Shirley MacLaine, born again — again

g photo19Believe it or not, I have had a warm spot in my religion-writer heart for actress Shirley MacLaine ever since she stood up in front of the American Society of Newspaper Editors long ago and delivered a sermon on why there is more to religion news than warfare and denominational politics. Three cheers for candid people with good soundbites.

Why, MacLaine asked all those editors in suits, are so many journalists uncomfortable with the proven fact that millions of people in America and around the world order their lives with the help of religious truths and experiences?

Preach it, lady:

“We are bombarded daily with the anger, terror and seeming insanity of `religion-related’ global mayhem. … We are seeing, hearing and learning of these religious conflicts through exploitative headlines, glib sound bites and tabloid-style journalism, which predictably sensationalize the craziness but rarely undertake investigation of themes which resonate with man’s deeper nature,” she said. … “What has happened to us? Why is the discussion of spirituality considered so publicly embarrassing, sentimental or, God forbid, New Age?’ Why does it make us squirm, when our own founding fathers recognized the spiritual aspect of man as his most fundamental?”

Anyway, MacLaine has been born again, again, as Hollywood’s crazy grandmother of choice in a new movie called “Rumor Has It” in which she plays a woman who may, in fact, have inspired the infamous Mrs. Robison of “Graduate” fame. Thus, MacLaine is out there stutting her stuff in publicity land, which sent Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times off to visit the actress at her homes — plural — in the spiritually charged air of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The result punches all the movie-page profile buttons, including some standard flashbacks to MacLaine’s previous media lives.

Eight years ago, at age 63, MacLaine completed the 500-mile pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, during which time she came to believe she had been, in previous lives, a Moorish girl who cured the Emperor Constantine of impotence and an androgynous being of a time predating Atlantis. But here in New Mexico, she’s more inclined to ask a photographer in tight pants what sort of underwear she has on than to read her aura. …

Though much of what MacLaine believes comes with the socially imposed ambience of crystals and purple Gypsy scarves, she herself does not. Trousers and boots suit her better; she has three earrings in each ear, but two of them are tiny. No bangles rattle at her wrist; no tangle of turquoise and moonstone sways from her neck. So when she mentions that she sleeps most nights on a futon outside “because a roof keeps the stars from imprinting on your brain,” it makes as much sense as another grandmother telling you she sleeps on the floor because of her bad back.

“Billions of stars in the universe, just this universe,” she says over her shoulder as she passes by the futon, returning to the house. “Anyone who thinks we’re the only ones around, they’re the ones who are nuts.”

g photo11The big idea in this story is that MacLaine deserves some credit for creating the template for what it means to be a modern movie star, leaping from one relationship to another and from worldview to worldview while in clear sight of the Hollywood scribes and armies of photographers.

You know all those actresses reinventing themselves week after week in the magazines in the grocery-store checkout line? Shirley blazed the trail. Go ahead. Ask her about Frank Sinatra.

However, I found myself wishing — surprise — that McNamara had taken the religion side of this story more seriously. Really. I do not think, for example, that it would have hurt a bit to call up a religion scholar, or two, and ask for a quote on this lady’s place in the history of American pop religion.

I realize that there has always been an Eastern side of the gods beat in Hollywood. Nevertheless, MacLaine was a pivotal figure in creating a world in which born-again Christian ladies don’t think twice about sitting in their suburban living rooms and watching their girlfriend Oprah light candles on national television while praying to the Universe, with a Big U.

MacLaine has gone from the back side of nowhere to almost mainstream, in certain zip codes. She could get tenure in some major mainline Protestant seminaries. Would it have hurt to have asked her for an update on what she believes and for her take on the state of religion in that great spiritual shopping mall called America?

Like it or not, the lady has had a significant impact.

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Blame the apples? Cover the oranges

13281 512The official Vatican document at the heart of the “gay-priest ban” story is now available online and it turns out that the leaked version was accurate, only it was missing the footnotes from the authors. We may hear more about that in the next day or so.

