Ann B. Davis: True heroine of alternative families?

My recent GetReligion piece on the life and ministry of actress Ann B. Davis, a friend from Denver days, rang up some pretty good social media numbers (thank you readers and Twitter fanatics). As a result, I heard from quite a few folks reacting to the mainstream media coverage of her death.

I think this is a commentary on her fame via The Brady Bunch. No doubt about that. However, I also think that — because of decades of activity in events nationwide linked to the Charismatic Renewal Movement (a very ecumenical and far-flung body of believers) — Ann B. had also actually met thousands of people face to face who in some truly personal way felt a human connection there.

I think it’s safe to lump these reader comments into two camps. Those dealing with print sources felt that these reports minimized the role that faith played in Davis’ life and didn’t seem to understand the fine details. But at least the faith was there. Meanwhile, the mainstream television reports were — people said over and over — all but completely faith free.

Then there was this strange piece in Time.

I mention it for a very simple reason: It is a perfect example of the kind of material that is being published today in publications that consumers think of as news products, yet most of their contents have little or nothing to do with news. Instead, they are works of basic commentary.

Thus, consider this piece with the headline epic double-decker headline:

Somehow Forming a Family: Why We Loved The Brady Bunch‘s Alice

Played by Ann B. Davis, who died over the weekend, Alice represented something that was becoming familiar in people’s complicated lives if not on TV: the non-parent parent.

While this is billed as an “appreciation” of Davis, the piece actually is not about Davis at all (the Time video is, in fact, a mini-profile). Instead, it is about a writer’s personal opinions about the importance of Davis and her “Alice” persona. Honestly, search the piece for actual information about the facts of her life. Here is a sample passage:

… (Alice) connected with a change that, in the early ’70s, was emerging in American families, in which figures other than two parents were central in kids’ lives.

Like a lot of childhood TV memories, The Brady Bunch is loved not so much for its artistry as for its emotional connections. The Brady family was big, it was blended, and it felt like there was room for everyone. Putting two families together on TV was unusual at the time, and it spoke to the number of kids who recognized divorce and remarriage from their own lives. Yes, Mike was a widower, and Carol’s status was never clarified — a compromise after Sherwood Schwartz wanted her to be a divorcée — but anyone watching knew what the show was really depicting. It turned something commonly depicted as tragedy into a triumph — a family coming together by choice.

And also, at the end:

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Memory eternal: The life and quiet ministry of ‘Ann B.’

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One of the complicated subjects that religion-beat professionals talk about behind the scenes, if they are themselves religious believers, is how to pick out a safe congregation to join in the city that they are covering. The goal is to find a good one, but not one that has a history of making news.

During my Rocky Mountain News days, for example, my family joined what I thought was a nice safe, rather low-key parish near downtown (at this stage in our pilgrimage we were evangelical Anglicans). Lo and behold, the priest promptly became active in ministry to urban teens and gang members. Go figure.

That parish also put me in the path of a major news complication. Before long, one of my closest friends in the parish was a young man who was a leader at the local St. Francis Center for the homeless. On top of that, he was the son of one of the state’s major newsmakers, the charismatic (in multiple senses of the word) Bishop William C. Frey, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado. I immediately told my editors and then met with the bishop to establish ground rules for contacts with his family which were acceptable to him, to me and to my editors. I will leave the details private, but it helped that the bishop was not the kind of man who ducked questions.

Why bring this up?

You see, over the years several branches of the Frey family tree lived in a rambling old home in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood at one time or another, along with a wide variety of other interesting families and individuals. If you went over to watch a Denver Broncos game with one of the Frey sons and his family, that meant the bishop was probably going to there too, most of the time.

Members of this household community — think small commune — shared most finances, cleaning duties, cooking, etc., etc. This kind of idealistic arrangement was actually not that unusual in the era in which charismatic renewal swept through many mainline Protestant bodies, and Catholicism as well. There were many wonderful households of this kind and a few with dark sides (See the amazing Julia Duin book — “Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community” — about one terrible fall in Houston).

One member of the Denver community kept her Emmy Awards in the household’s television room, where they served as bookends high up on some shelves. She wasn’t very good at cooking (tacos were her norm) and she admitted that she struggled a bit with childcare. Her name, of course, was Ann B. Davis and over the years she became a friend, too.

The woman millions thought of as “Alice” was far more than her character on The Brady Bunch, or her trailblazing “Schultzy” character on “The Bob Cummings Show.” She was the kind of person that, after the conversion experience that turned her life upside down, would spend her days hidden in the back of that homeless center quietly doing laundry or sorting through donated clothes. You should have heard her cackle when she finally managed to make stray socks match.

Now Ann B. is gone at age 88. Needless to say, I have found it interesting to read the short passages in the major media obituaries that have tried to deal with the Christian content in her life story.

