Discussing doctrine

oddcoupleUnless Mitt Romney gets picked to be John McCain’s VP nominee, the mainstream media may completely forget about that major news story from earlier in the primary season: Mormonism. Without that news hook, most reporters have moved on to different topics — debunking Christianity and shark attacks, or something.

But the Salt Lake Tribune is always on the Mormon beat. And I really enjoyed a recent piece by Peggy Fletcher Stack, the paper’s religion reporter. Noting that the president of Fuller Theological Seminary Richard Mouw was calling for more dialogue with the Latter-day Saints, Fletcher Stack explored the possibilities and barriers to such dialogue:

Not all Mormons think Mouw’s proposal is feasible.

The difference between Evangelicals and Mormons is more than theological, says Kathleen Flake, who teaches American religious history at Vanderbilt University. It’s also organizational and systematic.

Evangelicals are only loosely organized around a set of principles; not least emphasizing the primacy of the Bible over theology, Flake says. Latter-day Saints, on the other hand, “are tightly organized around an enlarged canon of Bible-based narratives. These are loosely employed to express personal conviction of God’s contemporary and revelatory immediacy.”

Mouw’s invitation for official, Vatican II-like negotiation makes sense, she says, “only if you think that Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints have a theology sufficiently systematized to speak definitively. It seems to me that neither does.”

Talking is good, Flake says, “but it’s never going to be official, only academic.”

Rather than a boring story about the evangelical proposal and official response from the Latter-day Saints, Fletcher Stack actually takes it to the next level. She shows some of the challenges inherent to dialogue between the two non-systematic beliefs.

The rest of the piece looks at conversations between evangelicals such as Muow and Latter-day Saints over the last decade:

“They’ve been good discussions,” Mouw said in a phone interview. “We really disagree about things but at the same time, we have gotten to a place where there’s trust between us.”

In a 2004 speech before a packed audience in the Mormon Tabernacle on Temple Square, Mouw chastised his fellow Evangelicals for sinning against Latter-day Saints by misrepresenting their views to others in order to debunk Mormonism.

“It’s a terrible thing to bear false witness,” Mouw said. “We’ve told you what you believe without first asking you. . .I remain convinced there are serious issues of difference that are of eternal consequence, but now we can discuss them as friends.”

This bit of color is also helpful. So often we see the mainstream media work from the notion that dialogue can only happen between people who are not dogmatic. All in all, Fletcher Stack moves beyond press release journalism to an interesting story.

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Female bishops: Big story or not? (updated)

TimesLondonOn one level, it is obvious that the Church of England’s decision to raise female priests to the episcopate is a big news story. I mean, click here for a Google News tour of the coverage and here for a regular Google collection. Or, if you wish, here’s the New York Times report.

There is, in fact, too much coverage to scan and critique in any fair manner. So let’s just look at one or two things in the London coverage via The Times. As you would expect, Ruth Gledhill’s report has lots of drama and details. Take a look at the top of the story:

The Church of England decided last night to consecrate women bishops, with minimum concessions to opponents and despite the threat of a mass exodus of traditionalist clergy.

After one of the most contentious debates faced by the Church’s General Synod, its members voted to allow the consecration of women bishops but rejected compromise proposals for new “super bishops”, who would have catered for the objectors. The decisions, after more than six hours of debate, led to extraordinary scenes at the University of York, with one bishop in tears as he spoke of being “ashamed” of the Church of England.

The Rt Rev Stephen Venner, Bishop of Dover, who is in favour of women bishops, said that the failure to agree to create “super bishops” meant that every opportunity to allow objectors to “flourish” within the Church had been turned down.

Once again, this is the same kind of church-within-a-church approach that many in North America are seeking as a way to wrestle with other issues, most obviously the ordination of noncelibate gays and lesbians who oppose the Anglican Communion’s current stand on the moral status of sex outside of a traditional definition of marriage. It should be noted that the left’s critique is accurate that this “super bishops” concept also requires major changes in centuries of traditions and doctrines. Both sides are proposing major changes, only on issues involving different levels of doctrine and biblical interpretation.

Gledhill also sums up the regional, national and even global implications — global as in Roman — of this action.

