A pastor in the lobby of hell

So you are the pastor of an ordinary, middle-of-the-road mainline church in the heart of flyover America.

You face the tough issues of life, both public and private. You know many of the secret hopes and terrors of ordinary people, the kinds of everyday challenges that do not make headlines. You help people search for answers.

Then, in a shattering blitz of headlines and camera crews, you find yourself reading stories — this is from CNN.com — such as the following about the BTK murderer, a man that you thought of as a leader in your quiet flock.

Film at 11. And here is the news:

Sgt. Tom Lee testified Rader told him that after strangling his 53-year-old neighbor, Marine Hedge, in her home on April 27, 1985, he took her body to his church where he took photographs of her in bondage positions. Rader dumped the body in a remote ditch.

Lee said Rader told investigators he took the body to the church to “have his way with her” — to fulfill his sexual fantasies.

Rader had left black plastic sheets and other material at the church in anticipation of the killing.

“He advised to me that she was going to the church alive or dead — either way,” Lee said.

That is just the tip of this hellish iceberg.

So you are the pastor at this scene, sitting in that courtroom with the families — on both sides of the terror. You hear the testimony. You hear the verdict. What are you thinking? What are you praying? What questions have you silently screamed at the heavens in recent weeks?

There’s a feature story in there, right? That’s the story that Deb Gruver went after for The Wichita Eagle, writing about Pastor Michael Clark. For starters, he considered majoring in criminology in college. He ended up wrestling with good and evil in another arena, after working as both a teacher and in real estate. Seminary did not prepare him for this.

Gruver has some of the human details. Still, I found myself wanting more. This pastor has been stuck in the foyer of hell and he has to be asking some questions. We see glimpses, but that is all.

Clark has taken some criticism for continuing to minister to Rader. Some have questioned how a church could support a serial killer. Clark has tried to meet with Rader about two times a week. Their most recent meeting was Tuesday morning. He won’t divulge what they talk about it, but he says Rader has shown remorse for his crimes.

Clark says it’s not his job to forgive Rader. That’s God’s job.

“I can guide him to the point where he asks God for forgiveness,” he said.

The experience, Clark says, has helped him grow.

“It never, ever made me question my faith,” he said. “Never. In spite of all the pain and suffering, I still have come to understand that God is being good.

“We say God is the truth,” the minister continues. “I can tell you right now I’ve come to understand that concept in a whole different way. . . . I’ve gotten in touch with evil in a whole different way.”

This is the kind of story that makes people sweat on the theological left and the right. Remember when the unthinkable happened and Jeffrey Dahmer became a born-again Christian and then, while the cynics moaned, actually died trying to protect another man from being beaten in prison? This case could follow a similar path.

Does Rader deserve heaven or hell? The liberal answer is that everyone is going to heaven. For many, that isn’t a comforting answer in this case. But what about the other side of the coin? What if Rader repents? Then the most conservative of Christians has to say that he is bound for heaven. That’s the Good News. But how many people in Wichita want to hear about that doctrine, right now?

I predict that Pastor Clark has given this issue some thought.

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A strangely violent death for a gentle saint

BrotherRogerBook2The perfectly bizarre story of Brother Roger’s murder at Taizé, the religious community he founded in 1940, has caused a humble ripple today on the Godbeat. Most of the stories are competent summaries of Brother Roger’s life and ministry.

So far, though, the most moving reflection on Brother Roger comes from Ruth Gledhill of the Times of London. The piece’s headline, “Murdered Taizé leader was new age pioneer,” speaks more to his musical than to his theological influence.

Gledhill writes:

Given all the current controversies surrounding so many religious leaders, Brother Roger was the last for whom any would have predicted a violent death. His rule, if he had one, was: “Love, and express that with your life.”

. . . Music and song are the keys to understanding the Taizé phenomenon. A classically-trained musician, Brother Roger introduced the form of meditative chant that came to characterise Taizé and which has been taken up by churches worldwide.

Many churches today hold regular Taizé services using the community’s music, for which Brother Roger never took any personal credit, but which has always born his indelible numinous imprint.

Few are aware of the extent to which the soft, rhythmic harmonic chants of Taizé influenced the development of the new age and ambient genres that have moved into the secular mainstream.

. . . The Taizé songbook states: “Song is one of the most essential elements of worship. Short chants, repeated again and again, give it a meditative character. Using just a few words, they express a basic reality of faith, quickly grasped by the mind.”

Christians worldwide will be praying that Brother Roger’s death will not silence his song of reconciliation, beauty and peace.

