Working on 5Q+1 (Post No. 2,000)

Face of RPI   question markMay I have your attention please. According to the software we use around here, this is the 2,000th post in the nearly three years since Doug LeBlanc and I opened the cyber-doors here at GetReligion.

Actually, there have been a few posts that one of us started and never finished and it’s hard to know how those numbers figure into the count. And, back in the TypePad days, we had a little feature on the sidebar called “Short Takes” and all of those posts vanished when we went to WordPress. So who knows how many posts we have actually written.

However, this is the 2,000th post stored on the site, so I thought I’d mention this little landmark.

That’s a lot of writing and it’s been fun, interesting (at least for us) and, at times, a little frustrating. The busy journalists involved in this site wish that we could do much more than we do. And we are always trying to make improvements and we hope to make a few more around Feb. 1, our third birthday. We’re working with the folks at Pierpoint Design to try to freshen up our front page.

Also, we are going to create a semi-regular feature for the blog that we will call 5Q+1. The whole idea is that one of us will call up a journalist — either a Godbeat specialist or someone whose mainstream work frequently involves religious issues — and ask them a set of five standard questions.

Some of the people we call — or email — will be folks that we already know read GetReligion. But sometimes we’ll call people that we hope read the blog or might be willing to look it over and then talk to us. We hope that, once we get started with this, readers will suggest people for us to feature.

So what should we ask them? The Rt. Rev. LeBlanc and I had a chance to meet for lunch last week on Capitol Hill and here’s our rough draft of five basic questions.

(1) Where do you like to get your news about religion?

(2) What do you think is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just don’t get?

(3) What is the story that you’ll be watching carefully in the next year or two?

(4) Why is it important to understand the role of religion in our world today?

(5) What’s the funniest, most ironic twist that you’ve seen in a religion news story lately?

And the +1 element of the list is an opportunity for each journalist to say something to us, with a kind of “What’s going on?” wildcard question.

(6) Is there anything else that you’d like to say about religion and the news?

So there we go. Any suggestions for who we ought to talk to first? I already have a candidate, of course, and I’m trying to reach this journalist at the moment.

But what suggestions do you have for the wording on these questions? Does anyone have a totally different question you want to suggest? It goes without saying that the Divine Mrs. MZ and young master Daniel will have plenty of input, and so will the head hauncho at the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life, the Rev. Dr. Editor Arne Fjeldstad.

So what do you think?

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Pardon my French-Canadian

profanity mugI wish all newspapers had foreign correspondents. They’re such a throwback to pre-globalization, when you had to trust the eyes and ears of a lone fellow countryman in a far-off land.

Even though the Web has broken down many of the language, cultural and physical boundaries in the world, we still rely on them for their insightful analysis. And in exchange we get overly broad characterizations of complex societies. But what are you going to do?

Earlier this week Doug Struck, a Washington Post correspondent in Montreal, had a fascinating piece on Quebecois linguistics. Turns out that the terminology of choice when expressing profanity is religious:

English-speaking Canadians use profanities that would be well understood in the United States, many of them scatological or sexual terms. But the Quebecois prefer to turn to religion when they are mad. They adopt commonplace Catholic terms — and often creative permutations of them — for swearing.

In doing so, their oaths speak volumes about the history of this French province.

“When you get mad, you look for words that attack what represses you,” said Louise Lamarre, a Montreal cinematographer who must tread lightly around the language, depending on whether her films are in French or English. “In America, you are so Puritan that the swearing is mostly about sex. Here, since we were repressed so long by the church, people use religious terms.”

The story is fascinating, if you can stomach many quotes from people like Lamarre. One linguistics professor says taboo words relate to Christ, Communion wafers, vestments and elements of the altar. It all ties back to oppression from the Roman Catholic church, the article says.

The Catholic Church was overwhelmingly dominant in Quebec from early in the province’s history — England’s King George III gave the French Catholic clergy enormous power in 1774, in part to counter the growing American insurgency to the south. In the “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s, Quebecers rebelled. They “just stopped going to church one Sunday,” as Lamarre put it.

