This is why newsrooms today are in such danger. They are filled with people with narrow fields of experience and education. And it shows in the paucity and weakness of coverage in many fields, religion being prime among them.

Photo via ChadChadBinks on Flickr.

*I have to share that my mom “got saved” by Billy Graham when she was a teenager. Sure, she had actually been baptized as an infant at her Evangelical and Reformed church. But she went with a neighbor to a crusade and feared they wouldn’t drive her home if she didn’t walk down at the altar call. I don’t know why I love that story so much, but I do.

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Talking to the middle ground

CollinsBookThe mainstream media are covering intelligent debate over religion and science. And it’s about time.

Former Time religion correspondent Richard Ostling, now with The Associated Press, wrote an excellent news article focusing on the arguments of Francis S. Collins, author of the recently published book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Ostling appropriately recognized that Collins’ faith is a news story unto itself, considering that he is one of the world’s leading biologists and leader of the Human Genome Project.

Much of the media’s reporting on science and religion has focused on controversial school-board decisions and federal funding of forums and research papers. The stories are full of high emotion, distinctive sides and bomb-throwing statements. A story on Collins and his work is not likely to produce that level of controversy, despite his highly intelligent work on combining the controversial areas of faith and science:

He asks scientific skeptics to investigate God with the same open-minded zeal they apply to the natural world, saying that there’s no incompatibility between belief and scientific rigor.

He tells fellow evangelicals that opposition to evolution — whether based in the biblical literalism of creationists or “intelligent design” arguments — undermines the credibility of faith. He finds the first line of thought “fundamentally flawed” and says the second builds upon gaps in evidence that scientists are likely to fill in.

The audience of 200 at [a Williams College conference sponsored by the C.S. Lewis Foundation] gave Collins’s views a respectful reception, in contrast to the frosty reaction he got when he said at a national meeting of Christian physicians that the evidence for evolution is “overwhelming.”

But scientists are probably the tougher audience. According to Nature, the weekly science journal, “many scientists disagree strongly” with Collins-style arguments, and critics think “more talk of religion is the last thing that science needs.”

CollinsLabCollins’ arguments are drawing a good deal of attention, largely because of his book. In a Time review, David Van Biema argues that the book is “enlightening but not always convincing.” (The New York Times reviewed Collins’ book alongside books by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Owen Gingerich, Joan Roughgarden, E.O. Wilson and Louis Wolpert.) The pace of Collins’ writing is closer to position statements than arguments that can sustain, Van Biema argues, and the book is most interesting when he criticizes creationists:

His insights on the nature of a God-science overlap, while fresh, are celebratory rather than investigative, budgeting relatively little space to wrestle with instances when the conjunction of the two can induce the philosophical bends (such as faith’s understanding of God’s place outside human time).

The book seems liveliest when Collins turns his guns from atheists on the left to creationists and intelligent designers on the right, urging the abandonment of what he feels are overliteral misreadings of Scripture. “I don’t think God intended Genesis to teach science,” he says, arguing that “the evidence in favor of evolution is utterly compelling.” He has little patience with those who say evolution is just a theory, noting that in his scientific world the word theory “is not intended to convey uncertainty; for that purpose a scientist would use the word hypothesis.” The book is hard on intelligent design, heaping scientific doubt on its key notion of “irreducible complexity” in phenomena like blood clotting, and theological scorn on its ultimate implications (“I.D. portrays the Almighty as a clumsy Creator, having to intervene at regular intervals to fix the inadequacies of His own initial plan … this is a very unsatisfactory image”).

That is not the argument his publisher has chosen to emphasize, or his book’s subtitle would be flipped to read A Believer Presents the Evidence for Science. But it may be the one with the best prospects. Students of the debate note that atheists are more dogmatically opposed to God than Evangelicals are to evolution, if only because aggressive creationism is neither a long-standing evangelical position nor a unanimous one. According to Edward Larson, a Pulitzer-prizewinning historian of the evolution debate at the University of Georgia, American support for it, now near 50%, hovered around 30% as recently as 1960. Today, Larson says, “it’s a dynamic situation, with no unanimity.” Evolution is taught at some Christian colleges.

