Fab five: What we're doing here, Part II

Mattbig_3A confession: I have no idea how to answer Bob Carlton’s call for my top five posts of the year, which, in this case, also means we are trying to select our favorite work in the (almost) first year of this still experimental and not even in a permanent format blog.

I mean, I think the cornerstone "What we’re doing here" piece would be in there. Maybe. But when I started digging, it didn’t make the top 10. I quickly realized that what I was wrestling with is my own conflicted feelings about what GetReligion is meant to be and what the readers seem to want it to be. I mean, this is not a religion blog. It is a blog about how the mainstream media cover religion, with a special emphasis on "ghosts" in the hard-news coverage in the most influential newspapers, wire services and, when can find a way to do it, networks. We also want to try to find excellent stories to praise, wherever they run.

See the tensions? One one level, I wanted to pick items that dissected some of the major, major, major religion news stories of the year. I mean, how do you pick five without a "Passion" post in there? How do you avoid the Kerry Communion story? The red-blue pews? The Anglican wars?

Yet I also found myself — hey, I’m a sinner — drawn to pieces that were more personal, from hurricane prayers to U2 to whatever. Or I could have picked five posts that dealt with the New York Times and its inner demons about religion, culture, journalism and fairness. In other words, I could have picked posts built on commentary about the news media and the religion beat itself. There are lots of them in this blog, already.

Or, you could dash through the blog and pick the posts that drew the most reader response. Isn’t reader response a major clue as to what posts "hit the mark"?

Then again, most reader comments (cue: sad-sounding string music) to GetReligion have little to do with our stated goal, which is, once again, to comment on how mainstream media cover religion. Most of our response posts — which we are very happy to receive, by the way, and keep them coming — are highly opinionated comments about the actual content of the religious, moral and cultural disputes that the press is covering. I had dinner the other night with Steven Waldman of Beliefnet and he said not to worry about that. It’s just the nature of the blogosphere. So be it. That might make a good topic — along with the problem of venomous bloggers and civility — for some kind of summit meeting between The Revealer, Beliefnet and GetReligion.

So with all of that in mind, let me give this a try. I am including five honorable mentions as a way of illustrating the conflicts I have just discussed.

* The (Passion) Gospel according to Newsweek

* Red churches, blue churches, smart churches, dumb churches

* The ancient Church Fathers and the AP Stylebook

* Another clash of dogmas in the New York Times

* Revenge of the (red-blue) map: It’s hard to avoid the obvious

And the honorable mentions:

* Baby, baby: The New York Times faces a ghost in the stylebook

* Pro-abortion-rights spell checker in LA?

* U2 debates: How long must we sing this song?

* Druids and goddesses and Episcopalians, oh my

* How do you do fair coverage of the homophobes?

Dare I request comments and corrections?

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Seeking forgiveness

ForgiveDavid Crumm, a veteran religion writer and columnist at the Detroit Free Press, makes an ingenious gift suggestion for Christmas: Offer a heartfelt apology to somebody.

Crumm turns to the Rev. Robert Dulin Jr., pastor of the Metropolitan Church of God, to explain the difference between a real apology and a fake:

He straightened up, summoned a deep baritone and declared with wooden authority, “If what I have said or done might have offended anyone, then I am sorry.”

He laughed derisively. “That’s not an apology! That’s an explanation mixed up with an excuse!”

In an essay on fighting in marriage, my friend Gray Temple Jr., longtime rector of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta, reflects on five steps toward offering a person real forgiveness. This step is what has best challenged me:

4. Pray and intend the other’s prosperity
Persistent anger is pretty close to what ancient primitive people meant by a “curse.” In praying for another’s prosperity, we break whatever curse we’d laid on them. I suppose that is a form of blessing, but I’ve found that when I try to bless someone who has hurt me I wind up doing something like this: “O God, bless So-and-So with some insight into his own obnoxious character.” Rather than pray such a prayer — a religious-looking curse — I find it best to pray, “O God, you know what he needs and wants; please supply them both richly. When I see him prosper and happy, I’ll know you have listened to me.” That’s very difficult, but you can do it if you clench your teeth.

Early in my life, my father taught me a valuable lesson in asking people’s forgiveness: Seek it quickly, and seek it face to face. Once, when I had insulted the principal of a Catholic boys’ high school with my reckless driving, my father insisted that I make an appointment with that principal and ask his forgiveness face to face. It was mortifying and, because this good priest extended forgiveness readily, it was glorious.