It’s a great idea for an article, and nicely written. But for those of us who are ignorant of Quebec’s history, a bit more perspective is in order. Let’s throw in a few more sources as well. I’ve heard of the Quiet Revolution, but I could use a few quick words on what exactly is the nature of the rift between the church and the Quebecois.

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More Passion Playbook pages

9732 posterIn the past year or so, there has been all kinds of mainstream coverage — like this and especially this — of Hollywood professionals trying to find out how, in the post-Passion-earthquake world, to market mainstream movies to the so-called “Christian market.” This story has actually been out there for quite some time, but it still seems to be hot.

The other day I put up a post in reaction to a Variety piece that claimed that many L.A. players were actually following a “Passion Playbook” that offered the hot marketing tips to ring that faith-based bell at the box office.

With a wink, I said I’d be interested in someone leaking me a copy. Not long after that, after reading a bunch more and interviewing the producers of The Nativity Story, I actually took a stab — in my usual 666 words or so — at writing out a few of the playbook suggestions in a column for Scripps Howard News Service. Here’s a short look at that:

• Seek the input of historians, theologians and clergy early and often and try, try, try to nail the details. Most of all, find out how to avoid making mistakes …

• Make the story the star. In the case of the Passion, it helped that director Mel Gibson was an A-list superstar who — while already controversial in Hollywood — had made numerous films that were popular in middle America. Still, he did not cast familiar faces …

• Court the core Christian audience to create buzz that will reach pulpits and pews. Let test audiences in strategic Bible Belt markets see early versions of the film and listen to the feedback. Hire publicists who understand what sings in the parallel universe of Christian media …

• It helps if the creative team includes Hollywood professionals who are sincerely motivated to reach the “faith-based audience.”

• Remember that religious consumers like quality entertainment, but prefer not to be offended when they grab their popcorn.

I knew that the marketing reports that are out there were much larger than my little list. I’d still love to see one of these playbooks.

However, a friend of mine — Mark Joseph of the MJM Group — decided that people needed to know more of what was in the actual “Passion Playbook,” as in the strategies that were discussed among the people who actually worked with Mel Gibson on that project. It helps that Mark was one of those folks.

Thus, Joseph produced a piece the other day for Fox News that includes a few of points that I made, but adds many more. If you are a reporter who is interested in this subject and might write about it anytime soon, you may want to save this link. You’ll see that Joseph stresses certain points over what people told me. There is, in fact, no magic button you push — just as there is no magic “Hispanic market” button or “gay market” formula.

Here’s a hint at what Joseph has to say, in the wake of the early numbers for The Nativity Story:

… (To) paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen: I knew “The Passion” … and “The Nativity” is no “Passion.”

To be sure, there is indeed a “Passion” playbook, which unfortunately has not been followed since it rocked the box office in 2004. For Hollywood executives who seem to have learned many of the wrong lessons and ignored most of the right ones, here is the real “Passion” playbook, which if followed correctly is guaranteed to produce box office magic.

1) Have a major star associated with the project. Mel Gibson may only have been the director, but he was the player in the “Passion” saga. Media and the interest of the American public nearly always revolve around a person. …

2) Whenever possible, choose a story that is already well-known and loved. That way, you won’t have to spend months educating the public about who the character is or what the story is about. …

3) Spend some money on the production. Gibson spent $25 million. That’s good. People, even deeply religious people, want to see that real money has been spent on a film. There are exceptions to this. “Facing The Giants,” for example, was made for $100,000 and earned $10 million. In general, however, the faithful are sick of being condescended to with low-budget schlock.

4) Spend at least a year taking the film around the country to as many leaders of as many groups as possible. Studios are famous for refusing to show a film until just before it’s released, but news travels at a much slower speed in faith-oriented circles.

There’s a lot more in his 10-plus commandments. Clip and save.

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Where is the news hook?

Barbless Hook2Buried in the back of the local section of the Sunday Washington Post was this short story about a religious service at the Fairfax (Va.) Adult Detention Center. It’s a rather random story, and the Post has been doing more of them lately (check out this one from Sept. 9 on a skateboard ministry in southern Maryland), many of them relating to religion.

