Glorious Pascha! The Baltimore Sun gets the key parts right

I keep saying this year after year, but it’s true. One of the greatest challenges for religion-beat specialists, season after season, is the long, steady march of feature stories that editors want you to produce linked to the major holy days in the various world religions.

Easter was always one of the biggest challenges for me, in part because it’s always on Sunday morning (or in the ancient churches, at the stroke of midnight and on into the early hours of morning).

That sounds really obvious, but think it through. That means this story has to appear above the fold on A1 in the biggest newspaper of the week, which means editors have to think very highly of this story. It will also need large and spectacular color photography, for the reasons just mentioned. From the point of view of most secular editors, Easter is also a much more explicitly RELIGIOUS season than, let’s say, Christmas. That’s a problem.

But back to the art issue.

Do you see the problem? How do you get large, spectacular Easter art when that art must be produced BEFORE the holy day itself? And what are most churches — liturgical churches, at least — doing in the days before Easter, when you need to shoot these photos? They are observing the rites of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday — beautiful, but solemn observances that, literally, offer visual images that are the exact opposite of what editors are going to want for that happy, happy Sunday A1 art.

In other words, it’s easier to report about Easter before Easter than it is to photograph Easter before Easter. You almost always end up with something that looks very fake and staged.

All of this is to say that I was rather surprised when I awakened from my post-Pascha (the Eastern Orthodox term for Easter) coma this morning (the service began at 11:30 p.m. and ended at 3 a.m., followed by a giant feast) and discovered that The Baltimore Sun had a produced a quite solid Pascha-Easter story for A1, a package that was way better than the norm.

The focus of the story was on the role of eggs in various Easter rites, but with the major emphasis on the beautiful “red eggs” tradition in Eastern Orthodoxy. The A1 art was a lovely picture of some children lighting beeswax candles at an icon stand on Holy Saturday, with lots of egg art inside the paper. This art was shot earlier in the week when the eggs were being dyed.

The story started with a general overview, before hitting the major themes:

Children pet bunnies and gobble jelly beans. Wal-Mart sells more than 500 types of Easter confection, including unicorn- and space alien-themed baskets. Just a few of them allude to Christianity.

How does eating a package of Peeps recall the man Christians believe redeemed the world by rising from the dead nearly 2,000 years ago? Balancing Easter’s secular and religious sides can be a challenge for area churches.

So you have your Catholic Easter egg hunts, symbolism-free Baptist services and mainline churches with hints of the ancient rites. Then:

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Shocking news! T.D. Jakes doubts something!

“Replate 1A.” That was a favorite dry reaction at my old newspaper whenever someone announced something obvious, as if were front-page news.

That’s what I said when the Hollywood Reporter labeled T.D. Jakes as “a man of God who admits he has wrestled with doubt.” Clearly, the reporter hasn’t read Pope Francis or the Dalai Lama, let alone St. Paul or the prophet Elijah.

It’s one “revelation” of the Reporter’s lengthy profile on the Dallas-based author, pastor and filmmaker. The 2,200+ word story reads like a rambling patchwork of bio, indepth, newsfeature and inside baseball.

In the process, it veers among trade savvy, admiration and more interest in Jakes’ business side than his spiritual side. But at least it seems to get the facts right. Mostly.

It trips up, predictably, on the matter of homosexuality. And it seems to want to make Jakes sound more like a diplomat than a minister.

The Reporter’s reporter extravagantly calls him a “towering figure in the evangelical world” — indeed, a “6-foot-3, 250-pound giant whose low, rumbling voice only adds to his gravitas.” But he softens that with a closer look:

In person, as I discover when we sit in Jakes’ windowless office suite the day after the ceremony, he is a gentle man whose style is more considerate than commanding. He has the faintest hint of a lisp, which softens his powerful appearance.