Catholic and evangelical bishops are also understood to have held secret talks in Rome to discuss how to proceed with unity talks once women are ordained, and what, if any, kind of recognition might be granted to Anglo-Catholics by Rome.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, who urged generous provision for opponents, sat with his head in his hands as a proposal for “super bishops” for objectors to women bishops was defeated. The super bishops would have been an upgraded version of the “flying bishops” appointed to care for opponents of women priests.

The synod rejected the plan even though it had the backing of the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu. Under the new proposals to consecrate women, flying bishops will also disappear and parishes will no longer be able to opt into their care instead of that of their diocesan bishop.

Like I said, the key details are in the story and even more details are hidden in the oceans of digital ink Gledhill — again, there are other reporters doing the same thing — are spilling on this story in the form of blog postings. This is part of the entire “summer of schism” theme that is developing online (again and again).

The Telegraph offered this apocalyptic summation in a blog: “It’s the end of Anglo-Catholicism.” In the actual news story, the headline was just as overwhelming: “Church of England set to split over women bishops.”

It’s also clear that the Roman Catholic option story is now going to be huge, with reports that about 1,300 priests and bishops are planning to leave the Church of England over the issue of female bishops. Click here for the actual document on that threat.

Meanwhile, the Vatican Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, to no one’s surprise, had this to say:

We have regretfully learned of the Church of England vote to pave the way for the introduction of legislation which will lead to the ordaining of women to the Episcopacy. The Catholic position on the issue was clearly expressed by Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II. Such a decision signifies a breaking away from the apostolic tradition maintained by all of the Churches since the first millennium, and therefore is a further obstacle for the reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Church of England.

This decision will have consequences on the future of dialogue, which had up until now born fruit, as Cardinal Kasper had clearly explained when he spoke on June 5 2006 to all of the bishops of the Church of England at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

But I was struck by another quote, far down in the Gledhill weblog, a quote that actually gets at the heart of the various Anglican disputes this summer and, thus, at a theme that should be important to the news coverage itself. This is a clip from the reporter’s notes, posted online:

Moving at last to debate the final motion, Alan Hargrave pleaded that none would leave the Church and said that staying in the Church was the ‘test of a true Anglican.’

Stephen Venner, Bishop of Dover, said: ‘I have to say that for the first time in my life I feel ashamed. We have talked for hours about wanting to give an honourable place for those who disagreed. We have turned down almost every opportunity for those opposed to flourish. And we still talk the talk of being inclusive and generous. The Rochester report said in many many pages that there were a variety of ways in which scripture and reason could be read with integrity.’

Pope Rowan gift presentation P3 1 Note the connection of two different realities. On one side, people argue that the ultimate doctrinal test of whether one is an Anglican is whether one elects to stay in the church. Period.

Meanwhile, others argue in official reports that there must be two (or more) different ways to read the relevant scriptures, doctrines and traditions within the same Communion. The doctrines do not unite. Only the name of the church provides unity and an agreement that there are no set doctrines on these matters — for now. But the liturgical actions of the structure will change (an ordination is an ordination, a consecration is a consecration) which means that the ultimate decision will be whether one can live, doctrinally, with the changed Communion or the creation of some new option that clashes with Canterbury.

Again, this is so complex, if reporters are going to try to cover the viewpoints of those on both sides of these issues. Note, for example, that there are evangelicals who accept the ordination of women and those who do not. There are also people on the theological left who enthusiastically claim the Anglo-Catholic mantle on issues of worship. So the fault lines are in different places for different people.

But there is one other reality to consider: Look at the screen shot of the Times front page for today, at the top of this post. You’ve got soccer, of course, and Madonna’s love life and other sex scandals. There’s the state of the economy.

But where is this historic decision by the Church of England? The story did not make the front page until (wait for it) the Vatican reaction.

So there is the other side of the story. The wars in the global Anglican Communion are, ultimately, about decisions that will be made in the Church of England. But is the Church of England big enough, these days, to make page one in England? Strange.

UPDATE: Interesting email in from Ruth Gledhill, offering some insights into how British papers view the U.S. and this new global WWW news cycle that we are all in. This has been edited a bit to flesh out some IM-style chat.

I think the reason it wasn’t page one earlier was simply due to different staff on night and day desk. Also this morning they realised better the global interest and thus gave story better show. Online is edited as much with you guys over there in mind and we often think here, perhaps, that the US is not interested in the Church of England.