All it amounts to is a vignette that would go along nicely with an Alan Cooperman story on the merits, or lack thereof, of a federally funded faith-based initiative that works to help inmates get ready for release. Accompanying this article is a video that tells us little more than what is in the article.

Here’s a snippet of what I’m talking about:

More evidence of the divine to the five women at the 9:15 a.m. service on Tuesday: Kimberly Johnson and Kristin Bostrom sitting next to each other, praying together at a gray, metal table.

They had fought the previous day, during exercise time. The night after the fight, Bostrom prayed for Johnson. Since coming to jail in September, she’d found a closer relationship with God and a meaning and structure for such emotions as the anger she felt that night. So she prayed: Let me do God’s will, not my own. My own can’t always be trusted.

Neither woman knew the other would be in services that morning, but there Johnson was when Bostrom filed in. So Bostrom sat beside her, and the two women sang together.

Anyone at the Post know what this is all about? I really don’t mind these articles being delivered to me with my morning newspaper, but I’d like some explanation about the article’s purpose. I have no problem with the article as it stands. It’s actually a pretty decent piece of narrative writing — and hey, it’s on religion, so why should I be complaining? Its purpose is just confusing and random.

I’d like to venture that these articles are driven by the Post‘s attempt to get more video content out on the Web. If you look at the Post‘s front page, few stories lend themselves very well to video that is not already broadcast on the evening news. So they send someone, Michelle Boorstein in this case, to put together a nice little multimedia package together, and bingo, you’re being innovative on the Internet!

The problem I have with this is the lack of a news hook. Isn’t that what a newspaper is all about? Even if the subject is not new, there has to be a news angle that the Post could have found with this. What trends are out there regarding prison ministries? There is so much more that could be explored here, and the current strategy of just drawing a word picture seems to be a waste of newsprint.

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GetReligion, burkas and the press

burkas and mini skirtEver since Doug LeBlanc and I started this blog, we have had problems explaining to some people what GetReligion is about and what it is not about.

Here’s the bottom line: This is a blog that tries to dissect religion-news coverage in the mainstream press. We strive to praise the good and we try to put a spotlight on stories that we believe are flawed or, perhaps, haunted by religion themes that the journalists didn’t seem to realize was there. We call those missing religious elements “ghosts.”

But we always stress that this is not a weblog for theological debates. We also cannot cover all the world’s religion news. We don’t even have the time to get to half of the stories that we wish we could feature on the blog. And television news? And international coverage? Oh man, I feel those guilt shivers already.

So we are not a religion-news blog. We are a blog about how the mainstream press covers religion.

Here’s why I bring this up. A dedicated GetReligion reader and critic, Joe Perez of the Gay Spirituality & Culture blog, sent us a pointed note the other day that went like this:

Why oh why haven’t you said anything about the Dutch burka ban news item from 11/17 among other stories. Those wacky liberal Europeans can’t so much as frown at a Pentecostal minister’s sermons without getting GetReligion exercised, but ban burkas and they get a free pass? I thought this would be a big story but the US press is ignoring it. Can you help me understand?

By the way, is that “exercised” or “exorcised”? Sorry, I could not help myself.

Actually, I have written quite a bit on this blog about some of the internal tensions in Europe these days, with the drive for multiculturalism clashing, at times, with classical liberalism. I think the legal issues raised in the burka debates are fascinating and a bit frightening for people on both sides. Clearly, this is an issue of freedom of expression and association that affects all kinds of people, even stewardesses on British Airways. What right does the state have to tell a Muslim woman that she cannot choose to wear a burka?

submission 01But there’s the issue. Some women choose to wear traditional Islamic dress — although there would be fierce debates about using “traditional” in that phrase — and others are forced to do so, often through violence. Is it cultural imperialism for a Western government to try to protect these women by banning this public expression of Muslim faith? And while we’re at it, did filmmaker Theo van Gogh need to die because he made a fierce, offensive movie (Submission) about these issues?

