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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Watching that circle go round and round

phelps2Fred Phelps is getting help from the American Civil Liberties Union. Phelps, of the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, is suing in federal court, challenging a Missouri law that prohibits protesting at military funerals.

I’ve held in the past that Phelps’ attempts to get into the news should be avoided by journalists. But when laws are enacted to prohibit the stunts pulled by his group, you can’t help but write about him. And journalists should. But now the ACLU is on his side, and that makes this an even bigger, and profoundly ironic, story.

For some background, this is the same ACLU that Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell said was responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But let’s not forget the “pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way,” Falwell said on The 700 Club.

So now we’ve come full circle:

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A Kansas church group that protests at military funerals nationwide filed suit in federal court, saying a Missouri law banning such picketing infringes on religious freedom and free speech.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit Friday in the U.S. District Court in Jefferson City, Mo., on behalf of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church, which has outraged mourning communities by picketing service members’ funerals with signs condemning homosexuality.

The church and the Rev. Fred Phelps say God is allowing troops, coal miners and others to be killed because the United States tolerates gay men and lesbians.

God and gaysIt’s tough to deny the ACLU a level of credibility based on its attempts to act on principle. It’s certainly making for some interesting copy. Falwell and Robertson certainly made news for their comments after the terrorist attacks. Thankfully Phelps does not have that type of bully pulpit and following, but he is in the news again for legitimate reasons. Some loaded comments slipped into the AP story, and I’ll use this as an opportunity to highlight why journalists must be careful about how they cover this guy:

“I told the nation, as each state went after these laws, that if the day came that they got in our way, that we would sue them,” said Phelps’s daughter Shirley L. Phelps-Roper, a spokeswoman for the church in Topeka, Kan. “At this hour, the wrath of God is pouring out on this country.”

A reporter with a decent level of knowledge of religion will understand that Phelps-Roper’s comments are religiously loaded, and follow-up questions should abound when someone makes that type of statement. A comment included in a story as if it were just a normal quote — with no background or context — fails to explain the shaky theological foundation on which this group stands.

Any reporter who believes Phelps represents anything close to a fraction of the diverse religious landscape in America needs to do more research. So fine, quote Phelps and his daughter, but do it in a way that provides proper context and understanding.

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The upside to Hezbollah

raptureI know Harper’s is on a mission to destroy Christianity or something, but remember what a great and interesting magazine it used to be, before it began its bizarre jihad?

Anyway, some of the articles Harper’s has published during its campaign have been insightful and involved real reporting. And I rather enjoyed a simple bit of blog reporting that Ken Silverstein did for the magazine’s Washington Babylon blog:

It turns out there’s an upside to the current conflict between Israel and Hezbollah — if you’re waiting for the second coming of Christ. Here’s a selection of excited messages spotted over the last few days on the Rapture Ready/End Times Chat online bulletin board.

Praise God! We are chosen to be in these times and also watch and spread the word. Something inside me is exploding to get out, and I don’t know what it is. Its kind of like I want to do cartwheels around the neighborhood.

* * *

In another thread, someone brought up the fact that the kidnapping of the first Israeli soldier that started this whole thing was on June 25th and if you count from that day to August 3rd … it is *EXACTLY 40 days!!!!!*

I find that to be a HUGE coincidence.

* * *

Whoa! I can sure feel the glory bumps after reading this thread!

My favorite comment is the second one. Anyway, I know that Harper’s is covering this so as to mock these rapture-ready, rapture-excited Christians but I think it would be great for mainstream reporters to talk to these folks. You can find stuff here and there. But most of it is laughably bad coverage.

I’d like to see more, particularly of those Christians who may not be getting ready for August 3 but are having their views of foreign policy shaped by their doctrinal views.

Photo via Marcn on Flickr.

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This should be good for another Pulitzer

bathingsuitI’ve been on a few beaches this summer. I plan to be on a few more. And, with my unhealthy obsession with fashion, I have analyzed and overanalyzed the latest swimsuit trends. So while I’m glad that The Washington Post‘s Pulitzer prize-winning fashion reporter Robin Givhan turned her critical eye to swimwear, I can’t say I’m sure she’s hit on something sweeping the nation’s sandy areas. I can’t say the nation’s beaches are beset by overly modest women.

In her story on bikinis and modesty, she takes a long look at WholesomeWear, a company that makes full-coverage swimsuits. Wetsuits topped with nylon dresses, essentially. The article is not bad. It’s interesting. It’s worth writing about. What is funny is how desperately she tries to tie the production and marketing of the swimsuits to some religious motivation but fails to do a good job of analyzing any religious underpinnings she finds:

The collection is not aimed at practitioners of any specific religion. There is no obvious mention of spirituality, God, Allah or Joseph Smith on the company’s Web site. . . .