About the art: God Is Love Alone is available from GIA Publications of Chicago.

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Does GetReligion want to “go there”?

dieties. . . (The) Christian worldview’s truth claims include an admonition for Christians to be “salt, light, and leaven,” individually and collectively, on their spheres of influence. That truth claim presupposes that their spheres of influence would benefit from a collective and intentional Christian influence, and also presupposes such intentional and collective influence is possible.

My perception is that the “Get Religion” blog does not want “to go there” — whether/to what degree Christian journalists should collectively and intentionally influence their profession. I suggest Jay Rosen’s most thoughtful insights, linked to the blog item, on the “religion of journalism,” allude to this — they do not mention how, if at all, Christian journalists (or journalists of other faiths) should collectively and intentionally influence their profession, as an appropriate outworking of that faith and its truth claims.

Posted by Joe at 9:56 am on August 17, 2005

This topic is linked to questions that we hear, from time to time, about the role of religious faith in journalism and, thus, in the work at this blog. This is natural, since faith tends to give journalists sweaty palms and journalism has the same effect on far too many religious leaders. I’ve been working in this particular minefield for decades.

So let me very briefly respond to Joe’s comment that GetReligion does not “want to go there” on the God and journalism issue.

If Christians in the field of journalism influence our field, I hope it is in the same way that religious believers influence the fields of law, art, sports, academia, etc. In other words, that influence is expressed through the quality of their work and in open debates about ethical issues that affect everyone on the job.

In other words, GetReligion is not a site about “Christian journalism.” We are pretty open about our faith around here, but the purpose of the blog is to talk about how to improve MSM coverage of religion news. The goal is diversity. We are pro-journalism. Click here and here for some of foundational essays about that.

Now, I freely admit that any study of media-bias literature tends to point toward conflicts between the press and traditional forms of religion. There’s no way to avoid that. But I am convinced there is more to that topic than some simplistic left vs. right divide. Religious conservatives who claim the MSM is “liberal,” in some traditional meaning of that word, and is out to nail them are not seeing the whole picture. That’s another topic that keeps coming up in this space, from time to time.

The Christians I know who thrive in mainstream journalism (I am active in Gegrapha, for example) are those who want to work in journalism — period. To get theological about it, they see journalism as a part of God’s (glorious and fallen) creation. No more, no less.

To paraphrase that noted theologian James Carville: It’s journalism, stupid.

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Is it a sin to talk to a reporter?

I don’t know how to describe this item other than to say that the omnipresent Ted Olsen of the Christianity Today blog has done an amazing job of writing up a GetReligion case study from a San Bernardino Sun article about ministry in times of sickness and health. The case is so amazing that all I can really say is click here and go read it. Do yourself a favor.

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Are j-profs losin’ their religion?

ManAngelThat man Jay Rosen, a veteran professor at New York University’s Department of Journalism, is at it again — digging into the religious structures beneath the cathedrals of journalism.

A long, long time ago, a Sojourners essay took a stab at describing the links between religion and journalism, saying that journalists turn over the rock to reveal the dirt and ministers shovel off the dirt to reveal the rock. This is the same territory that Rosen covered in one of those essays that I hope every GetReligion reader has read — “Journalism Is Itself a Religion.” Note that this link takes you to the The Revealer, where it is stored as one of that blog’s statements of core doctrine.

If you want an update on some of those themes, check out Rosen’s “Deep Throat, J-School and Newsroom Religion,” which dissects the role that the Watergate Myth played in the idealism of a whole generation of journalism leaders. Here’s the readout from the top of that essay: “Watergate is the great redemptive story believers learn to tell about the press and what it can do for the American people. Whether the story can continue to claim enough believers — and connect the humble to the heroic in journalism — is a big question. Whether it should is another question.”

Now, if any of that interests you, you are ready for the Rosen report from the recent AEJMC convention in San Antonia (tmatt asks: Great summer climate. Was hell booked up?) where some veteran journalism professors had a chance to testify — in the Bible Belt sense of that word — during a panel discussion called “Things I Used to Teach That I No Longer Believe.” It seems that the old-time religion just isn’t converting a new generation. As a journalism professor myself, I feel their pain.

It’s impossible to miss the faith language in the San Antonio remarks. Here is a clip or two from Rosen’s report:

First up was Carl Sessions Stepp, a contributing writer to American Journalism Review, a former national correspondent and editor for the Charlotte Observer and USA Today, and a professor at the University of Maryland’s J-School. He said that most of what he believed when he began teaching in 1983 he still believed, with one big exception.