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‘No’ gets no religion coverage

jesse helmsIn the many news articles on the death of former North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms, little is said outright of the social conservative politician’s religious faith. There are certainly hints of it, but even in the Baptist senator‘s home state newspapers, most reporters failed to mention anything of note regarding religion.

Over the weekend, I conducted a rather informal survey of the state’s major newspapers and will include in this post links to most of the news articles I found. Please forgive me if I missed an article or a newspaper’s coverage somewhere. I will certainly note my oversight if that is the case.

In The Charlotte Observer, the largest newspaper in terms of circulation in North and South Carolina, an article on Helms’ roots notes his Baptist upbringing, but nothing is said about how this impacted his youth or his later views:

Helms was born in October 1921, son of Ethel Mae and Jesse Sr. — whom he admiringly would refer to as the “real Jesse Helms.” His mother was active at First Baptist Church, which Helms attended. “Everybody was poor, but nobody realized it,” McLeod said. “Everybody went to church on Sunday morning. The environment had as much to do with him as anything.”

Jesse Sr. was Monroe’s fire chief — and for a short while police chief — and among the son’s strongest memories was his father’s generosity. Jesse Jr. sometimes woke to his mother making breakfast for hobos that Jesse Sr. had rounded up and offered a place to sleep for the night.

Much is said of the senator’s steadfast beliefs, but little is said of those beliefs’ source or origin. The simple question that remains unanswered is how did Helms’ Baptist faith impact his political career and politics?

For some insight, check out the blog “The Big Daddy Weave,” which reports that Helms’ funeral was held at “a decidedly moderate Baptist congregation.”

It’s quite interesting that a true political fundamentalist/purist like Helms known best for his utter disdain for “liberals” and his inability to “agree to disagree” chose to remain a faithful member of a moderate Baptist church that understands quite well the importance of “agreeing to disagree” and supports with its time and money organizations that have been characterized by many (if not most) of his fellow conservative cohorts from the Christian Right as liberal at best and not-Christian at worst!

Quite interesting indeed. As a commenter on the blog notes, perhaps Helms’ personal faith was more complicated than reporters are telling us and/or perhaps moderate Baptists are more diverse than people generally assume.

The Asheville Citizen-Times is unfortunately vague about the senator’s faith, although a book reference about Helmes suggests that at least someone has commented on the role of religion in his life.

Helms is famously known for the “Hands” campaign ad televised during his 1992 race against Harvey Gantt, an African-American and former mayor of Charlotte. The TV spot show a pair of white hands crumpling a piece of paper that indicated the man’s job had gone to a person of color.

He staked out his position on race and civil rights early in his career, when five-minute
Viewpoint” editorials on WRAL-TV made him well known throughout eastern North Carolina. In his book “Righteous Warrior: Jesse Helms and the Rise of Modern Conservatism,” University of Florida history professor William Link said Helms used “Viewpoint” as a soapbox against what he considered as an intrusive federal government bent on racial equality. Helms considered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to be a blow to states’ rights, Link wrote.

What exactly was “righteous” about the senator’s wars? Also, at the very end of the article, the reporter cites a series of individuals praising Helms. In addition to quoting career politicians and the president of the Jesse Helms Center Foundation, the article quotes two evangelists praising Helms: North Carolina residents Billy and Franklin Graham.

The News & Observer, which is based in based in Raleigh, N.C., points out that Helms was key in making Southern states a Republican stronghold that exists even to this day. Part of this involved bringing together “social conservatives” that helped elect President Reagan, but is “social conservatives all we get to define this movement?

Much is also made in nearly every story about Helms’ support, late in his career, for funding AIDS relief in Africa. Apparently Bono played a role in convincing Helms that saving people’s lives was a cause worth his time. Was the role of religion discussed at all in that conversation?

There’s a deeper story here that North Carolina newspapers are not covering about the role of faith in the life of Senator Helms. Hopefully someone has told it and I’ve overlooked the article, or it will be written soon.

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Missing missions

themissionSome stories sort of get religion. Like a second-rate novel, they give readers only half the picture rather than the full one. Take this Washington Post story by Jacqueline L. Salmon.