Collins, according to the Time piece, has regular talks with Prison Fellowship’s Chuck Colson. And Collins is attempting to move him away from his hardline intelligent design stance. I find this quite significant. While it may appear that Collins takes heavy heat from both sides of the debate, scientists opposed to intelligent design clearly respect his opinions, as do those fighting to supplant evolutionary theory with some form of intelligent design theory. With someone of Collins’ stature in the middle, how far apart are the two sides?

The statistics cited in the Ostling article are compelling. If 40 percent of scientists are religious, then why don’t we hear their perspectives more often in news articles? Why has this debate always been so polarized?

Journalists covering the evolution vs. intelligent design/creation wars should place Collins high on their list of sources to call next time a school board attempts to overturn a school’s teachings in the name of the Bible. Or the next time they hear a scientist trash religion for failing to support their work. An intelligent, respected scientist who can speak knowledgably on matters of faith is an invaluable source for understanding what has for years been a yawning gap between two of the most influential groups in American society.

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The church of punditry

coulterIt’s so difficult to write about Ann Coulter. Sometimes I think that those of us who do are all pawns in her game of making hoards of money. Having read her first book — which was harsh but not a bad read at all — I have come to the conclusion that she writes them and then inserts completely over the top and uncharitable statements at the last minute. This is for the sole purpose of having the mainstream media get outraged and bring her on the air to discuss it. She then goes home and watches the Amazon counter spin out of control.

I do have to admit that one of her columns still makes me laugh when I think of it. She was asked to opine about the Democratic Convention in 2004 for USA Today. She writes a typical Coulter column that the paper refuses to run. She had the column and the edits on her website for a while, but I couldn’t find them today. They were hilarious for revealing the profound disconnect between Ann’s populist-conservative philosophy and mainstream editors. Here was a sample I found from an old webpage:

Looking at the line-up of speakers at the Convention, I have developed the 7-11 challenge: I will quit making fun of, for example, Dennis Kucinich, if he can prove he can run a 7-11 properly for 8 hours. We’ll even let him have an hour or so of preparation before we open up. Within 8 hours, the money will be gone, the store will be empty, and he’ll be explaining how three 11-year olds came in and asked for the money and he gave it to them.

USA Today editor: I DON’T GET IT.

Not that her inability to take edits isn’t notorious. Anyway, Coulter’s new book argues that liberalism is a godless religion — a fascinating thesis. But media types were too busy acting aghast at her remarks about 9/11 widows to get to what she was saying. Which is a shame, since her books are read by many.

In comes Charlotte Allen, who wrote recently the surprisingly blunt piece in the Los Angeles Times on membership declines of mainstream Christian churches:

You want to have gay sex? Be a female bishop? Change God’s name to Sophia? Go ahead. The just-elected Episcopal presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, is a one-woman combination of all these things, having voted for [Gene] Robinson, blessed same-sex couples in her Nevada diocese, prayed to a female Jesus at the Columbus convention and invited former Newark, N.J., bishop John Shelby Spong, famous for denying Christ’s divinity, to address her priests.

When a church doesn’t take itself seriously, neither do its members. . . .

When your religion says “whatever” on doctrinal matters, regards Jesus as just another wise teacher, refuses on principle to evangelize and lets you do pretty much what you want, it’s a short step to deciding that one of the things you don’t want to do is get up on Sunday morning and go to church.

So that’s Charlotte Allen. Not exactly an apologist for godlessness. Which is why the interview, which it appears they conducted by e-mail, was so interesting. It’s a tough interview, and as Allen asks Coulter to defend her thesis, we get to see a bit of the difference between two women who oppose relativism. Here are a few of the questions and answers:

We’ve done some polls here at Beliefnet, and a surprising number of Democrats at least say they are religious. Some 61 percent say they pray daily and 72 percent attend worship services once a month or more. How would you explain that?

