Father of Christian rock, not CCM

The New York Times had a fine story the other day about country-music superstar Alan Jackson. No, honest. Read it for yourself. It covers all kinds of territory, including his gospel album that turned into a surprise hit.

Then there is the book that his wife wrote for a major Christian publisher.

Mr. Jackson’s flexibility may have been tested last year when his wife, Denise Jackson, published “It’s All About Him: Finding the Love of My Life” (Thomas Nelson). It’s a graceful book about how their marriage, which began in 1979, was saved by her renewed Christian faith (that “Him” isn’t a “him”), and it found its way to the top of the New York Times best-seller list.

She reduced the juicy parts to a five-word sentence, putting the matter plainly without divulging any details: “Alan had not been faithful.” Asked about the book, Mr. Jackson said, “We’re as happy as we’ve ever been.” But Ms. Jackson’s conclusion in the book, though optimistic, is more bittersweet. The final chapter is called, “Happily Ever After, Even When We’re Not.”

Obviously, Jackson is way too big a star to be a “Christian musician.” One of the implications of the piece is that — to paraphrase Bono — Jackson is a musician who is struggling to be a believer.

So there are musicians who are Christians and then there are contemporary Christian musicians. Those in first group are part of the real music industry and the second are tied to their own niche industry. All of this makes me think about the death of Larry Norman, an edgy rock pioneer. This week, many journalists accurately called him the father or one of the fathers of Christian rock. But some implied that he was linked to the while CCM niche industry. I think you could make a case that he fought the CCM establishment throughout his long and, at times, troubled career.

I was talking about this with a friend of mine, journalism professor Michael Longinow of Biola University, and he said he wanted to write something about the media coverage of Norman. Of course, I said, “Bring it on.”

So take it away, Dr. Longinow:

Death often brings more questions than answers. That was true this week as Christian music legend Larry Norman passed from this life and journalists attempted to unravel what this singer and songwriter really meant to the post-60s generation — and the cash-rich genre that came to be known, toward the end of Norman’s life, as Christian Contemporary Music.

Like many of the angry rebels who Norman set out to bring to Christ, his own musical and life legacy was as much about pain as passion. Randy Stonehill, a friend of Norman’s who came to faith through Norman’s life and music ministry declined an interview request from Christianity Today this week, opting instead to post a statement on his own web site Monday — within hours of Norman’s passing — saying that a tragedy of Norman’s life was his inability to maintain relationships.

“I’m not sure he understood himself completely,” said Stonehill’s site. “This issue
became apparent in the way he consistently seemed to ‘derail’ relationships throughout his life.”

Part of the enigma that was Norman was his tireless pattern of song-writing, music promotion, performing and touring — tied, as it was, to his penchant for not telling the whole truth about where he was going to be next. Perhaps because he’d hurt — or been hurt by — those he trusted, Norman made himself a moving target.

“There’s a possibility that he’s living in Thailand and this is all a ruse. That might offend a lot of people, but that’s how he was,” David DiSabatino told Christianity Today. “I don’t believe that, but then again, if you told me that’s where he was, I wouldn’t bat an eye.”

DiSabatino, who bills himself as an historian of the Jesus rock era, is completing a documentary on Norman. A 2006 documentary by DiSabatino looks at the life of Lonnie Frisby, a conflicted Jesus People musician associated with Calvary Chapel who, with Chuck Smith’s help, is credited with nearly single-handedly launching the Jesus People movement in the 1960s — a movement in which Larry Norman was an influential, if at times reluctant, participant.

larry norman only visitingChris Willman, of Entertainment Weekly, had perhaps the most thorough and stylish look-back at Norman (nice photo of Norman in what looks to be Trafalgar Square, being attacked by pigeons) of any written in week after the songwriter’s passing. Willman deftly placed Norman in the paradoxical landscape that was 1969 by noting that when Norman’s “Upon This Rock” hit American turntables, the Christian music scene had little that appealed to the young in evangelical churches who were being mesmerized by the rock-and-roll revolution that had been underway for more a decade. Willman writes:

