Pope Francis’ ‘obsession’ with the devil

It’s kind of charming that all popes have to deal with bad media coverage and global press frenzies. This week we’ve seen some awful media coverage of Pope Francis, including coverage of his blessing of a man after Mass on Sunday. Part of the blame must go to the Italian press, which really went crazy with the story in a way that might not be prudent. But I’ll restrict myself to the English-language media. Let’s begin with the Telegraph (U.K.):

Pope Francis appears to have been captured on video performing an exorcism in St Peter’s Square.

The astonishing footage, taken immediately after Pentecostal mass on Sunday 19th May, shows the Pontiff approach the second of two wheelchair bound people, whose face is pixelled out.

After a priest leans across the boy or young man to tell Francis something, the Pope’s expression becomes more serious, the voice-over notes. He then grips the top of the subject’s head firmly and is seen pushing him down into his wheel chair. As this is happening the Pontiff recites an intense prayer, and the boy’s mouth drops wide open and he exhales sharply, Italian press reports added this morning.

Where to begin? Let’s begin by pointing out that Sunday was Pentecost. Not Pentecostal, which suggests something else entirely.

OK, as for this exorcism, it would be a curious exorcism indeed since it was relatively quick and spontaneous, compared to the rites and protocols used by Roman Catholics and other traditional Christians. How to analyze these claims, which seem to be fueled largely by the claims of one Fr. Gabriele Amorth? Usually the media are really good at being skeptical of the claims of any Catholic and it would be wise to reach deep for just a tad of that skepticism when covering this one, as Mark Shea explains here. I’m not saying his claims shouldn’t be covered, but they should be placed in context of previous claims he’s made and how he’s viewed by, say, traditionalist Catholics.

I’m perhaps most disappointed by various reports I saw under the Associated Press. Take, for instance, how WHPTV headlined its AP story on the matter:

Pope Francis accidentally performs exorcism

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis’ obsession with the devil has taken on remarkable new twists, with a well-known exorcist insisting Francis helped “liberate” a Mexican man from four different demons, despite the Vatican’s insistence that no such papal exorcism took place.

This isn’t journalism. It’s very embarrassing. That word “accidentally” is scandalously untrue as is every other word in the headline. And how about that lede? Obsession? Obsession? Excuse me? What the h-e-double-hockey-sticks is this?

A longer version of the story is headlined, at Newser.com,

 The pope and the devil: Francis’ obsession with Satan leads to suspicion he performed exorcism

The story is written, according to that link, by the AP’s Vatican reporter, which is somewhat difficult for me to believe. I mean, all reporters should know this, but religion reporters should definitely know that Satan figures prominently in Christian thought. You want to write about someone completely over-the-bend obsessed about Satan? How about this guy?

I mean, is the Pope being Catholic really something we want to have straight news writers present as “obsession?” And, what’s the substantiation for this sick compulsion that Pope Francis has? Let’s see what’s in the story:

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Beware of creepy, crooked, cash-flush Pentecostals

Non amo te, Sabidi, nec possum dicere quare;
Hoc tantum possum dicere, non amo te.

I do not love you, Sabidius, and I cannot say why;
All I can say is this, that I do not love you.

Martial, Epigrams, I.32 (circa 86 A.D.)

The Australian, Australia’s largest circulation broadsheet, published a story this week about an Assemblies of God church that has taken a leap across the Pacific and planted a campus in the United States. The article entitled “Eyeing off God’s bounty” does not say that the Rev. Russell Evans is a fraud and a crook and that those who attend worship at Planetshakers City Church are ignorant rubes. However, you may well think so after reading this story.

The article opens on a self-consciously hip note.

JESUS is in the house!” roared pastor Neil Smith above the crash-boom of drums and the wail of electric guitars. You would have thought the Son of God was sitting right there in the packed auditorium, such was the excitement among the youthful crowd at the Rock Church in San Diego, California, in January.

This was a big moment in the history of Planetshakers City Church, once a small local church in Melbourne, now fast becoming an international Christian brand. As if Jesus wasn’t enough, Smith promised to “take it to a whole new level” as he introduced senior pastor Russell Evans, whom he called “the founder and visionary leader”.

Stylistically, this is grating and somewhat ugly in its diction, and derisive in tone. “[A]n international Christian brand”? It gets worse. After recounting Evans’ belief that some in the congregation should come forward for healing, the article states he appears to do quite well out of the business.

