WWROD? Hang out with the GetReligionistas team

Ask any religion-news professional to list the top reporters on the beat in the late 20th Century and Richard Ostling will be right near the top.

That’s why, very early in the history of this blog, your GetReligionistas started suggesting that — when facing tough issues about how to cover religion in an accurate and balanced manner — journalists should ask this not-so-simple question: What Would Richard Ostling Do?

For newcomers to this terrain, Ostling was the religion-beat pro at Time magaizne, back in the days when it was a gold standard in weekly hard-news reporting at the national and especially global levels. From there, he went to the top religion slot at the Associated Press. He is retired now, but still active in religion-news circles as a writer and consultant.

Last fall, Ostling started writing a Patheos blog called “Religion Q and A” and he explained his goals like this:

Most features on Patheos are opinionated, faith-specific (Buddhist, Catholic, Pagan) … whereas mine will be non-partisan and journalistic in approach and cover wide-ranging topics.

We’ll be asking folks in cyberspace to send in questions regarding any and all faiths, any Scriptures, current church-state and religion-politics issues, moral quandaries and other such puzzlements and curiosities. If I’m able, I’ll post an answer with others then welcome others to add comments.

From the beginning, there has been quite a bit of GetReligion-esque material at Ostling’s blog — a trend that he welcomed and we welcomed.

Stop and think about it. It’s understandable that lots of people have lots of questions about topics they keep seeing in religion-news coverage. Thus, we have linked to quite a few Ostling posts here at GetReligion.

And now there will be more.

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Another haunted story about Ravens locker room faith

At this point, fans who pay close attention to the Baltimore Ravens are contemplating a deep moral and religious question. No, I am not referring to the sins being committed on a weekly basis by the offensive linemen who are allegedly blocking for quarterback Joe Flacco.

No, the bigger question is this: Who dominates the locker room, the party players associated with the recent “party bus” incident, with that strong supporting role played by a stripper named Sweet Pea, or the inner core of religious believers who are clearly being pulled into the organization or retained as leaders by head coach John “give me some mighty men” Harbaugh?

As the defending Super Bowl champions attempt to get their act together on the field, it’s clear that there are questions that need to be answered in the locker room.

Do the reporters and editors of The Baltimore Sun see what is going on?

I honestly do not know. I do know that, in story after story, the folks that operate the newspaper that lands in my front yard demonstrate that they are tone deaf when it comes to writing about the lives of the many religious believers who are playing key roles in the Ravens locker room. Tone deaf? What other explanation is there for this trend in which the religious role in players’ personal lives is either ignored or downplayed in story after story? Want to see a few examples, just from the past 12 months? Then click here, here, here, here and here.

The latest story in this haunted series focuses on safety James Ihedigbo, who — against strong odds — has emerged as a leader on the Ravens defense. It’s important to know that his family is from Nigeria.

Thus, this crucial transition in the story:

After bouncing around the NFL for a couple of years and surviving another training camp competition, Ihedigbo is thriving as a starter for the Ravens. The 29-year-old is providing sound coverage, reliable tackling and leadership for a younger group of defensive backs that lost a pair of veteran mentors in Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard this past offseason.

“James has been kind of the glue back there,” coach John Harbaugh said.

Fighting to keep a dream alive is nothing new for him or for the Ihedigbo family. Decades before, Ihedigbo learned about perseverance and the power of faith from his parents.

The Ihedigbos, Apollos and Rose, left Nigeria and came to the United States in 1979, settling in Amherst, Mass. Two of their five children were born there, including their youngest son, James.

OK, there’s the faith word. Now what’s the story, in terms of the journalistic facts?

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Pod people: Deja vu on global persecution of Christians

As a rule, I don’t discuss the contents of one of my new Scripps Howard News Service columns here at GetReligion. However, from time to time I need to do so in order to describe some of the content of a new podcast in our GetReligion “Crossroads” series with radio host Todd Wilken & Co.

This is one of those weeks. Click here to listen to the podcast.

Meanwhile, this week’s column for Scripps grew out of all of the reading I did writing a recent GetReligion post on the subject of the recent wave of persecution being inflicted on religious minorities, especially Christians, in Egypt, Syria, Kenya and Pakistan. That post included a link to an early post — a very GetReligion-esque essay — by a senior editor (M.Z. Hemingway to be precise) at the new webzine called The Federalist.

As I worked on that GetReligion post, I kept having flashbacks to an earlier Scripps column I wrote long ago on the same topic (“Persecution: The power of apathy“). Eventually, that’s where I decided to start this week’s column:

Churches were burning in Pakistan, while African Christians died and radical forms of Islam threatened monasteries, sanctuaries and villages in Egypt, Syria and Iraq.