The article reports extensively on Jakes’ multi-sided ministry, starting with an enthusiastic look at his Potter’s House megachurch. There’s a wrenching but happy-ending anecdote as a former inmate tells congregants how her life turned around. Perhaps a bit too enthusiastic, with phrases like “Waves of emotion course through them.”

We trot through Jakes’ books and TV appearances, but this being the Hollywood Reporter, we’re quickly directed to his four films and his upcoming movie Heaven Is for Real. The story also mentions his friendships with “an armada of celebrities, from Tyler Perry to Oprah Winfrey.”

There’s a brief bobble as the story says The Passion of the Christ “resurrected the religious movie.” That ignores earlier releases like 1998′s Prince of Egypt and 2003′s The Gospel of John. It also doesn’t account for the lack of subsequent films in the supposed revival.

The Reporter then delivers a heavy six paragraphs of biographical material, going back to his janitor father dying when Jakes was 16. We follow his success as a pastor in Charleston, W.Va., then his fateful decision to move to Dallas with its big-city problems.

Here, the story seems to blame that move for exposing his children to urban vices: first his daughter’s unwed pregnancy, then his son’s alleged experimentation with homosexuality. And here is where the narrative begins to wobble:

In 2009, he discovered his son Jermaine had been arrested for allegedly exposing himself to an undercover male officer. Back then, Jakes was circumspect in his comments about his son’s possible homosexuality; today he is bolder. “In a world where we all have to live together, I think everybody has a right to pursue their own life and their own beliefs and their own passions,” he says, “and that’s what makes this country great.”

Um, howso? Up to now, the article has said nothing on Jakes’ beliefs about homosexuality. And if the direct quote shows his boldness, how did his circumspectness sound?

Yet the article goes on to say that Jakes has critics “slinging arrows from the left and the right” on a wide swath of topics — including being accused of “hostility to homosexuals.”

Jakes did, in fact, speak frankly on the topic in a 2012 interview on Oprah’s Next Chapter:

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What would Jesus tip? Be sure to ask … secular ethicists!?

 
Just in time for Easter, The Arizona Republic decided to write about #TipsforJesus.

As the Page 1 reporter who wrote the story put it on Twitter, “@TipsforJesus still leaves $$$, so for #Easter, we asked ethicists — is it moral?”

Here’s a crazy question: Since we’re talking about Jesus, wouldn’t the better approach be to interview Bible scholars and ask, “Is it Christian?” 

For those joining GetReligion in progress, this is what we frequently refer to as a holy ghost. Granted, most of the haunted stories we critique don’t feature Jesus in the lede:

There’s nothing in the Bible to indicate Jesus was an especially good tipper.

But for eight months, the anonymous person behind the TipsForJesus Instagram and Facebook accounts has left 250 to 600 percent of his bills at steakhouses, resort bars and restaurants, predominately in the Phoenix, New York and Los Angeles areas.

As Christians around the world prepare to celebrate the central mysteries of their faith this weekend, ethicists, charity experts and servers around the country ponder slightly smaller Christian mysteries: How effective and moral is this kind of giving? And where might this tipper show up next?

The TipsForJesus diner typically leaves $2,500 to $7,000, documenting his largesse on Instagram with 81 photos of signed receipts and closeups of smiling servers.

From there, the 1,700-word story provides an all-you-can-eat buffet of numbers and analysis by sources representing important-sounding-but-secular organizations such as the National Center for Charitable Statistics at the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.

One of the sources, ethicist Peter Singer, argues that “the most moral act is to save as many lives as possible per dollar”:

A professor of bioethics at Princeton University, Singer is the pragmatist who pointed out in a December Washington Post op-ed that every Make-A-Wish dollar spent on the 5-year-old San Francisco leukemia survivor known as Batkid would’ve been better spent fighting poverty in Africa.

“It’s proven time and time again that donations go furthest when we give to impoverished people in developing countries,” Singer said in a Skype interview.

Later, another expert feels comfortable suggesting that Jesus would frown on #TipsforJesus:

Jesus would argue that you should be giving to the poor, said Dean Karlan, an economics professor at Yale University and founder of Innovations for Poverty Action, which tests the effectiveness of social services policies and charity initiatives.