But the reactions are beginning in the usual places. For the .pdf text, click here, and for the statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, click here. For William Saletan’s Slate.com summary of why the Roman Catholic Church is wrong, click here. To follow the emerging thread on this at Amy Welborn’s “open book” blog, click here.

The Saletan piece is actually quite useful to reporters, although not in the way that one would expect. Part of his thesis is that the Roman Catholic Church, due to the homophobic sin of this pope, is failing to follow the logic of many Catholic scholars on issues of sexuality. As a result, Saletan documents two decades of infighting — one URL after another — behind the scenes in Catholic life. There are no new questions here, only the old debates between nature and nurture, between choices and conditions. Can human beings change their sexual behaviors? Catholics disagree with one another. This is no surprise.

Journalists can continue to let Catholics fight this out, pew to pew and altar to altar. The New York Times did precisely this the other day and did very little to define the flames that are burning under all of that smoke. In doing so, it also repeated many of the mistakes that continue to shape MSM coverage:

Similarly, some Catholics said that because the majority of victims in the scandals involving sexually abusive priests were boys, barring gay men from the priesthood would reduce the likelihood of such abuse in the future. But others said there was no link between homosexuality and pedophilia, especially many parishioners in Boston, an archdiocese profoundly affected by the sexual abuse scandal.

Once again let me stress: Very few cases of clergy sex abuse in the Catholic church involve “pedophilia” (sex with prepubescent children). Instead, the great majority — some say 90 percent or more — of the cases involve “ephebophilia” (sex with under-aged young people, and almost always boys).

Pedophilia is getting the headlines. Meanwhile, the hard questions are linked to male priests and teen-aged boys.

Here is how a Catholic progressive once explained it to me, crossing over into a discussion of heterosexuality to make the point. A 40-year-old straight male who wants to have sex with a 16-year-old Britney Spears wants to do something that is sick, sinful and illegal. But this straight male is not wrestling with the same psychological condition as a 40-year-old straight male who wants to have sex with a 6-year-old Britney Spears. These conditions are not the same, they are apples and oranges.

Researchers can and do make a strong case that homosexuals are, statistically, no more likely to be pedophiles than are heterosexuals. This is an important point, but not highly relevant to most cases of clergy sexual abuse in the all-male Catholic priesthood. The issue is sex with teen-aged boys. The MSM continues to ignore this crucial point. This is not surprising, since the U.S. Catholic establishment has not been anxious to discuss it, either.

To see how this error helps shape the MSM meta-narratives, check out this section of a recent “Points West” column by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez:

Church leaders might have been better off continuing to pretend there were no gays in the priesthood, or they could have stuck with the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that’s made for hundreds of years’ worth of comfortable hypocrisy. But then came the molestation scandal, which was one reason for the new policy, the other being a so-called fear of a growing gay subculture in church life.

To Eric Barragan of Santa Paula, the rewritten gay policy makes perfect sense. “They’re trying to play the blame game,” he says.

You have an abuse scandal, you slam the door on people with “deep-rooted homosexual tendencies,” and it looks as if — like good Christian soldiers — you’ve zeroed in on the problem. Yeah, it was the homosexuals.

“But it’s apples and oranges,” Barragan says. “Just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you’re a pedophile.”

This is true, but spin is spin, and nobody does it better than the church.

Lopez and Barragan are correct. The only problem is that they, and most of the MSM, are not covering the real story. Pedophilia is the safe topic, since these cases are very rare.

The Vatican is wrestling with two issues: Mature men having sex with teen-aged boys (and, often, with other men) and a subculture of professors, priests and bishops (many straight, many gay) that is actively opposed to the moral theology of the Roman Catholic Church. If journalists focus on these two stories, they will get closer to the heart of this bitter and painful struggle than if they continue to focus on the rare cases of pedophilia.

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On the first day of Christmas …

wreath4You just have to laugh at this kind of headline, if you are part of a church that takes the liturgical calendar seriously.

