Al Jazeera America: a solid piece of religion journalism?

Let’s see: a meaty, 3,200-word religion story — part profile, part trend piece.

Quick, name the national news organizations producing such in-depth journalism on the Godbeat these days. Did Al Jazeera America make your list?

That relatively new U.S. media organization spotlighted “Downwardly mobile for Jesus” over the weekend. The superb feature drew praise from ordinary readers and journalism pros alike.

“Good reporting,” said the subject line on an email from a GetReligion reader.

The reader wrote:

This article could have been much more cursory but instead goes the distance on showing motivations, pitfalls, wins and losses along the way in this report on attempts to live a ministry in distressed urban areas.

Godbeat pro Eric Marrapodi of CNN complimented the story, too:

The piece introduces readers to Matthew Loftus, a 27-year-old white man who moved into a poor, high-crime, nearly all-black neighborhood in Baltimore.

This section up high makes it clear that holy ghosts won’t haunt this report:

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ESPN offers faith-free version of Isaiah Austin’s testimony

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If you care about what is happening in modern, multi-platform journalism then you have to pay close attention to trends at ESPN — even if you don’t care much about sports. If you care about the media habits of mainstream American males, especially young males, then you really have to dig into ESPN.

This brings me to the emotional highlight of last night’s NBA draft.

If you know anything about life in evangelical churches — white, black, Latino, whatever — then you know what it means to say that someone “has a testimony.” That means that something intensely spiritual has happened in their life and they just have to talk about it.

If you watch a documentary about the Civil Rights Movement and someone shouts “testify!” at the preacher, they are not talking about legal testimony. They are saying, “Preach it!”

Well, former Baylor University center Isaiah Austin has a “testimony” right now. He has been through a life-and-death wringer and he wants to talk about it. Thus, the top of the following ESPN report:

NEW YORK – Between the 15th and 16th picks in Thursday night’s draft came a very special selection by the NBA.

Commissioner Adam Silver announced at that point that the NBA would let Isaiah Austin fulfill the dream of every young player, making him a ceremonial pick.

Just over a week ago, the sophomore center from Baylor was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that affects the heart. It ended his playing career. The illness was discovered during a physical for the draft. …

The crowd at Barclays Center rose to its feet as Austin, sitting in the waiting area with most of the first-round picks, hugged family members and put on a generic NBA cap. He went up to the stage and posed with Silver, just as all the drafts picks do when they are called.

Wait, there’s one more amazing detail:

During the season, the 7-foot-1 Austin revealed he had a prosthetic right eye after multiple operations couldn’t repair a detached retina.

Austin, expected to be a high pick when healthy, said he felt he has “a great story to share.” He said Baylor coach Scott Drew has already offered him a coaching position with the Bears.

So he has a “great story to tell.” That’s another way, in Christian speak, to say that he has a testimony. So what’s the bottom line at ESPN?

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#SBC14: Race, sex, Muslims make Baptist headlines

Race. Sex. Muslims.

As Southern Baptists convene their annual meeting in Baltimore — home of editor tmatt — all could make headlines. In fact, they already are.

Sunday’s front page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune featured a 2,500-word farewell profile on the Rev. Fred Luter Jr., who is wrapping up two years as the convention’s first black president.

A big chunk of the top:

A few blocks from where he grew up in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, in a wet and rising wind, Rev. Fred Luter Jr. is pacing behind a microphone. In his last weeks as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the leader of the United States’ largest protestant denomination is here in an official capacity, to speak at the dedication of a non-profit health clinic. But the event also marks a homecoming of sorts.

Here are the streets Luter walked as a boy. He can point to where his mother went to church, and to the barber shop where he honed a gift for speaking. Those buildings are now boarded and the streets marred by blighted homes, by empty lots — evidence of deep racial inequalities that Luter has seen as his life’s work to resolve.

The first African-American president of the Baptist branch that broke from the church to retain its pro-slavery stance, Luter has served a whirlwind two years. His term ends Wednesday. As president, Luter has traveled the globe, preaching in mud huts in Uganda, in the freezing February of an Alaskan winter. He speaks of his sympathy for human suffering, a sympathy that extends outward in every direction, to everyone he meets.