Help us out, readers: Do you have any favorite stories of forgiveness — whether of seeking it or extending it?

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Dueling Messiahs

Jesus_cagedRay Waddle, former religion editor of the Nashville Tennessean, has written a guest column on one of the most enduring problems in theology: The temptation to remake Jesus in our own image by emphasizing only the portion of his message that confirms our pet ideas.

Waddle summarizes the four most popular views of Jesus as “Free-market Messiah,” “Peace-and-Justice Jesus,” “Silence of the Lamb (of God)” and “Redeemer Revisited.”

I would add Cool Older Brother Jesus, who loves absolutely everyone just as they are, unless they express doubts about how the gospel of inclusiveness compares with Jesus’ other words, like those unsettling warnings about hell. Or there is Live Long and Prosper Jesus, who wants to shower people with health and wealth — unless they stray from the legalism of prosperity theology.

How about you, readers? What are some of the limited images of Jesus that have caught your attention this year, or in years past?

These two paragraphs of Waddle’s are a good start toward understanding Jesus on his own terms:

In the New Testament, Jesus is too intense and unpredictable to belong to any clique, whether in first-century Holy Land or 21st-century Washington, D.C.

In the four Gospels, Jesus blesses the peacemakers but also brings a sword of judgment. He says love God, fear God, show mercy, be righteous, live the Golden Rule, expect the fiery Reign of God from heaven and look for it inside the heart too. Believers must somehow hold all these themes together because the Gospels do. It will take humility, discernment and a sense of humor to realize that a user-friendly Jesus might be just a pious excuse for justifying political prejudices.

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We'll have a Red (or a Blue) Christmas news story

Blue_christmas_1That sound you hear out in newsrooms is the "thunk" of digital memos hitting the computer in-boxes of unlucky general-assignment reporters at small- and middle-sized newspapers across America.

The sad reality is that there are many, many newspapers in this fair land that do not have trained, committed, religion-beat specialists. You know, the kind of professional religion scribe who can handle the pressure — year after year — of finding creative news-feature-story hooks for all of those ultra-familiar religious holidays that terrify city-desk editors.

If you don’t have a Godbeat specialist, who are you going to call?

Only those of us who have to carry this heavy burden know how bad this can be. I mean, in addition to finding a good story, you also need page-one worthy color art and it has to be shot days in advance so it can be worked into the page design. How do you photograph a natural-looking, newsworthy piece of Easter art at the start of Holy Week?

But I digress.

OK, so you have survived Hanukkah. Good job.

Now is the time when an assistant city editor is going to scan the room, trying to decide which unlucky general-assignment reporter is going to have to handle — you know what.

You need a story that captures the spirit of Christmas, which means that it may need to have something to do with Christianity. But you also need a story that does not offend too many of the people who are almost always offended by, well, Christianity. You could do a news feature on how modern scholars believe that everything associated with Christmas is a myth, but you know that the newsweeklies are going to do that one every other year.

Right about now is the time when the editors send out these memos. A friend of this blog recently sent me a perfect example of one such assignment, which we will say was passed along by another friend. We can’t get into details, other than to say that it originated in a newsroom in one of the half dozen or so cities in North America that are, from time to time, referred to as the Mecca of Evangelical Christianity. Or the Vatican. Or Jerusalem on the Brazos. Whatever.

But the dreaded memo starts out by saying that the editors have assigned this reporter to write — you know what.

There’s more. The editor has already decided on the news hook for this as-yet-to-be-determined feature story. This reporter has been predestined by her or his editor to find a Christmas 2004 story that is connected to — you knew this was coming, didn’t you? — that hot, hot, hot social group of the moment. You got it. It’s going to be Christmas with the Evangelical value voters.

I can see the headline now: "America’s Dreaming of a Red Christmas." Or, you could flip that around and deal with the grief of the losers. This would, obviously, lead straight to The King (that would be Elvis) and "(I’ll Have a) Blue Christmas."

So good people out there who give us feedback here at GetReligion — let’s come to the aid of this anonymous reporter. I mean, let’s give him or her some help other than pointing toward the December holiday files of the Religion Newswriters Association.

I hope that some of you will answer these questions:

* Can you think of a genuine value-voter Christmas story for 2004?

* What is the absolutely worst value-voter, red-Christmas story hook that you can think of?