Anyway, here is a weekend report from the Associated Press that brought me a chuckle:

Pope Benedict Ushers in Christmas Season

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI ushered in the Christmas season Sunday, calling it a time for joy when Christians should find it within themselves to hope that they can change the world.

The pontiff addressed the crowds in St. Peter’s Square during his traditional Sunday blessing that also marked the beginning of Advent, which starts four Sundays before Christmas and is the beginning of the ecclesiastical year.

“We could say that Advent is the time when Christians should awaken in their hearts the hope that they can change the world, with the help of God,” Benedict said. Advent is “a time of great religious inspiration, because it is steeped in hope and spiritual expectation,” Benedict said. “Every time the Christian community prepares to remember the birth of the Redeemer, it experiences a quiver of joy that it transmits to a certain extent to the whole of society.”

Note the presence of the word “prepare,” as in a season that will help people prepare for another season. So if it is the season of Advent, this would mean that it is not the season called Christmas. Right?

Actually, I predict (if only I could read Italian) that the pope talked about Advent as a season that is supposed to help Christian believers get ready for the actual season of Christmas, since the Christmas season begins with the Feast of the Nativity on Dec. 25 and then continues for the 12 days after that. nick lg

Don’t trust me. Ask Charles Dickens, that famous British journalist.

I realize that this is a picky little difference, and one that is not honored by broadcast networks and shopping malls, but facts are facts. Maybe I am old fashioned, but I kind of like it when newspapers get the facts right.

In the most ancient Christian traditions, this seasons is called Nativity Lent (or the “little Lent”) and it is supposed to be a time of fasting, prayer and almsgiving. After this lengthy quiet time, Christmas is celebrated as a 12-day festival. Today, we have turned the season upside down — with Christmas marked by the mall and the church staggering along trying to catch up. Most celebrations are pretty much over by Dec. 20 or so and it’s time to move on to returning gifts and the parade of bowl games and NFL rituals.

So, should journalists even mention this fact in the midst of the annual blow-out blitz of “Christmas” and “holiday” stories? Should the actual timing of Christmas be mentioned, at least in a passing background paragraph? How about an actual feature story on the irony of all this?

After all, we only have a few more days until the Feast Day of St. Nicholas, which is Dec. 6th. He is the patron saint of, among others, endangered children and pawnbrokers. You can look it up.

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One heart. One amazing story.

040719 UGD 310Within the larger story of Hurricane Katrina there was an amazing story about journalism — the stunning performance of the journalists at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Not only did this newspaper continue to cover the disaster, they did so with few if any resources since their own organization was caught up in the storm. Shut down, the newspaper evolved into a blog that continued — 24/7, as best it could — to break stories.

I mention this as a prologue to the following feature story that ran this past week (hat tip to Rod Dreher, an expert on all things Lousiana). One of our goals here at GetReligion is to bring you more examples of wonderful religion writing — whether by Godbeat reporters or not — from newsrooms all over the place. To do this, we need more tips.

It is hard to know what to say about this story by reporter Bruce Nolan, but I urge you to read it. It tells the story of a circle of women in impoverished, war-ravaged Uganda — many of them dying of AIDS — who decided to do something to help raise nearly $900 for hurricane victims in New Orleans. Yes, you read that right.

You won’t believe the details of the story told by aid worker Amy Cunningham. You see, this is a lot of money when a woman earns $1.20 a day crushing rocks by hand.

The charity of the Kireka residents is partly the story of Rose Busingye, a charismatic 36-year-old Ugandan nurse who founded Meeting Point International, a private relief organization that has embedded itself in Kireka to help the people who live there. … Many of the women of Meeting Point International — in fact, most of those who donated their work to New Orleans — are infected with HIV, Busingye said.

“There are so many groups out there that would basically give you the shirt off their backs if you needed it,” Cunningham said. “They are so empowering. These are very strong women who identify, in particular, with suffering. “We would consider them disenfranchised, but they are just extraordinary. They just said, ‘We can do this.’ And they did it.”

