Got news? Quiet ‘game-changer’

DETROIT - OCTOBER 4: An exhibit at the 2010 World Stem Cell Summit is seen at the Detroit Marriott Renaissance Center October 4, 2010 in Detroit, Michigan. More than 1,200 scientists and researchers from around the world are expected to attend the summit that focuses on the advancement of embryonic stem cell research. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

There was a massive “game-changing” development in stem cell research last month, but you probably didn’t hear about it.

So what else is new? The short of it is that scientists figured out an improved method to efficiently produce safe alternatives to human embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos. It’s been just a few short years since scientists figured out that they could pursue promising stem cell research without using, much less killing, human embryos.

Rob Stein, who covers this beat regularly at the Washington Post, had the goods. He explains that a team of researchers at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute published a series of their experiments showing out an improved way of developing these induced pluripotent stem cells:

Scientists hope stem cells will lead to cures for diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, spinal cord injuries, heart attacks and many other ailments because they can turn into almost any tissue in the body, potentially providing an invaluable source of cells to replace those damaged by disease or injury. But the cells can be obtained only by destroying days-old embryos.

The cells produced by the Harvard team, known as induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, would avoid that ethical objection and could in some ways be superior to embryonic stem cells. For example, iPS cells could enable scientists to take an easily obtainable skin cell from any patient and use it to create perfectly matched cells, tissue and potentially even entire organs for transplants that would be immune to rejection. …

“All I can say is ‘wow’ – this is a game changer,” said Robert Lanza, a stem cell researcher at Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass. “It would solve some of the most important problems in the field.” …

In 2006, researchers discovered that they could coax adult cells into a state that appeared identical to embryonic stem cells and then, just like embryonic stem cells, morph these iPS cells into various tissues. But the process involved inserting genes into cells using retroviruses, which raised the risk that the cells could cause cancer. Since then, scientists have been trying to develop safer methods. Several approaches using chemicals or other types of viruses have shown promise. But none has eliminated the safety concerns, and most have been slow and balky.

Until this most recent development, that is.

Stein’s article ran in late September. Now check out this week’s Christian Science Monitor story about how important federal funding of embryo-destroying stem cell research is:

“We all hope that someday [iPSCs] will be viable replacements for embryonic stem cells,” says research professor Daniel Anderson, walking between his laboratories, which are scattered across several floors in interconnected buildings at MIT. “But it’s not today.”

For example: The viruses used to reprogram adult skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells make them unsafe, so far, for many applications.

I think it might be a mistake to equate potential risk with an actual lack of safety, but it doesn’t matter either way. The story completely misses this “game-changing” development all the way across town. Part of the problem could be that advances — or even discussion of advances — in embryonic stem cell research usually get major play in the media while those that don’t involve destroying human embryos do not.

In fact, when I went to look for stories on the iPS development, they were almost all in conservative, Catholic, pro-life or Baptist media.

The media seem more interested in what will happen with embryonic stem cell research if federal funding is banned. The New York Times also ran a story recently:

Perhaps more than any other field of science, the study of embryonic stem cells has been subject to ethical objections and shaped by political opinion. But only a year after the Obama administration lifted some of the limits imposed by President George W. Bush, a lawsuit challenging the use of public money for the research and a conservative shift in Congress could leave the field more sharply restricted than it has been since its inception a decade ago. At stake are about 1,300 jobs, as well as grants from the National Institutes of Health that this year total more than $200 million and support more than 200 projects.

While this is true, as Wesley Smith notes, it neglects to mention the $2 billion in private and state funding the field has received. “Indeed, in California, the CIRM is permitted-if it wishes-to fund $300 million a year in ESCR experiments. Surely that is relevant to a story on how the sector would be impacted if the Lamberth decision is ultimately upheld.”

The story had other problems, including ignorance about legislation and a complete failure to mention iPS stem cells, much less the recent developments with same.

