Offensive roundup

bodyofChristIn the discussion of a previous post about coverage of the Kathy Griffin brouhaha, Religion News Service reporter Kevin Eckstrom says the following about his piece:

My point . . . was that Christians can take a joke, but when it comes to the person of Jesus, the rules change. People’s guard goes up, and understandably so. It’s not so different from how Muslims react to what they see as insulting portrayals of Muhammad.

I thought of that when a reader sent along an interesting Religion News Service story by Daniel Burke about Archbishop Raymond Burke:

A hardline U.S. Roman Catholic archbishop is urging ministers to deny Holy Communion to politicians who support abortion rights, arguing that it’s a “mortal sin” to offer the sacrament to “the unworthy.”

St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke, a veteran of clashes between Catholic bishops and politicians, has attempted for years to enlist fellow bishops to deny communion to wayward politicians.

It’s a really interesting story, thorough and well written. The reader who sent it along wondered why the reporter went to the typical sources (the Revs. Richard John Neuhaus and Thomas Reese), although their viewpoints added the necessary context. But look at what some tone deaf editor at the Winston-Salem Journal did with the headline:

‘Wafer Wars’ heat up: Archbishop pressures clergy to deny Communion to ‘unworthy’ politicians who support abortion rights

Newsflash: Sacramental Christians take grave offense at referring to the body of Christ in such a flippant and disrespectful manner. How could the editor in question not know this?

Speaking of insulting, I was quite surprised to read Jeff Israely’s Time article with the scandalous and way undersourced suggestion that Pope John Paul II was euthanized:

In a provocative article, an Italian medical professor argues that Pope John Paul II didn’t just simply slip away as his weakness and illness overtook him in April 2005. Intensive care specialist Dr. Lina Pavanelli has concluded that the ailing Pope’s April 2 death was caused by what the Catholic Church itself would consider euthanasia.

Surely Time has higher standards than this, no? JPII’s death had to have been one of the most chronicled events of the last few years. The medical professor bases her conclusion on her observations of the pope on television. I mean, really. It’s a one-source story. I’m not saying it’s not newsworthy for, but Time? The article didn’t even get the Roman Catholic side of the story straight. Take this explanation of doctrine:

Catholics are enjoined to pursue all means to prolong life.

As Father Jonathan Morris explains in a piece for FOX News:

The Time article sets up the case for John Paul II’s alleged hypocrisy with this statement: “Catholics are enjoined to pursue all means to prolong life.”

This is false. It’s good for the story, but it’s not true. Time magazine will never find such a pronouncement in any official teaching of the Catholic Church. On the contrary. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, commissioned and approved by Pope John Paul II, clarifies that our moral obligation to preserve life in its last stages does not include applying extraordinary or disproportional means:

“Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of “over-zealous” treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted.” (#2278)

Morris interviewed Israely for his piece and he said, “There is a fine line between creating an open discussion and doing a story just for the sake of scandalous controversy. I hope this article isn’t seen as such.”

I think the way to make sure you’re on the right side of the line is to think carefully about which stories are selected. And if you decide to run with a one-source story about a respected head of the church, perhaps you might want to be very careful about how you treat it.

priestessIn the final installment of my offensive roundup, I offer the latest tired “female Catholic priest” story. The dishonor du jour goes to Marianne Lucchesi Hamilton of the Los Gatos Weekly-Times and the San Jose Mercury News:

Like many devout Catholics, Juanita and Don Cordero kicked off their Sept. 15 wedding anniversary by attending Mass. Four of the couple’s five grown children were in attendance, helping to mark the occasion of the Corderos’ marriage 36 years ago.

But the entire family wasn’t sitting in the front pew during the service. Instead, the Rev. Juanita Cordero, an ordained Catholic priest, was up on the altar, celebrating the Mass.

Cordero, a Los Gatos resident, has been a priest since July. Prior to her ordination she spent 10 years as a Holy Names nun. Though extremely happy in the order, she still felt that something was missing in her life.