Salmon’s story was critical of short-term religious trips overseas. Her lede began this way:

Not long ago, the families of Fairfax Presbyterian Church spent thousands of dollars to fly their teens to Mexico for eight days of doing good. They helped build homes and refurbish churches as part of an army of more than 1 million mostly Christians who annually go on short-term international mission trips to work and evangelize in poverty-stricken lands.

Yet even as those trips have increased in popularity, they have come under increased scrutiny. A growing body of research questions the value of the trips abroad, which are supposed to bring hope and Christianity to the needy of the world, while offering American participants an opportunity to work in disadvantaged communities, develop relationships and charge up their faith.

Critics scornfully call such trips “religious tourism” undertaken by “vacationaries.” Some blunders include a wall built on the children’s soccer field at an orphanage in Brazil that had to be torn down after the visitors left. In Mexico, a church was painted six times during one summer by six different groups. In Ecuador, a church was built but never used because the community said it was not needed.

The story held my attention. Like surely many GR readers, I know someone who undertakes such trips; my younger sister, Anne, returned recently from a group trip to El Salvador. I had long wondered why these Christians traveled abroad when they could help the poor and needy at home, so I was glad to see Salmon examine this topic with critical eyes.

Salmon’s story also featured lots of context — historical, economic, and sociological:

Despite the concerns with trips abroad, their popularity is soaring. Some groups go as far away as China, Thailand and Russia. From a few hundred in the 1960s, the trips have proliferated in recent years. A Princeton University study found that 1.6 million people took short-term mission trips — an average of eight days — in 2005. Estimates of the money spent on these trips is upward of $2.4 billion a year. Vacation destinations are especially popular: Recent research has found that the Bahamas receives one short-term missionary for every 15 residents.

At the same time, the number of long-term American missionaries, who go abroad from several years to a lifetime, has fallen, according to a Wheaton College study done last year.

The short-term mission trip is a “huge phenomenon that seems to be gaining in momentum rather than waning,” said David Livermore, executive director of the Global Learning Center at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, who studies the trend.

Later in the story, Salmon adduced evidence that some religious trips are expensive and ineffective:

But research has found that the trips tend to have few long-term effects on the local people or on the mission travelers. Some projects take away work from local people, are unnecessary and sometimes dangerous.

Mission groups also often bring their own experts and ignore local authorities on the ground.

In Monrovia, Liberia, three years ago, tragedy occurred when visitors built a school to their standards instead of Liberian standards. During the monsoon season, the building collapsed, killing two children, Livermore said.

Critics also question the expense involved in sending people long distances. Short-term missionaries pay $1,000 each, or far more, in plane fare and other expenses to get to remote destinations.

A 2006 study in Honduras found that short-term mission groups spent an average of $30,000 on their trips to build one home that a local group could construct for $2,000.

“To spend $30,000 to paint a church or build a house that costs $2,000 doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” said Kurt Ver Beek, a professor of sociology at Calvin College who conducted the research.

Were it not for one major flaw, Salmon’s story was first rate. It was interesting, informative, and well researched.

But the story had one flaw: Its emphasis was almost totally on social work and aid for the poor. What it neglected to emphasize is that some religious trips are designed to save souls.

Yes, Salmon wrote that participants “hold Bible classes” and “evangelize.” But she neglected to elaborate on what those terms mean. The reader is left with the overwhelming impression that overseas religious trips are designed to build homes and paint buildings rather than to win souls for Christ.

This second purpose of missions casts Salmon’s story in a new light. The article notes that many church trips are costly, but what’s the price tag of conversion? The article notes that church trips are increasingly popular, but what percentage are designed mainly for social work vs. evangelization?

Don’t get me wrong. As a Catholic, I appreciate both models. But there are two models, not just one as this story implies.

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Put a cork in it

ChampagnePOPThere is nothing the media like more than to sensationalize undeserving stories. Usually this involves either the disappearance of young, attractive white women or alleged revelations about Jesus. in the latter category, we’ve read that Jesus walked on an ice floe (not water), that he wasn’t crucified in the manner in which people think, that Jesus’ father was a Roman soldier named Pantera, not Joseph, and that Jesus didn’t die on the cross so much as pass out after being doped up.