Anyway, the CIRM mentioned above is the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, a state agency with billions of dollars in funding for embryonic stem cell research. Because, you know, California is flush with cash or something. Check out this poem that the state agency awarded a prize for:

Stem C.
This is my body
which is given for you.
But I am not great.
I have neither wealth,
nor fame, nor grace.
I cannot comfort with words,
nor inspire to march.
I am small and simple,
so leave me this.
Let me heal you.
This is my body
which is given for you.
Take this
in remembrance of me.

The state agency apologized:

CIRM recently announced two winners of the second annual poetry contest, one of which contained some religious language that is identical to liturgical language used in the context of Christian and Catholic sacraments. The language introduces a religious element that we now realize was offensive to some people.

But this gaffe was only covered in pro-life and industry news, near as I can tell. It’s just so interesting to me what gets covered and what doesn’t these days.

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Got news? Bible studies (plural) in mine?

I don’t know about you, but I had assumed that the spiritual leaders of the trapped miners in Chile would be Catholics. That was true of some, but not all.

I guess I was — in an earlier post — guilty of tunnel vision.

In other words, I didn’t take into account the religious changes sweeping through Latin America. Then again, it is more than possible that lots of other folks in the mainstream press missed an interesting angle on this story, too.

Anyway, I had not heard of the Rev. Marcelo Leiva, a Baptist pastor, and miner Jose Henriquez Gonzalez until today. A Google News search indicates that I am not along, at least on this side of the Atlantic.

However, I do read the Baptist wire services pretty carefully, which is how I ran into this story today. Here’s a key chunk of it:

… (The) traumatic ordeal has forged many new friendships — perhaps none more important than the ones between the miners and those ministering to them and their families.

Marcelo Leiva, a Baptist pastor, and Jose Henriquez, one of the miners, had never met before the mine collapse. Instead, they have communicated in handwritten letters and in a single, brief phone conversation. A half-mile of rock has separated them. But despite the physical distance, the two Chilean evangelicals developed a special friendship.

Henriquez has been an encouragement to his co-workers as they struggled to stay positive during their confinement. An evangelical Christian, he held daily Bible studies for the miners as rescue efforts developed on the surface.

When Henriquez requested an evangelical pastor to aid the miners and their families at the site, Leiva, of Vallenar Baptist Church in Vallenar, Chile, was contacted. The pastor arrived at Camp Esperanza (Hope) about two weeks ago.

As you would expect, Baptists will be Baptists. Thus, there is an evangelistic angle to this story, as well. That received it’s own story a few days ago.

I’ll cut to the chase.

When the mine collapsed, three of the miners — including Henriquez — were Christians. Since then, two more of them have made professions of faith.

“It was Jose who made the request that an evangelical pastor come to minister to the miners and their families,” said Bryan Wolf, an International Mission Board (IMB) missionary serving in Vallenar, Chile.

Now, did anyone else raise their eyebrows while reading that?

You see, while these stories are part of a feel-good media festival, these Baptist Press stories raise an interesting question — one I had not thought of before.

There were only three Christians buried down in that mine? Or were there only three evangelical and/or Baptist believers down there? This is Chile, after all. It’s hard to believe that there were that few men in the mine who were active in their Catholic parishes, men who were in a sacramental relationship with the Catholic faith.

I know that, in this case, we are reading stories from a denominational wire service. This is not the Associated Press.

Still, I wonder if there were faith-centered tensions down there, under all of that rock. Previous stories mentioned a “spiritual leader” among the miners named, 62-year-old Mario Gomez, the group’s oldest member. The Vatican sent 33 “mini Bibles,” and 33 rosaries down the small hole that served as a literal and spiritual lifeline to Gomez and the other miners.

So I’ll ask: How many Bible studies were being held down there? Were there tensions between the believers? Was there spiritual unity among the diversity? Maybe there was both?

Sounds like a story to me, maybe even a complex story, at that.

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Got news? Partisan, partisan, partisan

What we have here is a highly partisan op-ed page piece — it’s written by Jim Towey, a George W. Bush staffer — on an openly conservative editorial page that bluntly protests a situation in the mainstream press that certainly looks painfully partisan.

Thus, this is precisely the kind of thing that your GetReligionistas try to avoid, because it’s a partisan, partisan, partisan thing. Ick.

