Seeking the shooter’s motive at Seattle Pacific University?

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This time, it appears that a lone gunman acting for some unknown, mysterious reason decided to gun down students at Seattle Pacific University, an evangelical campus that is part of the 100-plus member Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (the global network in which I teach).

This means that religion is part of the story, right from the beginning. It also means that reporters are going to dealing with quite a bit of religious language and information, when hearing from witnesses and campus leaders.

Early on, the wire-service report I kept seeing was produced by Reuters. Other than the emerging details of the shooting, what was the crucial information that readers needed to know, according to this very early report? Check this out:

Seattle Pacific University is a Methodist liberal arts college about 4 miles (6.4 km) north of Seattle’s downtown, with about 4,000 students enrolled. The college website said students are subject to disciplinary action for such behavior as extramarital sex or homosexual activity and for the possession or use of alcohol.

Students could be seen embracing and otherwise consoling one another on campus, some crying as they recounted hearing a gunshot. An evening prayer service was being held at a campus church.

“We’re a community that relies on Jesus Christ for strength and we’ll need it at this time,” said Seattle Pacific University President Daniel Martin.

One journalism professor sent me that clip and focused on the discipline code reference with this simple question: “Relevance?”

Good question. I realize that the Reuters team was working at the online-research stage of reporting and, thus, the college website was right there and easy to find. But, with an off-campus shooter, was the basic Christian (and evangelical) doctrine reflected in that code relevant to the story? (Also, Seattle Pacific is a Free Methodist school — not to be confused with the much larger United Methodist Church.)

Was the Reuters team, essentially, saying that this was one of those strange right-wing campuses that might attract someone who was angry at intolerant right-wing Christians? Surely not.

The New York Times offered a much calmer — denominationally accurate, I might add — take on the school’s worldview:

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Hey BBC: What do the generals in northern Nigeria believe?

The horror stories continue in Nigeria, day after day, covered by professionals in newsrooms around the world (CNN latest here).

If you are interested in religion news right now, you have to be paying attention to Nigeria and Sudan, in particular. Here’s a new report from The Guardian, with details on Boko Haram attacks that appear to have killed 100 or more.

Meanwhile, this detail in a new BBC online report caught my attention:

In one attack, gunmen disguised as soldiers fired on a crowd in a church compound, local MP Peter Biye said. He said he had warned the army that the area was at risk after troops stationed nearby were withdrawn three months ago. …

“They came in mass in military uniform with about 200 motorcycles… they said they came to rescue them [and] they should not run away,” he told the BBC’s Newsday programme.

Villagers were urged to come to the church, and people gathered believing it was the military, the MP said.

“They surrounded them — they started shooting them,” Mr Biye said, adding that the gunmen then burnt many buildings.

This story emphasizes a crucial element of the fighting against Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, a religious piece of this bloody puzzle that has been mentioned many times here at GetReligion.

Simply stated, the Christians and pro-government, pro-education Muslims do not know who to trust right now. Do you trust the military? Do you trust the police? How do you know who to trust, when Boko Haram fighters are — somehow or another — ending up with military uniforms and equipment?

The major news hook in this BBC report is found here:

Nigerian media reported … that 10 generals and five other senior military officers had been tried before a court martial for supplying arms and information to the Islamist militant group.

However, a military spokesman called the reports “falsehoods”. This contradicted Interior Minister Abba Moro who in a BBC interview … said it was “good news” that the army had identified soldiers who were undermining the fight against the insurgents, and that it sent a strong message to other serving officers.

Boko Haram has waged an increasingly bloody insurgency since 2009 in an attempt to create an Islamic state in Nigeria.

So why would officials of the Nigerian state be cooperating with rebels who are trying to overthrow the state?

Religion, of course. To get specific, it’s impossible to cover this story without digging into these battles between clashing camps of Muslims.

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Bratwurst fest in Wisconsin: You never sausage intolerance

(Rubbing eyes) This is the New York Times, isn’t it? They’re being nice to conservatives and not so nice to liberals!

