Pod people: Alabama governor & a divine vision

No, we’re not breaking news here. The Alabama governor and the vision from God referenced in the title are separate items. Smile.

In the latest Crossroads podcast, I discuss two recent posts.

The first post concerned media coverage of newly inaugurated Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley’s eyebrow-raising remarks at a church:

Bentley, who for years has been a deacon at First Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, later in the speech gave what sounded like an altar call. “There may be some people here today who do not have living within them the Holy Spirit,” Bentley said.

“But if you have been adopted in God’s family like I have, and like you have if you’re a Christian and if you’re saved, and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister.” Bentley added,

“‘Now I will have to say that, if we don’t have the same daddy, we’re not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.”

On the podcast, I share my concerns about the lack of context on Bentley’s religious beliefs that accompanied most initial media reports. However, I note that we saw improvement in some of the later coverage, as my fellow GetReligionistas highlighted here and here.

The second post related to a Chicago Tribune story on a pastor who says God told him in a vision to buy a large church building:

Steve Robledo was a newly ordained minister in search of a flock when he had what he calls a vision from God: He was to start his congregation in a grand church building for sale on the west side of Elgin, a brick and stone edifice with soaring stained-glass windows and dark wood pews.

He had no money but plenty of faith, and sure enough, his vision came to pass. Two businessmen and Robledo’s pastor agreed to provide the financing, and soon his fledgling Lighthouse Community Church had its home.

Five years later, though, this mission of divine inspiration has run into earthly trouble.

Robledo’s nondenominational congregation is a fraction of its 200-member peak, diminished by the recession and an internal schism. With contributions down sharply, the church can’t afford to pay its $3,100 rent or fix maintenance problems that have drawn a lawsuit from the city.

On the podcast, I talk about what worked about the story and what didn’t and even opinionate a bit on shrinking news holes.

You can click here and listen to the podcast or head over to iTunes and subscribe to the feed that will put it right in your computer, iPod or smartphone. The podcast is free, and so is the Oklahoma accent.

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Pod people: Faith, ink and sweaty palms

As you would expect, folks in GetReligion land are still thinking about that 6,000th-post landmark that we hit the other day, especially since it came so close to the site’s upcoming seventh birthday, which is on Feb. 1. Thus, you will not be surprised that this week’s Crossroads podcast turned into a discussion of the current state of religion coverage in the mainstream press.

That’s the question that I get asked all the time: Is religion coverage getting better or worse? Then there is the related question in the current media market: How have the economic woes of the news industry affected the Godbeat, in particular?

If you read GetReligion at all you know that we have published SO MANY posts on that subject that it is impossible to point you toward them with a handy URL or even 10 handy URLS.

Thus, I suggest that you click here and listen to the podcast or head over to iTunes and subscribe to the feed that will put it right in your computer, iPod or smartphone. The Divine Ms. M.Z. Hemingway and I did our best to handle those questions and the logical followups.

Here’s the big idea: It’s not the best of times in religion-news coverage, but it isn’t the worst of times either.

Yes the financial woes of the nation’s top 40 or 50 newspapers (the niche where the economic crisis is the worst) have, logically enough, killed some religion-writer slots in some important budgets. Large papers are the ones who have tended to have the finances to focus on important specialty subjects, like religion.

At the same time, it’s much easier to cut the religion beat if your operation is led by editors who are already uncomfortable with some of the issues raised by religion news events and trends. Like it or not, many editors still get sweaty palms when people — especially subscribers — start asking tough, factual questions about religious issues, religion-news coverage and, especially, the mistakes that some journalists seem to keep making when they try to cover religion.

But that’s old news. That’s GetReligion’s bread and butter, along with pointing readers toward some of the high-quality work being done in the mainstream.

However, I am especially interested in your reactions to another big subject that came up during in this episode.

Here is the key question: Are the growing number of religion-news blogs helping or hurting? I mean, some of them are producing new information and actual coverage (again, check out the CNN Belief Blog). However, many others are producing waves of opinion and discussion (not that this is a automatically a bad thing), but they are not producing new coverage of actual events and trends. In other words, how many of these blogs are doing any form of REPORTING that adds information to the marketplace of ideas?

