Pod People: For how many did Jesus die?

For this week’s Crossroads podcast, I spoke with host Todd Wilken about media coverage of changes to the Roman Catholic liturgy. One of the things I keep reflecting on, and I know we shouldn’t praise that which should be done, is that I really do think the level of coverage was a good thing. So often we see major issues in the lives of religious adherents that are completely under the radar of many in the media.

In this case, we really did see an appropriate level of coverage, with both national and local takes. We’d be the first to harp on this if it were otherwise, so it’s important to point it out when it’s done well. Now, as for the quality of coverage, that’s another debate entirely. It was kind of fun or funny to watch how reporters tried to convince us that the words they themselves use in their stories are somehow above the heads of the average worshiper. Likewise the way that change — always presented as inherently good — was suddenly viewed with suspicion because the proponents of change were more traditional than the opponents. And the basic errors of fact that ran rampant throughout too many stories were also worth noting.

I did mean to highlight also this interesting piece by Louisville Courier-Journal‘s Peter Smith, who took on an actual theological issue in his coverage of the changes to the liturgy:

By saying Jesus died “for many” instead of “for all,” will Roman Catholic priests be proclaiming a different theology beginning this weekend — narrowing the extent to which they believe Jesus saved sinners?

No, say the pope and bishops, the official teaching authorities of the church.

Opponents of sweeping liturgical revisions that will take effect this weekend, already distrustful of the top-down process that led to the changes, aren’t so sure.

The change in wording is just one of many in the works.

As we reported earlier this fall, the revisions are the biggest since Catholics began having Mass in local languages rather than Latin decades ago. They take effect with Masses this weekend.

Controversies have ranged from the content — such as the use of more technical theological terms and the revival of symbolic penitential breast-beating — to the Vatican process for approving the revisions, which critics said overrode years of work by an English-language commission.

You may read the story for more discussion of the debate. I actually still had unanswered questions about the matter and would have loved to see much more coverage.

In any case, on Crossroads, we also briefly discussed the weaknesses of a couple of other stories, such as the ones about female altar girls and Mormon views on sex. You may listen here.

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Pod people: Decoding “Christian college”

Greetings from the mountains of North Carolina, where the big news is that the library is closed. Thus, this “Pod people” update comes to you care of the free wifi in the wonderful Hilltop Restaurant in beautiful downtown Burnsville. Let’s hear it for diners with wifi AND multiple items the Orthodox can eat in Nativity Lent!

This week’s Crossroads podcast combined elements of my recent GetReligion post on that hard-to-define label “Christian college” and a recent Scripps Howard column of mine about some headlines down in Georgia linked to the same topic.

The bottom line is that no one knows what “Christian college” means because no one knows what the word “Christian” means. No one knows what “Catholic college” means for the same reason, which is why the Vatican — led by the late Pope John Paul II — has tried to set a few standards on that subject, in the face of withering criticism from Western academia.

The bottom line: Everyone likes to use that “Christian” adjective (especially trustees) when it comes time to raise money and woo parents. However, professors have trouble deciding what that term means in the classroom and it’s also hard to decide what “Christian” means inside campus dorms and apartments on the weekends.

As a wise Catholic priest once told me, few students lose their faith in classrooms. They lose their faith on weekends and learn to justify their new behaviors in philosophy classes during the school week. There’s some truth in that statement.

The bottom line from the podcast is a warning to consumers, especially young people and parents: Buyer beware.

The quickest way to know what a religious college really stands for is to look in two places — (1) the core curriculum (look for required courses in church history and basic Bible knowledge) and (2) the student handbook. The goal is to see if the college’s lawyers have decided that centuries of Christian tradition have relevance in the moral chaos of postmodern education.

These pages are easier to produce in some religious traditions than in others. Take the Baptists, for example. It’s crucial for journalists to remember that Bill Clinton is a Baptist and so is Pat Robertson. Ditto for Bill Moyers and, oh, the late Jerry Falwell. Needless to say, these gentlemen would struggle to agree with one another on the meaning of “Christian education.”

Thus, down in Georgia, Mercer University — a “moderate” Baptist campus — recently made a few headlines by endorsing (medical benefits were the pivot point) sexual partnerships, gay or straight, outside of marriage. Meanwhile, the more conservative Shorter University ignited a media firestorm by requiring its faculty and staff to endorse the doctrine that sex outside of marriage is sin. The local Rome News-Tribune produced an editorial that, essentially, urged readers to challenge the private, repeat private, university’s accreditation because it had adopted a lifestyle covenant and doctrinal statement similar to those on many other “Christian” university campuses from coast to coast.

