Religion and the 1963 March on Washington

August 28 is the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. There’s a huge rally down at the Lincoln Memorial today and media coverage has been ramping up in preparation. One of the complaints we’ve gotten about that coverage is that it has oddly avoided mention of the religious component of the original march and of continued civil rights efforts. And that has been missing from some coverage.

But let’s look at some of the coverage that did cover that angle, and covered it well. First up is (friend of the blog) Hamil Harris’ piece in the Washington Post headlined “Civil Rights leaders lift up prayers marking March on Washington.”

I stole this picture from Harris’ twitter feed. He said of it that William Allison,92, came to the march with same sign in 1963.

The story is full of great quotes, including:

Rev. Kendrick E. Curry, pastor of the Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church, told the crowd of several hundreds that the “prayer and praise service grounds the 50th anniversary march so that it can become transformative.”

“ If we simply gather without the very rooting that the original march had, and the spirit that King had, then we are forever off course and out of order,” Curry said.

and:

Rev. Barbara Williams Skinner, co-chair of the National African American Clergy Network and a spiritual advisor to President Obama, gave the closing charge for the evening. She she said that it was important to remember that march began in a sanctuary.

“It suggests that prayer and worship was behind the civil rights movement,” Skinner said in an interview. “It was then and it is now. Without the power of God we won’t get anywhere, we won’t have voting rights… we won’t have anything that we are really seeking.”

Frequently reporters don’t include such religious language in stories about this and other mass efforts, even though people allude to and specifically reference their religious motivation. Kudos for simply reporting some of these powerful quotes.

While we’re looking at Post coverage, here’s an interesting essay by one of the original reporters who covered the march. It’s about how the paper was trying to get a story about some type of problem breaking out at the march. By focusing on that, it missed the major news of the day — the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But I couldn’t help but think it’s also about how much difficulty many media outlets continue to have about covering a march. Part of that is cultural — the coverage of early Tea Party protests was so tonally off as to be offensive — particularly the hungry efforts to find “problems” at the march. You didn’t see similar efforts at ideological protests from cultural bedfellows, such as the Colbert/Stewart rallies. But you can still sense the confusion and misguided efforts at covering massive annual pro-life marches. Perhaps the essay should be required reading in newsrooms. A snippet:

We were poised and ready for a riot, for trouble, for unexpected events — but not for history to be made.

My favorite religion news angle on the March anniversary events comes from Religion News Service. Adelle M. Banks and Corrie Raye Mitchell interviewed tons of participants in the march and Banks and Sally Morrow compiled photos and videos to make a fantastic multi-media presentation. It’s fun to just wander through the package, with interviews of:

 

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Sun sheds very little light on new linebacker’s faith

If you know anything about the Baltimore Ravens, then you probably know something about the complex legacy left behind by retired linebacker Ray Lewis, a sure fire first ballot Hall of Famer.

When it came to his religious beliefs, Lewis was loud and proud to the point of driving some fans a bit nuts. I think there were some local and national journalists who were tired of his God’s linebacker sermons, as well.

Anyway, Lewis has retired and one of the big stories going into the upcoming NFL season is who will try to take his place, both on the field and in the locker room. One of the team’s top draft picks was Kansas State University linebacker Arthur Brown, who is often described as soft-spoken. A recent piece by The Baltimore Sun also suggested that it’s impossible to understand what makes this young man tick without knowing something about his — wait for it — spiritual side.

Once again, the sort-of-God card was right there in the lede:

The uplifting sounds of gospel music provide Ravens rookie inside linebacker Arthur Brown a release from the grind of football.

The second-round draft pick from Kansas State is bespectacled and soft-spoken, cultivating a professorial look off the field as he frequently wears a tie, slacks and dress shoes. During his spare time, the 23-year-old can be found playing the piano or whipping up his favorite meal of salmon and sweet potatoes.

Brown’s personality away from the game, though, is a contrast to his aggressive nature on the field.

“If you don’t know Arthur and see him on the field, you would think he’s an absolute maniac,” said Ravens rookie outside linebacker Meshak Williams, Brown’s former Kansas State teammate. “Arthur is a good person, very spiritual and one of the best friends I ever had. When he plays football, he just changes his personality. He flies around and brings an intensity to the whole defense.”

So this young man is going to play gospel music in the locker room? Or he plays it at home? Also, note the suggestion that his piano skills allow him to perform as well as to listen. There’s more to this young man than a set of colorful headphones, in other words.