Just curious: What percentage of them know which Testament the Book of Job is in?

You say you’re a Christian. Do you think Jesus would want you to be nicer to your political opponents?

Who knows? Maybe He’ll say I was too tough or maybe He’ll chastise me for not being tough enough on those who hate Him. Ask the money-changers in the temple how “nice” Jesus was. Maybe He’ll say I needed more jokes or fewer adjectives. I’ll just apologize for not getting it right and thank him for dying for my sins.

What does it mean to be a good Christian, and do you consider yourself to be a good Christian?

To believe with all your heart at every moment that God loved a wretch like you so much that he sent his only son to die for your sins. Most of the time, I’m an extraordinarily good Christian.

It’s a pretty interesting read, both in terms of the questions and the answers.

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Another year, another “Jesus junk” story

A FTeeShirtI have to admit to a weakness for “Jesus junk” stories.

Since I worked in Denver for nearly a decade, I was pretty familiar with the style and substance of the CBA and its member stores. That’s the trade group formerly known as the Christian Booksellers Association.

Rare is the year that the CBA holds one of its blowout trade shows without seeing the publication of a “Jesus junk” story in a major newspaper or magazine. One of the classics, back in the late 1970s, focused on a company that was marketing Christian T-shirts for dogs. One year when I covered the convention, the hot story was the rise of Christian cappucino. Christian candy is another big favorite.

Well, Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times has done the “Jesus junk” deed and done it quite well.

The reason these stories fly, year after year, is quite simple — we are talking about a $4-something-billion industry that is growing. But it is an industry that, on first glance, has a style of its own, a style built on Christian photocopies of whatever trend existed in the real world about five years earlier. Thus, Simon shows us:

More than 400 vendors packed the Colorado Convention Center last week to showcase the latest accessories for the Christian lifestyle. There were acres of the predictable: books, CDs, greeting cards, inspirational artwork, stuffed animals wearing “Jesus Loves You” T-shirts. Many of the newest items, however, put a religious twist on unexpected products — marketed as a means to reach the unsuspecting and unsaved.

Christian Outdoorsman was taking orders for a camouflage baseball cap with a red cross. In Booth 235, Revelation Products of St. Louis was pitching golf balls and flip-flops. Follow the Son flip-flops have patterned soles that leave the message “Follow Jesus” in the sand.

Gospel Golf Balls are touted as “a great golf ball with a greater purpose.” Manufactured by Top-Flite, the golf balls are printed with well-known verses from the Bible, such as John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son …”). Dave Kruse, president of Revelation, said they were meant as “conversation starters,” to help men share their faith while teeing up.

An added bonus: Duffers need no longer feel bad about losing a ball in the rough. “If you’re playing great, good,” Kruse said. “If you’re spraying the ball, well … lose a golf ball, share the gospel.”

The difference between this story and most of the other stories produced in the “Jesus junk” genre is that Simon actually stops and asks if these products are what they claim to be — a means of outreach.

This is a claim that is a bit hard to swallow, since the junk side of this marketplace is built on selling Christian stuff to people who are already Christians through Christian outlets that advertise in Christian media. Is this outreach?

So who is the obvious person to call up for an interview on this topic?

You got it.

The effect of such products, according to political scientist Alan Wolfe, is to create almost a parallel universe, one that allows Christians to withdraw from the world instead of engaging it as Christ commanded.

“It’s as if they’re saying the task of bringing people to Jesus is too hard, so let’s retreat into a fortress,” said Wolfe, who directs the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.

“Evangelism is about reaching out and converting the unsaved,” Wolfe said. “This is about putting a fence around people who are already saved. It strikes me as if they’re giving up.”

That’s part of the story. However, there are some products in this world that have — for reasons both mysterious and obvious — had an impact with ordinary people in ordinary shopping malls.

Simon is a fine, fine reporter. I hope that, having done the junk story, she will now chase the more serious side of the CBA. There is some substance hiding in there. Honest.

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