The group’s motto is “One Heart.” It’s members believe that blood is blood, suffering is suffering. Read the story. (United Nations photo)

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Should priests defend Catholic doctine?

01 Ordination Blessing 0710Our friends over at Beliefnet.com have posted an online poll that, to my way of thinking, precisely captures the MSM understanding of the current controversy over the Vatican and gay seminarians.

It poses this question: “Should gay men be Catholic priests?” Readers can answer by clicking on one of these these three options: “Yes, if they can live celibately,” “no” and “not sure.”

I do not think that this is the question that the Vatican is trying to answer, at the moment. So far, it appears that the traditional side of the Vatican (there are divisions in Rome, as well as elsewhere) is trying to ask this question: “Should the Roman Catholic Church strive to ordain only men who believe its doctrines, including its teachings on homosexuality?”

Thus, I opened my lengthy trial-balloon post the other day by stating:

We seem to be nearing the end of the Vatican trial-balloon marathon about its document on the future of seminarians who disagree with the Catholic Church’s teachings on homosexuality. Please notice that I did not say that this story is about the future of gay seminarians.

To which one of our loyal readers on the left responded:

P.S.: I held my thoughts about your inaccurate lead, tmatt, but didn’t see where you came back to the subject. Surely if the Vatican had wanted to issue a ruling on doctrine, it would have done so.

Posted by Joe Perez at 1:41 pm on November 25, 2005

This is precisely the point. The Vatican does not believe that it needs to release a ruling on its doctrines in the area of moral theology. It believes that it’s doctrines are just fine the way they are, thank you very much. The Vatican is having trouble enforcing its doctrine, especially when it comes to ordaining priests who believe it and will actually defend it.

There are, of course, very real divisions inside Catholicism on this issue.

Everyone knows that and those divisions are at the heart of the story, because they extend high, high, high into the ranks of bishops, religious orders and seminary professors that are in charge of the ordination process. And before someone raises the question, let me stress that there are gays and straights who embrace the church’s teachings on sexuality and there are gays and straights who do not. This is part of what makes covering this story so complex.61220101

One other point: I once had the chance to ask Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, after a heated debate among the U.S. Catholic Bishops on a topic related to this, if he believed that the Roman Catholic Church now teaches that homosexuality is caused by a “gay gene” and, thus, human beings are born gay. He said “yes.” Other Catholics disagree and see sexuality, in general, as a continuum in which few people are locked into one sexual orientation. This side tends to take bisexuality very seriously.

Thus, some Catholics believe that some change is possible, either in sexual orientation or in behavior. Others fiercely disagree.

Thus, reporters often hear statements such as the following, from the anonymous gay priest — “Fr. Gerald Thomas” — who writes for Beliefnet.com from time to time. He writes, concerning the leaked Vatican text:

Where, in the end, is the message of Jesus in this document? Where is his message of inclusion and encouragement and love? It is nowhere.

For me, this document is an occasion of deep sadness — for those men who will never enter the seminary, for those men who will feel forced to leave after years of discernment and prayer, and for those celibate gay priests who will feel great anguish over their treatment by the Vatican. And I feel sadness for the people in the pews, too, who will be deprived of something simple: good men.

This leads to an obvious question: Does this priest believe that Roman Catholic leaders (or some of them) are sinning when they strive to teach, defend and enforce the church’s teachings on homosexuality?

In other words, who is sinning? The Catholics who enforce the church’s teachings or those who oppose them?

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Can a priest say “repent” in confession?

Chapel courtyard JPGWe seem to be nearing the end of the Vatican trial-balloon marathon about its document on the future of seminarians who disagree with the Catholic Church’s teachings on homosexuality.

Please notice that I did not say that this story is about the future of gay seminarians. Hold on to that thought for a minute because we have lots of ground to cover.

Yesterday’s stories were more trial balloons that did not look like trial balloons. It does seem that someone has leaked a copy of the Vatican document. Here is a typical posting on the World Wide Web. However, it is crucial to note that the official document is still not out, as far as the church is concerned. Also, there may be translation issues. Some Catholic bloggers are also raising some questions about authenticity.

