After more bullets in Baltimore: ‘Why couldn’t God stop this?’

Long ago, I was talking to an inner-city pastor (a priest, actually) in Denver who made a very interesting, insightful and depressing observation about his work. One thing that African-American clergy in major cities have to live with is the reality that — as a rule — there are only three things they can do that will ever be seen as newsworthy by their local news media. They can:

(1) Make a political statement of some kind. Everyone knows that African-American church life centers on politics, way more than on the Gospel.

(2) Start some new and innovative form of ministry to the poor, which would be seen as newsworthy because helping poor people is really all about politics (as opposed to obeying the clear call of scripture). See reason No. 1.

(3) Preach in the funeral of a person, the younger the better, who has been gunned down in their neighborhood.

I added that the clergy person could, of course, commit some kind of crime and that would be considered newsworthy. We both laughed, sharing rather tired smiles. Yes, that would be newsworthy, too.

I thought of that when working my way through a stack of newspapers after returning to Baltimore after a few days on the road. The first story that grabbed my attention was a perfect example of African-American Church News No. 3, complete with an agonizing, and appropriate, does of pull-quote-worthy “theodicy.” For an update on the meaning of this theological term, click here. Here’s the top of that Baltimore Sun story, including the crucial leap to theodicy:

Craig David Ray and his cousins believed they were beating the odds. Growing up in Baltimore, they knew many young black men who were gunned down or sent to prison. As they entered their 30s, Ray and his family members were thankful for their health and welfare with each passing year.

“That’s behind us,” cousin Larry Barganier said he told Ray not long ago as they talked about the family’s good fortune. “We beat the statistics.”

But the gray coffin cradling his cousin on Wednesday was a cruel reminder that the “streets are cold,” Barganier told mourners at Ray’s funeral. Authorities said Ray, 34, was shot to death, after he called the police on a Westport neighbor who refused to turn down loud music. He was trying to rest before his shift as a Maryland Transit Administration bus driver.

Ray’s death left his family grasping for meaning. He was steadily building his life, they said, planning to get married. On Feb. 24, the night that he died, he was at his girlfriend’s house watching her kids.

“Why couldn’t God stop this?” the Rev. Samuel Ray, an uncle, asked. “He couldn’t. There’s some things God doesn’t give us the answer for. That doesn’t mean we lose faith.”

Now this is, in my opinion, a rather well done story in this tragic genre. I was struck, over and over, by the connections between this young man and elements of both the church and civic establishment.

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Were there any ghosts in the Rosenberg diary? You think?

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First things first: Anyone who is interested in history, especially the history of the ideas behind Adolph Hitler, is going to amazed by the twists and turns that unfold in the new Los Angeles Times “Column One” feature about the search for the lost diary of Nazi intellectual Alfred Rosenberg. This is one amazing ride, with the son of a Holocaust survivor acting as a kind of quiet, peaceful, but highly motivated Indiana Jones on the quest to find the Great White Whale of Holocaust studies.

Here is how reporter Richard Simon begins this riveting tale, which has a Washington, D.C., dateline:

Henry Mayer had long heard of the lost Nazi diary.

Mayer helped maintain the vast collection of artifacts at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and knew the diary had been kept by Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi Party’s chief ideologue and a confidant of Adolf Hitler.

The diary was found in the final days of World War II, hidden behind a false wall in a Bavarian castle. Excerpts were introduced into evidence at the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

Then the 425-page diary disappeared. Half a century later, Mayer, the son of a Holocaust survivor, made it his mission to find it.

Simple and to the point. The problem is that the Mayer and other historians kept finding more and more Rosenberg papers — including materials that surprised them — yet the diary continued to elude them. It’s kind of like a ghost.

The key to the story is tied up in that simple phrase at the top of the story, that Rosenberg was the “Nazi Party’s chief ideologue.” Yes, that includes the fine-tuning of the hellish racial, scientific and religious formula that led to the Holocaust. As the story notes:

Mayer and others long hoped to secure the diary because of the prominent role Rosenberg played in the Nazi hierarchy.

“It was Rosenberg, the intellectual high priest of the ‘master race,’ who provided the doctrine of hatred which gave the impetus for the annihilation of Jewry,” Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, the chief U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg, said at the tribunal.

Rosenberg was hanged on Oct. 16, 1946, at age 53.