I think the best overall piece I have seen, so far, was in The Los Angeles Times. For example, readers were first given this short bit of information:

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What he said! Yes, Hollywood wants more Christian $$$$

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In this morning’s email newsletter from the folks at Religion News Service, editor Kevin Eckstrom raised his eyebrow high (no, honest, you can sense it in the copy) and quipped:

Pretty sure we’ve seen about 5,429 versions of this story already.

Right. We get it. Hollywood is trying to lure Christian audiences to the cineplex. Again. Meanwhile, it other news …

Well, “this story” was the new feature in The Los Angeles Times that ran under an oh-so-predictable double-decker headline that proclaimed:

Hollywood tries to win Christians’ faith

With the box-office success of ‘Son of God,’ ‘God’s Not Dead’ and the controversial ‘Noah,’ more faith-based movies are in the works. But experts warn not to treat Christians as a monolithic audience.

Now, the only part of Eckstrom’s quip that I question is that very precise number — 5,429.

Don’t get me wrong, he may have done the hard work online and in LexisNexis and come up with a list of 5,429 previous urgent mainstream news reports ever since 1965 (I picked that date because of the breakthrough release of “The Sound of Music” that sent legions of evangelicals rushing to theaters to see a movie about a nun) describing the various ways Hollywood producers have tried to understand the Christian audience and get it to show up on cue.

I don’t doubt that there have been that many stories. Trust me on that.

Still, I sent Eckstrom this email reply in which I focused on a more symbolic total.

I was going to say 666 versions of that story and just let it go at that.

But one more time, let’s roll out the epic language for the obvious:

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The final days march past: Was there any news in Lent 2014?

Let’s face it folks. There is a very real possibility that this posts exists as a rather flimsy excuse to post this wonderfully ironic Baton Rouge, La., photograph sent by a witty priest to Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher.

Now Lent is almost over, so it’s now or never.

Actually, this photo does symbolize a question — a journalistic question, actually — that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit during Great Lent this year: Do mainstream journalists realize that there is more to Lent than food?

I mean, the U.S. Catholic bishops have in recent years put quite a bit of effort into a public campaign to promote — following ages and ages of tradition — the importance of believers going to Confession during the season of Lent. I kind of expected that this the “light is still on” effort might get more press attention this time around, especially after the media-storm called Pope Francis did a daring thing the other day by choosing to go to Confession in clear view of the world.

So take a look at a Google News search for “Catholics,” “Lent,” “Confession” and “light on.”

Not much, right?

So we’re back to food.

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Pope Francis doesn’t always sound like Mr. Nice Guy

Dear reporters:

You’re full of you-know-what.

Sincerely, Pope Francis

Not quite the missal you’d expect from the man who enjoys the media-crafted image of a mild, friendly, non-judgmental granddaddy. But there’s another side to Pope Francis.

Like when he described journalists in vivid terms:

“Sometimes negative news does come out, but it is often exaggerated and manipulated to spread scandal. Journalists sometimes risk becoming ill from coprophilia and thus fomenting coprophagia, which is a sin that taints all men and women, that is, the tendency to focus on the negative rather than the positive aspects.”

Coprophilia? Coprophagia?

Yep, they are real words, and not nice ones. The first is a love of feces. The second is consuming it. So in the Holy Father’s eyes, journalists tend to love the stuff.

This picture of a potty-mouthed pope is a far cry from the benign view of Francis pushed in much of the media, as Laurence England says on CNN. He notes that writers often contrast the nice-guy Francis with his “mean-spirited, judgmental and arrogant predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.”

England, for one, finds those caricatures “laughable”:

[Benedict] was ever the gentleman. Even his criticisms of trends in modern society that run contrary to the church’s teachings on life, marriage and the family were delivered in courteous language.

And when Benedict did say something likely to be deemed offensive, he was often extremely careful about the way in which he said it.

In fact, he was much more careful not to offend than his successor on the throne of St. Peter.

Only recently have some stories come to grips with the reality of a sharp-tongued pontiff. “The pope is actually the vicar of snark,” says a well-researched story in The Week. Like England’s piece, The Week says Pope Benedict XVI was nicer than his public image, and Francis is not quite as nice:

Pope Benedict was a warm and often misunderstood scholar … Even when much of what he offers is criticism, it comes with a light and inviting touch.

The unnoticed part of the “new tone” in the church is that Francis is practically an insult comic. Where Benedict sought to condemn errors in the abstract, Pope Francis makes it personal and attacks tendencies within certain groups of people, usually in highly stylized papal idioms.

Those “papal idioms” can sound abstract, as The Week notes. People won’t get their backs up at insults like “Pelagians” or “Christians of words” or “querulous and disillusioned pessimists.”

Probably not, but Laurence England found more common invective among Francis’ quotes:

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It’s 5 o’clock somewhere: hymns and happy hour?

