Memory eternal, for Stolzi

tour htm txt IMG 8963Just before I left for vacation, I dashed off a short GetReligion item about that Newsweek cover story that promised to offer the inside scoop, the real story, of President George W. Bush’s tense trip to Russian for the G8 summit. I was struck that the story was completely faith-free. So I wrote:

There were no prayer meetings on Air Force One and, apparently, the reporters and photographers had total access. There is no religion in this story at all, which feels rather strange, with the Bush image and all of that. Did the Bible-thumping, power-praying president manage to go God-free for four days?

I chuckled later in the day when one of this blog’s most faithful readers chimed in with this gentle dig:

Well, you know, a certain famous person (Bush’s favorite philosopher) DID enjoin his followers to pray in private …

Posted by Stolzi at 8:02 pm on July 28, 2006

I was shocked, days later, to receive an urgent email from a journalist friend that Mary “Stolzi” Stolzenbach had suffered a severe head injury in a fall and was in a coma. She died on Thursday afternoon, leaving her family and friends stunned.

Mary was not a journalist. She was a soft-spoken and witty lady of 70 or thereabouts who was a dedicated reader of all kinds of print media, fiction and nonfiction, including newspapers — when they didn’t drive her crazy. Since she lived in the Nashville area, she had an intense love-hate, laugh-to-keep-from-crying relationship with The Tennessean, one of the flagship newspapers in the Gannett empire.

Nashville is a very important religion town and, to state it bluntly, Stolzi didn’t think her local newspaper “got” religion. Thus, she was constantly sending me little notes about religion stories in the Nashville area, including a few that made it into the newspaper — like the recent Greek Orthodoxy conference at Opryland. She even caught an error in one of those stories that I missed:

I had to laugh at one sentence in the article.

‘Individual Greek Orthodox churches operate independently …’

Individual bishops would be surprised to hear this.

Posted by Stolzi at 6:14 pm on July 24, 2006

Mary was very kind with her criticisms. But she did take her faith very seriously and, as a result, she cared deeply about mainstream coverage of religion news. I first met her a decade ago when she was invited by a friend into a small cyber-circle of journalists and friends of journalists, who shared quips and feedback each day via email — often focusing on trends and events in religion news. We called ourselves the Pogos, as in “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Through the years, that online forum evolved into other email lists until, finally, it was one of the inspirations for this weblog.

Stolzi knew she wasn’t a journalist, but she was interested in journalism — from the smallest typo to a broken URL on a GetReligion story that bugged her. She even liked journalists, which is a good thing since her priest at St. Ignatius Orthodox Church (pictured) is Father Stephen Rogers, who was a journalist before he entered the priesthood. When my family converted to Orthodoxy, back in our Tennessee days, Stolzi stood with us as an honorary sponsor.

What else can I say?

Journalists out there: Try to find yourself some good non-journalist friends who love to read and care about the craft of journalism. It helps if they are gentle and kind, yet more than a little skeptical about the news that they read day after day. You will find them in unusual places and some will simply pop into your life without warning. Believers call this “grace.”

Memory eternal, Stolzi. Memory eternal.

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A Lott of irony in this one

You are not going to believe this laugh-to-keep-from-crying update on the life and Roman Catholic times of former GetReligion-ist Jeremy Lott, the author of that In Defense of Hypocrisy book.

What a world.

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Seventh-inning sermon

baseballAs far as All-Star games go, this year’s was pretty exciting. The National League was leading for most of the game until some American League player (sorry, I don’t follow that league enough to know names) batted a couple of runners home in the top of the 9th with a triple. I believe Bud Selig showed what a bad commissioner he is when he made homefield advantage for the World Series dependent not on the merits of the teams who got there but, rather, on the outcome of this game. How long, Lord, will we be under his reign? How long?

Anyway, I don’t want to be one of those people who goes overboard in defense of her favorite game, but like many folks, I find similarities between baseball and religion. The liturgy of the games; the smells, bells and whistles; the deliberate pace; the standing and sitting. So I was inclined to appreciate John Dickerson’s piece in Slate.

Dickerson is the chief political correspondent for the online magazine owned by the Washington Post. He wrote a first-person account of his visit to Camden Yards Sunday to hear Billy Graham preach. Even though it’s written informally, it’s newsy. He paints a vivid picture of the experience, from the sinfully-priced sodas to the lusty Christian band that got things going. His artful style is engaging and sassy without being terribly judgmental. Cal Thomas — a friend of Dickerson’s mother — takes him to meet Franklin Graham:

He spoke with perfect diction and a whiff of a Southern accent. He is not a man in doubt. His positions on abortion, condoms, and immorality are just what you’d expect, but his weightless charm isn’t. There was no smiling at the wrong time or obsequious fawning or theatrical whispering. He’s selling salvation to be sure, and he is less diplomatic than his father, but he has such an even keel that for a moment you forget that he’s just condemned to eternal damnation all those who don’t enter into heaven through Christ.