However, it’s hard for Baptists to agree on anything, other than that they agreement that Baptists should not be forced to agree on anything (and there are millions of Baptists who disagree with that, of course). Thus, I noted, with the help of scholar Robert Benne:

The problem for many Baptist academics, stressed Benne, is that they place such a strong emphasis on “soul freedom” and the “priesthood of every believer” that they struggle to find ways to separate themselves from the “lukewarm people who are not really committed to the their school’s vision.”

The result is a perfect Baptist Catch 22.

“How do you defend specific doctrines and convictions,” he said, “without daring to list these specifics, which means you have committed the sin of having a creed?”

The question, readers, is NOT what you think of that. The question is whether you think journalists understand that side of Baptist life and are managing to cover it accurately. Please note that this is not a liberal or conservative issue, because there are Baptist institutions on both sides of that line.

Enjoy the podcast.

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Pod people: Religious liberty, inflammatory quote

On this week’s Crossroads, host Todd Wilken and I talked about media coverage of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting.

That coverage was the topic of a post I wrote earlier this week in which I criticized The New York Times’ approach.

The post generated quite a bit of discussion, much of it actually related to journalism (smile). A few readers pointed out something that I did not: the Times’ use of square quotes around “religious liberty,” both in the headline and the lede.

Read John said:

I got my back up at the scare quotes in the headline, which struck me as tendentious. It casts the Bishops as dishonest aggressors rather than defenders of their liberty.

Jerry N. agreed:

I think the scare quotes in the Times headline undermine the bishops from the start; it’s similar to MSM coverage of “conscience” legislation re. healthcare providers.

Todd and I discussed the role of headlines in helping — or hindering — a newspaper’s credibility. I noted that reporters usually don’t write their own headlines, although in this case the Times headline (“Bishops Open ‘Religious Liberty’ Drive) accurately reflected the body of the story.

Also on the podcast, Todd asked me about my post on The Oklahoman’s coverage this week of the Oklahoma City Council approving a measure designed to protect gay and lesbian city employees from discrimination. In that post, I objected to my local newspaper (where I worked as a reporter and editor for nine years) quoting a pastor claiming gays commit half of murders in large cities. The paper provided no context to verify or refute the claim. I wrote:

That’s it!? With that kind of statement, don’t readers deserve to know the specific, unedited words that the pastor used?

In the comments section, reader GZeus noted that the full text of a letter the pastor sent the council was posted on the church website. The letter includes this full quote:

Judge John Martaugh, Chief Magistrate of the New York City Criminal Court, stated, “Homosexuals account for half of the murders in large cities.” (Kaifetz, J. “Homosexual Rights Are Concern for Some,” Post-Tribune, 18 December 1992.)

Plug that quote into Google, and you’ll find that it has had a long shelf life among certain anti-homosexual forces. But tracking down any evidence to back up the claim is much more difficult. Another blogger notes, too, that “account for” makes it unclear whether homosexuals are the victims or the perpetrators.

Anyway, check out the podcast.

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Faith (or lack thereof) in Tim Tebow

The president of a media company recently told me that he goes to ESPN every day to unwind. Not this week, of course, with all the Joe Paterno coverage. Many fans like sports to be kept pure, to focus on the game of stats without the stickiness or drama.

For whatever reason, combining religion and sports has added an extra level of stickiness this fall with Tim Tebow starting for the Broncos. In this week’s podcast, I talk about the media coverage of Tebow’s faith, focusing on how polarizing the athlete has become. Since the earlier discussion, CNN has posted a piece on Tebowing, the website started last month to show pictures of the verb, “To get down on a knee and start praying, even if everyone else around you is doing something completely different.”

…Jared Kleinstein, a Denver-born Broncos fan who was watching the game from New York, noticed that Tebow had knelt in prayer, alone on the sidelines, while his teammates celebrated on the field.

Kleinstein decided to take a picture outside the New York bar where he had gathered with friends. Six of them knelt on their knees with their balled-up right fists to their faces, Tebow-style.

I’d like to know more about Kleinstein, whether he’s personally religious and what motivated him to launch the site. The story offers some background on Tebow, but it doesn’t necessarily get at why the athlete is so divisive.