Around the ninth paragraph, Lucchesi Hamilton gets around to mentioning that the priest in question isn’t Catholic so much as Catholic. Rome doesn’t recognize her ordination as in any way valid. I guess it’s too much to hope we’ve seen the last of the “female Catholic priest” stories.

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Some stories reverse the mirror

Gloria Strauss 01Few stories will change a journalist’s life. Even fewer stories change a journalist’s life for the better, but that’s exactly what happened to Seattle Times sports columnist Jerry Brewer since he started writing about Gloria Strauss, the 11-year-old daughter of a local high school basketball coach, who endured a four-year fight with cancer before passing away last week.

The series, titled “A prayer for Gloria,” covers too much ground for us to review here (nine installments), but here is a recent story that movingly describes the young girl’s battle with cancer and how the family’s faith is the essential element in their lives. The story has generated unprecedented reader feedback, a multimedia slideshow, a reporter’s journal and photo packages by Steve Ringman.

A Sunday column by Times editor at large Michael R. Fancher reveals how journalists’ backgrounds and faith will shape a story and their reaction to it:

Given how personal this assignment has become, I felt I should ask Brewer and Ringman whether their own faith has affected or been affected by the story.

Brewer said his grandfather is a Baptist preacher and he grew up in a very spiritual family. “It’s still a factor in my life. It helps me feel the story. You’ve got to feel it.”

Brewer said that when the Strauss family prays, “I know the Bible passage they recite and what they mean.” But the Strauss family is Catholic. “We’re both Christians, but it’s a lot different,” he said.

Ringman said that he has not been a very spiritual person, but the story “opens an opportunity to feel God. It’s very moving and I’m surprised by that.”

gloria straussAnyone who wants to say that reporters’ personal perspectives and backgrounds do not affect the way they cover a story just needs to review this series and what Brewer has to say about how being a person comes before being a journalist. The fact is that Brewer’s religious background helped him report this series in a way that so many readers could relate to and appreciate.

The series is not without controversy. Some readers didn’t like that faith was the central message:

Brewer responds that many families use faith to help them through illness, but “very few newspapers have documented this feeling — religion, if you will — that is very strong and moving within lots of suffering families. By presenting what this family believes and focusing on it, I’m simply putting a mirror on them.”

His online journal is personal, but the stories that appear in the newspaper are told in an unbiased way with very little filtering, he wrote to one reader. “You’re left to make your own conclusions, and if you decide it’s bogus, that is perfectly fine.”

Brewer said he tries to focus on the universal elements of Gloria’s story. He added that one reader commented that what the Strauss family calls faith, that reader calls love.

Both Ringman and Brewer said they have been changed by this assignment.

“Problems seem insignificant compared to what I’ve witnessed in the Strauss family,” Ringman said. “My perspective on life really has changed, spiritually and even materially — love and our children are much more important.”

Brewer answered, “What hasn’t this story changed about my life? It’s literally changed everything. I’m a better man and a better journalist, and I realize even more so that the man comes before the journalist.

And that is exactly what reporters are supposed to do. The quality of the mirror that is put before a journalist’s subjects depends largely on the journalist. Biases and omissions can affect the way the story is played, and often that is how important aspects are lost. For Brewer and Ringman there seems to have been no difficulty in delivering this story as an unvarnished and clear picture.

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Softly and tenderly, Richard Land is calling

LandCoverEve Conant of Newsweek has written a curious article: In trying to describe Democrats learning to speak the patois of evangelicals, she writes in a style that is nearly tone deaf to evangelical culture.

So, for instance, she identifies Richard Land, an evangelical (D.Phil, Oxford) activist and writer, as a “Tennessee evangelist.” More specifically, that would be Nashville, where Land has been president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission since 1988. Evangelicals support evangelism, naturally, but Land’s work is not exactly on the sawdust trail.