But enough about Franklin. Like the crowds at Camden, we’re waiting for the main event. Here’s his description of Rev. Billy Graham’s sermon and altar call:

Then he said we’re all going to hell. It was very literal. There was no windup or the verbal padding I’m used to from Catholic Church, where the priest talks in parables and inference that usually obscure the starker messages of sin and redemption. “You are going to die,” he said. “I’m going to die. And after that, there will be a judgment. ‘Every idle word that man shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the Day of Judgment,’ the scripture says. When you break a law, you pay the price. You’ve broken God’s law. We’ve broken the Ten commandments. If you’ve broken one of the commandments, you’ve broken them all. And we’re all sinners. And we’re all under the threat of judgment.” It was spare and simple. He did not raise his voice. It was as if after all that rock, Woody Guthrie had hooked up his battered
acoustic to the sound system. “Are you ready to die? You’d better decide for Christ here and now.”

But Dickerson doesn’t just give the one side of Graham’s well-known work. It’s not all Law:

This was where the incongruity of the venue worked so powerfully. Graham’s message wasn’t just for Sunday or weddings or funerals. What he was offering was the promise of grace at any moment, including in left field under an Esskay hot-dog sign. Too frail to walk, the old man left the stage as he arrived, driven across the field on a golf cart. It’s the same way they bring relief pitchers from the bullpen. He was departing after one more save.

Some might say that last line is a bit much but I thought it worked well. And it kind of makes me wish Dickerson were writing more about religion.

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Talking about The God Factor

mobycathiSigh. Another late night with rowdy football fans at the pub outside my window here at St. Edmund Hall in downtown Oxford.

Nevertheless, let me jump in for a second to share a link to an interview with an interesting religion writer — Cathleen Falsani, a Wheaton College graduate who works the Godbeat for the Chicago Sun-Times. Actually she does much more than that, which leads to her book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People. She also has a blog called The Dude Abides.

The wonderful faith and pop culture site called Thunderstruck — the much overlooked scribe Steve Beard is the head of it — has a solid interview with Falsani (shown with Moby) conducted by freelance writer Angela Pancella, who may be best known for her work with @U2.

Most of the interview focuses on faith and entertainment, but there is this section that addresses one of the nagging questions that faces religious believers (or nonbelievers, now that I think about it) who work on the religion beat.

Here goes:

In regard to being a religion reporter, how have you chosen how much to reveal about your faith background?

I was never shy about it; it was just a matter of journalistic integrity, and trying to not appear to be biased and all that stuff. There’s a big debate within the religion journalism community about what you should and shouldn’t reveal about your religious predilections. I used to be very, very hard and fast about not revealing anything about myself because I didn’t want to tell people what “team” I was on. I think now it’s a judgment call. I think if you use it as leverage in one direction or another, it’s not right. But when I became a columnist and I was writing about these personal things — when you’re writing in your own voice — you get a very different kind of response from readers, and they were sharing things with me that were very intimate. And then when I started to have more of these conversations with public people, and they were telling me these things, I thought, I really should be talking about this myself. So when it feels appropriate, I let it come out instead of stifling it.

What do you think? Right call?

P.S. Click here for a post I did on this topic long ago — in cyberyears — on this blog.

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Tmatt regrets the (almost) error

rimshotlogoOur friends at Gospelcom.net are still working to repair and upgrade our comments pages, which were taken down in the midst of a tsunami of spam this past weekend. We hope to open up some of the newer posts for comments here shortly.

Meanwhile, I feel the need to make a strange kind of confession while noting the vital role that copyeditors play, a role that is only getting more important in the often confusing age of the World Wide Web.

You see, I have a commentary piece on today’s op-ed page at USA Today entitled “The media, God and gaffes” and it almost opened with a really bad error — by me. This would have been a horror on several levels, in large part because this is a column that grew out of a lecture I gave at USA Today on (wait for it) journalists making too many errors linked to religion news. That lecture, as you can imagine, grew directly out of posts on this blog.

This commentary piece, by the way, is part of the newspaper’s “Focus on Faith” series, which I am told has developed a pretty solid readership. I wonder if other newspapers should consider starting an ongoing editorial-page slot for commentary on religious and cultural issues. Anyway, here is how my piece opened:

Journalists in Washington, D.C., know how to cover protests.

At the top of the “to do” list is finding that killer quote that captures the style of the protesters and their cause. This is harder than it sounds, as illustrated by this disastrous story.

Picture this scene. A flock of Pentecostal Christians has gathered at the U.S. Capitol for yet another prayer rally about sex, abortion, family values and the public square.