All of that interests me and I am glad that many newspapers have written about the issue. I, frankly, think that much of the coverage has been quite good. I have come very close to commenting on this several times — to praise the coverage. I have circulated at least 10 of these stories among our GetReligion inner circle. However, no one has elected to write on one of them — yet.

So I agree with Perez that this is an important story. He sent us a link to an Associated Press report that gave plenty of evidence that the issue is not going away anytime soon:

The issue has resonance throughout Europe[.] Former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw recently caused a stir by saying he wants Muslim women to abandon the full-face veil — a view endorsed by Prime Minister Tony Blair. In France, the center-right’s leading presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy has increasingly been adopting some of the rhetoric of the extreme right.

Germany, which also has a large Muslim immigrant community, has a law banning teachers in public schools from wearing head scarves, but no burqa ban.

In Holland, policies associated with the nationalist fringe in 2002 have been co-opted by the center: holding asylum-seekers in detention centers, more muscle for the police and intelligence services, and visa examinations that require would-be immigrants to watch videos of homosexuals kissing and of topless women on the beach. Everyone must learn to speak Dutch, and Muslim clerics must mind what they say in their Friday sermons for fear of deportation.

I have seen some fine stories on this topic in major news outlets. Has anyone seen a really bad one? Let us know.

Meanwhile, please try to understand when we simply cannot comment on every religion news story or trend that comes along. It usually means (a) we haven’t seen the same story you have, (b) we were not struck by something highly critical or positive to say about it or (c) we were simply swamped that week in our day jobs.

Patience! And repeat after me: “It’s not a religion-news blog, it’s a blog about how the mainstream press covers religion.”

Top photo from Muslim Refusenik

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Tell us more about her faith, NYT

Kristin Chenoweth2I am not a regular presence at the theater or a frequent reader of theater reviews. So it goes without saying that I know little about writing a good review of acting or singing. With that said, I thought the New York Times article on singer/actress Kristin Chenoweth was a half-decent read.

Why was I reading a profile of Chenoweth? I can already hear some of your snickering, but to be honest, it was the headline that drew me, an indefatigable reader of political, business, culture and sports news, into the artsy section of the Times. My lack of attention to the finer arts is a deficiency that I am readily to admit, but there’s no time like now to fix that, right?

The headline in question — “She Sings! She Acts! She Prays!” — established some expectations for the article, and they weren’t necessarily good expectations. I was somewhat worried that the article would focus solely on controversial aspects of Chenoweth’s career, that it would be overly preachy or it would neglect Chenoweth’s beliefs.

If anything, the article fell down on my third concern, and it was simply a matter of not asking.

Overall, though, reporter Jesse Green nicely balanced the aspects of Chenoweth’s life into a package about theater, dancing, singing, the travails of being a popular artist in New York City and, yes, being a liberal Christian:

“God knows I’ve made mistakes and been criticized for them,” Ms. Chenoweth said unflinchingly. (Some have even been turned into TV fiction on “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.”) “When I was promoting ‘As I Am’ last year,” she said, “I went on ‘The 700 Club,’” Pat Robertson’s talk show on the Christian Broadcasting Network. “I wasn’t thinking about what it represents. I guess I was living in a little bit of a bubble, and I was surprised that it upset so many people. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t go, because I don’t agree with that antigay stuff. I don’t understand what the big deal is with gay marriage. Get over it, people. What if it was a sin to be short? Well, I guess it is in the Miss Oklahoma pageant.” (She was the runner-up in 1991.)

But when she assured her theater fans that she supports gay rights her Christian base was outraged; she was disinvited from performing at a Women of Faith conference in September 2005. She drew further criticism when she appeared in a parade of tiny bikinis in the March 2006 issue of FHM. Though even her parents were uncomfortable, she’s stopped apologizing.

“I’m a young woman, I like men, I’m not going to pretend to be what I’m not,” she said. “Anyway, I’ve finally graduated from the college of I Don’t Give a Hoot.” But “hoot” was not her first choice of words.

Kristin ChenowethIf anything, I felt that the article could go deeper into the source of Chenoweth’s faith and values.