But he has retained a special sympathy for the problems facing his hometown. For the April 28 dedication of Baptist Community Health Services Inc., he spoke not of what he has accomplished abroad but of what he would like to do here. Embarking on a biblical anecdote of those who once doubted Christ, he said skeptics, upon hearing that Jesus was born in the backwaters of Nazareth, asked, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”

Fred Luter Jr. in the Lower 9th WardThe first African-American president of the Southern Baptist Convention, pastor Fred Luter grew up blocks away from a new health clinic in the Lower 9th ward. He speaks at its opening ceremony.

“Well, ladies and gentlemen,” Luter said, his voice gaining vim, “Washington D.C. one time asked. Baton Rouge one time asked. All over Louisiana, the question was one time asked: ‘Can any good thing come out of the Lower 9th ward? Can any good thing come out of Tennessee and St. Claude streets? Can any thing come out of the Lower 9th Ward area?’”

“Yes, yes, yes,” he said. “We know there are good things to come. We’ve seen it ourselves.”

Luter standing there was the only answer that was needed. His life could answer the question he asked.

It’s an interesting, insightful story by a newspaper to which I haven’t paid much attention since Godbeat veteran Bruce Nolan’s layoff in 2012.

As Southern Baptists prepared to choose Luter’s successor, The Associated Press’ Monday advance on the annual meeting touted the possible election of a Korean-American:

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Church to boycott Redskins? Not enough to fill a stadium

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The Washington Redskins are changing their name because of its negative connotations, a friend posted on Facebook.

Apparently, the National Football League team will drop the “Washington” and be known simply as the Redskins.

Bah-duh-BOOM!

But seriously, folks, check out this Washington Post lede:

Eleven days before the United Church of Christ will vote on a resolution calling for its 22,000 members to boycott the Washington Redskins, a team official called a top minister and asked him to speak to three Native Americans who support the controversial name.

Does anything about that opening sentence strike you as a little off?  How about the 22,000 members? I mean, I knew that mainline denominations had shrunk in recent decades, but the last time I checked, the United Church of Christ had almost 1 million members across the U.S.

Alas, since the Post functions often as a national newspaper, I assumed that the figure related to the national denomination. Wrong.

Keep reading:

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WPost: Avoiding Maya Angelou’s soul, if at all possible

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In the world of political, cultural and social studies theory there is a term — “civil religion” — that scholars have been arguing about for decades. You can talk about Rousseau and you can dig into Tocqueville and travel on to Martin Marty, but sooner or later you end up with the 1967 Robert Bellah essay entitled, “Civil Religion in America,” written by Robert Bellah in Daedalus in 1967. As the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society notes:

Bellah’s definition of American civil religion is that it is “an institutionalized collection of sacred beliefs about the American nation,” which he sees symbolically expressed in America’s founding documents and presidential inaugural addresses. It includes a belief in the existence of a transcendent being called “God,” an idea that the American nation is subject to God’s laws, and an assurance that God will guide and protect the United States. Bellah sees these beliefs in the values of liberty, justice, charity, and personal virtue and concretized in, for example, the words In God We Trust on both national emblems and on the currency used in daily economic transactions. Although American civil religion shares much with the religion of Judeo-Christian denominations, Bellah claims that it is distinct from denominational religion.

Back in by Church-State Studies days at Baylor University, I wrote my thesis on a topic linked to all of this, a 290-page work called “A Unity of Frustration: Civil Religion in the 15 October 1969 Vietnam War Moratorium.” Amazingly enough, you no longer have to go to my office or to the main campus library in Waco, Texas, to read it (although I have been pleased at how many researchers have used it through loaner programs). Now Google Books has made it available (sort of).

Anyway, while most people look at civil religion as something rooted in the belief of a great, unified, majority, I argued — with extensive material from interviewing Marty (key: a community of communities) — that some minority religious or semi-religious movements have, over time, been absorbed into the majority and thus into the civil religion.