* Have you already seen a story written along these lines?

Please help. It’s the time of year for sharing. Help a general-assignment reporter, today.

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It's time to seek communion at the mall

Mall_of_america_forth_floor_viewA few years ago, the theologians at the prestigious Young & Rubicam advertising agency circulated, in house, an interesting little document about the sacraments of buying and selling.

The big idea was that many of our culture’s best-known brand names have, in effect, become substitute religions.
These "belief brands" provide meaning for millions of believers who gradually become what they consume while taking communion, so to speak, at the mall.

Here’s a quote from a column I did at that time:

"The brands that are succeeding are those with strong beliefs and original ideas," said an agency report. "They are also the ones that have the passion and energy to change the world, and to convert people to their way of thinking though outstanding communications."

When true believers think of Apple, Calvin Klein, Gatorade, Volvo, MTV, Starbucks, Nike and Virgin, they don’t just think of products. These uncompromising "belief brands" help establish a sense of identity, according to Young & Rubicam. They are icons that define lives.

I bring this up for a simple reason. The cultural steamroller called "The Holidays" — formerly known as "Christmas" — is here in all of its Advent- and Hanukkah-crushing glory. This will lead to a few brave pastors and rabbis preaching sermons on commercialism and selfishness. My Scripps Howard column this week even offers advice for those who want to dare to deal with (cue: drum roll) Santa Claus.

This is a major subject, in part because one does not have to be a neo-Marxist Scrooge to see that the spirituality of the Advent-Nativity Lent season does not blend well with the post-Thanksgiving cultural free for all. Yet it is rare to see actual news stories on this topic. The Denver Post ran one recently — called "Shopping Nation" — and I’ve been watching ever since to see if anyone chased it. Not yet.

Reporter Douglas Brown notes that consumption has clearly become a "sacred and communal act" and a form of addiction. Here’s a sample:

Compulsive buying has escalated dramatically during the past 10 years, says April Lane Benson, a psychologist in New York and the editor of "I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self." … The spread of electronic commerce and television shopping networks, she says, is in part behind the growth of shopping addictions. Shopping also has seamlessly insinuated itself into the fabric of the country. Most people do not
realize how central shopping is to their lives.

"Malls are our new sacred spaces," Benson says. "They are substitutes for town halls, town centers. They’re kind of like churches; instead, the deity worshiped is the almighty dollar. People spend more time shopping than anything but working and sleeping."

The God talk doesn’t end there:

Vincent Miller, a theology professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and the author of "Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture," says the triumph of consumer culture has changed how people relate to religion. In consumer culture, he says, "we expect religion to give us its secrets right away. We expect ourselves to be able to decide immediately whether it’s right for us or not. … We don’t get the connections between the beliefs and the practices that give you the transformation.

Let’s face it. This is a sacramental system. See this image. Purchase the product. Consume it and become the image.

Has anyone else out there seen a good 2004 news story on this phenomenon? Now, I’m talking news — not a commentary column. Meanwhile, the Boca Raton News has done a nice little feature on what some South Florida churches are doing during this stressed-out season.

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Emergent synagogues, timid networks and …

Southbeach7_1Another day, another airport and another newspaper. In this case, I had some time to kill with the Miami Herald in the tiny airport in Key West. There were at least three items in this one issue of the newspaper that could merit GetReligion attention, in my opinion. So I will combine them into one post, starting with the best.

* It is so, so, so hard to have good stories about the standard holidays, but reporter Alexandra Alter pulled it off with a feature for the opening night of Hanukkah. The headline was a snooze: "Synagogue Faithful Pick a Way to Pray." But the story offered an insightful journey into what David "Bobos In Paradise" Brooks has called "flexidoxy" — an attempt to blend religious experience with the radical individualism of the American marketplace. Here’s the opening of the story:

As 150 congregants gathered for prayer on a recent Friday evening in the sanctuary of Temple Beth Am, Rabbi Terry Bookman settled onto a yoga mat in another room. Angling his head toward the two votive candles, he moved gracefully from the downward facing dog position to the child’s pose.

Clad in loose white pants and a long Indian shirt, Bookman wasn’t ditching Shabbat service for yoga class. He was leading an alternative service, one of five happening simultaneously at Beth Am’s Pinecrest campus.