Then he would have said that nearly all journalists employed in the field were people “on a mission.” They saw their work as a noble public service, and shared a sense of duty that helped them define what the service was amid a hectic news environment. Students quickly picked up on this creed, and newsoom culture supported it.

That was then. Now, he said, the sense of mission is not the same. He didn’t say it was gone; plenty of journalists still heard the call. And young people still showed up in his classes ready to believe. But changes in the news business and “workplace culture” have turned the mission into a fairy tale much of the time. There is no universal sense of calling any more, Stepp declared. Journalism as a whole isn’t “on a mission,” but journalists as individuals still can be.

The obvious question: What is the nature of this secular “calling”? As a Christian who works in mainstream journalism, I have always struggled with that word for the simple reason that many people hear it and link it directly to the work of ordained ministers. The traditional Christian doctrine, however, is that people are called to a wide variety of professions and God does not rank them — from rock & roll guitarists to airplane pilots, from (gulp) lawyers to painters. In that sense, one can be “called” to be a journalist, working in this industry to the best of one’s ability and following the rules of the craft.

Rosen argues that many journalists are actually semi-ordained evangelists in a church of journalism. They are on a mission from the gods and the gods have names such as Woodward and Bernstein, who produced The Good Book that inspired young believers to make personal professions of faith and walk the true path.

So what does it mean if young people don’t want to do “mission” work in modern newsrooms? What is the modern j-student seeking?

Back to Rosen’s report:

Next was Dianne Lynch, dean of the School of Communications at Ithaca College, a journalist, and former executive director of the Online News Association. She told us a startling story about an exceptional student who gave up a four-year scholarship worth over $200,000, including tuition, room and board, even travel money. The student came to the dean’s office to let Lynch know that she was quitting journalism and switching to sociology. “I decided that I just can’t be in such a terrible profession,” the student said, adding that it did not seem to her a field where a young person could “make a difference.”

There was a slight gasp in the room at that. This was because the phrase used, “make a difference,” though tedious and vague, was once the very thing that identified to journalists their own idealism. You didn’t do it for the money, and it wasn’t the wonderful working conditions, or a chance for advancement. For a certain generation (whose mortality was lurking about the panel, way under the laughs) journalism, at its best, was all about “making a difference.” Speaking truth to power, and all that.

And so forth and so on, world without end. Amen.

So do modern j-students want to preach, as in pour out their beliefs in secular sermons in openly partisan publications? Are we facing the rise of the new, New Journalists? Is the goal to do unto the bloggers what the bloggers want to do unto you?

These are interesting times and Rosen is must reading, no matter what church you have joined.

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Kenneth Woodward’s “What’s in a Name?”

Earlier this month, I shared a dark confession. I was really hoping that somebody, somewhere, would post a copy of veteran Newsweek scribe Kenneth Woodward’s provocative essay in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy about The New York Times and its efforts to avoid the term “partial-birth abortion” in its headlines and stories.

Well, duh. It finally hit me that perhaps we could post it here at GetReligion. After several days of emails, I have been given the all-clear sign — by the author and the Notre Dame information office — to post the essay (Word file).

This is one of those cases where it really helps to read the article for yourself. Let me warn comment-writers in advance: It’s crucial to realize that Woodward is raising journalistic questions, not questions about Catholic theology or other issues linked to public battles over abortion on demand. Woodward is talking about issues of journalistic style and content, not science or faith.

I also need to say that I had, based one some of the clips from his essay posted elsewhere, misunderstood a key point about Woodward’s thesis. How?

It helps to discuss an example. The Times ran a story the other day — the headline was “Clinton’s Challenger Says She Opposes Late-Term Abortion” — in which reporter Patrick D. Healy used the words “partial birth-abortion” in the lead. Here’s the start of that story:

Jeanine F. Pirro, the new Republican challenger for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Senate seat, said yesterday that she opposed the procedure that critics call partial-birth abortion, after taking a muddier stance on the issue four years ago.

Ms. Pirro, a favorite of moderate Republicans whose new position will probably help her woo the conservative voters she needs, said in an interview that she decided to oppose the procedure — except to protect the life of the woman — after researching and reflecting on the issue.

After seeing this, I dashed off a note to Catholic superblogger Amy Welborn — the source for the original tip about Woodward’s piece — in which I suggested this meant hell might be getting cooler. You see, I was impressed by pieces of Woodward’s essay in which he noted the remarkable lengths to which the Times had gone in its news copy to avoid the partial-birth abortion term (which, by the way, just entered the Webster’s New World College Dictionary). I thought this meant they were not using these words at all.