Who can imagine American civil religion without the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement? I argued that the religious wing of the protest movements against the Vietnam War — with the massive, coast-to-coast Moratorium as its peak — represented a very important, yet ultimately unsuccessful, example of this process in civil religion.

So what does all of this have to do with Maya Angelou and with, when it comes to religion, her great popularizer — Oprah?

Angelou lived a roller-coaster of a life and she ended up being a religious voice, as much as anything else. What kind of religion? It was a mixture of African-American religion, readings in deeply religious literature and Unity Church, a New Thought movement that I have heard referred to as a prime example of the “old” New Age.

In other words, some would see this as a kind of lowest-common-denominator religion branching off of Christian roots. A kind of mystical civil religion? Here is an interesting take on that from the conservative Catholic Peggy Noonan at The Wall Street Journal:

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Specific notes of hope, along with the horrors in Nigeria

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I don’t want to turn this into a trend, or anything. Heaven forbid. However, the honorable Bobby Ross Jr. just produced a positive post (horrors) about a news report on Nigeria in The Wall Street Journal and now I am going to do the same thing (horrors 2.0) about a news feature in The Washington Post, also about recent events in Nigeria.

Why “horrors”?

Primarily because, as a rule, GetReligion readers rarely forward or plug positive posts in social media and the same general principle applies, alas, for digital networking when a topic is linked to foreign news topics. So positive reports about foreign news? That’s very bad for social-media statistics.

But here we go again. In this case, it is also no big surprise that I am praising a news report by veteran Post foreign correspondent Pamela Constable, who over the years, including in her books, has shown a high degree of sensitivity to the role of religion in other cultures, especially when touching on topics linked to women and family life.

Thus, I recommend to all her story that ran under this headline: “Ni­ger­ian blasts, likely intended to foster discord, instead promote unity.”

The basic theme is stated right here in the headline. What makes the story work are the careful details. In particular, I liked how she illustrated one of the important trends in Nigeria that rarely shows up in mainstream reports, which is the degree to which an explosion of Pentecostal Christianity has changed the face of Christianity in many parts of Africa.

Thus, we are talking about a head-on collision between to growing, driven forms of faith — Pentecostal Christianity and more intense forms of Islam — in the line between southern and northern Nigeria is the ultimate religious and tribal crossroads. So there are positive developments in the wake of the Jos market bombings? Really?

While both Muslim and Christian residents here Wednesday acknowledged their history of mutual grudges and resentments, they expressed similar revulsion and anger at the bombing. Many instantly attributed it to the extreme Islamist group Boko Haram, which has staged other attacks in this region but has not claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s blasts.

“To be honest, there is still some suspicion between Muslims and Christians here. We don’t generally get together, but none of us believe in this insanity,” said Michael Tyem, 22, a Christian working with a crew to pick up rubble. “We know these terrorists want to divide us and destroy our country. It cannot be allowed to happen.”

OK, here come some of the specifics that caught my eye:

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About that prophetic USA Today story grilling Mark Jackson

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It’s time for a quick trip into my very large folder of GetReligion guilt, that place where I put stories that I think deserve attention — once I get done with the news of the day. And then a day turns into a week and then a week into two weeks and so forth and so on.

So let’s flash back to the recent NBA series between the Los Angeles Clippers and coach Doc Rivers and the Golden State Warriors and their coach, The Rev. Mark Jackson. Yes, “the Rev.” That series led to a very interesting, some would say prophetic, USA Today story about a quiet, behind the scenes controversy in professional basketball. Here’s the top of the story:

Long before Doc Rivers found himself defending his Los Angeles Clippers players who were the unwelcome participants in team owner Donald Sterling’s racist comments all week, he was concerned about another sensitive subject.

Religion.

It was late 1999, the start of Rivers’ first season as coach of the Orlando Magic, and he saw a situation in the locker room that he felt needed to be addressed. As his players took part in the pre-game prayer that was part of their routine — with veteran point guard Darrell Armstrong handling the message like always, future New Orleans Pelicans coach Monty Williams serving as unofficial co-messenger and the entire team standing in a circle — Rivers noticed something he didn’t like.