But there’s a problem.

At the heart of this partisan op-ed is a valid faith-based news story that isn’t getting any mainstream ink.

Now, sadly, this is one of those Wall Street Journal pieces where you need a digital subscription in order to read the whole thing. However, in this case the first few paragraphs will do just fine:

I was George W. Bush’s director of faith-based initiatives. Imagine what would have happened had I proposed that he use that office to urge thousands of religious leaders to become “validators” of the Iraq War?

I can tell you two things that would have happened immediately. First, President Bush would have fired me — and rightly so — for trying to politicize his faith-based office. Second, the American media would have chased me into the foxhole Saddam Hussein had vacated.

Yet … President Obama and his director of faith-based initiatives convened exactly such a meeting to try to control political damage from the unpopular health-care law. “Get out there and spread the word,” reported the president as saying on a conference call with leaders of faith-based and community groups. “I think all of you can be really important validators and trusted resources for friends and neighbors, to help explain what’s now available to them.”

Since then, there’s been nary a peep from the press.

That certainly seems to be true, looking at this Google News search built on a few logical terms.

There was this completely one-sided press release at, but I hesitate to point readers toward it because it does not contain a single voice expressing concern about this use of the faith-based project. It’s so PR pitch-perfect that it could be a satire of some kind. Ick.

All of this is rather sad, since it provides more fuel for the people who — with good cause, from time to Time — see the mainstream press as a nakedly partisan force on the side of moral and cultural progressives and in opposition to traditional forms of faith.

Regular GetReligion readers know that I think that complaint is simplistic, most of the time. Unfortunately, it’s easier to make that case on moral and cultural issues than on basic political issues, as candid mainstream journalists have admitted from time (click here) to time (then click here).

Now, I know that some of you are thinking: What does this have to do with the health-care debate? Wasn’t that a high-stakes battle over politics, pure and simple? What’s so controversial about religious leaders getting involved in lobbying for or against health-care reform? I don’t know. Let’s ask Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) about that question.

Anyway, all of this is helping to fuel a high tide of anti-MSM acid out there in Middle America, according to some new data from the folks at Gallup. Here’s the top of the organization’s announcement:

WASHINGTON, D.C. – For the fourth straight year, the majority of Americans say they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly. The 57% now saying this is a record high by one percentage point. … The 43% of Americans who, in Gallup’s annual Governance poll, conducted Sept. 13-16, 2010, express a great deal or fair amount of trust ties the record low, and is far worse than three prior Gallup readings on this measure from the 1970s.

Trust in the media is now slightly higher than the record-low trust in the legislative branch but lower than trust in the executive and judicial branches of government, even though trust in all three branches is down sharply this year. These findings also further confirm a separate Gallup poll that found little confidence in newspapers and television specifically.

Nearly half of Americans (48%) say the media are too liberal, tying the high end of the narrow 44% to 48% range recorded over the past decade. One-third say the media are just about right while 15% say they are too conservative. Overall, perceptions of bias have remained quite steady over this tumultuous period of change for the media, marked by the growth of cable and Internet news sources.

So, that 48 percent number is pretty high — but it’s not a majority. Then the people who think the press is doing fine, plus the folks who think that the MSM lean to the right? That adds up to about 48 percent or a tick higher.

Sounds like a pretty divided, partisan situation to me. Sad. Sad. Sad.

What to do? Well, for starters, if anyone sees a fine, balanced mainstream news report focusing on that tax-payer-funded, faith-based campaign to back Obamacare, a news report that takes both sides of the debate seriously, please let me know. I am always looking for solid, non-partisan news reporting on tough issues that are rooted in religion. We need more of that, as I am sure the Gallup pollsters would agree.

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Could it be Satan? How con-VEEN-ient

What happens when you mix atheists, Satanists, a Bible Belt state and a bunch of cliches?

Well, you get a story like this one from The Associated Press:

OKLAHOMA CITY — Atheists in Oklahoma City have erected a billboard seeking fellow non-believers, and Satanists have scheduled a conference in a city-owned building, drawing criticism from ministers in a state where more than eight out of 10 people say they are Christians.