Anyway, let’s say that this is the document. If so, I thought the Los Angeles Times had the most arresting first-day money quote, in the hard-news story — “Vatican Issues a Qualified Ban on Gays in Priesthood” — by Tracy Wilkinson and Maria De Cristofaro.

The document was quickly criticized by some gay rights sympathizers, who say the church does not understand homosexuality. A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles said the instructions would have little, if any, effect on how seminaries in the Los Angeles area admit candidates.

In other words: Business as usual. No problems.

This is interesting, because this story comes not that long after a stunning Times report by Paul Pringle about life at St. John’s Catholic Seminary (pictured) in Camarillo, Calif. On one level, this story — “Trail of Abuse Leads to Seminary” — is about sex. Truth is, this is a story about seminary life and, thus, about doctrine.

The 66-year-old institution has trained hundreds of clerics for the archdiocese and smaller jurisdictions across Southern California and beyond. It is the alma mater of Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, Diocese of Orange Bishop Tod Brown and other prominent prelates. Former San Francisco Archbishop William Levada, now the Vatican’s chief enforcer of doctrine, taught at the school.

But St. John’s, the only seminary operated by the archdiocese, also has produced a disproportionate number of alleged sexual abusers as it prepared men for a life of ministry and celibacy, records show.

About 10% of St. John’s graduates reported to have been ordained in the Los Angeles Archdiocese since 1950 — 65 of roughly 625 — have been accused of molesting minors, according to a review of ordination announcements, lawsuits, published reports and the archdiocese’s 2004 list of alleged abusers. In two classes — 1966 and 1972 — a third of the graduates were later accused of molestation.

You can read the details. The key is that former seminary students insist that their professors had little interest in teaching or defending the Catholic faith’s doctrines on sexuality. Thus, they also had little interest in enforcing policies on sexuality. They did not see what they did not want to see.

Several former students recall a licentious atmosphere at St. John’s that might have accommodated a range of sexual behavior, especially in the years before the 1990s. They say that many classmates routinely broke their celibacy vows, that emotionally troubled students were allowed to drift though the seminary, and that administrators either were ignorant about sex on campus or turned a blind eye to it. Some told of seminarians having sex in St. John’s dormitories, bathrooms and orange groves.

There are many more details, but we need to move on. The key, as I noted in a column for Scripps Howard, is that this Vatican document on homosexuality is being released just as teams of Catholic examiners begin a wave of confidential “Apostolic Visitations” at the 229 U.S. seminaries. If you read the seminary document, you will see that this 12-page text has lots to say about the practice of celibacy and not much to say about homosexuality.

This brings us to today’s coverage of the “Vatican crackdown” on gay seminarians.

This is a day when the many liberal Catholics who work in the U.S. Catholic establishment wish that there were not so many liberal Catholic insiders and activists with telephone numbers locked in the speed-dials of so many reporters in the U.S. journalistic establishment. Progressive Catholics who wield power need quiet, right now, and they may not get it. Meanwhile, many conservative Catholics will stew in silence or take their critiques into the blogosphere.

You see, the question remains the same: Will anyone in Catholic seminaries teach, defend and enforce the church’s teachings on homosexuality (or, come to think of it, sexuality in general)? This question leads to even tougher questions, such as: “Will anyone openly discuss the fact that most cases of clergy sex abuse have been rooted in “ephebophilia” (sex with under-aged young people, almost always boys in this case) instead of “pedophilia” (sex with prepubescent children)?

MSM coverage continues to focus on the prevention of “pedophilia,” even though such cases are very rare and there is little or no evidence that gays are more likely to be pedophiles than are straights. Pedophilia is actually the safe subject, because most of the clergy scandals involve “ephebophilia.”

The Vatican documents seem to be stepping into a different minefield — gay sex and the moral defense of the same. This is where the going gets tough.