“I looked up in one of the prayers, and Tariq (Abdul-Wahad) had his arms folded, and you could see that he was really uncomfortable with it,” Rivers … told USA TODAY Sports.

Rivers made the decision, with a Muslim believer on his team, to shut down the prayers, saying that his players should keep their religious devotions private. The very next paragraph was what caught my attention.

Rivers calls himself a “very religious” man, having grown up in the Second Baptist Church in Maywood, Ill., and praying on his knees every night in his home to this day. But he prefers to practice privately and is quick to note that he has attended church only for funerals the past 15 years.

Now, no matter how you look at it, that’s a very interesting paragraph full of mixed signals. Why has this strong believer stopped going to church? What was the big idea that the USA Today team was trying to communicate? And what did this have to do with the Golden State series?

Well maybe this is the connection:

This NBA season has been unprecedented when it comes to the blending of basketball and unresolved social issues — from Jason Collins becoming the first openly gay athlete to play in a major professional league to Royce White, who has dealt with mental illness, to the Sterling situation — there has been a widespread push for increased tolerance on all fronts. Yet the conversation about religion and how it’s best handled by coaches and players remains fluid.

With Rivers handling his work world one way and Warriors coach/ordained minister Mark Jackson another, there’s no better sign of the breadth of this debate than this particular series. After all, their growing rivalry reached this point in part because of an Oct. 31, 2013 controversy over pre-game chapel and the Clippers’ decision to break league-wide tradition and force the Warriors to pray on their own.

Now, both of these teams include players with very high profiles as Christian believers. That’s not the issue here. The very first time I read this story I wondered if there was some bigger religion-linked issue that the USA Today team was trying to address, if only by circling around and around it without being specific.

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About those Nigerian Christian girls, chanting in Arabic

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As I have said many times, I have no idea how foreign correspondents do the work that they do, especially when working in regions that are being torn apart by civil war and complex events linked to terrorism. While readers tend to see events in terms of good guys and terrorists, the reporters on the ground know that reality is much more complex than that.

The events unfolding in the overwhelmingly Muslim northeast corner of Nigeria are a perfect example of this, once you dig deeper than the Twitter #bringbackourgirls hashtag and the vague words of various government spokespersons.

Consider, for example, the role of Islam on both sides of this story. Over and over, your GetReligionistas note the accuracy of the post-9/11 media mantra “there is no one Islam.” That is absolutely true, yet many journalists have hesitated to cover the complex and often violent divisions inside this major world religion.

Think this through for a minute. At the very least, you have four different “Muslim” camps in this kidnapping story.

* Obviously, you have Boko Haram and its hellish, truly radical take on sharia law and Islam.

* Then you have, at the other extreme, the small number of Muslim families who were willing to enroll their daughters in the non-Islamic Chibok Government Girls Secondary School, in a heavily Christian corner of the primarily Muslim northern half of Nigeria. A dozen or more of the kidnapped girls were Muslims, while the vast majority have been identified as Christians or animists.

* However, it’s important to remember that many radical Islamists in Nigeria and abroad — those who seek a strong form of sharia law — clearly oppose Boko Haram’s fiercely violent methods and have rejected, in particular, the kidnapping of these girls. So that’s a third camp.

* Finally, there are those who could be called the mainstream Muslims of northern Nigeria, those who work with the regional government, the local police and the military. I do not know quite how to describe their faith perspective, but it clearly represents an approach different than the various Islamist groups. Yes, this could overlap with the viewpoint of the Muslim parents in my second camp.

Why bring this up? This past week, I read two news reports that seemed to offer radically different, even clashing, takes on a crucial recent development, the release of the video claiming to show some of the kidnapped girls, wearing hijabs and chanting Islamic prayers in Arabic. One story ran in The New York Times and the other at a religious outlet, Baptist Press. First, here is a crucial section of the Times piece, the lede anecdote:

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