For quite a few years, the sum total of the Christian rock genre was pretty much Larry Norman. It may be difficult now — at a time when bands like Paramore find wide acceptance in both the Christian and mainstream worlds (and almost a quarter-century on from the advent of Stryper) — to remember a time when there was no such thing as CCM, and when, if any such thing did pop up, it was greeted with distrust and scorn on either side of the evangelical-pop divide. The Beatles were about to break up, yet the cutting edge of Christian music was still represented by the folksy-choral records made by Ralph Carmichael, better known as Billy Graham’s musical director. Then along came an unsmiling, almost sneering guy who, like Johnny Cash, usually dressed all in black, though, unlike Cash, he had whiteish blond hair down past his chest. And he was singing about salvation and the rapture, with humor and sass, in a voice that clearly owed a lot to Mick Jagger’s cocky intonation. In the church vs. counterculture world of the ’60s and early ’70s, this officially counted as cognitive dissonance, and maybe it still does.

Among the earliest to note Norman’s passing was Bullypulpitnews.com, a blog run by media-watcher and producer Mark Joseph (a fervent critic of CCM) in Southern California. Joseph’s obituary for Norman ran on huffingtonpost.com on Tuesday. It took other media a day or two to catch up.

National Public Radio posted an unsmiling photo of Norman on Thursday, from what looks like the 1970s as a teaser to an interview with Charles Norman. In that interview, Norman’s younger brother recalled growing up with a big brother bold enough to grow his hair long and write about sin in ways that transcended metaphor.

Gonorrhea on Valentine’s Day
And you’re still looking for the perfect lay
Why don’t you look into Jesus
He’s got the answers

“Stuff like that that shocked uptight Christians,” said Charles Norman.

And he was right. Many Christian bookstores — primary outlets for tame Christian music in the era when Norman was exploding on the music scene — refused to carry his music. Not that this bothered him, outwardly anyway. Rejection became a kind of ongoing theme of Norman’s life. His style almost invited it.

Veteran mainstream music writer Steve Turner, in a Norman obituary for Reuters that ran in London’s Guardian newspaper, said Norman “ploughed an often lonely furrow as a solo artist who tried to combine the thrill of the Beatles and Rolling Stones with the spiritual insight of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesteron.”

For more mainstream media reports, see Reuters the Oregonian, and the San Jose Mercury News. As a rule, the mainstream played up Norman’s status as a converted secular rocker who put Christian rock on the map in ways that got the attention of such rock pioneers as Bob Dylan, Pete Townshend, Fleetwood Mac, Van Morrison, U2, Petula Clark and (wait for it) Sammy Davis, Jr.

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Buckley wasn’t a “conservative Catholic”

billbuckley The death of William F. Buckley Jr. raises the question of what journalists mean when they use words such as conservative and liberal. Buckley was a Catholic and a conservative. But was he a Catholic conservative?

All of the major newspapers think so.

In The New York Times, reporter Douglas Martin explained Buckley’s upbringing this way:

The elder Mr. Buckley made a small fortune in the oil fields of Mexico and Venezuela and educated his children with personal tutors at Great Elm, the family estate in Sharon, Conn. They also attended exclusive Roman Catholic schools in England and France. Young William absorbed his family’s conservatism along with its deep Catholicism.

Writing in The Washington Post, Bart Barnes suggested that Buckley’s first book reflected his conservative Catholic outlook:

By the time he founded National Review, Buckley had published his first major book, “God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of Academic Freedom” (1951), in which he accused the faculty of his alma mater of a pervasive bias against religion, individualism and capitalism. The book sparked a heated debate, which only helped elevate Buckley’s public profile. Academicians tended to see it as a polemic against liberal education, and some suggested it was a product of Buckley’s “militant Catholicism.”

In The Los Angeles Times, staff writer Scott Kraft notes that in the early 1950s, Buckley co-wrote a book in defense of Republic Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. His story states that Buckley’s Catholicism explains his decision to write it, implying that nothing else could explain why he would do such a crazy thing:

Buckley identified with McCarthy, who like Buckley was a Catholic with a deep hatred for communism. And although he regretted the damage McCarthy’s efforts might do to the reputations of innocent Americans, Buckley thought that paled in comparison to the damage and potential damage of communism, according to Judis, Buckley’s biographer.

None of the stories referred to Buckley as a conservative Catholic. But they leave the overwhelming impression that he was. Deep, militant, hatred — such words are rarely used to describe liberals or progressives, even though they apply to Catholics such as Dorothy Day or the Berrigan Brothers.