Here is the bottom line: The Vatican is trying to find men who will teach that sex outside of marriage is sin. cassromanfl 01

Note the word “sin.” Sin is supposed to lead to another word — “repentance.” This is, in Catholic tradition, supposedto be linked to another word — “confession.”

Thus, Laurie Goodstein has nailed the heart of this story (terrible headline, by the way) in the New York Times. It seems that the Vatican is suggesting that spiritual directors at it seminaries might want — in the context of confession — to suggest that gay seminarians, well, repent of any sinful acts or convictions and, well, consider leaving the seminary.

This makes total sense, if you believe the Catholic Church’s teachings are the truth. It makes no sense at all if you do not. There’s the rub. Many Catholics oppose the teachings of their church, including many in clerical collars and some in bishop’s vestments. They think it is time for doctrine to progress.

Some priests who talked to the New York Times said this policy would:

… (Turn) the confessional and spiritual counseling sessions, which seminarians previously regarded as private and supportive meetings, into a tool for weeding gay men out of seminaries.

“The relationship between a seminarian and his confessor or his spiritual director should not be about enforcing church documents, but to serve as spiritual guides,” said the Rev. Michael Herman, a priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago who has recently publicly identified himself as gay in order to speak out against the Vatican’s action. …

His reaction to the document was echoed by other priests and Roman Catholic organizations, who said that the church’s decree was discriminatory and hurtful to faithful chaste gay priests and would only exacerbate an already dire shortage of Catholic clergymen. But that was only one reaction to a Vatican directive that church experts say is intentionally sprinkled with undefined terms and left open to interpretation.

However, insiders are already saying that there is nothing in this document that will actually change what is happening at Catholic seminaries, unless the leaders of those seminaries want to make changes. Do these Catholic leaders — some, or even many, of them gay — want to make changes? Can the Vatican force them to make changes?

That’s the story, here. As the always candid Catholic progressive Father Donald Cozzens told the Washington Post:

“The first thought that comes to my mind is that this document is going to cause a good deal of human suffering,” said the Rev. Donald Cozzens, a former seminary rector and a professor at John Carroll University in Cleveland.

“Gay, committed, celibate priests and seminarians, and bishops, too, that happen to be gay, are going to find this instruction a source of spiritual pain,” Cozzens said.

Yes they will and many will want to fight back. Quietly. Silently. Without speaking to reporters. There is the heart of the story.

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New round of GetReligion ch-ch-ch-changes

printingpress 01We are creeping up on an interesting landmark here at GetReligion — Feb. 1 is the second anniversary of the birth of this blog. On one level this is not all that surprising, seeing as how we have already hit 1200-plus posts and more than 8,000 comments (and that’s just counting Michael, Stephen A. and Avram).

GetReligion started out with Doug LeBlanc and myself, and we were soon joined by young master Jeremy Lott. That honorary title was eventually handed over to Daniel Pulliam.

In the beginning, Doug was the guru of technology and did almost all of our start-up work. Over time, his work load has increased elsewhere and he has been writing less for the blog. Now he needs to take another step back, in part due to loads of international travel in the near future. Doug is not leaving the blog and will try, in particular, to keep sending us missives every now and then about the state of religion news in major magazines.

Thus, we face another round of changes as we approach that Feb. 1 signpost. We hope, for example, to rearrange and consolidate a few of the features on our left sidebar to help readers navigate more quickly within the growing contents of the blog. We’ll be asking readers for some feedback on that in the near future.

And with Doug writing less, we are excited to be adding the voice of another mainstream journalist to GetReligion.

Mollie Ziegler is a reporter in Washington, D.C., for the Federal Times, a Gannett newspaper that covers the ins and outs of the federal government. A second-career journalist, she began her reporting career in 2002 with a stint at Radio & Records. She began venturing into religion writing came a few months later with her first Houses of Worship column in the Wall Street Journal.