“So this feels gimmicky rather than actively saying, ‘Let’s look to Jesus to guide us in acts of charity,’” Karland said.

As I read the story, I kept wondering if anyone would raise this question: How did Jesus himself react to an extravagant gift? John 12:3-8 of the New Testament recounts (in the New International Version):

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Two forgiveness stories that are worth your time

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Forgiveness has been making a lot of headlines lately, at least it seems to me.

Pope Francis asked for forgiveness for the evil committed by priests who molested children (for more insight, see George Conger’s post Wednesday). A Louisiana congressman who campaigned on a Christian family values platform requested forgiveness for an extramarital affair.

In Texas, a Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist found “one of the most moving accounts of forgiveness” ever involving a severely wounded victim of the 2009 Fort Hood shooting rampage. In California, the Contra Costa Times reported on the “power of forgiveness” by a burned Oakland teen’s mother.

But I wanted to call special attention to two recent stories on forgiveness.

The first appeared in The Tennessean newspaper and reported on a “lesson in forgiveness” taught by former hostage Terry Waite:

Chained to a basement wall for five years, his only measure of time a mosque’s blaring calls to prayer, Terry Waite didn’t feel particularly close to God.

He’d been kidnapped in 1987, an Anglican envoy and hostage negotiator now himself in need of aid after associates of the Islamic militant group Hezbollah snatched him. His disappearance made daily international news for weeks, then occasionally for years, the irresistible story of a father, peacemaker and man of God whose life was shattered trying to save others.

Every day, as Waite’s muscles deteriorated and his skin grew whiter, he took a piece of bread he’d saved from scant meals, dipped it water and experienced a true communion, mentally traveling to his home country of England, or to Africa, uniting with the worldwide fellowship he’d known. And he said a prayer from his youth that had exceptional meaning now: “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord …”

He’s not a “happy-clappy” Christian, he told a crowd of local pastors and students at a Lipscomb University question-and-answer session this month. And being starved and beaten in that basement, he felt isolated and alone. But faith isn’t dependent on how one is feeling, and Waite never lost it.

Perhaps he’s not happy-clappy, but Waite’s story of forgiveness and his dry wit — he chuckles recounting how he once mistook a Ugandan carjacker for a parking attendant — is resonating with a generation of students who’d never heard of him before.

Read on, and there’s this compelling anecdote:

That Waite could forgive his captors and return to Beirut is incredible, said Kevin Sanders, a Lipscomb student and soldier who fought in the Middle East. Sanders stood up during that Q-and-A with Waite, his voice shaking ever so slightly. “The people in the Middle East — to go back and look them in the eye and forgive them for what they did to you, I wanted to let you know that inspires me,” he told Waite.

In my view, The Tennessean story — at roughly 800 words — was much too short. I found myself at the end much sooner than I would have liked. Still, the piece presented a poignant portrait of Waite and the concept of forgiveness.

On the other hand, the second story I’d like to highlight did not suffer from a space limitation, running close to 2,000 words. In fact, the in-depth report by the CNN Belief Blog is truly exceptional. Given the byline — Tim Townsend, the former St. Louis Post-Dispatch Godbeat pro — that’s probably no surprise.

“Forgiving the unforgivable in Rwanda” is the title of Townsend’s piece.

Forgive me for feeling compelled to copy and paste such a big chunk of the opening:

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Ahhh … a balanced article on religion … thanks, David

After carving apart so many journalism-challenged articles, it’s nice to be able to throw laurels every now and then. This one — a whole bouquet, actually — goes to David Van Biema of Religion News Service for his thorough, balanced article on the newest project of the Green family: a Bible course to be taught in public schools.

We at GetReligion have long noted the fine work of Van Biema, a veteran religion writer for Time magazine. Three years ago, our George Conger mentioned Van Biema’s 2006 article on the prosperity gospel. Eight years later, he’s just as good.