Tebow, who has started three games for the 3-5 Broncos, does not shy away from criticism of his quarterbacking – or of his faith. The son of missionaries, he embraces his spotlight to draw attention to his Christianity. He and his mother appeared in a Focus on the Family anti-abortion ad that appeared during the Super Bowl in February.

That kind of faith-based boldness separates Tebow from other religious sports figures. His more public displays hearten supporters and enrage detractors.

And as we discussed earlier, there was nothing in the actual advertisement that ran during the Superbowl that had an antiabortion message. You can make whatever inferences you want about Focus on the Family and Tebow’s personal views, but the actual 30-second ad that aired didn’t touch on abortion. Here is the transcript:

PAM TEBOW: I call him my miracle baby. He almost didn’t make it into this world. I remember so many times when I almost lost him. It was so hard. Well he’s all grown up now, and I still worry about his health. Everybody treats him like he’s different, but to me, he’s just my baby. He’s my Timmy, and I love him.
TIM TEBOW: Thanks mom. Love you too.

You have to know the background that Pam Tebow was advised by a doctor to abort her son to know that there might be an underlying message.

Also, I’m not sure I can get behind the story’s assertion that Tebow’s “faith-based boldness separates Tebow from other religious sports figures.” You can see examples of Tony Dungy and Kurt Warner who were just as bold but didn’t get the same kind of backlash. Here’s what Carl Jacobs commented on the earlier post:

It has become de rigueur to show public contempt for those Christians who refuse to mold themselves to the prevalent worldview. Kurt Warner was protected by success. Tebow is not. He has become a metaphor for Christianity in general. His failure is viewed as a manifestation of the falsehood and weakness of the Christian faith. People observe the hoped-for failure of the Tebow so they can project that failure onto a religion the despise and revile. That’s really all this is about.

This comment seems to encapsulate at least one side of why Tebow might be so polarizing. If you don’t like Tebow, you probably don’t like Christianity. Those who don’t think he’s a good quarterback? Well, some would say you just need to have a little faith. It makes things a little bit awkward when fans extend performance on the field to what it says about Christianity. Enjoy the podcast.

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Pod people: sharia comes to Wall Street?

For this week’s Crossroads podcast, host Todd Wilken and I discussed media coverage of the spirituality of Wall Street protestors. We’ve frequently noted the hostile posture that many news outlets have toward those religious activists who have conservative positions but in many ways the treatment received by religious activists who have liberal positions is even worse. That’s because they’re largely ignored. This was definitely a problem with early coverage, although it has improved, as we discussed in a recent post.

The embedded CNN clip here — about whether Jesus would Occupy Wall Street — is so unbelievably stupid that I have little to say about it. I mean, it’s not all bad and there’s a nice clip of a Jewish protester explaining the role religion plays in his work, but it’s just the whole approach that gets me — and the clumsiness with which we’re told what Pope Benedict XVI thinks about the economy and what Jesus would do. I guess I should give points for the reporter pointing out that Jesus wasn’t actually focused on petitioning the government for redress of grievances.

Wilken and I also talked about the rather light international coverage and how that played out in looking at the recent turn of events in Libya. I did want to point out this helpful essay from Commentary about the usefulness of talking about a government based on sharia:

Saying a country’s legal system will be based on sharia law is about as descriptive as saying it will be based on the Ten Commandants or the teachings of Christ. Like Christianity, Judaism or any other religion, Islam is subject to countless interpretations. Sharia law has meant many different things in many different countries across the ages. Even Islamic fundamentalists are not all alike. Wahhabis rule in both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, yet liquor is readily available in the latter but not the former.

Islamist parties do not necessarily take their inspiration from the Taliban, Hamas, or the Iranian mullahs. In fact, the failure of all three of those Islamist regimes–in Afghanistan, Gaza and Iran–to deliver economic or social progress has done much to discredit them in the Muslim world. That doesn’t mean most Muslims are ready to embrace a strictly secular regime; but then even in Europe, Christian Democratic parties are common, and in the United States many political candidates claim to take their marching orders from the Almighty.

There is a yearning in the Islamic world for a new type of governance that can combine some traditional Muslim precepts with democracy and economic development. Turkey’s AK party is probably the exemplar of these yearnings, and while the AK, and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, are highly problematic in many ways (not least for their militantly anti-Israel attitude), they are not a threat to the West in the same way that Hamas, Hezbollah, or Iran are.