“It’s not a question of ‘Can you?’ It’s a question of ‘Should you?’” said Dan Fisher, pastor of the Trinity Baptist Church in Yukon. “It’s kind of like they’re poking a finger in your eye.”

Nick Singer, the coordinator of a local atheists’ group called “Coalition of Reason,” recently received $5,250 from its national counterpart to erect the billboard along Interstate 44 near the Oklahoma State Fair, which opens Wednesday. Its message reads, “Don’t believe in God? Join the club.”

You get the message, don’t you? The God-fearing state of Oklahoma is up in arms over these developments, and maybe some people are. But I live in Oklahoma City — and I go to church here — and the only place I’ve heard anything about the atheists or the Satanists is on the news.

Reporters at the hometown level look for ways to “localize” a national story. For a national — make that, international — news organization such as AP, the goal is to “nationalize” a local story, which is wonderful. The problem is that cliches so easily overtake such stories. When I worked for AP in Dallas, the joke was that no story from Lubbock ever made it on the wire without a well-meaning editor in New York adding “dusty plains of West Texas.”

But to tackle specifics of the Oklahoma story: The lede mentions that eight of 10 people in the state say they are Christians. Wow. Then again, 78 percent of Americans identify with some form of Christianity, according to Gallup. That kind of context might be helpful.

Also helpful would be some kind of concrete information on the form — and level — of the criticism that the atheists and Satanists are drawing from Oklahoma ministers. Are ministers meeting to discuss a response? Is there any kind of formal opposition? Did the ministers approach AP? Or did AP call ministers trying to find critics? In other words, which came first — the AP call or the ministers’ concern (the first minister quoted serves a church 15 miles from the billboard)? To me, these are important details.

This is my favorite line of the whole story:

Oklahoma wears its religion on its sleeves.

Cliche, anyone?

Here’s how AP backs up that statement:

Around the holidays, owners of downtown skyscrapers leave on nighttime lights in the pattern of a cross, which across the flat landscape can be seen for miles. The Ten Commandments were on display at a courthouse lawn in northeast Oklahoma until a federal judge ordered it removed, and a move is afoot to erect a similar monument at the state Capitol.

Legislators pray in their chambers, led by a “minister of the day,” usually Christian. The Oklahoma City Thunder is one of the few NBA teams to begin each contest after a non-denominational prayer delivered by a minister on the public address system.

One state lawmaker wants to change the state’s motto from “Labor omnia vincit” — Latin for “Labor conquers all” — to “In God we trust.”

Oklahoma also has various “God” billboards that purport to pose questions and observations from the Almighty, like: “You think it’s hot here?” and “What part of ‘Thou shalt not …’ didn’t you understand?” and “Life is short. Eternity isn’t.”

All of that, I suppose, is true. But Oklahoma also has topless bars, more Indian gambling casinos than you can count and a fair number of cars parked in driveways on Sunday mornings — I see them as I drive through my neighborhood each week. However, those images don’t fit the story, I don’t guess.

Concerning the prayer at the Thunder games, I wonder if the prayers are Christian only or if the writer meant non-sectarian prayer instead of non-denominational prayer?

Speaking of cliches, there is one liberal pastor in Oklahoma City who stands above all others when it comes to commanding media attention. That pastor often is quoted as the voice of reason in stories like this. AP does not fail to deliver that pastor’s perspective:

Some religious leaders had other issues on their minds.

“It’s not the people who don’t believe in God that worry me,” said Robin Meyers, senior minister at Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City and a professor of rhetoric at Oklahoma City University. “It’s some of the people who do.

“Fundamentalism is the enemy worldwide, no matter what the strain.”

Am I suggesting that Oklahoma is not a right-leaning religious state? Not at all. Am I suggesting that atheists and Satanists are not a little off the beaten path in the ordinary narrative of Oklahoma religious life? Again, not at all.

But I am suggesting that a much better approach would be to go beyond the cliches and tell a fuller, more nuanced story. At a minimum, give me an idea how many atheists there are in Oklahoma, and Satanists too.