Wrong. Woodward quickly dropped me a note to say the wording used in this case — “that critics call partial-birth abortion” — is actually quite normal. Business as usual. Old hat.

I wrote back and said that I thought people really needed online access to his essay so they could evaluate his whole argument.

So here it is, as an HTML page.

Thank you, Ken Woodward and thank you, Notre Dame.

P.S. Attention, fans of the late David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times: Check out footnote No. 4 in Woodward’s piece, offering a postscript on the famous Shaw series on media bias in abortion coverage. You are not going to believe it.

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Holy profit margins!

Besides its cover story on evolution and intelligent design, the Aug. 15 issue of Time includes a sympathetic six-page spread on evangelical-owned businesses. The range of businesses includes a youth-gear chain, a beauty salon, a bank and a driving school (with the straightforward, if less than imaginative, name of Christian Faith Driving Schol).

The most interesting business owner profiled here is Steven Skow, CEO of Integrity Bank in Alpharetta, Ga. A photo of Skow shows him holding hands with other executives at Integrity Bank. All have their heads bowed in prayer except for Skow, who gazes skyward with an expression worthy of a Norman Rockwell painting.

What Skow lacks in a camera presence he makes up for with savvy banking incentives:

Skow begins every business day praying with the top officers at his Integrity Bank. At the main branch in Alpharetta, a wood carving of the Prayer of Jabez hangs over the entryway, and Bibles are stacked up in the boardroom. But to attract customers, Integrity doesn’t rely on prayer alone; it offers higher-than-average interest rates on CDs and checking accounts and reimburses atm fees charged by other banks. Some 10% of the bank’s real estate loans are to churches–which don’t get a special deal. Integrity, with $590 million in assets under management, went public in August 2004, its stock shooting up 108% to $24 in late July. “We’ve been blessed with fast growth and profitability,” says Skow, who earned $215,000 last year. “It’s not me — it’s the people and God’s will that have made this thing successful.”

The article, by Lisa Takeuchi Cullen (backed by the usual array of Time‘s worker bees), includes good critical-distance observations by Alan Wolfe of Boston College and James Twitchell, author of Branded Nation: The Marketing of Megachurch, College Inc., and Museumworld. How’s that for a grab-your-collar subtitle?

It’s a fine model of how journalists may cover a trend in an informed, nonpatronizing manner.

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Extended adolescence

silhouette lead 203x152In last week’s Washington City Paper, Huan Hsu profiled single, middle-aged members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormons. What’s so special about single, middle-aged Mormons? Well, there aren’t very many of them.

Life for singles over 30 isn’t always easy. Life for singles over 30 who also happen to be LDS can be truly stressful. The church’s doctrine not only emphasizes marriage and family but practically demands them: It’s not uncommon for young members to go from first date to marriage in less than a year or for 22-year-old couples to be working on their second child.

While I find articles like these — on the mating habits of devoutly religious folk — humorous, I believe the author misses part of the story. He has that typical attitude writers have when examining customs, traditions and beliefs dissimilar to the mainstream. It’s partly because the reporter often will write with this “I can’t believe these people believe and act like this” attitude and because, well, dating/courting/marriage rituals are funny if looked at objectively.

The challenges and problems faced by these young Mormons — the pressure to marry, settle down and bear offspring — seem quite similar, in varying degrees, to those that I’ve seen around me in various settings, such as Catholic college communities and evangelical Protestant groups. The author should have found some way to expound on this, because pressure to marry is not particular to young Mormons.

What is different though, is that marriage and child producing is a fundamental tenet of the Mormon religion. Leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints do not see single young people very positively, according to the article, and this aspect is something I have not seen before. Protestant and Catholic leaders I have encountered do not see singleness as a problem but rather as an opportunity. Certainly marriage is looked upon quite favorably in my experience, but single people are not seen as misguided.

“You’d get hugs from the bishop who’d say, ‘These men don’t know what they’re missing.’ They don’t know how else to feel. You’re a leftover, and they don’t know why. So you end up with a different kind of pressure, from both sides, to be flawless. You have to be thin and pretty and smart, and you’re not allowed to be sad that you’re not with someone, because that makes you feel like you messed up, but you’re not allowed to be happy about not being with someone, either, because that’s wrong. It’s a hard church to be single in.”

Overall this article provides a rare, intriguing glimpse into the lives of single, young Mormons who are struggling with the idiosyncrasies of their beliefs.

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