She then shifts into the boilerplate of stories about evangelicals involved in politics, with references to Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority, George W. Bush — and “values voters” (including obligatory scare quotes), as if this is how evangelicals would choose to identify themselves. Then come references to younger evangelicals, who “are worried about issues beyond the traditional struggles over abortion, school prayer and gay marriage.” Conant cites the examples of “the environment, AIDS, poverty and genocide,” failing to note that evangelicals have cared about poverty and genocide for quite some time now. (Granted, evangelicals are not exactly famous as green activists or blazing new trails in AIDS relief.)

Conant asserts flatly that most evangelicals reject John McCain, “in part because of his push for campaign-finance reform.” Come again? Are evangelicals now known as really caring that much, one or another, about campaign-finance reform?

She piles on still more stereotypes, quoting Joshua DuBois of Barack Obama’s campaign, who found it so amazing that evangelicals would give a standing ovation to Obama’s endorsement of contraception as a means of preventing AIDS. Perhaps DuBois thought that the evangelicals gathered at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Community Church were more of the Sam Brownback/Richard John Neuhaus school of Roman Catholic evangelicalism?

Throughout the article, Conant writes as if the Democrats are, like Lothario, trying to seduce a naive virgin. Democrat activists “court” (in the headline), “flirt” and “play footsie.” But suddenly all this foreplay turns sinister:

“We’re still kind of frozen in the twilight zone with many of the Republican candidates,” says Tony Perkins, who heads the conservative Family Research Council. “If the Democrats follow through with substantive policy initiatives that reflect their newfound faith, they could make headway. But it’s got to be more than just talk.” Darkly, he warns there is always the option of “a third-party candidate for president.” That’s a signal to both parties: show us some love … or else.

Oh my! Shades of James Dobson’s periodic threats to go third party! I think we all know how effective that has been.

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Breaking: Christians revere Christ

kathy griffinWhat is it with my fellow GetReligionistas? It’s as if they’re completely disinterested in celebrity news. I just searched to see how we handled media coverage of the Kathy-Griffin-at-the-Emmys debacle (I was attending to other matters at the time) and see that we didn’t discuss it at all. For those who have more interesting lives, Griffin is a comedienne — and host of the 2007 gay porn awards! — who made scandalous remarks about Jesus when she accepted her Emmy for her Bravo reality series. There was so little substantive coverage of what she said that religion reporter Gary Stern hadn’t even heard about it last week:

Did I not hear about Griffin’s acceptance speech because she was offensive to Christians instead of Jews or Muslims? Or was it that no one pays attention to Griffin? Or have I just been out of it lately?

Part of it has to be that many news outlets omitted the most blasphemous part of her remarks. Here’s how The Associated Press treated it:

In her speech, Griffin said that “a lot of people come up here and thank Jesus for this award. I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus.”

She went on to hold up her Emmy, make an off-color remark about Christ and proclaim, “This award is my god now!”

The off-color remark? “Suck it, Jesus.” As more than a few readers noted, many news outlets neglected to mention the actual text of Griffin’s remarks, making it seem like the only point was to make fun of people who thank Jesus when they receive accolades. Anyway, on Saturday The Washington Post ran a Religion News Service piece about the speech by Kevin Eckstrom. Which is what I wanted to discuss when I started this post but had to explain the whole Kathy Griffin thing first. Okay, then. The piece is substantive and looks at the fallout from Griffin’s little stunt, coming to this conclusion:

Poking fun at religion in general is fine. Taking jabs at hypocritical religious leaders is even encouraged. But when it comes to Jesus, Hollywood still gets squeamish.

I didn’t find his thesis terribly well substantiated, but the most interesting part of the article for me was this graph. Eckstrom is trying to explain why some people might have taken offense at Griffin’s remarks:

For most Christians, Jesus of Nazareth is the savior of mankind. “For us and our salvation, he came down from heaven,” the Nicene Creed says. “For our sake, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried.”

Most Christians? Yes, I imagine most Christians do believe that. Sigh. Of course, I’m not sure if that line says more about the reporter or the state of Christianity today.