Will Tunisia, Libya and other states manage to carve out their own “Islamic democratic” identity? That remains to be determined. Much depends on whether modernizing Islamist parties such as Ennahdha are sincere in their embrace of pluralism and minority rights, or whether their rhetoric along those lines has been designed to deceive.

This really is a complex story and one that could use much greater coverage. I’d again point folks to Reuters’ FaithWorld for good updates for the time-challenged, such as this piece headlined “Arab Spring boosts political Islam, but which kind?

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Pod people: Steve Jobs, megachurch star?

Radio guy Todd Wilken really ambushed me late this week when we hooked up to do the latest “Crossroads” podcast (click here to download or here to listen on your computer).

The goal was to talk about the role that religion did or didn’t play in the life and death of Steve Jobs, whose passing was marked with the kind of flood of digital and literal ink that is reserved for the most beloved members of the Baby Boom Generation.

Think about it. How many major editors and producers in this land of ours are 56 or close to it? This was the end of an era for legions of journalists.

Anyway, Wilken asked a question that rather shocked me. He recalled all of the key elements of the famous “Stevenote” addresses that Jobs so famously delivered at Macworld conferences and other media events announcing new products. You have the smooth and witty pitchman, the almost branded everyman clothing, the looming backdrop of iconic images and funny film clips, etc. A host of digital entrepreneurs have started copying this format, but no one pulled it off like Jobs.

But wait, there is another army of professionals who have mastered this method — big-box, multimedia megachurch pastors. The similarities are striking, although it’s clear that Jobs came first.

What is really going on in this scenario? Quite frankly, it’s a rite built on a kind of sacramental theology. The goal is to consume the product in an attempt to become as cool and successful as the pitchman/preacher. The goal is to be changed, to merge with the image and become a new person — purchase after purchase.

As the Jobs obituaries rolled out, I was fascinated by two major themes related to this. The first was the uncomfortable reality that Jobs was not, in the end, a very nice person or boss. He was so, so, so driven that he often crushed mortals in his path.

The headline on Religion News Service piece that ran in The Washington Post nailed this:

Epitaph for Steve Jobs: Too great to be good?

Here’s a key passage in this piece by reporter David Gibson:

So was Steve Jobs a saint or a jerk? Maybe it’s not an either/or scenario. If greatness and goodness are not necessarily mutually exclusive, the history of actual saints (of the canonized variety) offers plenty of tales of holy men and women who were as hard-driving as Jobs and just as brusque.

St. Jerome, for example, the great fourth-century translator of the Bible, was notoriously testy. His disagreement with longtime friend Rufinus over certain points of theology prompted Jerome to say that Rufinus snorted like a pig and walked like a tortoise.

St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, could be withering in his criticism of the men under his command, and St. Catherine of Siena had no qualms about telling off the pope in the strongest terms.

Even Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the modern touchstone for sanctity, could be a sharp-tongued taskmaster. “Is this not a humiliation for you that I, at my age, can take a regular meal and do a full day’s work — and you live with the name of the poor yet enjoy a lazy life?” she wrote to sisters whom she deemed insufficiently industrious.


“That’s like Steve Jobs telling someone the prototype you presented isn’t up to snuff,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of “My Life with the Saints.”

The second subject that drove many of the Jobs hagiographies was the supposedly Zen-like quality that infused his work, which many journalists connected with the Apple czar’s youthful turn toward the East and Zen Buddhism in particular. Once again, this is a man who narrated his life with quotes from The Beatles.

Thus, Jobs made the semi-Sixties pilgrimage to India and, many years later, a Zen master performed his wedding and served as the spiritual adviser to NeXT. That was the semi-successful computer company Jobs founded in between the Apple creation story and then his glorious second coming.

The problem, of course, is that no one knows the degree to which this supposed Buddhist influence played in this ultra-secretive man’s life. We may have to wait for the biography (and the movie).

Then there was the actual philosophy that Jobs bluntly articulated as the Big Idea behind his life (cue the Stanford University commencement speech). Here’s how I summed up this big question in a column for Scripps Howard:

Critics noted that Jobs was a relentless and abrasive perfectionist who left scores of battered psyches in his wake.

Whatever the doctrinal content of his faith, it seemed to have been a Buddhism that helped him find peace while walking barefoot through offices packed with wealthy, workaholic capitalists.