The company may not be preaching to a specific denomination, but it is nonetheless preaching. [Joan] Ferguson describes her family as “Christian people who love the Lord.” And the swimsuits are “a ministry.”

Well that was sure illuminating. Thanks, Ms. Givhan. I can’t imagine I’ll ever have a better opportunity to share with you one of my favorite sites (with the longest URL I can recall seeing). Trust me, it’s worth it. And if you like that, some Amazon user has come up with a list of modest swimsuits. Just don’t tell Andrew Sullivan.

tapemeasuringpoliceMuch of the piece is spent in Givhan’s trademark style: writing unsubstantiated declarative sentences in the least kind way possible. I completely agree with her view that these modesty suits are bad for women. I just wish she would have interviewed more than one person for the story. She speaks with a woman at WholesomeWear. She speaks with no one else. She doesn’t find out anything about the particular religious mindset that thinks such full-coverage suits are more holy than other ones. She doesn’t consider the religious basis for views in support of modesty. I know she’s not a full-time religion reporter, but maybe she could have scoured some previous coverage for tips about correctly nailing the religious issues:

It’s understandable that some men and women may feel frustrated and scandalized in a culture that accommodates micro-miniskirts, cropped halter tops and visible thongs. They want someone to stand up and say, “Put some clothes on, darn it!” But surely, in the search for modesty, wouldn’t one stumble across something decent and virtuous before getting all the way to a nylon shroud? Wouldn’t a demure tankini do? Or a one-piece with a matching skirt?

I love that paragraph. Which, given my distaste for Givhan, is saying something.

But in looking at all that camouflaging fabric, at the layers aimed at obscuring the physique, one wonders how a swimsuit “ministry” can save anyone’s soul when such ungainly suits have so little appreciation for beauty.

See, I’m right with Givhan’s making a blanket fashion pronouncement about the value of the swimsuit ministry. But I really wish that she would have interviewed actual experts about this very doctrinal issue rather than rely on herself. The story really could have used a bit more depth.

Photo via Seaside Rose Garden on Flickr.

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Muddled millennial musings

millennialismThis is a few days late, but we need to look at that Los Angeles TimesEnd Times” story. I’m not sure if the problem with the story is that it is disorganized or that the reporter just doesn’t get the topic about which he is writing.

Speaking of not knowing about the topic, I’m Lutheran and we think Left Behind is where you get a penicillin shot. Still, I think I’d put any catechumen from my church up against the Times‘ Louis Sahagun. His breathless piece is about how an unspecified number of religious groups of unspecified population — some of which don’t even share the same religion – are using technology to hasten the end times and/or apocalypse and/or the arrival of a Jewish, Christian or Muslim messiah.

I mean, is it me, or is this kind of a big umbrella for one story? Compounding the problem is that some of his examples don’t have anything to do with technology. Maybe it’s a new Times exercise in free-association stories. But since this is GetReligion and not GetOrganized, how about I move on . . .

Sahagun fails to prove his point. If you’re going to claim that people are wacky, it’s important to be specific and substantiate claims with evidence the reader can check:

With that goal in mind, mega-church pastors recently met in Inglewood to polish strategies for using global communications and aircraft to transport missionaries to fulfill the Great Commission: to make every person on Earth aware of Jesus’ message. Doing so, they believe, will bring about the end, perhaps within two decades.

In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has a far different vision. As mayor of Tehran in 2004, he spent millions on improvements to make the city more welcoming for the return of a Muslim messiah known as the Mahdi, according to a recent report by the American Foreign Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank.

Maybe these unquantified megachurch pastors were trying to bring about Armageddon. Or maybe they were doing what Christians have done since, well, Day 1: evangelism. And mayors improving the infrastructure of their city? Well, that is crazy, isn’t it? Put another way, how hard does a reporter have to work to make Ahmadinejad seem like a sensible bureaucrat? This is the man who spins the Holocaust, for crying out loud. I kid you not when I say Sahagun also acts like it’s news that Jews want to rebuild “a temple on a site now occupied by one of Islam’s holiest shrines.” A temple? You don’t say . . .

Sahagun glosses over different Christian beliefs about Revelation:

Though there are myriad interpretations of how it will play out, the basic Christian apocalyptic countdown — as described by the Book of Revelation in the New Testament — is as follows:

Jews return to Israel after 2,000 years, the Holy Temple is rebuilt, billions of people perish during seven years of natural disasters and plagues, the antichrist arises and rules the world, the battle of Armageddon erupts in the vicinity of Israel, Jesus returns to defeat Satan’s armies and preside over Judgment Day.

Generations of Christians have hoped for the Second Coming of Jesus, said UCLA historian Eugen Weber, author of the 1999 book “Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults and Millennial Beliefs Through the Ages.”