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John the Baptist story hits locally

john mccainIn the aftermath of GOP presidential candidate John McCain’s statement that he is a Baptist and not an Episcopalian, the Associated Press followed up and did something of a clarification story by getting some more comments from the always-media-accessible Arizona politician:

AIKEN, S.C. (AP) — Republican presidential candidate John McCain said Monday that questions over whether he identifies himself as a Baptist or an Episcopalian are not as important as his overarching faith. “The most important thing is that I am a Christian,” the Arizona senator told reporters following two campaign stops in this early voting state.

The comment came after a weekend during which McCain corrected an Associated Press reporter who asked him how his Episcopalian faith plays a role in his campaign and his life. While it’s well-known that McCain and his family for years have attended the North Phoenix Baptist Church in his home state of Arizona, the senator had consistently referred to himself in media reports as Episcopalian.

OK, other than that first paragraph, there is nothing new in this story. But a more interesting story is coming out of The Charlotte Observer‘s columnist Dannye Romine Powell about Baptist identity and how this plays in the Bible belt:

I don’t care whether Republican presidential candidate John McCain is an Episcopalian or a Baptist.

But the implication in Monday’s paper that he’d been caught at something — outed while trying to pass as an Episcopalian — hit a nerve.

Why do we diss Baptists?

Powell’s story is one of church social rankings, avoiding the term “Baptist” and whether one’s church parking lot is filled with “Mercedes and BMWs” or “Fords and Chevys.” It’s a great local perspective that I missed when I first saw the McCain story roll out, but it is a question that should be asked and applied, at least regionally, if not nationally.

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Define ‘evangelical,’ again and again

weyrich 704633I made it to Prague just fine, with no help from the construction war zone that is called Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport. You don’t want to know about it. OK, let’s just say that airport terminals designed to be linked by trains do not work well when there are no trains.

So I am exhausted, but I still was awake enough to get ticked off reading a short political story in the new issue of Newsweek. It’s about Fred Thompson and his much celebrated gaffes coming out of the White House gate late in the game.

As you would imagine, this involves whether he has or has not bonded with a key GOP voter group. It’s right there in Holly Bailey’s lede:

For months, social conservatives have viewed Fred Thompson as a Reaganesque savior in a dreary field of GOP presidential hopefuls. But the former Tennessee senator’s early days on the campaign trail have left some prominent evangelicals underwhelmed. “I’m personally not that impressed,” says Paul Weyrich, a veteran strategist who cofounded the Moral Majority.

One sticking point: Thompson’s stance on a same-sex marriage ban. On the trail, he has declined to endorse a constitutional amendment blocking gay marriage, instead backing a broader amendment that would bar states from imposing their laws on other states. “The [marriage ban] approach has been tried in Congress, but can’t even get a majority,” Thompson told the Christian Broadcasting Network.

That’s not good enough for some on the right, and it has cost Thompson, at least for now, endorsements from members of the Arlington Group, an influential coalition of the nation’s top conservative leaders. “It’s a deal breaker,” Weyrich told Newsweek.

See the problem in this little story? Yes, it is an old problem that we have talked about here before, which is the evolution of the word “evangelical” into a strictly political term with almost no religious content whatsoever.

Now, it’s true that Weyrich was the cofounder of the Moral Majority. But does this automatically mean that he is an evangelical Protestant?

So here is your one question mini-test. OK, GetReligion class: Paul Weyrich is an ordained clergyperson in what church?

(a) The Nation of Islam

(b) The United Church of Christ

(c) The Catholic Church (Eastern Rite)

(d) The Anglican Church of Nigeria

(e) The Southern Baptist Convention

And the answer is …

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Slain in the Amish Spirit

amish church traffic  small I am headed to Amish country today with a bunch of Orthodox men for a kind of old-fashioned guy’s day out adventure — various bonding rites planned, including something involving hot-rod tractors and lots of noise. However, I will keep my reporter’s hat on and I’ll let you know if I meet any Amish people who are speaking in tongues. OK?