The dizzying array of activity is part of Synaplex, the Jewish version of the multiplex theater — where congregants can sing, stretch, pray, create art or just sit in silence. Developed by a Minneapolis-based organization to rejuvenate synagogue life, Synaplex was inspired in part by megachurches that tailor worship services to suit congregants of different ages.

Bingo. No, they didn’t offer bingo. I mean Alter has hit the nail on the head. You just knew that, at some point, religious groups in the middle and the left of the American marketplace were going to start trying to follow the lead of the birds-of-a-feather evangelical Protestant franchises. What better time of year to run a few ads and fish for seekers?

What’s next, an "emergent" synagogue movement, where hip meets ancient and everyone gets to make up his or her own tradition? You bet. Read the whole story. The details all fit. Oprah goes Shabbat.

* Over on the editorial page, Eileen McNamara took a stab at the ongoing debate about that UCC vs. the Normal Churches advertisement (click here for the LeBlanc-ian take on this). Once again, we have the same doctrinaire take on the controversy — arguing that Bush-friendly forces in the shadows had zapped the ads because of the gay-rights thrust.

The latest act of fealty to the conservatism now in vogue in Washington is the refusal of CBS and NBC to run an ad from a mainstream Christian denomination on the grounds that its message could generate controversy and be perceived as “advocacy advertising.” (ABC does not accept any religious advertising.) The networks say that they refuse such ads as a matter of policy, although they certainly showed no reluctance to run advocacy political ads this fall that were both inflammatory and false.

The radical notion promoted by the 30-second commercial from the United Church of Christ is inclusiveness, an idea deemed controversial because it encompasses gay people, the pariahs of the conservative-values crowd in the ascendancy this post-election season. Never mind that the disputed ad could not be more innocuous.

Here at GetReligion, we want to see the ads in prime time immediately. We are pro-free speech on these things. Run these ads in tandem with spots by Exodus International and other religious groups that cause nightmares for cautious media executives.

However, the gay angle misses the point. McNamara is right that there is nothing blatant in the ad’s imagery that pushes homosexuality. It is very low-key. What the ads do proclaim is that the UCC is not racist, which clearly says that other churches are racist. She is right that the networks are too timid. But she misses the point. The hottest button in the ad was race, not sexual orientation.

* And finally, I mention another story simply because I was morally outraged by it. The Tropical Life section of the paper had, on its cover, what has to be the DEFINITIVE South Florida-South Beach trend story. You could say there was a ghost in it, since the story totally avoids asking any moral questions about an issue that raises all kinds of moral questions. You could say the same thing about feminist questions, by the way.

What is the issue? Should parents give their teen-aged daughters breast implants as high-school graduation gifts? Yes, the story has lots of art and people quoted on the record. Check it out. Where is Focus on the Family or Ms. magazine? Am I out of line on this one?

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The New Yorker goes behind The Door

Door_coverThe New Yorker has published an engaging and sympathetic profile of Ole Anthony, leader of the Trinity Foundation, the Dallas-based scourge of TV evangelists. Anthony’s appearances on network television, and the changes he brought to The Door magazine, can leave the impression of a man obsessed with televangelists.

Burkhard Bilger’s 11-page profile, published in the Dec. 6 issue, is not available online. Two paragraphs best capture Trinity’s effects on The Door:

When Trinity inherited the magazine, nine years ago, it was a favorite among seminarians for its subversive wit and its interviews with theologians. The current editor, Robert Darden, is a Trinity supporter who teaches writing at Baylor. He has tried to preserve the magazine’s spirit, but Trinity’s investigations sometimes introduced a strident, acerbic tone. Mild satires like “Harry Potter in the Lake of Fire” now alternate with cover stories on Pat Robertson, “Lifetime Loser,” or on Charlton Heston as a “Christian Soldier of Fortune,” dressed as Moses with a machine gun.

The low point, even Trinity members now say, came when The Door set its sights on W.V. Grant, a local faith healer who presided over a five-thousand-seat church. In 1996, after a two-year investigation by the foundation, Grant was sentenced to sixteen months in prison and ordered to pay three hundred and fifty-three thousand dollars in back taxes, in addition to a fine. Afterward, to celebrate the conviction, Anthony insisted on publishing a Playboy-style centerfold of a picture that a Trinity investigator had found. It showed Grant standing at a window, buck naked and uncommonly hairy. If Darden hadn’t objected strenuously, Anthony would have added a caption in large print: “Even the hairs on his ass are numbered.”