She is a self-described liberal Christian, and the source for the liberal side of her belief system is fairly obvious, but there is little explaining how Chenoweth came to be a Christian and how/why she maintains her faith.

The big issue for Chenoweth has been her support of gay rights, and specifically of gay marriage. Why does she support it? Well, I can’t read her mind and the article does not tell us, but it is likely because she has a large fanbase of gays. But Chenoweth also has a large fanbase of Christians, so it’s tough to say what motivates her.

Throughout the article, in between talking about her dog’s new outfit and weight gain/loss, spats with other dancers/actresses and her various boyfriends, Chenoweth’s faith stands out — not in an obvious way, but subtly.

Check out the penultimate paragraph:

“I realize this makes me sound insane,” she said, “but knowing there is a higher power and a plan gives me peace. Of course there have been times when God’s plan didn’t match up with mine” — as, for instance, when she tumbled backward off a stage platform during a tech rehearsal for “The Apple Tree” and banged herself up good.

While the piece is not likely to win over many Christian conservatives who have largely written off the Times as a liberal secular rag not worth their time, the article approriately highlights a talented individual’s faith.

I just wish the Times had told us more.

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To pray or not to pray

hagia sophiaStories filed at the end of Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Turkey highlighted his visit to — and prayer inside — a Muslim mosque. That’s a good thing, since it’s very newsworthy when a leader of the Christian religion worships or prays in a place of worship for non-Christians.

I was going to highlight various stories from the BBC, the Los Angeles Times, and Reuters this weekend, but other events got in the way.

I thought most of the stories did a great job of accurately representing the facts of the pope’s visits to Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque across the street. And most of the stories even did a good job of highlighting the significance to Muslims of the prayer inside the mosque, facing Mecca. And the significance to Muslims of his failure to pray inside the Hagia Sophia was fleshed out, as evidenced by this section from the Los Angeles Times‘ Tracy Wilkinson:

The pope avoided potential controversy in a visit to the Hagia Sophia, an imposing structure built in the 6th century as a Byzantine church and converted to a mosque in the 15th century by Ottoman sultans. The rigidly secular forces that formed modern Turkey in the early 20th century turned the Hagia Sophia into a museum, one of Istanbul’s most popular tourist destinations where public displays of worship are banned.

The mere suggestion that the pope might pray there had enraged Turkish nationalists. When the late Pope Paul VI came to Istanbul in 1967, he knelt to pray in the Hagia Sophia, touching off protests by extremists who were convinced that he was trying to reassert Christian jurisdiction over the site.

Benedict visited the vast museum of domes and minarets, an incongruous combination of Muslim and Christian features, in more restrained fashion. He refrained from any overt religious gestures and instead listened to explanations from his host, Istanbul Governor Muammer Guler.

What was lacking, in my view, was a look at the significance of each visit for Christians. Members of the Catholic blogosphere were expressing disappointment or support for the pope’s decisions, but the mainstream media coverage didn’t seem to pick up on it. To that end, I was pleasantly surprised to see a nicely written piece of in-depth analysis from The New York Times’ Ian Fisher. He covered the story all week before providing a lookback on Sunday:

Has the pope gone wobbly?

The question might matter less if he weren’t the man he is — and if the images of his facing Mecca in prayer on his trip to Turkey weren’t fresh. Supporters have long depended on Benedict XVI for brave talk, even and maybe especially if it was unpleasant to hear. But his was never mere blunt confrontation. With his big brain and the heft of Roman Catholic tradition behind him, Benedict has stood for a remarkably clear idea: there is truth, and we won’t retreat from it.

blue mosqueThe piece covers varying views from Catholics and puts it all in the context of what the Turkey visit indicates about what kind of papacy Benedict will have. It’s got more attitude than a typical mainstream media piece, but it balances everything out nicely and is remarkably fair and sympathetic to Benedict’s new tone. While it’s an op-ed, another piece worth checking out ran in today’s Los Angeles Times. Raymond Ibrahim, a research librarian at the Library of Congress, finds more than a few fascinating aspects to the trip:

In the days before Pope Benedict XVI’s visit last Thursday to the Hagia Sophia complex in Istanbul, Muslims and Turks expressed fear, apprehension and rage. “The risk,” according to Turkey’s independent newspaper Vatan, “is that Benedict will send Turkey’s Muslims and much of the Islamic world into paroxysms of fury if there is any perception that the pope is trying to re-appropriate a Christian center that fell to Muslims.” Apparently making the sign of the cross or any other gesture of Christian worship in Hagia Sophia constitutes such a sacrilege.