In his Stanford sermon, Jobs urged his young listeners to “trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

For Jobs, the bottom line was his own bottom line — even when death loomed on the horizon. His ultimate hope was that he, alone, knew what was right.

”Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking,” he concluded. “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition — they somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Buddhist? Or radical all-American individualist?

Enjoy the podcast.

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Pod people: Beyond baseball

It’s baseball playoff season, which makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. I really don’t like feeling out of the loop because I read the Internet quite a bit and like to feel “in the know.”

At the risk of further annoying my esteemed colleagues, I’ll admit that baseball comes across my consciousness about 50 seconds per year. I simply prefer watching other professional sports, but I also know and respect that Bobby is following his beloved Rangers right now.

That said, I will read the stories that go above and beyond the usual game story, but few sports reporters seem to know how to execute a religion angle in a compelling way. For instance, the coverage of Josh Hamilton’s faith has been gone in waves, it seems. His faith came up yet again when a man fell to his death this summer trying to catch a ball at a game in front of his six-year-old son. His son threw the first pitch at a Rangers’ game, where Hamilton met and talked with his mother.

In what appeared to be a short period of time, Hamilton later revealed an interesting conversation. “I asked her if they were believers in Christ,” Hamilton said. “She said they were. I said, ‘Well, we know where your husband is right now and make sure that the little one knows who is daddy was and what he stood for. Make sure he understands that.’” Yes, it’s Josh Hamilton, but I was a little surprised that he would get in a conversation about heaven in such a short period of time and that he revealed those specifics.

Many athletes talk about their faith after winning a game or praying before a game, but few reporters seem to look for ways the athletes “show not tell” about their faith. There are also some tough questions journalists could pose to Hamilton, like how God has a plan for everything in the middle of a tragic death.

Even non-baseball fans can connect with these kinds of stories. Religion is one way sports reporters can make their stories resonate with more than just fans of a sport or team.

I talk about this and more (hint: some more about the personal faith of journalists while they cover religion) in GetReligion’s most recent podcast. Tell us: What kinds of religion details do you look for in sports stories? Are there questions you think reporters could explore specific to athletes?

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Pod people: Baptists and Bachmann-district bullies

On this week’s Crossroads, host Todd Wilken and I talked about media coverage of a possible name change by the Southern Baptist Convention.

That coverage was the topic of a post I wrote earlier this week:

I woke up this morning ready to question why no one in the secular media picked up on this mildly important religion story.

But it turns out that there’s no reason for me to weep or gnash teeth today. Darn it!

In fact, the story made the front page (above the fold, no less) of The Tennessean. … The Houston Chronicle’s Kate Shellnut blogged about the proposed name change. And at Fox News, Todd Starnes (a former Baptist Press editor) developed the story for a national audience.

Wilken and I discussed why the initial coverage surprised (and pleased) me and why this is a story with plenty of time to develop (a name change would require approval at two straight Southern Baptist annual meetings).

In Googling to find any coverage not discussed in the previous post, I came across a nice piece by Godbeat pro Peter Smith of the Louisville, Ky., Courier-Journal:

At least eight times since the 1960s, Southern Baptists have considered changing their name, and the idea went nowhere.

But the current president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Bryant Wright, has appointed a task force to study the idea again.

The “convention’s name is so regional,” Wright said of a denomination that has continent-wide evangelistic ambitions.

It’s “challenging in many parts of the country to lead churches to want to be part of a convention with such a regional name,” he said.

“Southern Baptist” has certain connotations that don’t play well outside the heartland. Leave alone the fried chicken, sweaty-browed revivalists, dark suits and opposition to Disney — trappings that the young, goateed church planters are trying to shed north and west of Dixie, and even within it.

There’s also the reason there’s a “Southern” convention in the first place — a split with northern Baptists in an attempt in 1845 to marry slaveholding with Christianity.

Also on the podcast, Wilken and I revisited my recent post on a New York Times story on bullying of gay students in a school district that is a part of presidential candidate Michele Bachmann’s Congressional district.

The gist of that post:

The larger issue here is journalistic: Have Times editors essentially decided that one-sided, advocacy, European-styled journalism coverage is justified? If so, what is the issue being debated? Is there evidence that anyone is actually pro-bullying? Or is this a clash between truth claims based on gay rights and truth claims based on religious liberty?

In the post — and on the podcast — I advocated a more well-rounded story including a fuller array of voices. A journalistic approach, in other words.

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