Usually these stories “break” around major Christian holidays. Remember Easter 2006? When National Geographic argued that Judas was unfairly maligned by Christians? The story was covered far and wide by all the major media outlets. Two years later, the news that National Geographic rushed the story and engaged in shoddy scholastic work (daemon translated as “spirit,” etc.) was not covered in any way approaching the same degree.

The latest example shows the difficulty journalists have in resisting the shock angle on stories. A completely legitimate and interesting story gets turned into yet another thing that is supposed to shake the very foundations of Christianity. Come on! Enough already! Or can the media at least come up with a better spin, hoax or overblown discovery?

The bulk of the story by Ethan Bronner of the New York Times isn’t terrible. Some of it is fascinating. But the spin put on it is regrettable. Here’s how it begins:

A three-foot-tall tablet with 87 lines of Hebrew that scholars believe dates from the decades just before the birth of Jesus is causing a quiet stir in biblical and archaeological circles, especially because it may speak of a messiah who will rise from the dead after three days.

If such a messianic description really is there, it will contribute to a developing re-evaluation of both popular and scholarly views of Jesus, since it suggests that the story of his death and resurrection was not unique but part of a recognized Jewish tradition at the time.

Um, newsflash to the New York Times. Christians pretty much think the entire story of Jesus life, death and resurrection is part of a “recognized Jewish tradition” at the time. In other words, Christians read much of the Old Testament as prophesying about Jesus. They see Jesus as the fulfillment of those prophecies.

After leading with the spin that this table might threaten Christianity, the article has some very interesting information about the tablet. The reporter cautions that it could take decades to clarify whether the tablet is forged, much less what the actual text says. The stone was bought a decade ago by an Israeli-Swiss collector. An Israeli scholar wrote a paper on it last year and a spate of articles will be coming out in the coming year. It turns out that much of the text is unreadable and many of the translations make quite a few assumptions. Results of a chemical examination of the document are pending.

Bronner says the text is a vision of the apocalypse by the angel Gabriel and draws on Old Testament prophets. One of the oddest things about the story, given the angle of “shaking the world of Christology” is that many of the sources for the article are people who want to shake up Christianity. There are no Christian apologists quoted to explain whether or not this discovery bears at all on the Christian faith.

The article explains that the “Gabriel Revelation” describes a suffering messiah. There might be a reference to the “prince of princes” rising from the dead after three days. It mentions that justice defeats evil and that blood and slaughter are pathways to justice. The idea that blood atonement is foreign to traditional Jewish teaching will certainly come as news to readers of the Old Testament. Anyway, here’s a portion of the article dealing with analysis of the tablet:

To whom is the archangel speaking? The next line says “Sar hasarin,” or prince of princes. Since the Book of Daniel, one of the primary sources for the Gabriel text, speaks of Gabriel and of “a prince of princes,” [Israel Knohl, an iconoclastic professor of Bible studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem] contends that the stone’s writings are about the death of a leader of the Jews who will be resurrected in three days.

He says further that such a suffering messiah is very different from the traditional Jewish image of the messiah as a triumphal, powerful descendant of King David.

“This should shake our basic view of Christianity,” he said as he sat in his office of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem where he is a senior fellow in addition to being the Yehezkel Kaufman Professor of Biblical Studies at Hebrew University.

Okay, I get that much of this is just quoting the scholar in question. But I really wonder whether the reporter chose precisely the wrong angle. I mean, among other reasons why some Jews rejected Jesus as Messiah is because they were expecting a triumphal, powerful descendant of King David. And while you have many prophecies from Isaiah and the Psalmist that speak of a suffering messiah, many folks were expecting an earthly ruler more than a “My kingdom is not of this world” leader.

So if you have some ancient evidence of Jews hearkening back to the prophets to speak of a suffering messiah, why would the angle for the story be that Christianity is threatened? Anyway, check out the way the article ended:

“His mission is that he has to be put to death by the Romans to suffer so his blood will be the sign for redemption to come,” Mr. Knohl said. “This is the sign of the son of Joseph. This is the conscious view of Jesus himself. This gives the Last Supper an absolutely different meaning. To shed blood is not for the sins of people but to bring redemption to Israel.