Soon Evans was calling out “healings” from the stage to his prospective followers. He announced that God wanted to heal people in the audience. “Wait a sec, wait a sec, God wants to heal some people in this room,” said Evans, as if the deity was whispering in his ear. “Someone’s back is being healed to my left, right there. There is someone here who has a knee injury and God is healing you right now; there is someone here with incredible sinus problems — you’re over in that section over there — God is healing you,” he crooned.

In any other forum, such a claim might spark derision, but in Evans’s world this is called carrying out his “pastoral duties.” His Planetshakers City Church and many of its staff receive generous tax concessions for these duties.

And at this point the article pivots and insinuates bad faith, stating:

 Until now, the government has shown only occasional interest in the activities of churches that receive tax exemptions. But from July 1 the newly formed Australian Charities and Not-For-Profit Commission will bring unprecedented scrutiny. ACNC advisory board member David Crosbie has said the changes would not restrict the activities of legitimate churches, but would help to weed out “fringe religions” that act more like cults. While Planetshakers is regarded as a mainstream church, it too will be subject to the ACNC’s scrutiny. There is no requirement under law that churches comply with specific Christian doctrine, but the ACNC is nominally interested in the form and content of worship, insiders say.

Setting aside the suggestion the government should decide the content of religious faith — what is this, the Church of England? — the snide and derisive comments continue – interspersed with the odd fact here and there.

And Evans, one of the new breed of “pastorpreneurs”, is spreading the word in the US market, where the church could make millions of dollars in tax-free revenue. …  As the Evans brothers build their international ministries, they crisscross the world on their church credit cards.  … He recently tweeted his “fav eating places in the world: 1. Shangri-la (Singapore) 2: (Five star hotel) Langham (Melbourne) 3. Little pasta place in Rome 4. Angelinas Paris 5: mi cocina Dallas (Texas).” …  Under present rules, pastors such as the Evans brothers get to keep all the frequent-flyer points they earn on their corporate credit cards, tax-free. And with almost all church expenses paid on credit cards, that could run to hundreds of thousands of points each year. …  Insiders say Russell and his wife are paid a cash salary of approximately $100,000 each, but that the true value of their total package is closer to $500,000 once all fringe benefits are included. Planetshakers denies this, but declines to provide accurate figures, citing confidentiality.

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Memory eternal: The faith and times of McCandlish Phillips

If you wanted to know who John McCandlish Phillips was, as a New York Times journalist, all you really needed to do was listen to the words of other journalists. Here are two of my favorite quotes along those lines, drawn from a classic profile in The New Yorker (which is now behind a firewall, unfortunately).

“He was the Ted Williams of the young reporters. He was a natural,” the legendary reporter Gay Talese once said, describing a staff that included the likes of David Halberstam, Richard Reeves and J. Anthony Lukas. “There was only one guy I thought I was not the equal of, and that was McCandlish Phillips.”

Anyone who knows anything about Talese will find those words very revealing. And there was more:

“Phillips is not interested in winning a Pulitzer Prize,” Talese told The New Yorker. “He is not interested in demeaning people. … He wants to redeem people. Talk about marching to a different drummer. Phillips is not even in the same jungle.”

The headline on that New Yorker piece said, bluntly, “The Man Who Disappeared.”

I guess that was true, journalistically speaking, but it was totally wrong from a Christian point of view and, for Pastor John, the eternal point of view was what really mattered. That’s why I called my response to The New Yorker, “The man who didn’t disappear.” Here are a few key paragraphs from that:

Phillips arrived in 1952 and landed a copy-boy job a day after, he said, God ordered him off the train he was riding home to Boston. A year later, he looked around the Times newsroom and realized he was the only conservative Christian there. So he stayed. He walked away in 1973, at the peak of his writing powers, to become a Pentecostal preacher with a small urban flock.

A lengthy New Yorker profile of Phillips called him “The Man Who Disappeared.” But the man didn’t disappear. The reporter did. …

Phillips has disappeared in the same way that a seed disappears in the soil. Friends on New York sidewalks know that “Pastor John” has invested his life in new believers, including more than a few journalists.

That’s the one note that is missing from the excellent Margalit Fox obituary for Phillips in The New York Times, but I do not blame here for that one hole in the narrative. There are journalists in some interesting newsrooms who would love to talk about the influence he had on their lives, but they really cannot afford to do so. Phillips knew what it was like to be the rare traditional, conservative Christian in a major newsroom and that gave him special insights — private, discreet insights — into how to mentor those living in that world.