Built in the 6th century, Hagia Sophia — Greek for “Holy Wisdom” — was Christendom’s greatest and most celebrated church. After parrying centuries of jihadi thrusts from Arabs, Constantinople — now Istanbul — was finally sacked by Turks in 1453, and Hagia Sophia’s crosses were desecrated, its icons defaced. Along with thousands of other churches in the Byzantine Empire, it was immediately converted into a mosque, the tall minarets of Islam surrounding it in triumph. Nearly 500 years later, in 1935, as part of reformer Kemal Ataturk’s drive to modernize Turkey, Hagia Sophia was secularized and transformed into a museum.

The piece, using rather strong language, argues against providing Muslims with special treatment. Whether or not you agree with the argument, it’s worth asking whether reporters implicitly did just that by focusing on the Muslim reaction to Benedict’s trip while largely ignoring the Christian reaction.

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Reflecting local religious flavor

crab cake Most people are familiar with two of Christianity’s holiest days — Christmas and Easter. But those are just two of many holy days, or holidays, celebrated by Christians who follow a liturgical calendar. And the calendar has seasons that lead up to the high festivals.

Even people who have sung “The 12 Days Christmas” hundreds of times don’t think of Christmas time as comprising two distinct liturgical periods. Until the 12-day festival of Christmas arrives, the four weeks prior are Advent in the Western Church, which mark a solemn time of prayer and preparation for Christmas. The season begins in mid-November for the Eastern Church and is called Christmas Lent.

I like watching for stories that talk about what it’s like to celebrate the holy days of the season as a liturgical Christian, so I was pleasantly surprised to find this one from Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

But Advent has another purpose that is at even greater odds with the office partying, extreme shopping, egg-nog-sipping customs that the month of December has come to represent. According to the HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, Advent “has a twofold character: It prepares for the commemoration of the Incarnation … and it looks forward to Christ’s second coming at the end of time.” Pastors say that second message is even harder to push through the wall of commercialism that Christmas in America has become.

The first part of Townsend’s story quotes extensively from St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke’s written column and a previous homily on Advent. He also speaks with a theology professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati and pastors at Presbyterian, African Methodist Episcopal, Roman Catholic and Methodist parishes. And that’s wonderful. But it made me realize that I rarely see any Missouri-Synod Lutherans in Townsend’s pieces. In fact, the last time I remember a piece about my brand of Lutherans was when our Synodical President faced an election challenge two and a half years ago. Ths could be an oversight of my newscrawling capabilities, to be sure.

But the reason it’s interesting is not because Missouri Synod Lutherans are one of the largest Protestant church bodies in the United States; it’s that they are headquartered in St. Louis. So I hope Townsend is spending time digging into the stories that are happening in his backyard. But I am completely compromised on this topic.

Let’s look at another example of a local news site and its relationship to the local religious scene. Recently The Washington Post started a religion blog called On Faith. The “conversation on religion,” hosted by Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn, is still getting started.

So far, 75 panelists take part in the conversations. By my rough count, you have a dozen Muslim experts or adherents, almost the same number of Jewish scholars, eight Anglicans, eight Roman Catholics, and several Baptists and evangelicals. This is based on my interpretation of their biographies, so I could be wrongly ascribing a religious view to panelists. A Latter-day Saint, Native American spiritualist, Wiccan practitioner, Hindu, Greek Orthodox, Lutheran and Baptist round out the discussion.

Why not include someone from the Seventh-day Adventist church, whose world headquarters are in Silver Spring, Maryland? It sure couldn’t hurt. Leaving them out would be like the Post neglecting to mention crab cakes in a regional food review. Any other suggestions for missing voices on that site?

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