When you tell me the Satanists have reserved a room at the Oklahoma City Civic Center for a “blasphemy ritual,” tell me what that is. What does it involve? What is the religious — or non-religious — significance? (For a bit more coverage of the Satanists, ABC News and The Oklahoman report on the planned event.)

Speaking of religious significance, what does it mean that the atheists are taking an evangelical approach to winning converts?

I have no idea how much time the reporter involved had to write this story. I don’t know if it was his idea or a deadline request from an editor in New York. Perhaps it was one of those stories where the writer was told what it should say before he reported it. It certainly reads like it.

I did love the ending:

Singer, from the atheists’ group, said his group has no connection to the Satanists.

“As far as Satan goes, we don’t believe in him either,” he said.

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Got news? That new bishop from Baltimore

For the past week or so, I have been searching the website of The Baltimore Sun trying to figure out whether the editors there know anything about the existence of Father F. Richard Spencer.

So far, as best I can tell as a reader (and as a search-engine user), the answer appears to be, “No.”

This is a shame, since it appears that this Catholic priest from Baltimore is a really interesting fellow.

Also, in a few moments, he will be installed — the rite starts at 2 p.m., at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. — as the new auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese for U.S. Military Services. The office of Pope Benedict XVI made the announcement recently, which led to a major story in The Catholic Review, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

So, a local priest becomes a bishop. That’s a story.

A local priest who is a military chaplain becomes a bishop who continues to work with military chaplains, in an era in which military chaplains are increasingly controversial. That’s a story.

Then there is the issue of this chaplain’s performance under fire, on a Good Friday, no less. Here is the top of the Catholic Review story.

On one of the bloodiest days of the Iraq War — April 9, 2004 — Father F. Richard Spencer became the link between this world and the next for many of the mortally wounded.

Insurgents had attacked a large convoy of gas trucks that Good Friday, firing multiple mortar rounds at a United States base on the outskirts of Baghdad International Airport. Father Spencer, a U.S. Army military chaplain, administered the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and prayed with men and women whose faces wore what he remembered as glazed looks of shock and disbelief.

“In the moment, you do your prayers, then move to the next situation, because it’s continuous chaos,” said Father Spencer, then attached to the Army’s 1st Calvary Division.

“You just offered prayers that they would see the face of God that very day and you trust and hope,” he said. “We had both Iraqis and Americans die. I didn’t know who was Muslim or who was Christian — but they all got a prayer.”

Once Father Spencer and his soldiers made it into a concrete bomb shelter, he stood on a trash can and offered general absolution as the shelling continued.

“It was a life-changing day for me,” he remembered. “Our men and women in uniform are able to face hardships and they’re trained to make good decisions in the midst of chaos. Their resiliency is inspiring.”

So what happens now, for this Baltimore priest-turned-bishop? He’s going back to the front.

Remaining on active duty, the Alabama native will become the first auxiliary bishop for the U.S. military archdiocese able to enter war zones. He will have unprecedented access to military personnel serving in most difficult circumstances.

Sounds like a story to me. Especially in light of his role at the Pentagon in the wake of Sept. 11. That was in the Catholic newspaper story, too.

Let’s hope that the Sun has a reporter and photographer in route to the basilica, even as I type this.

I’ll check the newspaper, again, tomorrow.

Photo: The Catholic Review Online

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How not to cover a protest

Thousands of people demonstrated outside California’s state Capitol this past weekend. I assume — and, yes, I know how fraught with potential disaster that course of action can be — that The Associated Press didn’t consider the rally any big deal.

I base my assumption on the relatively short length of the AP story (450 words), the lameness of said story (read on for more details) and the fact that the story ran, as best as I can tell, only on the California state wire and did not move nationally.

My point is not that this story should have been big news. I don’t have enough facts or background to gauge the significance of such a rally in Sacramento. Rather, my point is more basic: If this event was deemed newsworthy — and apparently it was, since AP sent a reporter to it — then it deserved to be covered well. Unfortunately, this story falls short of that mark.