Madison, Wisc., is known for at least two things: a liberal, accepting mindset, and an annual brats-and-beer festival. But this year, according to the Times, organizer Tom Metcalfe added a new ingredient. Two, actually. Christian music and Bob Lenz, a motivational speaker on teen suicide.

What’s not to like? Wellllppp ….

But this month, a local newspaper noted that Mr. Lenz had ties to anti-abortion groups, particularly one called Save the Storks, which parks buses in front of abortion clinics and offers ultrasounds to pregnant women, a practice that some people consider harassment. Many liberal-leaning residents of Madison (and there are a lot of them) publicly said they would rather skip the Memorial Day weekend festival and its four-day extravaganza of bratwurst and beer.

“My reaction was, this doesn’t have a very Madison feel to it,” said Lisa Subeck, a member of the City Council, who declined to attend. “It really will turn many people off.” With Mr. Lenz appearing as a speaker, she said, “you really have to think, this isn’t reflective of our values.”

Within days, Mr. Metcalfe called Mr. Lenz to deliver a message: You are no longer invited.

Yep, guilt by association again. Just like when residents of Portland, Ore., announced a boycott of a grocer for his anti-gay views. And when HGTV canceled a planned show because the creators had voiced disapproval of gays and abortion.

Each case amounts to speech police: punishing people who dared voice unpopular socio-political views — views that had little relationship with their jobs.

The Times writer is sharp-eyed about the furor in a city — indeed, a state — that prides itself on its liberalism. First, she appears to mourn the way they were:

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Memory eternal: The life and quiet ministry of ‘Ann B.’

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One of the complicated subjects that religion-beat professionals talk about behind the scenes, if they are themselves religious believers, is how to pick out a safe congregation to join in the city that they are covering. The goal is to find a good one, but not one that has a history of making news.

During my Rocky Mountain News days, for example, my family joined what I thought was a nice safe, rather low-key parish near downtown (at this stage in our pilgrimage we were evangelical Anglicans). Lo and behold, the priest promptly became active in ministry to urban teens and gang members. Go figure.

That parish also put me in the path of a major news complication. Before long, one of my closest friends in the parish was a young man who was a leader at the local St. Francis Center for the homeless. On top of that, he was the son of one of the state’s major newsmakers, the charismatic (in multiple senses of the word) Bishop William C. Frey, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado. I immediately told my editors and then met with the bishop to establish ground rules for contacts with his family which were acceptable to him, to me and to my editors. I will leave the details private, but it helped that the bishop was not the kind of man who ducked questions.

Why bring this up?

You see, over the years several branches of the Frey family tree lived in a rambling old home in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood at one time or another, along with a wide variety of other interesting families and individuals. If you went over to watch a Denver Broncos game with one of the Frey sons and his family, that meant the bishop was probably going to there too, most of the time.

Members of this household community — think small commune — shared most finances, cleaning duties, cooking, etc., etc. This kind of idealistic arrangement was actually not that unusual in the era in which charismatic renewal swept through many mainline Protestant bodies, and Catholicism as well. There were many wonderful households of this kind and a few with dark sides (See the amazing Julia Duin book — “Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community” — about one terrible fall in Houston).

One member of the Denver community kept her Emmy Awards in the household’s television room, where they served as bookends high up on some shelves. She wasn’t very good at cooking (tacos were her norm) and she admitted that she struggled a bit with childcare. Her name, of course, was Ann B. Davis and over the years she became a friend, too.

The woman millions thought of as “Alice” was far more than her character on The Brady Bunch, or her trailblazing “Schultzy” character on “The Bob Cummings Show.” She was the kind of person that, after the conversion experience that turned her life upside down, would spend her days hidden in the back of that homeless center quietly doing laundry or sorting through donated clothes. You should have heard her cackle when she finally managed to make stray socks match.

Now Ann B. is gone at age 88. Needless to say, I have found it interesting to read the short passages in the major media obituaries that have tried to deal with the Christian content in her life story.