“At times, the mood turned hostile toward the lawmakers in the stately white building behind the stage,” wrote The Washington Post in its coverage of the event. Then, without explanation, the story offered this on-stage quotation from a religious broadcaster: “Let’s pray that God will slay everyone in the Capitol.”

Slay what? Clearly, the reporters didn’t know about the experience that Pentecostal Christians call being “slain in the Holy Spirit,” in which they believe they are transformed by a surge of God’s power. The result was a journalistic train wreck that ended up in the book The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect.

“The problem,” wrote authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, “was that the reporter didn’t know, didn’t have any Pentecostals in the newsroom to ask, and was perhaps too anxious for a ‘holy sh-t’ story to double-check with someone afterward whether the broadcaster was really advocating the murder of the entire Congress.” This mistake made “a strong case for the need for humility” at the news desk, they said.

I won’t bore you with details of the near mistake, except to say that I misread a slightly vague passage in the book and almost attributed the “slay everybody” quote to the wrong newspaper. I had tried to check the source of the passage myself but — here’s the WWW-era warning for reporters — I (a) currently lack a lexisnexis.com password and (b) the quote I was trying to confirm seems to be hidden in archives and, thus, didn’t show up in ordinary searches. Also, I am not the first person to misread the passage involved. Thus, it was easier to find the error searching online than to find the accurate reference.

So I issue this mea culpa as a way of saying thanks to the ultra-careful copy desk at USA Today. As I tell my students, journalism isn’t rocket science, but it is a really picky line of work. This blog often chides copy desks for failing the sweat the details. This was a case where people went the extra mile and I am most grateful.

P.S. The omnipresent Amy Sullivan of The Washington Monthly sent me a private email noting another interesting mistake, when a commentator didn’t seem to realize that Protestants don’t take communion in Roman Catholic parishes. This item has, it seems, been corrected to remove a very, very offensive turn of phrase. Check out the very first comment linked to it.

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Pardon the interruption

printingpress 01 01As some of you have noticed, we are currently having some technical difficulties. This has required us to turn off the comments sections of the blog. Our tech friends at Gospelcom.net hope to have matters straightened out by Monday or thereabouts. So we’ll take today off and, maybe, swing back into action late Sunday with comments about religion coverage in the weekend editions.

Hang in there with us. Cyberspace can be complicated, sometimes.

Oh, what the heck.

Did anyone else see that “Blessed be the Bloggers” story in the Raleigh News and Observer? On one level, it’s a short feature about the role that blogs are playing in all kinds of denominations, from totally free-church Protestantism to American Catholicism. But it opens with a very concrete test case that deserves more inspection — the role of bloggers in the minor earthquake at the recent Southern Baptist Convention.

Reporter Yonat Shimron opens the door, but it doesn’t look like her editors gave her the room she needed to flesh out this major story.

Blogs give ordinary people a pulpit and make clergy one of a crowd. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the weeks leading up to the Southern Baptist Convention, held last week at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex. In recent years, the convention of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination has offered up unchallenged candidates for the presidency.

But this year, many Southern Baptists were unhappy with the endorsed candidate, the Rev. Ronnie Floyd of Springdale, Ark. The bloggers among them got online and vented. By the time delegates — called “messengers”– arrived in Greensboro, they were ready to give challenger [Frank] Page their vote. It’s impossible to say how many of the messengers actually read any of the blog entries. But there was no question the bloggers created a buzz.

Actually, the “moderates” over at Associated Baptist Press had this story going into the convention. Click here to see their story on the rising tide of Baptist bloggers. And, of course, I mentioned this angle here at GetReligion in my post on the surprise election of Page. Since then I’ve continued to receive emails from old Baptist sources of mine about the blogging hooks in this story.

No doubt about it. There’s a story in there that affects everybody from the Southern Baptists to the Episcopalians. As the old saying goes: Freedom of the press belongs to people who own one.

I hope ours is back up and running very soon. See you in the comments pages in a day or two.

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Reading the God-blog tea leaves

keyboardConsider this a Zen post.

It seems that religion columnist Bill Tammeus of the Kansas City Star recently went to a seminar in the Washington, D.C., area that focused on issues in religion news coverage. While he was there he met religion writer Neela Banerjee of The New York Times and, since then, the two of them, and the 30 or so other journalists who attended, have been trading emails about their work.

Tammeus decided to pass along some of what he learned, which meant using his blog to point his readers toward the work of other bloggers.

It’s always risky when a blogger recommends other bloggers. The fear is that readers will spend so much time at the other sites that they’ll never come back. But I’m not scared. I know you’ll be back to tell me to quit sending you to bum sites or to thank me for lighting up your life with good sites. Right?