“And it’s always been an ultimately bloody hope, a slaughterhouse hope,” he added with a sigh.

armageddon 01Oh, so that’s the “basic Christian apocalyptic countdown”? And we Christians have always had a “slaughterhouse hope” in the end times? That’s good to know. I wonder why my pastor and every other Lutheran pastor and, for that matter, most of Christendom is keeping this from me. I mean, Lutherans, for instance, reject all forms of millennialism. (Happy birthday, Augsburg!) And even among folks who do believe in millennialism, you have your Historical Premillennialists, your Dispensational Premillennialists, Pre-Tribulation Rapture folks, Post-Tribs, Mid-Tribs and Pre-Wrath Rapturites and Partial Rapture folks — all of whom have disparate eschatological views.

Sahagun confuses evangelism with Armageddon (maybe this explains other problems in the newsroom). There are many examples but here’s one:

Apocalyptic movements are nothing new; even Christopher Columbus hoped to assist in the Great Commission by evangelizing New World inhabitants.

Sahagun is unaware that not all Christians are millennialists, part 246:

For Christians, the future of Israel is the key to any end-times scenario, and various groups are reaching out to Jews — or proselytizing among them — to advance the Second Coming.

No. No, no, no. Israel is not the key to any end-times scenario for Christians. There are billions of Christians in the world, all of whom believe in the world to come, as we say. And religious support of Israe? That’s certainly of concern to some Baptists and Pentecostals, for instance. But not everybody.

Complete lack of context. Reporters should use specific words. Avoid the word “some” as much as possible. Sahagun used the word eight times. The article gave the impression that statistical outliers — a farmer in Mississippi trying to breed a herd of red heifers — represent average Christians. And Christian thought is fleshed out much more in the story than Muslim or Jewish thought.

I know I’m not the Times‘ only reader who wants to learn more about millennialism and religious support of Israel. It’s a shame we’re still waiting.

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Daaaaaaaaa-dum. Da-dum. Da-dum. (continue)

PassionLastSupperWell folks, I really don’t know what to say about this news except: Cue the theme from Jaws. Let’s go straight to the Hollywood Reporter story by Paul Bond, which I am amazed has not inspired more coverage. Where is Frank Rich?

The bottom line — literally — is that Sony Pictures is attempting to appeal to the evangelical slice of the mainstream audience that flocked to The Passion of the Christ by making a sequel about the events after the resurrection.

Who are the key players? Wait for it:

Using the Bible for its source material, “Resurrection” will tell the story of Jesus Christ beginning the day he died on the cross and ending about 40 days later with his ascension into heaven. According to insiders, Sony’s mid-budget Screen Gems division commissioned a script several months ago from Lionel Chetwynd, the veteran screenwriter, producer and director whose credits include the feature “The Hanoi Hilton” and the Emmy-nominated TV movie “Ike: Countdown to D-Day.”

Set to produce is Tim LaHaye, co-author of the best-selling “Left Behind” series of books. A popular minister and frequent TV news pundit, “Resurrection” will mark LaHaye’s first foray into mainstream filmmaking.

Now, we know that the words “Mel Gibson” freaked out a lot of folks on the left coast. However, his name also thrilled a lot of people who were excited that a heavyweight, A-list talent was going to make a serious film about Holy Week. Gibson is a love-him or hate-him kind of man, but no one doubted his talent and his commitment to quality. He had that Braveheart thing going for him, after all.

But Tim “Left Behind” LaHaye? His involvement will excite many on the Christian right, but it will also — needless to say — raise questions about artistic merits of the project. I mean, is this a direct-to-video project?

It is possible that this movie will not cause controversy. It is also possible that it will. Bond’s short report noted:

The film will focus on these dramatic encounters and their implications for the Roman garrison in Judea and the broader Roman Empire, insiders said.

“This is not a fanciful rendering. It’s a serious attempt to understand the Roman world in which Christ moved and the Christian era was born,” a person familiar with the project said.

Does “the broader Roman Empire” include the complex and divided world of the Jewish authorities of that day? It goes without saying that LaHaye’s beliefs may also raise concerns among Jewish groups, especially on the cultural left.

Meanwhile, it is clear that The Passion raised issues in Hollywood that are not going away anytime soon.

After all, the crew at Entertainment Weeklywhich is known (cough, cough) for its mainstream views on religion — has just named Gibson’s bloody epic as the single most controversial film of all time.

That’s right, hotter than The Message by Moustapha Akkad, which offered a take on the origins of Islam that lead to riots and terrorism. Hotter than the epic racism of The Birth of a Nation. Hotter than JFK, Deep Throat, Fahrenheit 9/11, A Clockwork Orange and, of course, The Last Temptation of Christ by Martin Scorsese. And EW thought that Gibson’s film was way, way more controversial than that historic film Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl that helped build the legend of a secular messianic figure of some importance — Adolf Hitler.