And, once again, remember that we are talking about the man who is trying — on multiple levels — to step into the shoes of Ray Lewis.

So it’s going to be pretty important for this story to nail down some actual facts about his religious beliefs, as opposed to settling for vague generalities. Right?

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Tampa Bay tear jerker: A ‘former’ Baptist pastor?

The following is a picky little post about a story that kind of got under my skin today. It’s a human-interest story that, on one level, is about sports.

But it’s not really a sports story. Please keep reading.

No, it’s a tear-jerker piece from The Tampa Bay Times about a dying man who is clearly a serious baseball fan and, to some degree, he is a serious Christian believer. Maybe. You can’t really tell.

This story is one or two words away from being a normal, clearly written news report. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why the Times team elected — in a crucial sentence of the story — to be so vague. Maybe it was just a mistake. Maybe someone just did take the story very seriously.

Here is the top of the story. Can you spot the vague word that got to me?

Harry Cummings sat in his wheelchair by the dugout and took it all in.

“Is that home plate?” asked the 80-year-old Spring Hill man who doctors say has only weeks left to live. “It doesn’t look that far from here to hit a home run.”

Cummings is dying from kidney cancer. The former Baptist preacher says he is ready to go when God is ready to take him. But Sunday he had some living to do, thanks to grandson Jeremy Via and the Tampa Bay Rays, who arranged for a pregame tour and meet-and-greet with players.

Yes, I am the son of a Southern Baptist pastor. My dad was a Baptist preacher until the moment he died.

What, precisely, is a “former” Baptist preacher?

I have known some ex-Baptist preachers. They were former Baptist preachers. The implication is that they either left the ministry, left the faith, joined another faith or some combination of the above.

Of course, I have known many, many retired Baptist preachers. They are still Baptist preachers, even if they have left full-time work in a church.

The point is that they are not “former” Baptist preachers.

So what is Cummings? Is he an ex-Baptist preacher or a retired Baptist preacher?

The story never tell us. The copy desk used the one word that really doesn’t work. Why?

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Snickering at FoxNews while getting duped by ‘Zealot’ author

Many of us who came of age during the birth of New Media are reflexively defensive about the medium’s journalistic credibility. We defy the outdated notion that real journalism is printed on paper or broadcast on TV screen. Quality journalism is as likely to be found on a blog as in a newspaper or in a web video as on a cable news channel.

At least that’s the theory.

The reality is that much of what passes for journalism on the Internet is substandard. A prime example can be found in both an interview on FoxNews.com online show Spirited Debate and the New Media responses to it.

Before we get to a clip of the show, let’s look at some of the reactions. The Atlantic Wire says the “whole ordeal was embarrassing for Fox News” while Buzzfeed called it “The Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done.” “This Fox interview with Reza Aslan is absolutely demented (& he handled it with remarkable calm)” said The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum on Twitter. Wired’’s Steve Silberman called the interview “embarrassing” and Digg editorial director David Weiner said, “Please, please watch this if you haven’t yet. It’s amazing.”

These critics are right about the interview — it is a mess. But while these New Media journalists were snickering at FoxNews.com, they failed to notice that the person being interviewed was pulling one over on them by getting away with misrepresenting his credentials.

Here is a representative clip from the segment.

The first question by host Lauren Green on why a Muslim would want to write about Jesus isn’t as out of line as the Fox critics seem to think. It’s a fair question — a softball question — that allows the interviewee to explain away any apparent bias. But Green should have moved on after asking it and not made Aslan’s religious background the primary focus of the interview. More importantly, if she had been better prepared she could have called Aslan out for at least one blatant and seemingly undeniable untruth.

After being asked the first question by Green, Aslan responds:

Well, to be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, and fluency in biblical Greek, who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades, who also just happens to be a Muslim. So it’s not that I’m just some Muslim writing about Jesus I am an expert with a PhD in the history of religions.” Later in the video he says it’s his job as a “professor of religion including the New Testament. That’s what I do for a living, actually.” And to make sure we get the point, he later adds, “I am a historian. I am a PhD in the history of religions.

At this point, Green should have stopped him and asked him to clarify since he appears to be misrepresenting his credentials.

For starters, he does not have a PhD in the history of religions. Aslan has four degrees: a Bachelors of Religious Studies from Santa Clara University; a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School; a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Iowa; and a PhD in sociology of religions from the University of California, Santa Barbara (his dissertation was on “Global Jihadism: a transnational social movement”).