What? You didn’t read that interesting Religion News Service piece this week?

It seems the Pentecostal wave that is washing over large parts of the world (think Africa and South America) has also reached … Lancaster County? Here is a key chunk of Daniel Burke’s piece about the Pentecostal healing ministry of Steve Lapp:

About 18 months ago the Old Order Amish church excommunicated Lapp, 37, and everyone associated with his healing ministry, including his wife and two of his brothers. The Amish bishops said Lapp was practicing “devil magic,” he said, and ordered him to stop. He did, for a time.

But people kept knocking on his door, begging for help, and he kept reading the Bible passages in which Jesus’ faithful are anointed with the gift of healing. …

With his talk of supernatural healings and events, Lapp seems more at home — at least theologically — in Pentecostal churches than among the Amish. But he is just the most extreme example of an evangelical influence creeping into the Old Order Amish community, according to a number of observers. The trend may be most evident here in Lancaster County, which, with 25,000 members, is one of the world’s largest Amish settlements.

Here’s the heart of the story: What happens if Amish people start thinking like evangelicals?

What happens if they decide that they are supposed to reach out to other people with their Christian message? What does it mean to be “in the world, but not of the world” if you are Amish? What does evangelism and mission work look like?

The Amish have had to start banning Bible studies and independent prayer meetings. I mean, the Wind blows where it will. Or is this just another example of evangelical globalization?

Burke has captured the key theological tension:

This closer walk with the outside world and emphasis on individual experience challenges the traditional Amish understanding of faith, said Donald Kraybill, a professor at Lancaster’s Elizabethtown College who has written widely on the Amish.

“People may say, ‘The spirit led me to do this.’ And that becomes a new challenge against tradition, heritage and the authority of church leaders,” he said.

About 35 to 60 families, the equivalent of two church districts, have left or are considering leaving the Old Order, according to a number of estimates. And because bishops traditionally “clean house” of strident members ahead of twice-yearly communion services, as many as 12 more excommunications could be coming, said one Amish man familiar with the situation.

In Lancaster’s tight Amish community, even the smallest ripples of discontent can swell into waves.

In one sense, this is new. In another, it has happened before, with more people going up what Burke describes as the “Anabaptist escalator,” into more and more evangelical forms of the root Amish faith tradition. This is America, after all.

If you search Google News, you will find few, if any, links to this story. That is really sad, because this is a perfect example of why Religion News Service exists. More people need to see this kind of coverage.

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Tesser well, Madeleine L’Engle

Wrinkle In Time CoverAs some GetReligion readers may know, my wife is a professional librarian at a public library in Anne Arundel County, Md. Thus, it is no surprise — with a librarian married to a journalist — that whenever we move into a house the first thing we do is build about 18 to 20 feet worth of bookshelves, to add to the free-standing units that we already have.

So we are book (and audio book and DVD) people. It should also come as no surprise that there are shelves — more than one in a few cases — for works by or about the likes of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen Lawhead, Frederick Buechner and others. And one of those others is Madeleine L’Engle, who is my wife’s favorite author.

We had the joy of meeting L’Engle several times during the years we lived in Denver, when she game for speaking engagements in the area.

In fact, she visited Christ Church, our parish at that time, during an All Saints service. I saw her on a kneeler in the third row and, at first, I did not recognize who this was. The face looked so familiar, yet I kept trying to think of someone who might, you know, show up in your local parish on a Wednesday night. My wife was sitting behind L’Engle during the service and did not see her, at this point in the evening. And the priests did not single her out in any way.

Then it hit me, where I knew this face.

When the service was over and people headed to the potluck, my wife made sure that Madeleine knew she was invited — while I tore home to grab a stack of favorite L’Engle hardback books. We all sat around talking for an hour or two. I also had two chances to interview her, at length, and heard several of her lectures.