Right. That’s how the Web works and, thus, that’s why GetReligion tries to pass along information about other blogs and sites linked to religion news and why, early on, we encouraged our friends at Poynter.org to create an online reference guide on the topic. Anyone who isn’t reading the Christianity Today blog, Pew Forum and the various offerings of the Religion Newswriters Association — especially the ReligionLink materials — isn’t taking advantage of what the Web has to offer. We’re journalists. There is no such thing as too much information, when it is coming from on-the-record, informed sources.

However, I guess it is true — here’s the Zen thing — that you can end up with religion news bloggers writing about the views of other religion news bloggers who are writing about the coverage that major religion writers are doing of major religion news issues that they may or may not have learned about at religion news seminars featuring religion writers who read those religion news blogs. Did that make any sense? Whatever. Like I said, journalists who cover complicated news beats need information and input. Oh do I wish that the Web had existed when I was doing full-time news reporting on this complicated beat.

Thus, Tammeus blogged this information:

The other day Neela mentioned four of what she considers watchdog websites, meaning they tend to keep track of journalism coverage of religion. I thought you might enjoy poking around on the sites … By Neela’s description, the first one, getreligion.org, tends to lean to the right. The others tend to lean to the left. But you can make that — or a different — call yourself.

1. Getreligion.org.

2. Streetprophets.com (an offshoot of dailykos.com).

3. talk2action.org.

4. therevealer.org

So tell me what you learn from them that you wouldn’t have found out otherwise. By the way some of those as well as other blogs can be found on Beliefnet.com’s Blog Heaven.

It’s an interesting list and, by the way, I agree with Banerjee’s labels.

The GetReligion team is very open about the fact that we are traditional, active Christians — at the moment, the lineup is Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and Presbyterian Church in America (I think). We try to be open about our beliefs here, both theological and journalistic, and we’ve been calling ourselves a right-of-center blog since we first went online.

We are what we are. We are an advocacy blog for improved religion-news coverage in mainstream media. We aren’t all that interested in opinion journals and denominational wire services, although we link to them from time to time if we think certain articles would be educational or just plain interesting reading for religion-beat professionals. We hope that other journalists feel free to link to GetReligion and to let us know what they think. We are always eager for feedback from working journalists.

Meanwhile, let me end this post by going full circle and pointing you back to the work of Bill Tammeus in Kansas City. Digging around in his stuff, I was struck by this recent column on a topic near and dear to the hearts of longtime GetReligion readers — the often tricky business of trying to pin simple labels on complex religious people.

We do ourselves and others a disservice when we fail to recognize that terms such as “Christian” or “evangelical” or “Islamic” cover a multitude of understandings. Certainly there are core beliefs and doctrines that hold such groups together — or at least try to. But it’s impossible to speak in any accurate way of “Christianity” or simply of “Islam” or “Judaism” as if each of them were not a large tent.

Precisely because we are dealing with divided houses we must specify which Christianity, which Islam, which Judaism.

And all the people said — amen.

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So that’s where LeBlanc is …

dougleblancOur semi-retired blogger and ghost editor, the Rt. Rev. Douglas LeBlanc, is punching keys at the moment — only not for us. Anyone who wants to follow his work at the Episcopal Church’s General Convention should keep an eye on the websites of Christianity Today and, on the other side of the pond, The Church Times.

Yes, Doug has actually worked on the conservative side of the church aisle during the current round of Anglican warfare. But it’s a sign of the respect that others have for his calm and accurate reporting that major news publications still want to hire him to cover tense, crucial events such as this landmark convention. I have asked him to send us some URLs that link to new stories from the front lines, but don’t hold your breath. He continues to suffer from intense LeBlancophobia when it comes to pointing readers toward his own work.

So click here for his most recent CT report and then click here for his early, first-week report for the Brits. You know our Doug is in the room when the story about the “U2charist” features a phrase such as, “Nearly 1000 were drawn to the dancing-room-only service.” He’s reporting for the The Living Church, as well.

Meanwhile, I am looking for signs that any journalist noticed that the following resolution from Western Louisiana was considered “too hot” to be debated on the convention floor.

Resolved, the House of _____ concurring, That the 75th General Convention of the Episcopal Church declares its unchanging commitment to Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the only name by which any person may be saved (Article XVIII); and be it further

Resolved, That we acknowledge the solemn responsibility placed upon us to share Christ with all persons when we hear His words, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No-one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6); and be it further

Resolved, That we affirm that in Christ there is both the substitutionary essence of the Cross and the manifestation of God’s unlimited and unending love for all persons; and be it further

Resolved, That we renew our dedication to be faithful witnesses to all persons of the saving love of God perfectly and uniquely revealed in Jesus and upheld by the full testimony of Holy Scripture.

Who says that sex is the only issue that divides Anglicans today?

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