Why would Aslan claim he has a PhD in history when his degree is in sociology? Does he not understand the difference between the two fields of study?

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NPR’s curiously biased quest for the historical Jesus

Did you know that Jesus wasn’t really God? Despite what his disciples claim, he never believed he was the Messiah, much less God incarnate. He was a merely a Jewish revolutionary that was crucified by the Roman Empire and later deified (quite literally) by people who really didn’t know him.

That’s not a new claim, of course, but it’s getting new attention because of a new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan. Many media outlets have covered the book or interviewed the author. But one of the most peculiar is an interview by Terry Gross on NPR:

Writer and scholar Reza Aslan was 15 years old when he found Jesus. His secular Muslim family had fled to the U.S. from Iran, and Aslan’s conversion was, in a sense, an adolescent’s attempt to fit into American life and culture. “My parents were certainly surprised,” Aslan tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross.

As Aslan got older, he began his studies in the history of Christianity, and he started to lose faith. He came to the realization that Jesus of Nazareth was quite different from the Messiah he’d been introduced to at church. “I became very angry,” he says. “I became resentful. I turned away from Christianity. I began to really reject the concept of Christ.”

But Aslan continued his Christian scholarship, and he found that he was increasingly interested in Jesus as a historical figure. The result is his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth — a historical look at Jesus in the context of his time and Jewish religion, and against the backdrop of the Roman Empire.

From that introduction you might get the impression that Aslan is a historian and an unbeliever, probably an agnostic or atheist. So you might be surprised to hear that Aslan is a devout Muslim and a professor of creative writing at University of California at Riverside. While Aslan has a PhD in sociology of religions, he is not a trained historian. Rather than a work of “Christian scholarship” the book is merely one Muslim’s opinion about the historical figure of Jesus.

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About those steroid whispers and slugger Chris Davis

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If you have been following major-league baseball this year, then you probably know a little bit about Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis, the guy with 37 home runs at the All-Star Game break. If you wish, you can check him out tonight in the All-Star Home Run Derby (while pondering the question of whether Texas Ranger fanatic Bobby Ross Jr., will cheer for Davis or against him).

Now, here are a few basic facts that are highly relevant to the Twitter trouble that surrounds “Crush” Davis.

Davis is 6-foot-3-inches tall and weighs about 230 pounds. Those numbers have been roughly the same during his years in the minor and major leagues and, throughout that time, he has been known as a guy who could hit the ball about 450 feet without working up a sweat, while striking out at an even more rapid clip. He has always been a high contact-to-damage-ratio guy.

There are reports that Davis came into camp this year 10 to 15 pounds lighter and it certainly appears that he has improved his speed on the base paths, as well as his ability to hit baseballs that are pitched down and away. He has, as a left-handed hitter, developed quite a knack for hitting opposite-field golf shots (as opposed to monster blasts) into the first few rows in the stands. He is no longer trying to tear the cover off the ball during each and every at bat. His strike outs are way down and he’s batting .315.

What does this have to do with religion?

Actually, these are the kinds of numbers that matter when a slugger is being accused of using steroids. It is rare, you see, for people to lose weight and gain speed while using steroids that allow them to hit moon shots.

The religion angle — tune in any Baltimore talk-radio station or hit Twitter — is that @ChrisDavis_19 is a Christian who, especially since he got married a year or so ago, has become quite outspoken about his faith and even the possibility that he could end up working in some form of ministry.

Religion and steroid chatter? That’s a volatile mix.

As a Baltimore guy who closely follows the Orioles, I find it interesting that the religion angle of this story is EVERYWHERE when it’s addressed by the public, yet the key news story addressing this topic in The Baltimore Sun did not include any references to faith. Is Davis lying? Is his faith a sham? If one assumes that he is using PEDs, and some people do, then this would also mean that this born-again slugger is a hypocrite or worse.

It’s impossible to separate these issues. Right? However, The Sun team managed to completely skip the religion angle. Here’s the opening of that story:

Orioles first baseman Chris Davis understands that there are going to be whispers, and that those will grow louder if he continues his torrid home run pace.

He is, after all, a muscle-rippling power hitter with video-game home run totals. He knows the steroid accusations are inevitable and will accompany his pursuit of home run records this season.

“I think it sucks that guys in our day and age have to answer for mistakes that guys have made in the past. But it is part of it,” said Davis, who has 33 home runs in his first 92 games for the Orioles this season. “That’s what happened when Major League Baseball started addressing the issue. We knew we were going to have to deal with it.”