I like Van Biema’s RNS story just for the lede. Only there does he mention the Supreme Court case where the Greens, who own the Hobby Lobby store chain, are fighting the Affordable Care Act because of its contraception requirement. That would likely have been the focus of many other media reports.

Instead, Van Biema moves quickly to the still-developing Bible course, which has been accepted in the Greens’ backyard, Mustang, Okla. He offers an introduction, saying the program would examine the Bible’s “narrative,” its development and its impact on civilization.

The article extensively quotes Jerry Pattengale of the Green Scholars Initiative, who of course pumps the product. He cites Green for wanting young Americans to understand the Bible and its significance. Pattengale describes the first year of the four-year task as a “multimillion-dollar effort involving more than 170 people.”

Van Biema offers a gee-whiz item: pictures in a textbook that “come alive” when a smartphone is held over them. The feature sounds like “augmented reality,” which I wrote about in May when I saw it in a Catholic high school yearbook.

Great touch also in getting input from a veteran expert on church and state:

The Green curriculum “is like nothing we’ve seen before,” said Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and editor of a booklet sent out to all schools by the U.S. Department of Education in 2000 on teaching religion in public schools. “It’s unique in its ambition and its scope and its use of the latest technologies. I think school districts far from Oklahoma will take note.”

Yet another laurel for Van Biema reminding us what the Supreme Court says and does not say about teaching the Bible:

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Vox.com offers a few basic facts about Boko Haram tactics

Twice in the past month or so, I have been pretty rough on the editors of The New York Times, who seem to have added a rule to their newsroom manual of style stating that basic, public-record facts about the radical Islamist group Boko Haram cannot be be published in their newspaper. Here is a sample paragraph from the most recent Times report that I found rather, well, mysterious:

Boko Haram’s exact goals, beyond a generalized desire to undermine the secular Nigerian state, remain mysterious. Spokesmen purporting to be from the group sometimes release rambling videos, but these offer few clues of a coherent program or philosophy.

So what are the goals of Boko (“books”) Haram (“forbidden”) and what is this group’s philosophy?

Well, we are not talking about information that is very hard to find, according to helpful online explainer piece published by BBC, which is hardly an obscure media outlet. I know that I have pointed readers toward this piece before, but here’s one of its crucial passages:

The group’s official name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic means “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”. But residents in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, where the group had its headquarters, dubbed it Boko Haram. Loosely translated from the local Hausa language, this means “Western education is forbidden”. …

Boko Haram promotes a version of Islam which makes it “haram”, or forbidden, for Muslims to take part in any political or social activity associated with Western society. This includes voting in elections, wearing shirts and trousers or receiving a secular education.

So, all together now, the radicals in Boko Haram are repeatedly attacking anyone — infidels and Muslims alike — who are involved in secular, non-Islamic education or who oppose the creation of a explicitly Islamic, sharia state.

With that in mind, let’s look at an online news piece from Vox.com which demonstrated how easy it is to state the obvious, in a story that ran under the headline, “A Nigerian terrorist group just kidnapped 100 girls to keep them from going to school.”

Right at the top of this short news feature, readers are told:

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Is this Bible legislation legal? Quick, call and ask my pastor!

No fooling, the following lede comes not from the satire publication The Onion but from a real newspaper — the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

Legislation that would make the Holy Bible the official state book of Louisiana cleared the House Committee on Municipal, Parochial and Cultural Affairs with a vote of 8-5 Thursday afternoon. It will now head to the full House of Representatives for consideration.

Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, originally filed a bill to declare a specific copy of the Bible, found in the Louisiana State Museum system, the official state book. But by the time he presented the proposal to the committee, he changed language  in his legislation to make the generic King James version of the Bible, a text used worldwide, the official state book.

Um, the generic King James version? Is there a non-generic King James version?