I think the best overall piece I have seen, so far, was in The Los Angeles Times. For example, readers were first given this short bit of information:

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Debating the new Associated Press Stylebook, round two

At this point, I still do not have a copy of the new Associated Press Stylebook, the 2014 edition with the chapter dedicated to issues in mainstream religion-news coverage. I think I will hold out for the spiral edition, which makes it so much easier to work with when writing, because you can open it up next to your keyboard and it stays open. Where do get one of those these days, since Amazon only sells the paperback?

That said, I am really enjoying some of the online debates about the contents. You can see some of the battle lines in the comments after our initial post by Bobby Ross, Jr. Click here to catch up on that.

However, you can really sense some of the tensions in this short online piece at The Atlantic, written by Emma Green. This is not a news piece, of course, but it is an article directly related to the craft of religion-beat work, so I wanted to point our readers toward it. It also reminded me of something.

Long ago, as in the early 1990s, I heard a nationally known religion writer turned scholar opine that the true purpose of improved religion-beat coverage in the mainstream media was to promote diversity and pluralism in modern America, thus “undercutting Judeo-Christian hegemony.”

Wait for it.

As in, wait until you check out the comments thread at the end of The Atlantic piece. But first, here’s a key chunk or two for starters:

When The Atlantic was revising its style guide for the web a few months ago, my cubicle unexpectedly turned into a metaphysical brawling zone. Our house policy is to capitalize “God” when it refers to the entity worshipped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. (Other times, it’s not capitalized — for example, when writing about how I’m the “god of the office candy jar.”) In my opinion, this suggests a belief on the part of the writer: Capitalizing “God” means he or she believes in the formal existence of a thing called god, so that name is capitalized like any other name. My boss disagrees. Neither, he says, does capitalizing the protagonist’s name from The Big Lebowski entail belief in the existence of the Dude. So we capitalize God.

Interested? Carry on, because that thought leads straight to the new AP book:

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‘Openly’ debating a key news issue in 2014 Summer of Sex

Faithful readers of this blog may have noted that your GetReligionistas rarely mention the names of reporters in our posts when we are critiquing news reports, unless a particular issue turns into a pattern that must be discussed.

There is a simple reason for this names-free policy and we have stated it many times: We have all been there in the press doing this difficult work.

We know that, far too often, reporters are assigned impossible stories and then given too little time and too little space. We also know that many errors and biases are actually edited into stories or reflect what is happening at the level of editors, more than the reporters. So we strive — as much as possible — to criticize news organizations, rather than individuals.

Praise, however, is another matter. We often end up mentioning Godbeat veterans who consistently get the job done right.

So readers will know that, when we see the “Peter Smith” byline, we know we are going to get a story that includes lots of basic reporting and, whenever possible, the people on both sides of hot debates are going to get to speak for themselves (as opposed to lots of vague “some” references and second-hand commentary). This is the case, once again, in his Pittsburgh Post-Gazette news feature on a key element in the annual oldline Protestant Summer of Sex rites.

The goal here is a high-altitude overview of the doctrinal angles in same-sex marriage debates, with special attention given to events in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Methodist Church. Thus, the opening:

“Goin’ to the chapel and we’re gonna get married.”

Well, some chapels anyway.

With this week’s landmark federal court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania, some houses of worship, including those affiliated with more liberal Protestant and Jewish denominations, will be opening their doors to gay couples — and in fact have been doing so for years before they had benefit of a marriage license.

Many other religious groups — including Roman Catholics, Orthodox and conservative evangelical Protestants — are holding fast to traditional doctrine as a matter of course. And for still other religious groups, the ruling only further complicates their long-running debates over homosexuality.

The leader of the region’s United Methodists is immediately given a chance to explain why the judge’s ruling has, primarily, turned up the heat on debates for religious leaders, as opposed to settling the debate.

“The ruling may change the understanding of marriage in the commonwealth, but it doesn’t alter the stand of the United Methodist Church at all,” said Bishop Thomas Bickerton of the Western Pennsylvania Conference of that denomination. “What it really does is heighten the debate that already exists within the church.”

The denomination forbids involvement of its pastors and churches in blessing same-sex unions. Bishop Bickerton said Thursday he would be issuing a letter urging pastors to find ways within the bounds of church rules to minister to gay couples and members. “I really believe our pastors, all of them, want to be in ministry to the people they’re serving,” he said.