In fact, Buckley was not a conservative Catholic, in the religious, doctrinal sense of the term. He opposed the wisdom of church teaching on social and political issues. He favored decriminalizing drugs and wrote for Playboy. For a time, he defended southern segregationists and supported birth control. In other words, Buckley was not the intellectual godfather of Ray Flynn or Bob Casey, Sr.

This is not to suggest that Buckley was a liberal Catholic in the religious sense. Besides his lifelong opposition to socialism and communism, he opposed legalized abortion and opposed “Playboyism.”

So what was Buckley? He was an idiosyncratic Catholic. On political issues, he took conservative stands, as well as a few liberal ones. As an example of the latter, he wrote a book arguing that the state, not the free market, was better able to nurture citizenship and a sense of civic obligation. On religious issues, he was a mixture of both. His views are complicated. He called himself a Catholic and a libertarian. Go figure.

Journalists need to define their terms more precisely. Is a person a conservative in a religious or political sense or both?

Answering this question isn’t a matter of complicating matters. It’s a matter of telling readers the truth.

By the way, for a classic PBS dose of Buckley, click here for a tribute at the Charlie Rose show.

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Did you hear the one about the culturally isolated NYTs?

This week’s New York Times Magazine had an article about a Christian comedienne who’s all the rage on YouTube.

You can sample her comedic offerings in the YouTube below.
The article about Anita Renfroe was written by Mimi Swartz, an editor at Texas Monthly. Most of the readers who passed it on to us complained about the anthropological approach of the reporter, as evidenced by the headline: “Did You Hear the One About the Christian Comedian?” Here are some representative passages along those lines:

Renfroe is also a devout Christian and for about eight years has been slowly building a career as a comedian on the Christian women’s circuit. Like Mike Huckabee’s easy humor, Renfroe’s wit comes as a surprise to nonevangelicals. . . .

“I have a good time almost all the time,” Renfroe told me. “But I do feel a little bit of pressure.” That’s understandable given her most important task: proving that being a Christian comedian is not an oxymoron.

These are the types of passages that say much more about the reporter and the New York Times than the subject of the piece. As a Lutheran, I don’t qualify as an evangelical, but it never occurred to me to classify a group that includes tens of millions of Americans as devoid of all wit and humour. Of course, I actually know more than a few evangelicals. Heck, some of my best friends are evangelicals (cue: rim shot) and they’re very funny people. How you can be an editor at a Texas publication and write lines like that? It makes me think an editor tried to shape the story in that direction.

I think it’s good that the Times is covering cultural stories outside the comfy confines of Manhattan. (This isn’t the first time the Times has written about Christian comedians.) And it’s true the mainstream comedy blogs and sites don’t cover comedians such as Renfroe. The fact is that most of the mainstream media reflect the values and cultural tastes of people in a few blue zip code cities as opposed to folks in the rest of the country.

Renfroe is treated as a novelty when, in fact, she’s more an example of some pretty big trends. But when the article is stuck on the notion that a Christian comedian is crazy talk, how insightful can the story be?

Thankfully the reporter had quite a few words to work with. She gives readers a look at Christian women’s conferences, the place where Renfroe got her start. And yes, it’s full of snarky comments about women sharing hotel rooms to save money and the less-than-gourmet food choices they make. But Swartz has some good color about the speakers at the conference. She does a good job of writing up Renfroe’s jokes and showing how evangelicalism’s embrace of entertainment worship has helped her develop her comedy.

Swartz notes that the comedy club circuit has rewarded raunchy and profane humor more than Renfroe’s fare — jokes about mammograms, underwire bras and spousal submission. But back to the New York Times‘ tone deafness:

Renfroe’s comedy — and indeed, much of the comedy in evidence at Women of Faith — while still “clean” and often wrapped in homilies dedicated to a higher purpose, seems to owe as much to feminism as to Minnie Pearl at the Grand Ole Opry. There is an undeniably subversive element in any group of successful women urging less successful women to step into life and refuse to be defeated. Renfroe would rather label that call “empowerment” than “feminism,” because in her mind the goals are not the same.

KatieLutherActually, there is nothing subversive about women encouraging other women. And hard as it may be for the mainstream media to accept, strong women predate the feminist movement.