But peel back the layers, and this story just keeps getting more Onion-y:

Carmody said his intention was not to mingle religion with government functions. “This is not about establishing an official religion,” he said.

Still, Legislators became concerned that the proposal wasn’t broad enough and did not reflect the breadth of Bibles used by religious communities. In particular, some lawmakers worried that singling out the King James version of the Bible would not properly reflect the culture of Louisiana. The Catholic Church, for example, does not use the King James text.

“Let’s make this more inclusive of other Christian faiths, more than just the ones that use the King James version,” said Rep. Stephen Ortego, D-Carencro.

Read on, and see if the quote below makes your jaw drop like it did mine:

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Politics, sin and serious reporting in La. bayou country

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As I’ve shared before, I spent a few years of my early childhood in West Monroe, La., where my dad attended the White’s Ferry Road School of Preaching.

That now-defunct school was operated by the White’s Ferry Road Church of Christ, now known nationally as the home congregation of the Robertson family of “Duck Dynasty” fame. Through my work with The Christian Chronicle, I remain in touch with a number of White’s Ferry Road church leaders and members.

Given my personal connection, national news out of Louisiana bayou country tends to catch my attention. The latest headlines involve Congressman Vance McAllister, who ran on a Christian family values platform but got caught in a compromising video with a woman who is not his wife. (I met McAllister’s predecessor, Rodney Alexander, several years ago when he caught a ride on a private plane that the White’s Ferry Road church’s disaster relief ministry chartered to assess Hurricane Katrina damages.)

The brouhaha over McAllister prompted this Facebook post by my good friend John Dobbs, who preaches for the Forsythe Church of Christ in Monroe, La., across the Ouachita River from West Monroe:

I’m embarrassed for Vance and his family, sorry that he made some choices that have caused a lot of pain. I realize he lives a very public life. But we are all sinners, and I wonder how any of us would feel to have our sin video taped and put up for all the world to see? Vance needs to work that out with God and his family. He is working in a culture of adultery in Washington D.C. (does anyone doubt that?) and I pray that he can restore his family and keep his guard up.

Dobbs’ post generated lively feedback about sin, forgiveness, politics and media coverage, including this response from Keith Roberts, minister and elder of the Calhoun Church of Christ, east of West Monroe:

I’m disappointed. I like Vance and thought he would bring a bit of ‘fresh air’ to the process. Instead — more of the same.

And the aftermath of this incident isn’t about forgiveness (any of us can fall quickly) but about leadership.

A man who’s unwilling to keep the most fundamental promise in his life will have trouble keeping his word in other areas (I’ve always wondered why people didn’t see that in Bill Clinton’s case).

I need to pray for Vance & his family.

Overall, that Facebook discussion was serious and respectful in tone. Differences of opinion were evident. But each side was fairly represented. Believe it or not, I felt the same way about a New York Times story this week on how McAllister’s northeast Louisiana district is reacting to the scandal.

From the top of the NYTimes report:

WEST MONROE, La. — As she handed out garbage bags on Saturday as part of an anti-litter drive, Patsy Edmondson drew a parallel to Louisiana’s history of tawdry politics.

“If we grow up in litter, we accept it,” she said. “If we grow up with this kind of politician, we accept it.” Rolling her eyes, she said both were learned behaviors. “We’re trying to teach our children it costs us money to be dirty.”

Ms. Edmondson’s congressman, Representative Vance McAllister, is the latest Louisiana official facing demands for his resignation, after a leaked video last week showed him passionately kissing a woman who was not his wife.

After winning an election pledging to “defend our Christian way of life,” Mr. McAllister now faces accusations of hypocrisy as thick as spring mosquitoes on the bayou. Gov. Bobby Jindal, a fellow Republican, has called on him to step down, and the state Republican chairman labeled him “an example of why ordinary people are fed up with politics.”

A quick aside: What do you think of “hypocrisy as thick as spring mosquitoes on the bayou?” Clever or cliche?

Keep reading, and the NYTimes provides this background:

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