I, for one, will treasure some of the kind notes he wrote to me in response to my weekly Scripps Howard News Service columns and regret that his health — which was fragile for more than a decade — never allowed him to catch a train down to Washington, D.C., to speak to my Washington Journalism Center students. We both wanted that to happen and it never did.

So how did he end up as a street preacher on Manhattan’s upper west side? The Times obituary hits the high points of his professional career, with the thread of his faith running through the whole narrative — even the lede.

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God and Allah at an Easter service shooting

A church in Ashtabula, Ohio, was the scene of a shooting on Easter Sunday. Just as services had ended, a man arrived and shot his father in the head, killing him. A reporter sent us a link to an earlier version of an Associated Press story that ran in the Houston Chronicle with a headline that read:

Witness: Man yelled about God after church killing

That’s the headline that remains over this Columbus Dispatch version of the AP report. The reporter thought that interesting in so far as the assailant had reportedly talked about “Allah.” The witness actually said — in later stories at least — that the assailant had talked about Allah and God.

Allah is Arabic for God and none of the involved were Arab speakers, near as I can tell, so there was something interesting about the assailant’s choice of wording. Various other interested parties have suggested or denied drugs or mental health may have been contributing factors to this shooting.

All of which is to say, I found the various headlines interesting. Let’s look through them.

The updated AP story in the Houston Chronicle is now headlined “Relative: No motive in Easter shooting in Ohio.” I can imagine more interesting headlines.

(Ashtabula) Star Beacon: Suspect says shooting ‘will of Allah’

A later Star Beacon story:  Man gunned down after church service: Son arrested, says it was ‘will of Allah’

Local CBS: Police: Son Fatally Shoots Dad During Easter Service, Yells Killing Was ‘Will Of Allah’

National CBS: Ohio Church Shooting: Reshad Riddle, Ohio man, shot father to death in church after Easter service, police say

Vindy.com: Horrified church congregation watches son kill father after Easter service in Ashtabula

The Huffington Post:  Reshad Riddle Yelled About God And Allah After Allegedly Shooting Father In Ohio Church On Easter

Cleveland Plain Dealer: Minister recounts Easter Sunday shooting outside his Ashtabula church; one dead

I did find it odd that the last article doesn’t even mention “Allah” or “God,” but was written by the religion reporter who really struggles with writing fairly, objectively or with any nuance (here, here, here).

My own thinking is that the headlines that say “God” but avoid “Allah” are weird. But I prefer the headlines that focus on “father” “shot” “Easter service” — as those seem to be the key details. The rest can be fleshed out in the body of the story.

But what do you think?

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A football star (oh, he’s a minister) talks about sexual abuse

As I have mentioned many times, issues related to the world champion Baltimore Ravens (still enjoying typing those words) are about as close to serious religion news as my local newspaper gets, most of the time.

However, let me stress that for the old guard in Charm City there is only collection of gridiron saints that commands more respect and that would be players from the golden years of the Baltimore Colts.

So consider the emotional impact of this news story from The Baltimore Sun:

He was a bearded, Bunyanesque defensive tackle whose rugged play helped the Baltimore Colts to three straight division championships in the 1970s. But Tuesday, when Joe Ehrmann addresses a national gathering convened to deal with the problem of child sexual abuse in sports, he’ll take part in one of the most meaningful huddles of his life.

His words will weigh heavily on the audience at the two-day Safe to Compete summit in Alexandria, Va., because Ehrmann … is himself a survivor of child sexual abuse. He still feels tremors from that trauma.

“It hemorrhages your soul for a lifetime,” said Ehrmann, who, at 12, was raped by two men at a campground near Buffalo, N.Y. “That’s the leukemia [of sexual abuse]. It might go into remission, but it never goes away.

“I’m 63 and my life has been a long and painful journey. It didn’t have to be this way, if society wasn’t so shameful, and if I’d had the help [afterward] that I needed. I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through that.”

Now, I edited out one tiny, but crucial, phrase from that anecdotal lede.

As it turns out, Ehrmann’s biography includes one or two other notes related to his soul-barring appearance at that podium. Every so briefly, the Sun team mentioned that the former coach is also a “minister” and “motivational speaker.”

For starters, this raises an interesting Associated Press Stylebook question: Why isn’t this particular Colts legend referred to on first reference as “the Rev. Joe Ehrmann”?

Yes, this is a picky point. However, I would argue that it is highly relevant to the nature of this man’s message on this hellish subject. It is hard to imagine that his faith will not enter into his remarks on such a personal, painful issue.