M.Z. made a tragically logical point: Reporting is expensive, while opinion is cheap.

(Cue: audible sigh)

At the same time, there is a second reason that focusing on opinions about religion is the easy way out. It’s hard to get your facts wrong when you’ve decided that religion is all about opinions and feelings. News is about facts and the real world, correct? So why try to cover religion as hard-news journalists? Let’s just do a blog. Religious people tend to be emotional zealots, anyway. That’s the ticket.

(Cue: audible sigh, number two)

That’s a point of view that I thought had been crushed in the ’80s, during an era when religion-news coverage was on an upswing in the mainstream press. However, this idea seems to be making a comeback as a kind of journalistic zombie that has new life in cyberspace.

OK, it’s time to listen for yourself. Please listen and tell us what you think.

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Now, this is why CNN has a religion blog!

Don’t you just love it when Congress holds hearings on a complex topic — think the state of family farming — and the powers that be call a famous actress as a witness because, in a movie, she played a woman whose farm is in trouble?

The flip side of that is when journalists turn away from the real experts on the scene when dealing with a complex topic (or calling on people with direct, practical experience) and focus on the opinions of celebrities or the views of academics at famous institutions three time zones away from the event (think Branch Davidians in Waco) who have no real links to the topic, but their faces are famous on TV?

What we have here is a CNN weblog item that is gently poking a bit of fun — as I read it — at, well, CNN for a classic example of this syndrome. Note that this, however, is on a popular culture weblog operated by this cable kingdom.

Read it and laugh, to keep from crying:

After thousands of birds mysteriously fell out of the sky in Arkansas on New Year’s Eve, it was only natural that Anderson Cooper turned to an expert for an explanation. Enter Kirk Cameron.

The former “Growing Pains” star — a born-again Christian who has appeared in movies based on the end-of-days-themed “Left Behind” books — appeared on “Anderson Cooper 360″ to discuss whether he thought the dead birds were a sign of the apocalypse.

“Well, I first think that they ought to call a veterinarian, not me. You know, I’m not the religious-conspiracy-theorist go-to guy, particularly,” Cameron said. “But I think it’s really kind of silly to try to equate birds falling out of the sky with some kind of an end-times theory.”

Chalk it up to the public’s fascination with doomsday predictions.

“People love to find codes and signs of future events and see if they can decipher them before anybody else,” the 40-year-old actor told Cooper. “But birds falling from the sky? That has to do more with pagan mythology; the direction that the birds flew told some of the followers of some of those legends that the gods were either pleased or displeased with them.”

Actually, Cameron seems to be in on the joke, as well. So are we talking about a PUBLIC fascination with apocalyptic gossip or is this actually an insight into the minds of producers who work for Anderson Cooper, in terms of what they think of the interests of the public?

Either way, I find this a bit depressing.

Still, I immediately — as a joke — sent an email about this pop-culture item to a friend of mine at CNN with the subject line: “Now, this is why CNN has a religion blog!” Ha ha, and all that.

Then he fired back: “Good catch.”

Thus, you can now click here and gaze in wonderment.

I wrote back: “Dude! I was joking!”

This is the world that we live in, people.

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Pod people: What’s a religion ‘story,’ anyway?

We had a lively discussion the other day (click here to go to the comments) about the post in which I offered my take on the annual Religion Newswriters Association poll that names the top religion news stories — note, “stories” — of the previous year.

Several ideas emerged from that discussion.

First of all, it’s hard work to create this kind of list and, well, mistakes are inevitable. In this case, “mistakes” equal omissions. In the earlier post I noted, in particular, the missing story of the massacre at the Sayidat al-Nejat Catholic Cathedral in Bagdad. This is a story that, in hindsight, looms larger and larger. I heard from other religion-beat veterans who said that was an obvious hole in the poll’s list of events.

At the same time, the poll was posted BEFORE the series of actions in Congress that led to the repeal of the “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy that prevented gays, lesbians and bisexuals to serve openly in the U.S. military. That’s another story that has obvious religions implications, especially for military chaplains. However, the ballot for the RNA poll was finished before that happened. How do you get a poll out for use by professionals a week or so ahead of Jan. 1 and cover events that have not happened yet? That’s a tough one.