That was 1997. Human-rights scholar Paul Marshall kept hearing one question over and over when he addressed this rising tide of persecution: Why didn’t more American Christians protest as their sisters and brothers in the faith were jailed, raped, tortured and killed?

Some Christians, he said, were distracted by apocalyptic talk in which persecution was a good thing, a sign that the end of the world was near. Others weren’t that interested in violence on the other side of the world that threatened believers in ancient churches that looked nothing like their own suburban megachurches.

“The result is a stunning passivity that calmly accepts such suffering,” said Marshall, in an interview for an earlier column for Scripps Howard News Service. “Perhaps this … could be justified if we were dealing with our own suffering. But to do this with the suffering of another amounts to theological sadism.”

That was 1997. Marshall had just co-written the groundbreaking book “Their Blood Cries Out,” with journalist Lela Gilbert. Since then, I have worked with both of these writers in global projects about religion-news coverage.

After I filed the column, an editor emailed back a logical question. I had used the punch phrase, “That was 1997″ twice. Was that intentional or a typo?

Very intentional, I replied.

In fact I spent about an hour trying to find a clear, concise way to set up the haunting similarities between the religious persecution scene in 1997, which led to “Their Blood Cries Out” and developments in the past year or two that led to Marshall, Gilbert and Catholic lawyer Nina Shea writing their new book, “Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians.”

I found the similarities between the events, and thus the column, from 1997 and the waves of bloody headlines — often from the same nations — from the past two weeks to more than haunting, but downright agonizing. More on that in a minute.

So are some GetReligion readers thinking logical thoughts as I spell all of this out? Thoughts like, “Well, of course, Marshall, Shea and activists of their ilk think this is a front-burner issue. They are conservative Christians and we all know that conservative Christians see persecution behind every rock.”

That’s part of what I found so haunting. Many media people were already saying that back in 1997.

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Tom Clancy: That Baltimore Catholic and his generic beliefs

As I have mentioned many times, Baltimore culture is both historically Catholic and very liberal and the state of Maryland is used to having political leaders who are openly Catholic, yet clash frequently with the church hierarchy on issues of moral theology. Meanwhile, the newspaper that lands in my front yard just off the south edge of the Baltimore Beltway is, if anything, to the political and cultural left of the Maryland mainstream.

Thus, it is safe to say that The Baltimore Sun is not the place readers will want to look today if they are seeking insights into the moral (some kind of pro-life Catholic) and political (solidly Republican) beliefs of the late Tom Clancy, the Baltimore native who died Tuesday at Johns Hopkins Hospital at the age of 66.

For years, I have listened to liberal and conservative Catholics argue about the degree to which Clancy’s novels — which certainly contained a worldview far from the Hollywood norm — reflected moral absolutes that were or were not rooted in his Catholic heritage and education. Are we talking “just war theory” or “just war, baby”? And what were readers to make of that Catholic super hero Jack Ryan and his remarks about Roe v. Wade?

OK, I was idealistic this morning. I thought that the long A1 obituary in the Sun would at least address whether Clancy was or was not an active Catholic. Yes, he was a very private man and there was the matter of his divorce and remarriage. However, there were plenty of churches close to his luxury condo near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

This is all readers learned on the religion and worldview front:

Thomas Leo Clancy Jr., the son of a mail carrier and an eye surgeon and insurance agency manager, grew up in Baltimore’s middle-class Northwood neighborhood. “I was a little nerdy but a completely normal kid. Mom and Dad loved each other. It was like ‘Leave it to Beaver,’” he told The Sun in 1992.

His education was Roman Catholic, beginning with St. Matthew’s grade school. He went on to Loyola High in Towson, an all-boys school with an all-male faculty and a rigorous Jesuit curriculum. Students took four years of Latin, wore jackets and ties, and began each class with a prayer.

“He was kind of his own man. He was quiet and toward the shy side,” Father Thomas McDonnell, a former Loyola faculty member who taught Mr. Clancy religion, Latin and history in his sophomore year, recalled in an interview with The Sun some years ago.

He described Mr. Clancy as a straight-A student from the standout class of 1965, but unremarkable as a leader or athlete. …

While some of Mr. Clancy’s classmates went on to spend the late 1960s on campuses rife with antiwar activism, he moved to Loyola University Maryland, where the ruling Jesuits had little tolerance for demonstrations.

OK, but what if Clancy’s moral/religious worldview was reflected in some way in all of those bestselling novels? What if the content of the books actually had something to do with his fan base and his popularity?

This is the rare case in which Charm City’s newspaper didn’t even pursue the political side of this matter.

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Pod people: How not to write an attack piece

On one long winter workday in camp, as I was lugging a wheelbarrow together with another man, I asked myself how one might portray the totality of our camp existence. In essence it should suffice to give a thorough description of a single day, providing minute details and focusing on the most ordinary kind of worker; that would reflect the entirety of our experience. It wouldn’t even be necessary to give examples of any particular horrors. It shouldn’t be an extraordinary day at all, but rather a completely unremarkable one, the kind of day that will add up to years. That was my conception and it lay dormant in my mind for nine years.