Yes, the story delivers on the details of the eventual recovery. In this case, there is no need to whisper “Spoilers,” to quote the famous scholar Dr. River Song. However, I believe that there is a major hole in the story at that point.

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10 years of GetReligion: Labels, labels, labels, labels!

It is my understanding that there was some kind of Jerry Springer-esque debate last night between young-earth creationist Ken (hello dinosaurs) Ham and Bill (The Science Guy) Nye.

Let me state up front that I am not terribly interested in what either man had to say.

However, I am curious to know if any of the thousands of religion-beat pros who live and move and have their being on Twitter can answer the following questions:

(1) At any point in the broadcast, was the term “creationist” defined? Did the definition involve six 24-hour days or was the emphasis on God being meaningfully involved in creation, period?

(2) At any point in the broadcast, was the term “evolution” defined? If so, was the process described as being “mindless, unguided, and without purpose or goal” or words to that effect?

Also, was anyone involved in the debate whose viewpoint resembles the following?

“Rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution. On the one hand, this plurality has to do with the different explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution, and on the other, with the various philosophies on which it is based. Hence the existence of materialist, reductionist and spiritualist interpretations.”

And also:

“Theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person.”

These words, of course, were spoken by the Blessed Pope John Paul II.

Which simplistic term commonly used in mainstream articles about these debates — “creationism” or “evolution” — is best used to describe this soon-to-be-official saint’s perspective on God, man and creation? Which label, as commonly used by way too many journalists, deserves to be stuck on the forehead of John Paul the Great?

If there is one thing that your GetReligionistas do not like, at all, it is the degree to which the mainstream press accepts the use of vague, simplistic labels. Want to imply that you accept someone? Then call them a “moderate” (like that crucial New York Times self study noted). Want to imply that someone is stupid? Then you know what F-word to pin on them.

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God, prayer and the winner of the Super Bowl


THIS WEEK, the question doesn’t come from a “Religion Q and A” reader but a headline in The Record, the daily newspaper in the New Jersey county that’s hosting a certain athletic event:

“Does God care who wins the Super Bowl?”

THE GUY (who lives in that county) ANSWERS:

You gotta be kidding.

Spiritual suffering, physical and mental illness, anxiety and loneliness, natural disasters, oppression, wars, terrorism, kidnapping, senseless murders, broken families, kids without dads, homelessness, addiction, materialism, privation, pestilence, prejudice, impossible decisions that must be made, and all manner of other woes and perplexities are abroad in the world. How could the Deity possibly be concerned about the outcome of a mere football game on Feb. 2, no matter how big the TV audience is?

Still. Though such claims of divine attention seem theologically suspect perhaps there’s more to be said about an underlying question: Is it proper to bother God with prayer about life’s trivialities like this? “Religion Q and A” wrestled with a few of the big issues concerning prayer in a Nov. 30, 2013 item, but what do religious figures think we’re supposed to do about “little” prayers?

Personal gridiron prayers are baked into American pop culture. In a January poll for the Public Religion Research Institute, 26 percent of Americans said they’ve prayed to God to help their favorite team, and 19 percent thought God actually plays a role in who wins.

For some reason, football fans report praying more often than those who follow other sports. Fully 48 percent of adults thought “athletes of faith are rewarded with good health and success.” On that question, agreement jumped to nearly two-thirds among white evangelicals and minority Protestants. If that’s automatically the case, the demonstrably devout Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow might be at MetLife Stadium with the Broncos, or might be hoping for future bowl appearances with the Jets or the Patriots, instead of analyzing college games on television.

Atheists smirk at the idea that God cares about who has the most points on the scoreboard. For instance, how might He decide which team to favor? On salon.com, Gary Labyrinthitis commented on prayers for one’s team to win: “There is something basically wrong with God deciding the outcome. It’s illegal to fix sports games … It diminishes the game if the outcome depends on to whom God throws the game. So why do we allow God to get away with it? And doesn’t this call into question God’s sense of fair play and honesty?”

And yet. The God depicted in the Bible is so intent on mundane matters that He numbers “the hairs of your head” (Luke 12:7). The Bible also urges, “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

Everything? Really? Does this cover (actual examples from preachers) a broken toe, lost car keys, or the need for a parking space?