Since writing that GetReligion post, let alone my own Scripps Howard column about the poll, I have heard from other people noting prominent stories that were at least as important as — to cite an example that was on the ballot, but didn’t make the top 10 — this one:

Hinduism gains more of the spotlight through the book “Eat, Pray, Love” and word of star Julia Roberts’ conversion to it. At least one prominent conservative Protestant leader gains attention criticizing yoga.

For example, what about the clashes between the Vatican and the government of China over who is and who is not a Catholic bishop? That even led to several Vatican-approved bishops being rounded up by government forces and then taken, against their will, to meetings intended to create what the great Catholic-beat specialist John L. Allen, Jr., described as a “rump bishops’ conference and an assembly of Catholics calculated to preserve state control.” By the way, back up a few words and click that link to see his list of the year’s top under-reported Catholic stories.

What about the announcement of Rome’s plan, after years of appeals from some traditionalists in the Church of England, to smooth the way for Anglicans who want to form a network of parishes that are loyal to Rome, while maintaining some links to Anglican worship and tradition? That was a pretty big story. As one reader put it, in a private email, “If only Julia Roberts was an Anglican traditionalist.”

But the subject that interested me the most was more theoretical.

Is a religion-news story a single event, or can the concept of an “event” or news “story” be broadened in this kind of poll, so that several stories that are related, or linked to the same major institution, are combined into one item? Thus, this enlarged “story” or “event” has more impact in the poll. Take, for example, this one:

The U.S. Supreme Court convenes for the first time ever without a Protestant in its number (6 Catholics and 3 Jews). The court hears arguments in the case of the Kansas church that loudly protests at funerals of servicemen; the decision will come this spring. The Court earlier allows a cross to remain at least temporarily on National Park land in the Mojave Desert, but then the cross is stolen.

Now is that one event/story, or is it really three? This kind of clustering occurs all through the RNA ballot.

I can totally sympathize with this “cluster” trend. Really.

Here’s another one. If Present Barack Obama gives five speeches on U.S. relations with the Islamic world, is that one event or one “trend”? The later will obviously place higher in poll voting.

Or how do you handle a campaign year in which there are 10 or 20 different events that are clearly linked to religious and moral issues? Does every event place on its own? Or how about the Koran burning events and the mosque near Ground Zero? Were those events related? Is that the same “news story”? The RNA crew said “yes” this year and I would find it hard to argue against that point of view.

At the same time, I think some of the “cluster” items — like that Supreme Court item — stretched this concept too far. Where is the line that was crossed? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s like the high court’s definition of obscenity?

Anyway, all of this — as you can tell by the logo at the logo in this post — ended up in the first GetReligion “Crossroads” podcast of the year. Click here to listen or download that. You are also supposed to be able to find us at iTunes, but for some reason new episodes are failing to load there. You can search for “GetReligion” and try to subscribe. Please try, since iTunes is a rather important part of the podcasting world.

In the end, what do you think about these struggles in picking events for the RNA poll or defining what is a “religion-news story” in the first place? Chime in. Again.

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Pod people: Hark the Gutenberg press?

GetReligion was launched around the idea of ghosts — religious aspects to stories that went unexplained or ignored. Sometimes those ghosts are very straightforward. Sometimes they’re more about subtext and nuance. In this week’s Crossroads podcast, we discuss some of the lingering ghosts surrounding that provocative New York Times celebration of a marriage built on the failure of two previous marriages.

That this caused such outrage among readers indicates that the marital norms of fidelity and monogamy still mean something in this culture. That’s not necessarily religious, but religious institutions, values and cultures certainly are part of the story — the larger story about marriage, at least. I propose that the reaction to this story suggests that the way marriage has typically been covered — as the ultimate expression of personal happiness — might have caught the New York Times off guard.

I still have no idea why it was this story — and not the countless other stories that embrace the “personal happiness” motif — bothered people so much.