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“Beer with Jesus” might have fallen off the country music charts, but the trend has legs — er, foam — apparently.

You may remember the other half of our resident husband-wife team, GetReligionista Bobby Ross Jr., writing a post in November on the subject.  In summary, he looked at reports on churches offering services in pubs and bars and the successes and failures in each.

We have a new twist to the story now, and it comes to us from the country music capital of the world, Nashville Tenn. It also involves music, but not of the hometown variety.

The Tennessean invites us to pull up a barstool and join the Beer and Hymn Sing Group in this report:

They don’t talk doctrine. There’s no prayer or Bible study.

Once a quarter, they pack the dark upstairs bar at MadDonna’s in East Nashville to sing centuries-old favorites. The last one kicked off with “Amazing Grace,” ended with “Go Now in Peace” and featured classics such as “How Great Thou Art” in between.

The organizer, Geoff Little, said he got the idea from seeing soccer fans in London and Dublin pubs switch seamlessly from singing fight songs to singing “Be Thou My Vision.” He believed it would be a way to draw Generation X and Y friends to a religious gathering outside the classic venues for those.

“Why was Christ’s first miracle to be the ultimate bartender? Jesus was interested in celebration,” said Little, a member of Downtown Presbyterian Church. “We separate being human from being spiritual all too easily in Nashville.”

This story isn’t just throwing one back with the regulars. It does justice to all sides, including religious experts, historians and visitors who drink nothing stronger than Diet Coke. We’re also invited to explore the Bible for Scripture related to drinking and consider the temptations of excess imbibing.

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A God-decided Super Bowl? 70 million Americans say yes

Super Bowl XLVIII is just two weeks away. And if The Huffington Post is to be believed, a huge number of folks are about to hit their knees. Not in a line stance, mind you, but in prayer.

HuffPo’s top religion story today claims “Half of Americans Say God Plays A Role In Super Bowl Winner: Survey.” (We have to throw a flag here with headline and story agreement, incidentally, as the U.S. population is estimated at 314 million, and the story alludes to 140 million sports fans. Penalty declined. Now let’s move forward with the game.)

How can you not click on that headline? I mean, who isn’t ready for some God-decided football. I, for one, think it would be a nice change from the referees deciding the outcome.

We have a poll, folks. A survey from Public Religion Research Institute indicates that millions of my neighbors, near and far, think the Almighty chooses which team gets the trophy.

“As Americans tune in to the Super Bowl this year, fully half of fans — as many as 70 million Americans — believe there may be a twelfth man on the field influencing the outcome,” Public Religion Research Institute CEO Robert Jones said in a statement. “Significant numbers of American sports fans believe in invoking assistance from God on behalf of their favorite team, or believe the divine may be playing out its own purpose in the game.”

Football fans … pray for their own teams to win, with 33 percent saying they ask God to intervene in games, compared to 21 percent of fans of other sports.

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Pondering duck doctrines and our bubble-bound media elite

Let’s see. Where should we begin on this oh-so-bizarre morning?

What will it be, Pope Francis, Santa Claus or Duck Dynasty?

Pope Francis, Santa Claus or Duck Dynasty? As my favorite French History professor at Baylor University used to say, with a world-weary and exasperated sigh: “What a world.”

First, let me offer a few relevant confessions on my part.

I would like to echo the following Twitter comment by one of the scribes who often hangs out in my favorite coffee shop here in our neighborhood on Capitol Hill. Yes, this man is a bit of an elite Yankee, but he is what he is. Ross Douthat works for The New York Times. So, sue him.

I’m good to go with all of that, except for the “Merry Christmas” reference — since we are still in Advent, after all. Douthat must be one of those post-Vatican II Catholics (just kidding).

Another confession: I have never watched a single episode of “Duck Dynasty,” although I have tried to do so several times. It’s just not my style. Frankly, when it comes to the masculine virtues I favor Jane Austen’s Captain Frederick Wentworth over the the guys in the duck crew. I also lived in the mountains of Tennessee for six years (and plan to live there again someday) and I’ve never even watched a NASCAR race on television. I do, however, like barbecue. A lot. I also like ZZ Top and Eastern Orthodox bishops, so I’m OK with the beards.

There, I needed to get all of that off my chest. Now, I can confess that there is one element of the Duck Dynasty media storm that fascinates me.

Let’s try, for a minute, to ignore duck patriarch Phil Robertson’s reflections on genitalia — although I rather think that if he had rapped that stuff with a strong backbeat, it would have viewed as a kind of elderly Eminem thing. You know, Eminem has to keep his street cred. Elite media folks from places like Harvard and Yale tend to respect street cred way more than they do swamp cred.

No, I want to join the once and always GetReligionista M.Z. Hemingway in thinking that the key to this particular duck blind spot is found in this chunk of Robertson GQ prose:

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