In 2004 she won a year-long Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellowship which enabled her to write a book about religion and politics in America, with a special emphasis on the changing language of faith in the public square. She stresses that GetReligion readers will be expected to buy multiple copies when it is published. Her work also has appeared in The New York Sun, Confessio Augustana, Higher Things and Doublethink.

Mollie’s undergraduate degree in economics was obtained at the University of Colorado, located in the alternative universe known as Boulder, Colo. She is a member of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Alexandria, Va., and serves on the Board for Communication Services of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

Mollie — who lacks a GetReligion nickname at this time — will begin writing on or about Dec. 1st, but I hope she will write her own “what you need to know about me” post in the next few days. We all roam around the Godbeat a bit, but Mollie will pay special attention to religion writing outside the axis of the elite East and West Coast newspapers. Believe me, we know that we need to do more in this area.

Is is, at times, hard to find the work of religion reporters at newspapers that do not provide logical links and specialty pages on their websites. I have barked about this in the past and urged GetReligion readers to help us find more stories to praise and dissect. Mollie will be trying to crack some of these tough cyber-cases. We will also create, in the left sidebar index, an “All-Stars” category to salute fine religion writing wherever we find it, in markets large and small.

So welcome Mollie to the blog. She’s a live wire.

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Read this and weep (honest)

nk schoolchildrens palace kimilsungWhile in Orange County, Calif., last week, I had a chance to read the following story about North Korea and religious persecution in an actual dead-tree-pulp edition of the Los Angeles Times. I thought that reporter Barbara Demick did a good job of handling the brutal details without letting things get out of control.

I did, however, wonder if the basic “rice evangelism” anecdote was the most powerful lead for this story.

SEOUL — A few years ago, an astonishing rumor spread among the teenagers of Musan, a sad, hungry mining town hugging the North Korean side of the border with China. If you slipped over and looked for a house with a cross, the people inside would give you a lecture on Christianity and a bowl of rice.

Choi Hwa knew this was dangerous stuff. Back when she was an impressionable 12-year-old, she and her classmates had been called
out to watch the execution of a young woman and her father who were caught with a Bible. But Choi knew as well that the pangs in her stomach meant she might soon succumb to the starvation that had killed dozens of neighbors. The girl followed her stomach. Through it, she found her way to faith.

After all, this story also included some hellish accounts of persecution and martyrdom, as believers struggled to express their faith while living in the shadows of the allegedly divine Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il. I especially liked the detail from Demick that the North Korean PR writers have a special distaste for Christian faith because they have plagiarized certain sacred details to flesh out their own stories. For example, “doctrine has it that Kim Jong Il’s birth was heralded by a bright star in the sky.”

I also flinched while reading this account about the deaths of five middle-aged men accused of running an underground church.

They were forced to lie on the ground and were crushed by a steamroller, said a 30-year-old North Korean defector, who added that he witnessed the incident while he was in the army. “At the time, I thought they got what they deserved,” said the defector, who related his story to The Times. Now a theology student in South Korea, he asked to be identified only by his English first name, Stephen.

Days later, a friend (hat tip to Rod Dreher) sent me a slightly different account of the same event. This is the rare case in which the writing in a bookish journal of theology and culture — the weblog of First Things, actually — is more gripping than the reporting in a world-class newspaper. This account is taken directly from the printed reports of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, based on eyewitness accounts.

You be the judge. Which is the more memorable? Does the First Things version go too far?

… (In) the building of a highway near Pyongyang, a house was demolished and a Bible was discovered hidden between bricks. Along with it was a list identifying a Christian pastor, two assistant pastors, two elders, and 20 members of the congregation. All were rounded up and the five Christian leaders were told they could avoid death if they denied their faith and swore to serve only Kim Jong Il and his father, Kim Il Sung. …

Refusing to do so, they were forced to lie down and a steamroller used in the highway construction was driven over them. The report continues, “Fellow parishioners who had been assembled to watch the execution cried, screamed out, or fainted when the skulls made a popping sound as they were crushed beneath the steamroller.”

I think I need to get a copy of that report. Ditto for other journalists who care about basic human rights.

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