I may not be what you would conventionally describe as evangelical (I include the caveat since “evangelical” is another term for “Lutheran” but that’s not how the media use the term) but I was brought up by devout Lutherans who pretty much rejected feminism and who also told me I could be president or anything else I wanted to be. I was constantly encouraged to emulate the mighty heroines from scripture as well as church history. And I was also given role models in my congregation. In other words, my parents and fellow parishioners relied on thousands of years of church history to encourage me. All while rejecting much of feminism.

Still, I think she asks some interesting questions about evangelical Christianity’s intersection with culture:

All Christian comics must ultimately decide how they will define themselves — as Christians who happen to do comedy or as comics who happen to be Christian — and that pressure grows with success. So far, Renfroe has remained exactly where she wants to be: squarely in the middle of that continuum. But events have conspired to challenge her comfort zone. After the YouTube video went viral, Renfroe was invited to appear on “Good Morning America” to discuss it. . . .

That day, they asked Renfroe whether she might also be able to perform comic vignettes on the show. Renfroe sent them a list of 25 suggestions: segments on beauty salons, the ignominy of sweatsuits, fighting for carts at the grocery store, menopausal side effects, etc., and [senior broadcast producer Margo] Baumgart was thrilled. The religion issue never came up in discussions, perhaps because another network was already expressing interest in Renfroe. “We won’t hide it, but we won’t highlight it,” Baumgart says. “We love her for who she is.” That was good with Renfroe: “Christian is who I am; funny is what I do,” she told me. “I think the people who make the decisions don’t really care if I’m Christian, Jewish, Muslim or atheist. I think they just care if I’m funny.”

It’s nice the reporter included this distinction from Renfroe. It’s a shame she didn’t use that perspective as a launching point for the entire article.

Art: A funny strong, empowered woman who somehow predated feminism.

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Shameless plug for student

tornado oklahoma 1999The “theodicy” issue seems to come up pretty often at GetReligion, which isn’t surprising since (a) disaster and tragedy are part of this sinful, fallen world and (b) the word “why” remains part of the “who, what, when, where, why and how” journalistic equation.

As I mentioned the other day, the “Where was God?” question was sure to come up after a tornado leveled large sections of a Southern Baptist campus in the heart of the Bible Belt. And your GetReligionistas admire mainstream journalists who struggle to write about these kinds of eternal issues in the rushed and constricting realities of daily journalism.

So I would have nice things to say about the new Religion News Service follow-up feature — “Surviving Disaster: Is It Divine Intervention?” — about the post-tornado discussions at Union University and elsewhere. However, I really shouldn’t say too many nice things because one of the co-authors of the piece is one of my students at the Washington Journalism Center this semester. As a professor, please let me say that I really appreciate it when internship editors let students dive and do some real reporting and writing. Bravo.

So I’ll just say, “Read it yourself” in the Washington Post. Here’s the opening, which ends with the hardest part of the theodicy equation:

As Kristen Fabrizio felt the vibrations preceding the tornado that ripped across the campus of Union University in Jackson, Tenn., on Feb. 5, she clung to her friends, who in turn clung to their faith.

“You can definitely see God’s hands if you look at our campus,” said Fabrizio, a history major at the Southern Baptist-affiliated school. “No one’s supposed to be alive.”

And yet many are. Those who made it through the storm thank God for protection. But what about the dozens of people across the South who died in the storms, who weren’t so lucky, or blessed? Did God not protect them?

It’s the kind of question often raised after a disaster, man-made or otherwise. Was God looking the other way when 32 were killed in a shooting massacre last April at Virginia Tech, or when the seas swallowed more than 200,000 souls in the 2004 tsunami? Put another way: Does God protect some, but not all?

Heavens, I just saw a photo and promo for this story on page one of WashingtonPost.com

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Faith in the Obama union

obamawifeI have always said that if you want to know what a political leader is really like, pay close attention to the beliefs and values of his or her spouse and children. I have taken flack, among evangelicals friends, for noting that the born-again President George W. Bush certainly seems to have a very upper-crust wife from the oldline Protestant side of Dallas and I have yet to see signs of traditional faith in the lives of his daughters. So be it.

So I looked with interest at the recent Newsweek cover — “Barack’s Rock” — on the life and times of Michelle Obama.