Bilger’s profile tells of Anthony’s decades-long path to becoming a Christian and founding the Trinity Institute — being kicked out of a Lutheran catechism class, taking drugs as a teenager, setting a wooden cross on fire, serving in military intelligence, and witnessing a nuclear-weapons test in 1958:

Anthony’s body still bears traces of the explosion. His blood is so marked by radiation that a doctor once told him he should be dead. His flesh is pocked with more than four hundred lipomas — hard, fatty tumors, strung under his skin like knots in a clothesline. . . . His foundation, as it turns out, is named not after the Holy Trinity but after the first nuclear device, which was detonated in New Mexico, in 1945. “God vaporized my value system the way that bomb vaporized its target,” Anthony says.

The article is most valuable, though, in showing Anthony’s daily life of ascetic discipline, helping homeless people and drug addicts and living among the poor and gang members of East Dallas:

“I couldn’t be a believer outside this community,” he said, when I stopped by his office to say goodbye. “I know my own greed and my need to be right.” He leaned back in his chair and glanced around the room, at the peeling paint and the twittering bird and the books full of words about the Word. “I own nothing, I have nothing, and I make fifty-five dollars a week,” he said. “I’m sixty-six years old, and I have no privacy and no retirement plan. I am a blithering idiot by my own definition.” He shrugged. “The mystery is, this place satisfies every desire of my heart.”

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America needs more coffee shops and fewer churches?

Coffee_1This is a minor little lifestyles feature from last week, but it is still bugging me. There is a ghost in here, methinks. The topic is “third places,” which reporter Sherry Stripling of the Seattle Times defines as:

Today, instead of face-to-face encounters that help what Oregon poet Ingrid Wendt calls “keeping the human spirit in repair,” we communicate by computer, by talk radio or by finger on the freeway.

When we wonder at the divisions of our society, we need look no further, some social observers say, than at the loss of what’s been called “third places” — safe, neutral gatherings spots.

The corner store, the local pub, the coffee shop that doesn’t involve a long car ride. “Third places” cultivate deeper support and a broader range of ideas than you find at your first place (home) or second place (work).

The whole idea, of course, is that this is where people bump into other people who are different and they have nice, friendly, red-on-blue conversations in which divergent points of view are discussed and no one ever gets bent out of shape. This is where closed minds have a chance to become open minds. You got it? Think “Cheers.”

Stripling quotes Ray Oldenburg, author of “The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of the Community” as saying that third places should be:

* Cheap or free

* Close to home or work so you go there regularly

* Amenable to conversation

* A second home for old and new friends, even if it’s just the bartender

* Playful

You can probably figure out where I am going with this. The article is on to something, of course. Modern mass media and zoning laws have killed true neighborhood bars and greasy spoons, even in many American small towns. I have heard rumors that the very red-zone city of Fort Worth still has lots of neighborhood bars and, I would assume, Seattle remains the national capital of coffee sanctuaries.

But something is missing from this article, something major — religious institutions. Anyone who has ever lived in the heart of the Bible Belt knows that there is a Baptist church on every other corner and the Methodists are on every third corner. For many, many people these are third places. Maybe churches fill this role for a different class of people than those featured in this Seattle story. Then again, perhaps coffee is the only remaining sacrament in the Pacific Northwest.

It is also clear that these third places are somewhat idealized, for Stripling and the people she quotes. They may even be anti-churches. Note these comments by Seattle University professor Mara Adelman:

Just look at the polarization of Republicans and Democrats on a whole range of social issues, says Adelman, an associate professor in Seattle University’s Department of Communication. She’s studied the benefits of “weak ties” — the people you meet regularly at the dog park, the coffee shop, the bus stop.

The “strong ties” in our lives — family, friends, workmates — tend to be “birds of a feather,” Adelman says. They have certain expectations of how we’ll think or behave. The “weak ties” provide freedom of self-expression to test out new ideas — “and then you get to say good night and go home.”

Without third places, she says, “you can’t get into the gray areas and complexity.”

Now, it is true that churches — blue churches and red churches — have become some of the most birds-of-a-feather institutions in American life. But somehow I suspect that they still play a major role in public life for millions of normal Americans. Last time I checked, coffee shops and bars are not protected in the U.S. Constitution.

It is interesting that churches play no role in the Seattle article at all. Zip. Nada. Look it up.

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