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Brittany Griner: ESPN gets close to key question

Truth be told, I still think that the question I asked a few weeks ago remains one of the most interesting questions one can ask about that big story that keeps unfolding down in Waco: “So, how did Brittney Griner end up at Baylor?”

That’s an interesting question for Griner.

That’s an interesting question for Griner’s parents and her wider family.

That’s an interesting question in terms of gossip about national-level hoops recruiting.

That’s an interesting question in terms of Baylor University’s standing as a Baptist institution that prominently promotes its stance as a Christian campus.

You just knew that, after Griner announced that she is a lesbian, this story was going to have long news legs. The latest story from ESPN raises a few interesting questions and at least acknowledges a key document in the situation.

Still, the heart of the story remains something that has not yet been proven — that Griner actively opposed how Baylor, and perhaps her own family, handled her emerging stance as a gay woman. Here is the top of the story:

Former Baylor women’s basketball star Brittney Griner says that Kim Mulkey, her college head coach, told players not to be open publicly about their sexuality because it would hurt recruiting and look bad for the program.

“It was a recruiting thing,” Griner said during an interview with ESPN The Magazine and espnW. “The coaches thought that if it seemed like they condoned it, people wouldn’t let their kids come play for Baylor.”

Griner, now preparing for her first WNBA season with the Phoenix Mercury, casually acknowledged she was gay during interviews with USA Today and with SI.com last month, when she referred to herself as “someone who has always been open.” Griner said she had been open about her sexuality with family and friends since she was a freshman at Nimitz High School, in Houston.

Well, the truth — of course — is that Baylor does not condone sexual activity outside of marriage and, thus, from the point of view of traditional Christian faith, does not condone gay sexual activity.

Now, Griner is quoting saying that it was an “unwritten law” not to TALK about sexual orientation. That’s a key issue from the point of view of public relations, recruiting (in all forms) for the university, etc., etc.

That is an issue of image and it’s certainly true that Baylor could come off looking badly, when it comes to demanding, or at least urging, Griner to keep silent. It would be interesting to know if her family played some role in that, too. After all, Griner told Baylor coaches she was gay during the recruiting process. It’s clear that they reached some kind of agreement.

Once again, there’s that question: How did the nation’s No. 1 recruit end up in Waco?

Anyway, Baylor’s stance on sexual ethics is in writing and, to its credit, the ESPN team goes to the source.

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Victoria’s Secret is way sexier than faith details

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At first glance, the current mini-wave of news coverage of former underwear model Kylie Bisutti is nothing more than a chance — in this search-engine-driven world in which we live — to slide the mouse-click friendly terms “God” and “Victoria’s Secret” into the same headline.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

On closer inspection (no, honest), this is actually a story that asks journalists the mainstream media to cover three surprisingly serious subjects.

First of all, it’s about a young woman’s second thoughts about the ethics, including moral and health concerns, of working in the racier corners of the fashion industry. Second, it’s about her realization that she was playing a starring role in a mass-media culture that teaches young girls to view their bodies as hot commodities. Third, there is a strong religious component to this story, since she began to worry about the impact of her risque modeling gigs on her marriage and her faith.

All of this led to the publication of an overtly Christian book entitled “I’m No Angel,” by a major evangelical publishing house.

Now, does anyone want to take a guess which of these three subjects seems to be receiving the least attention — in terms of information reported — from the mainstream press? Here is a hint: It’s the “why” in that old-school “who, what, when, where, why and how” journalism formula.

Surprise.

However, God did make it into the lede, and the video feature, in this Huffington Post mini-story. Just to be fair, here is the whole report:

Former Victoria’s Secret model Kylie Bisutti stopped by HuffPost Live Wednesday and opened up about her decision to quit modeling to protect her marriage and her relationship with God.

Bisutti told host Alicia Menendez that while her husband never asked her to stop modeling, she did feel that her flirtatious model persona hurt his feelings.

“He did not [ask me to stop modeling], he was very supportive. He just prayed, and his prayers have been answered,” Bisutti said.

She also said that God spoke to her during her modeling career, telling her to leave the industry because she “wasn’t being the right kind of role model.”

Details? That’s not what this story is about, is it?

Over at The Daily Beast, the first and second subjects received pretty serious attention. Also, it’s significant that the biblical contents of her kiss-off tweet made it — sort of — into the lede:

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