But before I dig into that, let me state right up front that I am not all that troubled by the mini-firestorm about her alma mater locking up the text of her senior thesis — “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community” — until after the election. That’s the thesis in which she wrote, as the product of a working-class family studying on an elite campus:

“My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my ‘Blackness’ than ever before. I have found that at Princeton no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my White professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don’t belong.”

I don’t know about you, but I think it is more likely that the contents of this thesis would yield painful insights into Princeton life than offer negative information about the mind of the young Michelle LaVaughn Robinson.

Also, I am not very upset about her recent statement in Milwaukee that: “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country, and not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change.” The woman speaks her mind. So be it.

No, what really interests me is that the Newsweek cover — which offers quite a bit of material about Michelle Obama’s life and her role in their family — contains absolutely nothing about her faith or her views on cultural issues linked to religion. This is fascinating, since her husband speaks so freely about his faith. It seems to be a large part of his identity, as an adult convert to Christianity.

Take a look at this passage, which sketches out her influence in general terms:

Part of Michelle Obama’s appeal — she routinely draws audiences of 1,000-plus supporters even when she’s campaigning on her own — is that she comes across as so normal despite the withering glare of a national campaign. As a political spouse, she is somewhat unusual. She isn’t the traditional Stepford booster, smiling vacantly at her husband and sticking to a script of carefully vetted blandishments. Nor is she a surrogate campaign manager, ordering the staff around and micromanaging the candidate’s every move. She travels the country giving speeches and attending events (her mother watches the kids when she’s on the road), but resists staying away for more than one night at a stretch. When the couple catch up several times a day on the phone, the talk is more likely to be about their daughters than the latest poll projections. Michelle has made it her job to ensure that Barack, who now lives full time inside the surreal campaign bubble of adoring crowds and constant attention, doesn’t himself lose sight of what’s normal.

Onstage, Obama has introduced Michelle as “my rock” — the person who keeps him focused and grounded. In her words, she is just making sure he is “keeping it real.” She does this in part by tethering him to the more mundane responsibilities of a husband and father.

Look the article over. Did I miss something?

So I guess I am saying that there really isn’t any religion in the Newsweek article. That’s kind of the point. I can’t even find a nice, pushy ghost to mention. Just silence and, in light of the role faith plays in Obama’s campaign, that strikes me as interesting. But does this tell us something about the editors at Newsweek or about Michelle Obama?

Again, did I miss something?

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Holier than dirt

chimayo2Say what you want about The New York Times — actually, don’t say what you want — the paper does have some great resources at its disposal. One of my favorite features is their city journal. That’s where stringers and foreign correspondents file slice-of-life reports from exotic locales.

This week the Times had a report from Chimayo, New Mexico, with a rather provocative headline: “A Pastor Begs to Differ With Flock on Miracles.” Reporter Erik Eckholm’s story is brief and you should read the whole thing, but here is how it begins:

“It’s not the dirt that makes the miracles!” the Rev. Casimiro Roca said with exasperation.

True, discarded crutches line a wall inside the Santuario de Chimayo, a small adobe church in this village of northern New Mexico known as the Lourdes of America.

True, tens of thousands of pilgrims walk eight miles or more to the shrine on Good Friday, some bearing heavy crosses and others approaching on their knees. Scores of people visit every day the rest of the year, many hoping to cure diseases or disabilities with prayer, holy water and, most famously, the healing dirt, which visitors collect from a hole in the floor inside the church.

What a fantastic lede. Clearly we’re dealing with Penitentes here! Considering the media interest in flashy religion stories, I’m surprised we don’t get more coverage of them. Growing up in Colorado, I didn’t realize they were such a small group but apparently Penitentes only exist in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. They are known for their self-flagellation and Holy Week processions. They used to be known for their mock crucifixions. When I lived in Colorado we studied them more in an historic context but while their numbers have dwindled from the 19th century, they still exist.

Sure enough, Eckholm explains that the original chapel was constructed by Penitentes. It fell into disrepair and Father Roca devoted his life to rebuilding the sanctuary — including the hole — and creating the shrine and gift shop. The gift shop sells plastic containers of “blessed dirt” and holy water, by the way.
virgin mary pretzel
The story is rich with detail and begins to paint a picture of Father Roca:

Few leave without some of the reddish soil, scooped from the 18-inch-wide “posito,” or well, that is continually replenished — by a caretaker, Father Roca is quick to explain, despite rumors over the years that the pit was refilled by divine intervention.