We also discuss that wonderful NPR story about the history and evolution of Christmas carols. It’s a great example of how a particular media — the radio broadcast — can bring a story to life with the perfect balance of editing, audio clips and expert sourcing. My favorite anecdote was about how “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” was originally written to mark the 400th anniversary of the Gutenberg press. In fact, “Hark the Herald” was originally where you’d sing “Gutenberg” and composer Felix Mendelssohn thought it would never work as a sacred tune. I love it.

Enjoy the podcast and have a wonderful Christmas!

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Pod people: Let Xmas be Christmas? (updated)

‘Tis the season for a timely show of hands among GetReligion readers.

How many of you attend churches in which, on Dec. 6th or sometime soon after, there were events linked to the feast day of St. Nicholas of Myra? Have many will eventually have a some kind of church event that includes Santa Claus?

How many of you have already installed real or fake evergreen trees in your homes (or your churches), but they are currently decorated in purple and white, as well as with ornaments featuring symbols from the Old Testament?

How many of you have Advent wreathes and candles in your churches or homes?

If you are Eastern Orthodox, how many of you attend parishes that are asking members to fast during Nativity Lent and to go to confession before receiving the Divine Mysteries during the midnight Divine Liturgy that opens the Christmas season?

How many of you attend congregations that have already had a Christmas party and/or concert?

How many of you will be attending a Christmas party and/or concert that will take place in the 12 days following Dec. 25th, which is the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? How many of you plan to go caroling during the Christmas season?

These are the kinds of questions that loom in the background during this week’s Crossroads podcast, which you can download right here. For some reason, it is not on the iTunes site yet. Is anyone else having trouble subscribing at iTunes?

This podcast digs a bit deeper into the subject material behind my recent post, the one called, “When is ‘Christmas,’ anyway?” I wrote my Scripps Howard News Service column this week on a related topic, focusing on the quietly stunning pastoral letter by the Catholic bishop of Salt Lake City in which he asked his schools and parishes to — gasp — celebrate Christmas during Christmas. I hope you enjoy the paraphrased quote from Obi Wan Kenobi.

However, the key to this whole complex and emotional subject is rooted in this reality: America is not a Christian nation or culture. Sorry ’bout that.

Anyone who has studied the history of American religion (or church-state law) realizes that American is, essentially, a lowest-common-denominator Protestant nation or culture — with no one group holding the reins, from the Unitarians to the Puritans to the Anglicans. Thus, this means that there never has been an “American” way to observe Christmas.

Throw in a few court battles, Seinfeld, shopping malls, rising numbers true secularists and lots of other factors and we now have at least three major forms of Christmas present in the marketplace of ideas.

* The Holidays or Xmas: Begins formally on Black Friday after Thanksgiving, but the advertisements and cable movies keep creeping earlier and earlier. Ends on Dec. 15, with remnants through Dec. 25. Basically, this is the secular season defined by the shopping mall.

* Christmas: Begins on Black Friday or roughly Dec. 1 in most churches. Continues through Dec. 25, with most parties and concerts occurring between Dec. 7 and about Dec. 15, so as not to veer too far away from office parties, school “Holiday” events and complex family travel plans.

* The Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ: Rarely celebrated. It begins on Dec. 25 and runs for 12 days, ending at Epiphany (there are a few variations on the ending). While traces of this season lingered in some parts of the culture until the early 20th Century, it is now all but extinct.

This is America, so people get to choose.

The key is that the small-t traditions of the one normative Protestant culture overlap with those of the mall. Thus, most of the people who are yearning to “put Christ back in Christmas” are actually following the ever-changing traditions of the shopping mall and whatever is happening in the nation’s courts. That’s an interesting story.

At the same time, some people are getting so fed up with Xmas that — mostly in the context of liturgical churches — they are attempting in a few symbolic, yet important, ways to celebrate the actual season of Christmas. That’s an interesting story, too. Personally, one of the items on my “bucket list” is to be arrested while caroling in a public place during the 12 days of Christmas.