No rebuttal. No response. Again, a scholar of Christianity was desperately needed. Actually, I’m confident that even the children at my church could have told the reporter that Christians believe those ideas go together. (Hint: Jesus was Jewish.)

Anyway, it’s too late for this story to be handled well. Atheist Richard Dawkins and his commenters are rejoicing. Or take this blog post from Hollywood Elsewhere:
champagne400

As Religulous producer-star Bill Maher or “God Is Not Great” author Chris Hitchens will tell you, anything that undermines any religious myth is cause for popping open the champagne. So Ethan Bronner’s 7.6 N.Y. Times story that calls into question the legend of Jesus of Nazareth’s resurrection after three days in the tomb is a big whoopee in this regard. Cue the heartland Christian preacher types who will try to deny and spin this thing for all they’re worth.

Yeah. There’s no question how this story — which at it’s heart is quite interesting and compelling — will be taken. I just wish the reporter would have thought a bit about the spin he put on it. Or, as commenter Chris Willman wrote in response to the above:

Before all the Chris Hitchens worshippers pop too many corks, let’s point out that the idea that this discovery somehow undermines Christianity is goofy on the face of it, however much sober glee the NYT writer seems to take in inferring as much. The New Testament writers didn’t take pride in their “originality”–far from it, they went out of their way to connect the story of Christ’s death and resurrection to dozens or hundreds of pieces of prophecy. So, if you think the whole thing was made up, here’s one more piece of plagiarism. If you think it’s true, here is just one more prophecy fulfilled, albeit one that’s a lot closer to 33-ish AD than the ones in the Book of Daniel. Either way, it changes nothing. But don’t let this stop the bubbly from flowing…

Perhaps follow-up stories can keep this in mind.

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To forgive is divine

rwandaforgive 02One of the reasons why I wish reporters would focus more on religion news that’s apolitical is because when they do, the stories turn out so much better. Take this great piece from Gabe Oppenheim of the Washington Post. The news angle for the story is that a local woman won the top documentary prize at the Student Academy Awards in Los Angeles a few weeks ago. But that’s about the least interesting aspect to the whole story.

Oppenheim explores the filmmaker’s motivation and ends up with a beautiful story on his hands. Laura Waters Hinson’s film “As We Forgive” is about reconciliation between the survivors and perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide:

In the film we meet Rosaria, who pulls up the hem of her dress to reveal mounds of raised scar tissue running down her legs. Hacked and beaten during the genocide, she now lives in a house built for her by Saveri, the man who killed her sister. Another survivor, Chantale, who lost 30 family members, meets John, the stooped gangly man who killed her father. He can’t face her; her eyes are embers. “Remember all your old neighbors,” she says. Yet the next day, Chantale begins working to build a house for another ex-con who confessed his crimes.

For Hinson, it was proof that the “transcendent filters through every aspect of life” and also that the world is really messed up.

Oppenheim goes on to explain that for Hinson, forgiveness is a very personal subject. After moving to be with her boyfriend in Winston-Salem, N.C., in 2001, he proposed to her. Then he dumped her in a most humiliating fashion. She had to sell her bridal gown on eBay and reimburse her bridesmaids for their expenses. The reporter doesn’t ignore the ghost in the story:

She’s religious now but wasn’t always. Raised Episcopalian, Hinson says she didn’t get “serious” about it until after Furman, when she joined the Anglican Mission in the Americas. That group broke away from the Episcopal Church — rejecting its liberal reforms, including the acceptance of gay clergy — under the auspices of Rwanda’s church.

The link led her local congregation to plan a trip to Rwanda in 2005. She didn’t sign up to go. She was frenzied, searching for a suitable thesis topic. But one congregant dropped out and a pastor urged Hinson to take the spot. When she got there, she knew she had found her film. She came back and started researching, planning to shoot in the summer of 2006.

She was so interested in the topic that she hosted a dinner at Armand’s Pizza on Capitol Hill for a Rwandan bishop who was working to facilitate reconciliation. There she met a fellow American University student who was also planning on filming in Rwanda in June. He and his friend agreed to shoot her movie, if she’d provide room and board.

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For most mainstream media stories, religion is usually explored as part of some political drama. But for most religious folks, it’s the basis for their daily life or interwoven with their lives just like Hinson’s. Reporters miss out by not exploring the role that religion plays in subjects’ daily life.