So what does the Sun tell us about his ministry?

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Puff piece on Office of Faith-based Partnerships

The New York Times has published a letter of reference for the Rev. Joshua DuBois, President Barack Obama’s director of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Unless I am much mistaken, the theme of  “White House Director of Faith-Based Office Is Leaving His Post” is to help the 30-year old Pentecostal minister launch his private sector career following his resignation from his White House post this week.

I would be hard pressed to describe the story on  page A17 of the 8 Feb 2013 New York edition as a news article. There is no balance, no curiosity, no context here. While political allies of DuBois sing his praises in the article, there is no voice questioning the wisdom of the transformation of the office to an adjunct to President Obama’s perpetual political campaign.

Let me say out the outset that I offer no criticism of DuBois’ tenure at the White House. My concern is with the Times‘ coverage. The article opens with high praise, noting:

Mr. DuBois played a central role when Mr. Obama was making his first run for the presidency, cultivating relationships on his behalf with religious leaders of many faiths. Mr. DuBois, 30, has also served as an unofficial in-house pastor to Mr. Obama, sending the president an e-mail each morning with Bible passages intended to prompt reflection or prayer. At the prayer breakfast, the president called Mr. DuBois a “close friend of mine and yours” who “has been at my side — in work and in prayer — for years now.”

The article states that when President George W. Bush created the post in 2000, it “proved contentious because many critics said the office and its actions often violated the constitutional separation of church and state. But Obama preserved the office and appointed advisory councils that represented a broad range of religious leaders, including conservative evangelicals and openly gay ministers.”

The Times reports DuBois changed the focus of the Office from a White House-based agency that would help provide a level-playing field for religious groups in seeking federal social service grants to what Josh Good in the National Review called a community organizing focus.

Mr. DuBois, a black Pentecostal minister, steered the office toward engaging religious leaders to address broad social goals like reducing unwanted pregnancies, helping people cope with the economic downturn, encouraging fathers to take responsibility for their children and improving child and maternal health.

Two voices appear in the story: the omnipresent Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State who objects to the idea of a White House faith office and the Rev. Joel C. Hunter, senior pastor of Northland:

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Megan Fox, glossolalia and AP Style (you read that right)

The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law is a lot of things and it fills a lot of roles. With good cause, thousands of media professionals call it the bible of mainstream journalism. However, this omnipresent spiral volume doesn’t answer a whole lot of complex questions that scribes will encounter trying to cover life on the modern religion beat.

For example, it offers no help whatsoever to a reporter who is trying to figure out how to write out a direct quote from someone who is speaking in an ecstatic, celestial, unknown tongue. The technical term here is “glossolalia.”

Of course, the proper theological response — according to the New Testament — is to quote the person present who has been given the spiritual gift of interpretation. Try explaining that to your metro editor.

The stylebook on my desk does offer this information, referring to the fastest growing form of Christianity in the world:

“Pentecostalism: A movement that arose in the early 20th century and separated from historic Protestant denominations. It is distinguished by the belief in tangible manifestations of the Holy Spirit, often in demonstrative, emotional ways such as ‘speaking in tongues’ and healing. …”

Of course, many charismatic and Pentecostal believers will argue that their movement dates back to, well, Pentecost. It’s also important to recognizes that the reality of miraculous spiritual gifts can be seen in the lives of many saints — East and West — through the ages. Hardly anyone believes that these gifts went away for a millennium or so. Needless to say, it’s hard for a journalism reference book to settle all of these kinds of issues.

The bottom line, however, is that Pentecostal believers are all over the place these days and journalists need to face that.

One even showed up on a typically racy Esquire cover the other day.

Now I am sure that some GetReligion readers have been shocked at how long it took us to get around to the following passage in that story about the human screensaver known as Megan Fox. One of the main headlines even contained a hint of spiritual content: “Megan Fox Saves Herself.

The story contains typically artsy reflections on the meaning of a bombshell babe in a postmodern age, including the degree to which people attempting to merchandize her flesh are walking in the metaphorical footsteps of the Aztecs who practiced human sacrifice. Then, suddenly, there is this:

Today, unfettered sexual beauty is an impediment. To be serious and respected, it is better to be homely or cute. Or else you must disfigure yourself, like Charlize Theron in Monster. Or you must allow yourself to be brutalized, like Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball. Or you must pretend that you’re really just average, like Tina Fey.