– From the foreward of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Arkhipelag Gulag 1918–1956: Opyt khudozhestvennogo issledovaniia. Sokrashchennoe izdanie, ed. N. D. Solzhenitsyn (Moscow: Prosveshchenie, 2010).

Should fallacious news stories be allowed to stand unchallenged? If you wrestle with a tabloid, will you not merely smear yourself with more mud? In the latest edition of Crossroads, a GetReligion podcast, Issues Etc. host Todd Wilkin and I discussed my article “A Scottish tabloid libels the Churches of Christ” — my critique of a story that appeared in Glasgow’s Daily Record.

I was unsparing in my appraisal of the Daily Record article about the outreach activities of a Church of Christ congregation in East Kilbride, Scotland school. I wrote the article was written:

in a style reminiscent of Der Sturmer. Substitute “Jews” for “Church of Christ,” and with this article alleging secretive sects seeking to destroy the pure Scottish race through their pernicious doctrines, you have a story straight out of 1930?s Germany.

And …

Yes, it is only the Daily Record, a disreputable tabloid, but this article is libelous, malicious and evil — it is a disgrace to journalism.

Todd pushed me to explain why I believed it was necessary to counter such stories. I noted there were two issues here — the wrong done to the members of the volunteer program at the Church of Christ and the wrong done to the art — to the craft and aesthetics of journalism. My response was directed by my love of newspapers. It was irrelevant to me who the target of the Daily Record‘s bile might have been. An attack by a newspaper against Muslims, Buddhists, Rastafarians, or the Churches of Christ (but perhaps not the Church of England) would have elicited a similar response.

Some commentators on my original post did not believe such a distinction should be made. They believed the Church of Christ’s actions to be malign and its “missionaries” — to use the phrase placed in scare quotes by the Daily Record — were a bad lot. The newspaper’s attack was justified because of the doctrines of the Church of Christ were objectionable to their sensibilities.

I responded to one critic by stating this was not what newspapers are supposed to do. By singling out the Church of Christ for abuse, manipulating photographs and misconstruing the story I wrote that I believed the Daily Record had breached the code of ethical conduct expected of newspapers.

This is not about what the CoC believes or does not believe. It is about shoddy journalism. You forget state schools in Britain teach religion. Banning groups that are anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-evolution would ban Muslim groups from offering religious materials to schools. Do you believe the Daily Record would have run this story if it those helping at the school were Muslims? Would the Daily Record have made the same remarks about the Koran .. Sura 5:6, that Jews are the descendants of Apes and Pigs? This is not about the CoC. This is about a newspaper behaving badly.

The stated the Daily Record story was guilty of the sins I enumerated in my first piece — and frankly they were dopes who did not know their job.

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USA Today offers faith-free look at meditation, stress

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Journalists who try to cover the life and teachings of Deepak Chopra always face the same question: How much ink should they dedicate to the debates about whether his fusion of Hinduism and science are secular or sacred? In other words, is this man a religious leader who is teaching specific doctrines or not?

The skeptics at Sceptic.com state the issue this way, coming from — obviously — a totally nonreligious perspective (as opposed to the views of Chopra critics within specific religious traditions):

The content of Chopra’s philosophy is often obscured by logical inconsistencies, but it is possible, nonetheless, to identify its key components. First, he views the body as a quantum mechanical system, and uses comparisons of quantum reality with Eastern thought to guide us away from our Western, Newtonian-based paradigms. Having accomplished that, he then sets out to convince us that we can alter reality through our perceptions, and admonishes us to appreciate the unity of the Universe. If we allow ourselves to fully grasp these lessons, Chopra assures us, we will then understand the force of Intelligence permeating all of existence — guiding us ever closer to fulfillment. Each component of this philosophy has serious flaws. …

So that is one side of the debate. There are also people who believe, in the end, that the heart of Chopra’s work is best understood in terms of, well, marketing and the sound of ringing cash registers.

Is it possible to write about Chopra and issues related to his phenomenal popularity without even mentioning its religious content?

I would argue “no.”

However, it appears that the editors of the USA Today business section would say that the answer is “yes,” and that market trends ultimately trump religious concerns (either pro or con). Here is the opening of a long news feature about current sales trends in stress reduction:

Deepak Chopra says he never feels stress.

He wakes up at 4 a.m. daily and meditates for two hours. Then, he writes for an hour before going to the gym. The famed 66-year-old holistic health guru takes no medicine. He’s never had surgery. And he’s never been hospitalized.

“This is embarrassing,” he says, “but I do not get stress.”