For me, all of this raises journalist issues, as well as liturgical issues. You see, there are all kinds of interesting stories linked to these realities, stories that have little or nothing to do with the waves of “Christmas wars” stories that have been so popular in recent years, especially You Know Where. Perhaps it’s time for a look at some different seasonal stories? Can you say, “Twelfth Night”? I knew that you could.

Enjoy the podcast. And have a blessed Advent or Nativity Fast.

UPDATED: Perhaps I was vague about this “hand raising metaphor” at the top of the post. I simply meant for people to leave comments.

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Pod people: No religion for abortion providers

Can I test a theory?

My sense is that reporters often look to religion when covering people who are against abortion. It might seem obvious, since people do often cite their underlying religious beliefs as their reason for opposition. Though when reporters explore why people do provide abortions, religion suddenly disappears from consideration.

Take the story about a gay abortion doctor who wants to adopt. The reporter showed that the doctor clearly felt there was some gray in the ethics of providing abortions, especially late-term ones. We were left wondering whether his faith (or lack of faith) had anything to do with why being an abortion doctor is so complex for him.

Earlier we saw the story about the 2,000 dead fetuses found at a Buddhist temple’s morgue. We learned about an abortion provider who adopted eight children that survived abortions. “I commit sin every day,” she said, “so if the kids won’t die, there’s no need to kill them.” We talked about her reaction, especially in the context of a primarily Buddhist country, but we still don’t know much about her religion.

We talk about these stories on the latest GetReligion’s podcast, so click here to listen to the most recent one.

By the way, when do you listen to podcasts? Have you listened to anything especially good recently? I know NPR isn’t terribly popular right now after the Juan Williams business, but I still listen to many of their shows. Are there good religion podcasts that I’m missing? Whether you’re on your computer, mp3 player, smart phone, whatever, thanks for “tuning in.”

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Pod people: Listen, while reading Allen

So is everyone tired of reading GetReligion posts about those tired labels that journalists keep using in their coverage of the Catholic Church?

Sorry, but here comes another one.

The last time we checked in on one of the week’s major stories, Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s historic, and somewhat surprising, election as the new president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was being hailed as a loss by the “moderate” candidate and another sign of a rising tide of “conservative” political sentiment in the church.

I thought this was rather strange, since the affable and quotable Dolan defeated the candidate — Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson — who was endorse by some of the church’s most visible liberals and he also beat another candidate who is consistently identified as a strong conservative. In other words, it appeared that the “moderate” won.

Unfortunately, many journalists continue to use the word “moderate” to mean “people that we like” and terms such as “fundamentalist” or “radical conservative” to define “people we sure as heckfire think are dangerous.” And “conservatives”? Well, that depends what they are conservative about and how vocal they are about certain scary doctrines.

As you have guessed by now, this whole topic was the subject of this week’s GetReligion podcast. I am now receiving these every week via iTunes, so those of you who are into that should check it out. Just search for “GetReligion” on the podcast page in that cyber-superstore.

Also, please let me suggest that you listen to that podcast while reading the following column by the indispensable John L. Allen Jr., of the National Catholic Reporter. Here’s a taste:

In Dolan, the bishops have turned to their most gifted natural communicator, a leader with a demonstrated capacity to project a positive image for Catholicism in the public square. Rather than electing a behind-the-scenes broker of compromise, in other words, the bishops tapped their best front man. That choice could be taken as an imminently rational reaction to recent events.

… While Dolan certainly is more “conservative” than Kicanas, it’s not what’s distinctive about him. To be sure, there are plenty of other conservatives in the USCCB. Dolan’s defining quality isn’t really his ideology, but rather his capacity to build relationships with people who don’t share his outlook. In many ways, Dolan is a high-octane, populist American expression of what I’ve called the “affirmative orthodoxy” of Benedict XVI: no compromise on matters of Catholic identity, but a determination to express that identity in the most positive key possible, keeping lines of conversation open with people outside the fold.

In other words, it might be more analytically productive to read Dolan’s election not so much as a victory of conservatives over liberals, but rather as an endorsement of the “affirmative orthodoxy” wing of the conference’s conservative majority over its harder ideological edge.

In other words, the more “moderate” of the three options won.

Moving on.

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