He pointed to the small building nearby where trucked-in dirt is stored. “I even have to buy clean dirt!” he complained.

Eckholm interviews two of the visitors who take dirt and water home in hope of healing. Rosa Salazar, whose husband has cancer, reported that after rubbing dirt on her husband’s chest and feet — and praying — his latest CAT scan looked better.

Father Roca believes in miracles, too, but, he said, “They are the work of the Good Lord.”

“I always tell people that I have no faith in the dirt, I have faith in the Lord,” he said. “But people can believe what they want.”

For all the stories we get about weeping statues and apparitions of the Blessed Mother or, um, Virgin Mary pretzels being sold on eBay, it’s rare to see this side of the story reported on. The one question I felt was unanswered was what, specifically, Roca is doing to correct parishioners’ and visitors’ misguided views

As for the dirt, the best-known attraction of his busy little church, he said: “I don’t like to think about it. People come here not for the crucifix but for the dirt, and some people even sell it.”

Mrs. Salazar, the believer in its healing power, said she knew nothing of Father Roca’s vexation. “I think the dirt gets blessed by the priests, doesn’t it?” she asked.

The story is so brief that it’s possible that too much would have been lost by delving into what the priest tells his flock and the visitors to his chapel. Still, it is a curious missing piece. But the article does provide other rich details that make the story come alive.

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Hackers are people too

hackersThe vast majority of people in America are Christian. So it shouldn’t really surprise newsrooms that Christians have a wide variety of vocations.

The Baltimore Sun‘s Tricia Bishop profiled a computer hacker — a “good” computer hacker who helps organizations find their security weaknesses. Her entire hook for the story is that he’s a Christian. Now don’t get me wrong — there’s a lot to like in this story. But the piece is presented as if it’s some spiritual tour de force. And yet, near as I can tell, the story is a somewhat typical account of life as a Christian.

The lengthy profile starts out quite powerfully:

It was 2003, it was Vegas, and Johnny Long was a rock star.

He slung the blue speaker badge around his neck – careful to make sure everyone could see it – and strutted through the DEF CON hacker convention with his nose in the air and his ears set to whisper mode, listening for the buzz.

Too cool to make eye contact, the 32-year-old cut a path through the crowd, which was mostly made up of men wearing some variation of a black T-shirt, the unofficial uniform for the three-day conference.

Johnny, the Maryland kid who once networked computers in his backyard for fun, had grown up to become a professional hacker, joining an elite team of cyber superheroes – called “StrikeForce” – that was paid to break into computer systems.

And that, along with his knack for using Google to help break into cyber security systems, had just won him a coveted speaking slot at the world’s biggest underground hacker convention.

The platform at the conference was easily the highlight of his career, the big payoff for all those late nights staring into a computer screen, the missed time with his wife and kids, and even the high school years when the popular kids ignored him.

Johnny (or j0hnny, as he was known online) had arrived.

And yet, in the wake of this much-anticipated triumph, he was surprised to realize that the only thing he felt was emptiness.

Isn’t that a nice beginning to the story? Anyway, Bishop then explains that Long, a lifelong Christian, was in the midst of a midlife crisis. He outs himself as a Christian and, well, not much happens. He continues being a good father and husband while mentoring people.

Hackers are outsiders, idealistic and libertarian, according to the article. The piece explores how hackers get their start as teenagers and includes the tidbit that his best bud in middle school was also a decent kid who didn’t get into a whole lot of trouble. He was also Christian.

Bishop goes on to explain that Johnny was cool with the doctrine of Christianity but not with Christian culture — the way Christians dressed and talked. But his parents took him to church every week and, well, he went. The piece goes into great length about his career path as a hacker, focused on network protocols and security. And it has some interesting information about how Johnny was good at finding security weaknesses. In fact, he found passwords and other security information using Google. And this made him a rock star in the hacker community.

Anyway, Johnny outs himself as a Christian and basically nobody notices or cares. His career takes off. And then:

He was also spending more time with members of the nondenominational church he and his wife, Jen, the product of two missionary parents who has never been one to shy away from a charity case, joined a few years after marrying.

“I’ve seen him get more intentional about his faith, about the role he believes God plays in his life,” said Mark Norman, senior pastor of Fulton’s Grace Community Church. Norman got to know Johnny through a church Bible study group. “There was a deepening, a maturity.”