The top of the piece:

Thousands of Christian conservatives spent 12 hours Saturday praying and fasting in front of the state Capitol at a gathering organizers described as spiritual repentance “when there is no hope for a nation.”

The daylong religious event titled, “TheCall to Conscience,” was led by Lou Engle as well as other pastors and speakers to protest gay marriage, pornography and abortion. Many of those attending slapped red “Life” stickers over their shirts and set up blankets and folding chairs facing a large stage with banners that read: “Only One Hope God.”

People close to the front of the stage held up their hands when called to prayer. They jumped and danced to musical performances between sermons. The gathering filled the west lawn of the state Capitol and hundreds of people spilled into the next block, but the rest of Capitol Mall’s five-block-long lawn went unused despite large screens and barricades set up for the occasion.

Offering stations were set up throughout the area.

So many questions that go unanswered: How many thousands? Is it 2,000 or 15,000? What is meant by fasting in this case, and what is the spiritual significance? Could someone explain what is meant by spiritual repentance “when there is no hope for a nation?” Who (for readers who don’t recognize the name) is Lou Engle? (If I was in a really surly mood, I’d even ask: What’s a Christian conservative?)

It’s not awful, but the reference to people holding up their hands when called to prayer made me chuckle. Wonder if that’s ever happened before in an evangelical-leaning crowd? The jumping and dancing to musical performances between sermons, meanwhile, made me wonder how high they were jumping and what kind of dancing they were doing? What kind of music was playing? Bon Jovi or Mercy Me?

Sarcasm aside, how many people did organizers expect to show up? And how short of projections was the crowd, assuming it fell below expectations? These would appear to be actual journalistic questions that the reporter could have asked.

Finally, the vague “Offering stations were set up throughout the area” needs some sort of explanation, doesn’t it? Were they collecting money to pay the speakers and performers or to stage more protests?

In writing about the recent Glenn Beck rally in Washington, Tmatt posed this question: “Hey, what was said at the rallies?” Apparently, the AP staff in California didn’t bother reading that post because the Sacramento protest story doesn’t bother with any of that kind of minutia, relevant as it may be.

This is the first actual quote in the AP story:

Ken and Antoinette Rodrigues, who described themselves as born-again Christians, drove in from Fremont to attend Saturday’s rally after their daughter-in-law saw it over the Internet.

“It’s a little more blunt than I anticipated, not that I’m opposed to that, but the things they are speaking, it’s bold, very bold,” said Antoinette Rodrigues, 48. “But I feel that it’s very appropriate and timely.”

OK, let’s move past the fact that — out of thousands of demonstrators — the first people quoted apparently aren’t representative of the crowd as a whole. Let’s focus on what the quote actually says: It’s a little more blunt than I anticipated. What exactly is a little more blunt? The things they are speaking, it’s bold, very bold. What things are they speaking? (Oops, forgot, the story doesn’t include any of those.)

I could go on, but you get the point: It’s just that kind of useless, vague story. It’s almost as if the reporter goes through the motions rather than give serious treatment to the rally and the demonstrators.

For a much better, albeit not perfect, approach, the Sacramento Bee gave Page 1A prominence to the rally.

The Bee story tackles some of the specific questions asked above, interviews political analysts on what the rally means for California and even includes the perspective of protesters who rallied against the demonstration. Imagine that.

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Hindu-esque Orthodox Christian commuters?

It’s amazing how much information can be packed into a 950-word newspaper story — and how much can be assumed and left unsaid.

As Exhibit A, I present a New York Times local story on an Indian church’s colorful tribute to Mary:

WEST SAYVILLE, N.Y. — Without doubt, many more people line the sidewalks to see the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Manhattan than to watch the St. Mary Malankara Indian Orthodox Church’s annual Assumption Day Parade, which began here on Sunday with the usual blowing of the kumbu horn and the dancing of the koladi by the congregation’s teenage girls, dressed in saris and banging sticks.

But the Indians’ parade has its longtime devotees: neighborhood residents, mostly, who say they look forward to the procession because it is practically the only time when the people of the congregation venture outside, not counting getting in and out of their cars.