It’s safe to say that anything hailed as Passion 2 will cause a bit of heat among the powers that be in the world of entertainment.

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A sermon on journalism: Let us attend

cpulpit4Please hang in there with me as I continue to do some post-Key West forum housekeeping.

GetReligion readers who are interested in debates about Associated Press style, the history of American religion and the future of newspapers may want to click here and head over to my latest column for the ethics and diversity team at that online newsroom water cooler operated by the Poynter Institute.

I admit that the style of this one is a bit strange and even preachy. Thus, the headline that they provided: “Literal Evangelism: A Sermon on Language, Usage and Religion in the News.”

Here’s how I started things off:

The readings for today’s sermon are from Billy Graham, Bill Keller and The Associated Press Stylebook.

Let us attend.

If you go to the Poynter.org site, you’ll find quite a few URLs in this column and themes that will sound familiar to frequent GetReligion readers.

Please remember that this column is written to an audience of professional journalists and I am trying to make a case for some fundamental values in the craft of newswriting. This is, to use Jay Rosen’s way of talking, an example of a journalist (that would be me) trying to preach the old-time religion to the journalism choir. I freely admit that, inside the modern tent, there are strong debates going on about some of these old doctrines. But it is still acceptable to preach about the basics.

I won’t bore you with the whole thing, but here’s a summary statement that gives you a good idea of what I’m up to.

Words have great power in the world of religion. However, there is a problem: Many religious leaders do not agree on what many of the powerful words mean. As Graham noted, it may be impossible — in clear, historical terms — to define words that are used all the time in religious and mainstream media.

What does the word “church” mean to a Southern Baptist? What does the word “Church” mean to a Roman Catholic? A “bishop” in the United Methodist Church is not the same thing as an Episcopal bishop, or an Eastern Orthodox bishop, or an AME Zion bishop, or a Catholic bishop, or a Pentecostal Holiness bishop or, come to think of it, a Mormon bishop.

I could go on and on. Define “marriage.” Define “sin.” Give three examples.

This is complicated stuff. … Many religious believers are convinced that journalists do not have well-developed vocabularies, when it comes to the rites and the wrongs of religious doctrines, rituals, history and traditions. It’s hard to do a good job, journalistically speaking, when you are not getting many of the words right.

Journalists also like to use certain words to describe people they respect, or with whom they agree. This works the other way around, too. One person’s “evangelical” is another person’s “fundamentalist.” One person’s “moderate” is another’s “liberal.” The public is convinced that our labels are clues to our biases.

We cannot avoid labels, in hard-news reporting. Thus, I suggest that we strive not to attempt to read people’s minds. We must strive to let people describe their own beliefs and do our best to report their words as accurately as possible. We must try to let people label themselves.

The goal is to report unto others as we would like them to report unto us.

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Harpo America

baby namesForgive my snarkiness, but stories about baby names are just dumb. I have particular disdain for stories on those unusual names that suddenly become popular. First, it ruins the offbeat quality of those names, and second, who cares? Anybody with an Internet connection can look up the popularity of a name.

So the cynical writers here at GetReligion were especially appalled to see The New York Times write about the historic boom in the number of babies named “Nevaeh,” which is, for those clever enough to figure it out, Heaven spelled backward. Whoop-de-do (the story’s headline is, well, lame, despite my own use of the technique):

The spectacular rise of Nevaeh (commonly pronounced nah-VAY-uh) has little precedent, name experts say. They watched it break into the top 1,000 of girls’ names in 2001 at No. 266, the third-highest debut ever. Four years later it cracked the top 100 with 4,457 newborn Nevaehs, having made the fastest climb among all names in more than a century, the entire period for which the Social Security Administration has such records.

Nevaeh is not in the Bible or any religious text. It is not from a foreign language. It is not the name of a celebrity, real or fictional.

Nevaeh is Heaven spelled backward.

The name has hit a cultural nerve with its religious overtones, creative twist and fashionable final “ah” sound. It has risen most quickly among blacks but is also popular with evangelical Christians, who have helped propel other religious names like Grace (ranked 14th) up the charts, experts say. By contrast, the name Heaven is ranked 245th.

Spectacular indeed is how the Jennifer 8. Lee got this puff piece in the pages of the Gray Lady. Stories on baby names are much more appropriate for things like magazines. This simply isn’t news.

Much to my amazement, as the gossip blog Gawker pointed out, not only is a piece on an “insignificant trend” in the Times, it was also on the front page. I kid you not. Perhaps it is Miss Jennifer 8.’s interesting middle name that makes this story front-page material? Go figure.

One can only imagine our disgust when the article dipped into the realm of the religious. We blame this on Oprah. It’s all her fault. Anything can be religious these days. Even generic religious words spelled backwards. Welcome to Oprah America.

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