Even then, he has made millions off the unrelenting stresses from which the rest of us suffer — linking his name to everything from stress-busting techno gadgets to spiritual retreats. Few things, it seems, are more stressful, or expensive, than trying to shed stress.

This raises the obvious question: Does Chopra “meditate” for two hours in the morning or does he “pray” for two hours and, in his tradition, is it possible to draw an journalistically meaningful line between these two terms? More on that later.

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Snickering at FoxNews while getting duped by ‘Zealot’ author

Many of us who came of age during the birth of New Media are reflexively defensive about the medium’s journalistic credibility. We defy the outdated notion that real journalism is printed on paper or broadcast on TV screen. Quality journalism is as likely to be found on a blog as in a newspaper or in a web video as on a cable news channel.

At least that’s the theory.

The reality is that much of what passes for journalism on the Internet is substandard. A prime example can be found in both an interview on FoxNews.com online show Spirited Debate and the New Media responses to it.

Before we get to a clip of the show, let’s look at some of the reactions. The Atlantic Wire says the “whole ordeal was embarrassing for Fox News” while Buzzfeed called it “The Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done.” “This Fox interview with Reza Aslan is absolutely demented (& he handled it with remarkable calm)” said The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum on Twitter. Wired’’s Steve Silberman called the interview “embarrassing” and Digg editorial director David Weiner said, “Please, please watch this if you haven’t yet. It’s amazing.”

These critics are right about the interview — it is a mess. But while these New Media journalists were snickering at FoxNews.com, they failed to notice that the person being interviewed was pulling one over on them by getting away with misrepresenting his credentials.

Here is a representative clip from the segment.

The first question by host Lauren Green on why a Muslim would want to write about Jesus isn’t as out of line as the Fox critics seem to think. It’s a fair question — a softball question — that allows the interviewee to explain away any apparent bias. But Green should have moved on after asking it and not made Aslan’s religious background the primary focus of the interview. More importantly, if she had been better prepared she could have called Aslan out for at least one blatant and seemingly undeniable untruth.

After being asked the first question by Green, Aslan responds:

Well, to be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, and fluency in biblical Greek, who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades, who also just happens to be a Muslim. So it’s not that I’m just some Muslim writing about Jesus I am an expert with a PhD in the history of religions.” Later in the video he says it’s his job as a “professor of religion including the New Testament. That’s what I do for a living, actually.” And to make sure we get the point, he later adds, “I am a historian. I am a PhD in the history of religions.

At this point, Green should have stopped him and asked him to clarify since he appears to be misrepresenting his credentials.

For starters, he does not have a PhD in the history of religions. Aslan has four degrees: a Bachelors of Religious Studies from Santa Clara University; a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School; a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Iowa; and a PhD in sociology of religions from the University of California, Santa Barbara (his dissertation was on “Global Jihadism: a transnational social movement”).

Why would Aslan claim he has a PhD in history when his degree is in sociology? Does he not understand the difference between the two fields of study?

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NYT front page discovers the most popular Bible app

Hey, guess what? If you want to read the Bible online, there’s an app for that.

I know this because I saw it on the front page of today’s New York Times.

Sorry, but I couldn’t resist poking a little fun at the Old Gray Lady for discovering an e-trend that’s old news to millions of Bible readers.

The story caught my attention because it’s datelined Edmond, Okla. — my neck of the woods — and involves a church that I’ve written about for The Oklahoman and Religion News Service, including a 2005 feature on the spread of satellite churches.

My teasing aside, the Times story is actually quite informative and interesting.

Let’s start at the top:

EDMOND, Okla. — More than 500 years after Gutenberg, the Bible is having its i-moment.

For millions of readers around the world, a wildly successful free Bible app, YouVersion, is changing how, where and when they read the Bible.

Built by LifeChurch.tv, one of the nation’s largest and most technologically advanced evangelical churches, YouVersion is part of what the church calls its “digital missions.” They include a platform for online church services and prepackaged worship videos that the church distributes free. A digital tithing system and an interactive children’s Bible are in the works.

It’s all part of the church’s aspiration to be a kind of I.T. department for churches everywhere. YouVersion, with over 600 Bible translations in more than 400 languages, is by far the church’s biggest success. The app is nondenominational, including versions embraced by Catholics, Russian Orthodox and Messianic Jews. This month, the app reached 100 million downloads, placing it in the company of technology start-ups like Instagram and Dropbox.

“They have defined what it means to access God’s word on a mobile device,” said Geoff Dennis, an executive vice president of Crossway, one of many Bible publishers — from small presses to global Bible societies to News Corporation’s Thomas Nelson imprint — that have licensed their translations, free, to the church.

Alas, the story sputters in a few places and makes me think that maybe Mollie was right when she joked that the Times should hire someone who has been to Vacation Bible School.

The first sputter:

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