None of St. Mary’s 100 or so parishioners live in West Sayville, a predominantly white, middle-class community on Long Island’s South Shore where in the last few decades a surfeit of empty church buildings has attracted various religious communities on wheels.

Go ahead and read the whole story and help me understand what it’s about.

Is it:

1. A spot news report on an annual religious celebration?

2. A trend piece on a commuter church?

3. A feature on a Christian community with “Hindu-esque” traditions?

4. A report on the notion of “arranged marriages” among Indian families in the U.S.?

I exaggerate to make my point, which is that this story covers a lot of ground in less than 1,000 words. Too much ground, in my opinion, resulting in inadequate treatment of all of the above subjects. Reading this piece is like eating a bite each of beef, chicken, pork and fish. Everything on the menu has potential. But none of it fills you up.

Let’s start with the annual Assumption Day Parade. Horns are playing. Teenage girls are dancing. Parishioners are marching through the neighborhood. But why? What is the religious symbolism of these rites? What is the spiritual significance?

We’re told that Malankara Christians “hew closely to Orthodox Christian liturgy,” but there’s no explanation of what that means. Near the end of the story, the writer contrasts the Indian Orthodox church with the building’s former Dutch Reformed tenants:

The Indian Orthodox congregation, with its bells and drums, had taken over what was once an outpost of the strictest Calvinist worship.

That’s, apparently, a reference to early Calvinists eschewing the use of musical instruments and advocating a cappella psalmody in worship. Now, I’m no expert on Indian Orthodox or Calvinist theology, but that 22-word sentence seems to leave so many questions unanswered. The biggest one in my mind: Are Indians unique among Orthodox in using bells and drums? I thought most of the world’s Orthodox worshiped without instruments. (Help me out here, Tmatt.)

On to the story’s second theme: commuter churches. Way up high, there’s that reference to the parishioners venturing outside only to to get in and out of their cars — except for the parade. Then there’s this:

The Indian congregants drive in from Queens, Brooklyn, western Nassau County and even New Jersey and Staten Island, to worship in a former Dutch Reformed Church building they bought in 1992. Inside, they speak Malayalam, the dialect of the Indian province where most have their roots, and they worship according to an Orthodox Christian liturgy that traces its origins to the teachings of the apostle Thomas.

At an hour or more, their road time is longer than the average trip to church, but national surveys show that most Americans travel farther to religious services than they used to, just as they journey farther to work. Except for Orthodox Jews, who are required to do so, hardly anyone walks to a house of worship anymore — a shift in the landscape that may be best illustrated by the now-unimaginable tableau of Norman Rockwell’s 1953 work “Walking to Church.”

Norman Rockwell? That’s all interesting background. It just seems like a weird detour in a story whose headline focuses on the religious holiday and parade — and then gives short shrift to explaining both. Wouldn’t it be better to save the commuter church angle for a story without so many other questions begging for attention?

For instance, these two paragraphs could use some work:

In West Sayville, the congregation and its parade have assumed a mysterious, almost mythical status, despite the procession’s official permit and the three Suffolk County police cars assigned to traffic control.

“If you didn’t actually see this with your own eyes, and some people around here haven’t, you might think I was making it up,” said Christopher Bodkin, a local historian and a former town councilman. “I mean it is so rococo, wonderful, Hindu-esque, with the flower petals, the girls holding the decorative parasols — everything but the elephants.”

OK, the church and its parade are mysterious and almost mythical. They are Hindu-esque. Please do elaborate and explain how. Unfortunately, the story never does. But it does veer off into the question of arranged marriages by Indians.

Perhaps the strangest part of the entire story is how little input it provides from actual church members.

We hear from neighbors. We hear from a former pastor of the church that used the building previously. But unless I’m missing something, this is the extent of direct quotes from a church leader:

Varghese Poulos, one of the congregation’s founders, said church members originally met in a rented basement in Astoria, Queens. Every Sunday, it had to be completely furnished — from the portable altar to the folding chairs.