There’s no doubt that this transformation has been overwhelmingly excellent. But we’re losing something in this process. Because creativity is, was, and always will be sexual. Some of the very first works of art were figures of hugely fecund women dropped all over Europe tens of thousands of years ago. American movies expressed that great fusion of sex and art, too. They are magnificent pagan dreams, utterly profane and glorious. Such movies need bombshells. They need to consume beautiful flesh in their sacrifices. They need women like Megan Fox.

She is preparing for the end times.

“I’ve read the Book of Revelation a million times,” Megan Fox says. “It does not make sense, obviously. It needs to be decoded. What is the dragon? What is the prostitute? What are these things? What is this imagery? What was John seeing? And I was just thinking, What is the Antichrist?”

She’s relaxed now. She’s much more comfortable talking about the Antichrist than her career.

Yes, you read that right.

Readers veer into a shallow pool of information about Fox and her family. Then suddenly, readers shoot back into a discussion of how her beauty keeps taking over her career, dragging her closer and closer to a professional cliff. Thus, the symbolic and poignant tattoo of Marilyn Monroe on her right arm.

Then, boom, there is the passage that is getting all of the edgy commentary online:

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More about Ray Lewis and his Psalms 91 t-shirt

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So, GetReligion readers, I am happy to report that the Baltimore Sun team noticed the scripture reference at the heart of one of the biggest moments in the recent history of sports here in Charm City. I am referring to the fact — click here for the previous GetReligion post — that when, after Ravens personnel had ripped the jersey off his back, superstar linebacker Ray Lewis faced national television cameras and ran a victory lap of the stadium while wearing a t-shirt that proclaimed “Psalms 91.”

The Bible reference was featured at the end of prominent story about Lewis’ volunteer work, often faith-based, in the community. More on that in a minute.

The t-shirt drew its own short Sun online story which I didn’t see in the dead-tree-pulp newspaper, unless it merely missed the edition delivered at my house near the Baltimore Beltway.

The key question, of course, was this: Why this particular Psalm?

That raises, for me, an interesting journalistic question. How, precisely, are journalists supposed to know which part of this famous and complex passage of scripture inspired Lewis’ symbolic act if they didn’t dare to ask him that question?

Well — DUH! — you choose the most controversial motive, in this case noting that parts of Psalm 91 fit into the whole image of Lewis living as an angry warrior still haunted by the enemies who doubt his words and acts of repentance for his serious, serious errors in the past.

Thus, Sun online readers read:

… Curious minds wanted to understand what point Lewis was trying to make as he took a victory lap around the stadium wearing this particular shirt.

The psalm is known as the “psalm of protection.” It has a lot to do with vanquishing various enemies with faith and treading upon beasts under one’s feet. Here’s a key passage:

Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence.

He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge;

his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.

A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.

Of course, the biblical reference to treading on lions and serpents led the Sun team to the obvious National Football League connection — the need to tread on Colts, Bengals, Lions, Eagles, etc. It’s the playoffs, you know.

The actual news report — “Fans praise Lewis’ efforts on and off the field” — touched on a number of different projects that have drawn support from Lewis, especially a project to fight the spread of AIDS among African-Americans.

The faith themes in the piece came together at the end, including a quote from the Rev. C.D. Witherspoon, who is known for his work in tough, impoverished streets. At one point, he noted that the fact Lewis has spent a few days in jail does not offend many people on that side of the city.

Some observers find his speeches about redemption cloying and his over-heated rhetoric about leadership silly. Ravens fans eagerly awaited his dance before each home game; others mocked it. …

As Lewis left the field for the last time, he wore a shirt that read simply “Psalms 91.” Like other Bible passages Lewis has referenced, it is a vivid telling of triumph through difficult times. “You will trample the great lion and the serpent,” it reads.

“Ray’s story is ancient, and it is beautiful,” Witherspoon said. “It speaks to Baltimore.”

The reference to “triumph through difficult times” is solid, but, of course, frames Psalm 91 in sports-friendly terms. “Triumph” sounds better in the newspaper, perhaps, than more doctrinal words such as “repentance” and “salvation.”

But let me ask my main question again: How do journalists know what the Psalms 91 t-shirt was saying, for Lewis himself, without asking him?

Does this matter? Well, is he an angry, paranoid warrior or a thankful, repentant believer?

With that in mind, please read past the jump and note the full Psalm 91 text. If in the journalistic driver’s seat, which section of the psalm — speaking to journalists — would you have argued was most relevant as Lewis ran his farewell lap on Sunday?

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