L’Engle was a very, very complex person and there are few thoughful people, I imagine, who would agree with her on a variety of doctrinal issues. Yet her faith shines in her writings and she was a wonderful person with whom to “talk shop” on issues of vocation and calling.

Which leads me to my Scripps Howard News Service column for this week, which several people have suggested that I post here. There are many other tributes to L’Engle around at the moment in some interesting places — like National Review Online and Salon.

Please share your favorite L’Engle links with us, if you will.

L  EngleSo here is the column:

Madeleine L’Engle found it amusing that her critics kept missing the obvious in her fiction.

Consider the magical women in “A Wrinkle In Time” — Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which. It’s true that they have strange wardrobes and unique ways of speaking. Mrs. Whatsit is chatty, for example, because she is so young — a mere 2,379,152,497 years, eight months and three days old.

When the elder Mrs. Which arrives from another dimension, her colleagues begin giggling. Why? Since she is meeting three human children, Mrs. Which elects to appear as a “figure in a black robe and a black peaked hat, beady eyes, a beaked nose and long gray hair.” She is holding a broomstick.

Get the joke? For decades, L’Engle’s fiercest critics kept missing it. Thus, “A Wrinkle In Time” — which won the 1963 Newbery Medal — became one of America’s most frequently banned children’s books.

“If you read the book, there is no way that they are witches. They are guardian angels — the book says so. You don’t have to clarify what is already clear,” L’Engle told me, in a lengthy 1989 interview.

“Don’t they know how to spell? W-H-I-C-H is not W-I-T-C-H.”

This interview came during a time when L’Engle (pronounced LENG-el) had increased her already busy lecture schedule after the death of her husband of 40 years, actor Hugh Franklin. But L’Engle kept writing and talking about the themes that dominated her life — faith, family and creativity — until her health failed. She wrote more than 60 works of fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry and prayers during her life, which ended with her Sept. 6th death in Litchfield, Conn., at the age of 88.

Wherever L’Engle went, people kept asking her to explain her beliefs, from heaven to hell, from sex to salvation, from feminism to the arts. The writer did not hide her views, but rarely used the kind of language that so-called “Christian writers” were supposed to use.

Thus, her career was defined by a paradox: Many of her strongest admirers were evangelical Christians, as were most of her fiercest critics. Thus, it’s symbolic that she donated her personal notes and papers to Wheaton College — the Rev. Billy Graham’s alma mater — where they are part of a collection best known for its materials about the life of Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.

L’Engle was also candid about the role her faith played in her writing. She was, throughout her life, an Episcopalian’s Episcopalian from New York City who was determined to keep describing the visions and voices that filled her soul. While her writing was often mysterious, she kept hiding the crucial clues right out in the open.

It’s hard, for example, to miss the source of the climactic speech to Meg Murray, the heroine in the science fiction series that began with “A Wrinkle In Time.”

“The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men,” says Mrs. Who, who always speaks in quotations, such as this lengthy passage from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. “… God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty.”

It’s even clearer, in the next novel, that the children are backed by the powers of heaven. Meg finds herself face to face with a many-eyed creature with a 10-foot wingspan, a being with too many wings to count, wings that were in “constant motion, covering and uncovering the eyes.” This is a biblical cherubim, yet another angelic vision. He stresses that he is not a singular cherub, and adds, “I am practically plural.”

The goal, said L’Engle, was to create fiction that was unmistakably Christian, while writing to an audience that included all kinds of believers and unbelievers.

“I have been brought up to believe that the Gospel is to be spread, it is to be shared — not kept for those who already have it,” she said. “Well, ‘Christian novels’ reach Christians. They don’t reach out. … I am not a ‘Christian writer.’ I am a writer who is a Christian. I think that you have to be the best writer that you can be. Now, if I am truly a Christian, then that will show in my work.”

So, does everyone understand the headline on this post? And what do think are the implications of that final L’Engle quote for people of faith in all kinds of writing? Valid for screenwriters? Songwriters? Dare I ask, for journalists?

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