Finding out that there was an empty church for sale, even an hour’s drive away, was “like a miracle to us,” he said.

How do church leaders respond to the neighbors’ concerns about the church’s lack of involvement in the community? How do the Christian faith and Indian culture intermingle in this congregation’s beliefs and practices? Is there anything “Hindu-esque” about this church?

That silence you hear is the Times failing to enlighten readers on the church’s perspective on such questions.

IMAGE OF A LEADERSHIP TRAINING CAMP, via Web site of the Northeast American Diocese of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church.

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Oops, forgot the kitchen sink

An Associated Press story this week headlined “Lawmakers turn to faith leaders” has it all, and I don’t mean that as a compliment.

In a vague, strange way that makes you wonder if it’s a really slow news week in Washington, the AP pulls out a big ole “religion and politics” stewpot and throws in all this:

Senators turning to a chaplain during the 2008 presidential campaign. Religious advisers helping lawmakers sort out policy issues behind the scenes. Policymakers discussing confidential matters with priests and pastors at church. Catholic leaders criticizing politicians for supporting legal abortion. Senators who espouse faith not measuring up and having affairs with staffers. President Barack Obama taking his time finding a new minister after the furor over inflammatory comments by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

With all that strung together in a 1,040-word report, the world’s largest news organization manages to leave out a few key ingredients: A timely news peg. Comments from actual senators. Story cohesiveness. Any below-surface-level exploration of religion. And, oh yeah, the kitchen sink.

Here’s the top of the story:

WASHINGTON — When senators were tripping over one another to run for president in 2008, a number of them turned to a Senate adviser to discuss campaign challenges and opportunities. It didn’t matter that their opponents were talking to the same person.

Senate chaplain Barry Black heard about all the ups and downs: The senators were exhausted or elated, optimistic or downcast, worried about poll numbers, unsure whether to run.

Black would reframe their challenges in theological or philosophical terms and reassure them that “things are going to play out in the way God would want,” he said.

Since 1789, Black is the first African-American, the first Seventh-day Adventist and the first military chaplain to serve as chaplain of the U.S. Senate — all facts left out of the AP stew. Also missing from the stew: any identification of the senators who reportedly turned to Black during their 2008 presidential campaigns.

We do get this:

Faith leaders who were interviewed declined to identify the lawmakers whom they counsel, and several senators declined requests to discuss their faith for this story. More than a half-dozen senators flirted with or ran for president in 2008, Barack Obama among them.

That’s what you call reporter absolution: “Several” senators whose names we won’t bother to reveal wouldn’t talk to us, so we’re leaving out an important element of the story. But it’s not our fault.


Then again, the lede on this story takes an abrupt detour almost immediately. So the story really isn’t about Black, who is referenced only once more later in the piece. Rather, we get this nut graf (which is supposed to tell us what this story is about) right after the opening:

Year in and year out, campaign or no campaign, clergymen, rabbis and faith leaders in Washington serve as part adviser, friend, counselor or ear to legislators and other political figures. At times, some even play a behind-the-scenes role in influencing public policy and help legislators sort out conflicts between their faith and policy views.

Wow, faith advisers play a behind-the-scenes role! Interesting. I can’t wait to read specific examples of how religious leaders have influenced public policy and helped sort out conflicts between faith and policy views. Alas, please see my previous reference to the vague nature of this story. This story makes no attempt whatsoever to answer that question.

Instead, the piece zigs and zags through the laundry list of tangentially related items listed above, with no clear direction or purpose.

Even the sourcing of religious leaders quoted is curious.

We get the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, a former minister at Washington’s Foundry United Methodist Church. We don’t find out his present title or circumstances.

We get the Rev. Cletus Kiley, a former president of the Faith & Politics Institute. We don’t find out his present title or circumstances.

Other quotes are attributed to “Rev. Monsignor Charles Antonicelli, pastor at St. Joseph’s on Capitol Hill, as well as Rabbi Charles Feinberg of Adas Israel.” That’s the full extent of the description of St. Joseph’s and Adas Israel. Amazing.

My advice to AP: Pour out this awful pot of stew and start over.

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