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Hail Epiphany and farewell to Christmas (and white Santas)

First things first: I hope that readers who are into that whole Christian calendar had a great 12 days of the real Christmas season, as opposed to the six or seven weeks of whatever that is that ends with an explosion of wrapping paper on Dec. 25.

Did anyone throw 12th night parties?

So this brings us to the great Feast of Epiphany, which in our ancient churches is the second most important day on the calendar after Easter/Pascha. More important than Christmas? Well, it’s hard to rank these things, but the key element of this day — marking the baptism of Jesus — is the scriptural account of the revealing of the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity. That’s big. In the West, the feast tends to focus on the arrival of the Three Kings at the cradle of Jesus.

To my surprise, Epiphany has been getting a bit more news ink in recent years (surf this search-engine file for a current sample).

Personally, I think it’s the whole photo-op principle at work. I mean, who doesn’t want to show up to put the following into shivering pixels?

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) – Thousands of young men plunged into icy rivers and lakes across Bulgaria on Monday to retrieve crucifixes cast by priests in an old ritual marking the feast of Epiphany.

By tradition, a crucifix is cast into a lake or river and it’s believed that the person who retrieves it will be healthy and freed from evil spirits throughout the year.

The celebration of Epiphany, or the Apparition of Christ, as Bulgarians call it, began in Sofia with a water-blessing ceremony. The head of Bulgaria’s Orthodox Church, Patriarch Neofit, said a prayer for the prosperity of the people and blessed the colors of representative army units — a tradition abandoned in 1946 and re-established in 1992.

Concerning that whole health and evil spirits thing: I think it’s wonderful, in stories of this kind, to mention folk and small-t traditions. However, it does help to include at least one sentence about why the feast exists in the first place and what church doctrine — that whole big-T Tradition thing — says about the symbolism of these kinds of rites.

Oh, and the “celebration of Epiphany” — as in the feast itself — began in Sofia? I think that what the AP team meant to say that this year’s celebration of the feast in Bulgaria began in Sofia. By the way, for the Eastern Orthodox this is known as the great Feast of the Theophany.

Anyway, I am glad to see increasing coverage of this great feast. I am curious, however: If Protestants are growing more interested in liturgy and ancient rites, is this truly affecting how they celebrate Advent, Christmas and Epiphany? There might be a story there next year.

As opposed to that other huge, massive, crucial, apocalyptic story almost everyone covered this year.

You know the one: The whole “white Santa” thing?

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Grantland gets the ghosts in the Baylor football saga

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Regular readers will know that I have been arguing, for quite some time now, that it’s hard to believe that anyone would try to write the story of the Baylor Bears football team, and the story of Head Coach Art Briles in particular, without getting into all of that Baptist stuff. How do you not even mention the faith angle woven into the fabric of this particular educational institution?

Well, the long-read pros at the ESPN.com feature site, Grantland, clearly decided to end that journalistic losing streak.

I am sure, however, that they thought the heavily favored Bears would win that last game. It’s sad but they didn’t (at least sad for a Baylor alum like me), but that upset is almost beside the point after the Big 12 championship and the symbolic changes represented by Baylor’s new on-campus stadium and extended contract for Briles. The double-stack headline had lots of ground to cover:

Can God Save Baylor?

The lovable losers of the Fiesta Bowl

The key to this fine Grantland news feature, by scribe Bryan Curtis, is that the faith element never detracts from the football facts. The Baptist identity is shown to be what is really is — both a challenge to the success of the program and a potential source of its strength, with the right mix of players and coaches.

The here’s the current question: How did Baylor become cool, all of a sudden? How did the relatively small Baptist school end up winning, or even holding its own, in a major conference in the whole big TV/BCS era?

Safety Ahmad Dixon was asked earlier this year if Baylor could win the Big 12. Baylor hadn’t won an outright conference title in 22 years. Dixon looked at the reporter and replied, “Can God save a hooker?”

That gets us closer. Because what’s cool about Baylor isn’t what’s new. It’s what’s quaint and old-fashioned. This is the campus where dancing was prohibited until 1996, a decree that led to the immortal Gary Cartwright line, “Baylor fans did not make love standing up, lest God mistake the act for dancing.”

Briles hasn’t erased that past. In the age of Rivals rankings, he has slyly embraced it. The new Baylor shows how you can marry religion with athletics without committing blasphemy against either of them. It shows how a religious school can be a football school and also a religious school.