On the convention circuit, Johnny invariably declared himself to be a Christian during presentations, with ever-growing conviction behind the words.

But he was still looking for a way to combine his passion for computers with his faith. He goes on a church trip to Uganda to help children orphaned by AIDS. He put computer networks together there, saving thousands of dollars. Which brings us to the big finish. He decided to hack charities:

The idea is to get hackers from around the world to volunteer their time and used gear to various charities that seriously need technical help, whether it’s through securing their sites or finding ways to pair children with sponsors online, like Johnny is working on for AOET.

I’ve served Christian groups in a few different capacities and pretty much everyone I served with went through a process of figuring out how to use their secular vocational skills to support the organizations. There’s nothing wrong — and a lot right — with writing about the process but the article is presented as if it’s some miraculous story.

The other problem with the story is that you could have replaced the word Christian with any number of other descriptors — Rotarian, vegetarian, libertarian — and had a very similar story. What was it about his Christian faith that led him to do what he ended up doing? How did his Christian faith come into play? Could we get anything specific — a Bible passage, a key doctrine, an exemplary brother in the faith?

The media are obsessed with writing about religion when it intersects with politics. But for many people, religion is more likely to intersect with family relationships, jobs and daily living. I commend Bishop for writing about the daily life of the Christian. I just wish we got some more details.

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How did the Butler do it?

butler In the 1963 film “The Great Escape,” it’s obvious how the Allied prisoners escaped from a German prisoner camp: they built an underground tunnel. In a Washington Post story of the same name, it’s not at all clear how as a teenager NBA All-Star Caron Butler escaped from his drug-infested neighborhood.

Butler’s explanation is theological. He believes that God turned around his life:

“The graveyards and prisons are full of people that wanted a second chance,” Butler said. “God put his hands on my life. He said ‘I’m going to touch you so that you can touch others.’ “

Later in the story, Butler explains the inspiration behind his transformation. While in juvenile prison, he read scripture:

Butler decided that he’d never be in that position again. He read Bible verses his grandmother, Margaret Butler, had sent him. Butler said he was drawn mostly to 1 Corinthians 13:11, which reads, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

One small window, sandwiched between steel bars, lit his room. Butler could peer out and see a basketball court.

“God puts stuff in front of you for a reason,” he said. “That was my ticket out.”

By contrast, Post reporter Michael Lee’s explanation is material. He believes that a cop caught Butler a lucky break. Police officer Michael Geller could have arrested Butler for “constructive possession” of drugs. Instead of putting him in the back of the police car, Geller let him go.

greatescapeGeller’s decision saved Butler, or at least his basketball career.

A very pragmatic man, Geller said he prides himself on a meticulous approach to his job. He believes police work is much easier when you treat people correctly. “I’m not saying that Caron might not have been involved in something at that point, but in my gut, I was pretty confident the dope wasn’t his. I had done my homework.”

Geller’s supervisor told him that he had enough for an arrest, but left the final decision up to Geller.

“If this had been a situation where I knew going in that Caron was the guy selling the dope — that he was the responsible party — I’m not going to lie to you, he would’ve been escorted out of that house,” Geller said.

He decided to let Butler go.

“I thought it was the right thing to do — to see him go on the right path,” Geller said.

But Geller and his supervisor left Butler with a warning. “They told me, ‘If you get in trouble again, anything to do with narcotics again, you’re taking this case, too,’ ” Butler recalled. “I was like, ‘You don’t have to worry about that.’ ”

Like most of the Post‘s in-depth stories, Lee’s story was well reported and character driven.

But the contrast between Butler’s and Lee’s explanations is jarring. When I first read the story, I concluded that Geller had saved Butler’s career (and maybe his life). But after I read the story again and considered Butler’s explanation, I wasn’t so sure.

Lee’s failure to address this contradiction leaves careful readers in the lurch. At minimum, Lee should have squared his explanation with Butler’s. Does Butler view Geller as an instrument of God’s handiwork? Does Geller think he was just doing his job or seeking to do the Lord’s work?

Butler deserves his selection this year as an all star. Whenever he has made a big shot, Wizards fans or announcers will say, “The Butler did it!” After reading Lee’s story, I wonder how he did.

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