Cautious, but clear words there. And the state of the liberal Presbyterians and other members of the old Mainline Protestant world?

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Near-death experiences: Is ‘Heaven Is For Real’ for real?

MICHAEL-ANN ASKS:

How well do you think [the current "Heaven Is For Real" movie] addresses communicating out-of-body spiritual experiences?

AND ART ASKS:

[Regarding the "countless books" on near-death experiences such as "Heaven Is For Real"]: Is there any legitimate connection between these and Christian views of the next life?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Since maybe a few folks out there haven’t bought this bestselling book, or seen the movie, or read about the book or the movie, here’s a summary:

In 2003 Colton Burpo, not yet age 4, underwent emergency surgery for a burst appendix and had a close brush with death. At various times afterward he told parents Todd and Sonja about experiencing his soul taken to heaven while his body was on the operating table. He reported information the family said he couldn’t have known otherwise, most notably meeting a second sister in the afterlife though he’d never been told about Sonja’s miscarriage.

Years later father Todd, the pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church in rural Imperial, Nebraska, wrote this hugely popular book. Eventually Hollywood came calling.

Now, for some background information on this phenomenon. Burpo’s book sales pale compared with the various books written by the secular Raymond Moody, an M.D. and Ph.D. who coined the term “near death experience.”

In “Life After Life” (1975) he compiled more than 100 accounts of people who suffered “clinical death” and revived. Many shared such perceptions as moving through a tunnel, glorious light and feelings of great peace. Such matters had received little public notice till then, but subsequent polls indicated millions of Americans have reported “out of body” experiences.

Moody later explored reincarnation, including awareness of his own past lives while under hypnosis. That belief breaks from Judaism and Christianity and fits Eastern religions (though minus beliefs, less popular in the West, about the law of karma and reincarnation into sub-human species). Moody helped establish one of several centers that collect and analyze near-death accounts.

While the Burpo book typifies the theme’s common-folks appeal, elite near-deathers help counter assumptions that people telling such stories are unusually imaginative or suggestible and maybe a bit off.

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Hey Bible Belt believer: Why do YOU persecute atheists?

Confession: I live in the Bible Belt. Even worse, I’m a — gulp — conservative Christian.

But here’s the good news: I haven’t persecuted any atheists today!

Of course, it’s still early, and I haven’t left my house yet. There’s still time for me to track down a nonbeliever, give ‘em hell and chase ‘em into the baptistery.

That’s what we do in (how dare they believe in) God’s country, right?

In case you’re wondering the reason for my sarcasm, CNN’s Belief Blog (which I generally love and praise often … but not this time) just published a piece with this provocative headline:

Atheists in the Bible Belt: A survival guide

I guess this possible headline was too long:

Atheists gather to make fun of religion, lament constant mistreatment by everyone in the Bible Belt

Let’s start at the top:

Raleigh, North Carolina (CNN) – Back home, they erase their Internet histories, look over their shoulders before cracking jokes and nod politely when co-workers talk about church.

But in a hotel ballroom here on a recent weekend, more than 220 atheists, agnostics, skeptics and freethinkers let it all hang out.

The convention was called “Freedom From Religion in the Bible Belt,” and it was part celebration of skepticism and part strategy session about surviving in the country’s most religious region.

They sang songs about the futility of faith, shared stories about “coming out” as nonbelievers and bought books about the Bible – critical ones, of course.

“Isn’t it great to be in a room where you can say whatever you want to whomever you want without fear of anyone criticizing you for being unorthodox?” asked Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, as he opened the two-day convention.

The Godbeat pro who produced this feature is one of the best at his craft and does an excellent job of presenting the atheists’ side of the story.

I just wish CNN had considered that there might be another perspective. This “survival guide” assumes that the atheists’ assumptions are based in fact. Maybe they are. Maybe not. Or maybe, like a lot of things in life, the truth is complicated.

What’s missing from this story? Any real context or feedback from believers in the Bible Belt on how they actually view atheists.

Instead, we get broad generalizations like this:

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