And how it can be a normal school, at times, too.

The alum in me (I actually helped cover, as a Baylor Lariat reporter, the 1974 “Miracle on the Brazos” championship team) truly appreciated the fact that the story recognized that Baylor teams have always included their share of party-hearty, non-Bible study types. Check out this nice passage, featuring the voice of linebacker Doak Field, a team leader the late 1970s and on the 1980 Southwest Conference championship team:

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WPost hints at religious ghosts in India’s rape crisis

Several years ago, during a tour to promote The Media Project book called “Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion,” I took part in an excellent forum about religion and the news at a media institute in Bangalore, India. Here’s how I described that scene in a 2010 post that ran with the headline, “Life and death (and faith) in India.”

… I was struck by one consistent response from the audience, which I would estimate was about 50 percent Hindu, 25 percent Muslim and 25 percent Christian. When asked what was the greatest obstacle to accurate, mainstream coverage of events and trends in religion, the response of one young Muslim male was blunt. When our media cover religion news, he said, more people end up dead. Other students repeated this theme during our meetings.

In other words, when journalists cover religion stories, this only makes the conflicts worse. It is better to either ignore them or to downplay them, masking the nature of the conflicts behind phrases such as “community conflicts” or saying that the events are cased by disputes about “culture” or “Indian values.”

I thought about that scene again while reading yet another Washington Post report about India’s ongoing protests linked to rape and, to be specific, the lukewarm efforts by the nation’s powers that be to deal with the crisis.

What does this have to do with religion?

A year ago, during a conference on religion and the news in Kiev, I showed friends of mine who work in the mainstream press in India several examples of American coverage of the infamous incident in which a young woman died after being gang raped on a bus. They were all struck by the fact that the stories consistently avoided issues of race, religion and, of course, caste.

The bottom line: For better and for worst, India is one of the most intensely religious cultures on earth and there are few moral and cultural issues in modern India that do not involve religion in one way or another.

Is it easy to describe the role that religion plays? More often than not, the answer is “no.” Culture and religion and race and caste are all tumbled together in daily life in India.

Thus, I would like to stress that this latest rape crisis story in the Post is better than most in that it at least mentions two of the major religious themes linked to this issue — even if it doesn’t specifically explain or even mention the religious specifics. For example, there is this:

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The second storytelling rule: Get the name of the church

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The first storytelling rule: Get the name of the dog.

So says Poynter Institute writing guru Roy Peter Clark.

For the purposes of GetReligion, I’ll add a second rule: Get the name of the church.

I found myself frustrated with the generic churches featured in a Wall Street Journal story on South Africa’s national day of prayer, held Sunday in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death.

QUNU, South Africa — South Africans filled houses of worship on Sunday to remember their first black leader, Nelson Mandela, whose death last week sparked an outpouring of grief, remembrance and preparations for his hometown funeral and a memorial at a soccer stadium.

Mr. Mandela, who died Thursday evening at his Johannesburg home at 95 years old, enjoyed near mythical status in the racially divided country, and President Jacob Zuma had designated Sunday as a day of prayer and reflection on his life.

South African officials fanned out to different churches and synagogues in what amounted to a campaign to use the spirit of the late statesman to bridge the nation’s lingering societal divides.

“We should not forget the values that Madiba stood for and sacrificed his life for,” President Zuma told those gathered at a church in Johannesburg, using Mr. Mandela’s clan name. “He actively participated to remove the oppressor to liberate the people of this country. When our struggle came to an end, he preached and practiced reconciliation to make those who had been fighting to forgive one another and become one nation.”

That’s a perfectly fine summary of the day’s events. Except I want to know the name of the church. And beyond that, I’d love some insight on why the president chose the particular church where he spoke. Was there a historical or spiritual significance to the venue?

Later in the story:

“I’m worried about this current government but we must release Mandela because he has worked hard for us,” said 71-year-old Beatrice Mathsqi, attending another prayer service in Mqhekezweni, where Mr. Mandela lived after Qunu.

But what was the name of the church where she attended the prayer service? Am I wrong to want less vague identification of the houses of worship featured?

Contrast the story by the Journal — an exceptional newspaper that I praise way more often than I criticize — with the prayer day story published by the Washington Post:

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