Oppenheim writes the rest of the story quite well. He weaves Hinson’s documentary subject together with Hinson’s personal drama:

The story ultimately appealed to Hinson for its reversal of the genre’s cliches. Instead of being a tale of African ruin and our reluctance to help, it was a “tremendously hopeful” picture of people learning to forgive in circumstances, she says, in which we never could. Hinson liked to believe she herself had learned something.

Two weeks after leaving Rwanda, in August 2006, the belief was tested. Her ex-fiance called, 4 1/2 years after their breakup. “I feel kinda crazy,” she recalls him saying. “And I still love you.”

The fiance goes on to repent of his immaturity and hurtfulness. Turns out his story has a religious aspect as well. He had studied to become a priest since they’d been together and learned a great deal about forgiveness and repentance. You have to read the story to hear about their reconciliation. Well, I’ll just give it all away with the last line:

“Our marriage,” she says, “is built on forgiveness.”

What a great story.

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Looking into a secular crystal ball

0060175761The headline on the Newsweek piece really catches your eye: “The $10,000-a-Month Psychic.”

In the magazine’s scheme of things, this is a “society” piece. It’s important to underline that this is not a religion piece. If you want to be really literal about it, there is no “religion” in the story at all. None. Zip. Zero. Zilch.

Which is really interesting since it is about a woman who is making millions of dollars leasing her supernatural powers (maybe) to giant American corporations that are in the very secular business of anticipating market trends and then making big business decisions.

Like it or not, the story is haunted by a simple question: Is the supernatural real? Or, to state it another way, is this woman tapping into some higher or lower power? Or is she simply a good guesser?

There was one other question that I wondered about. I assume that the millions of dollars that major corporations and celebrities are paying Laura “Practical Intuition” Day are a form of business expense and, thus, tax deductible?

Oh well, here’s a key slice of Tony Dokoupil’s non-religion story:

What exactly is Day’s expertise? While she likes to downplay it as mere “intuition,” her clients prefer another explanation: she’s a psychic.

Day’s feel for the unknown has become a hot commodity among certain high-profile business people, bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for the 49-year-old mother in the process. The William Morris talent agency has used Day to help it decide whom to represent and how to help the company grow. “It’s like looking over at your opponent’s cards in a poker game,” says Jennifer Walsh, executive vice president of William Morris’s literary department, which reps Day. A big Hollywood producer says Day advised him in 2006 to pass on a can’t-miss animated film, predicting it would bomb at the box office. It did. (The producer didn’t want to be named for fear of public ridicule.) A Manhattan attorney who serves as special counsel to several white-shoe law firms has used Day’s insights to help her select juries and anticipate the opposing team’s arguments.

Day says she has made about $10 million over the past decade and a half, working for corporations and for other interesting clients — such as actress Jennifer Aniston and the Harvard Business School’s network for female graduates.

What was really interesting, for me, was that the story never even asks Day to go on the record, in terms of how she does what she does. What does she believe about herself? This could be supernatural. It may be a sham. It may simply be a talent for making 2 plus 2 add up to 4, while the client believes you have produced the number 8.

lauras 2picsOne thing is clear from the story. Very powerful people are paying her lots of money and they are terrified — perhaps ashamed is a better word — to admit it.

“It’s kind of a dirty secret,” Day says of business people who use psychics like herself. She declines to identify most of her clients, and almost all who spoke to NEWSWEEK also requested anonymity out of concern for their reputations.

Day is one of a small but expanding cadre of corporate psychic consultants — the professionalized face of an occupation better known for hokey headscarves and crystal balls. Rebranded as “intuitionists” or “mentalists” — terms more palatable to mainstream America — psychic advisers in recent years have been crossing over into the world of legitimate business, where they are used by decision makers in law, finance and entertainment looking for an edge in a down economy. “I specialize in nonbelievers,” says Day, referring to her roster of “red-meat-eating, Barneys-shopping, Type A personalities.”

Day admits that she is not always right, adding a classic kicker: “If I were God, I’d be charging more.”

As for me, I could not help but think of that famous quotation that is usually attributed to the great journalist and wit G.K. Chesterton: “”When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything.”

Nope. No sign of any kind of faith in this story. No sign of a ghost at all.

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Sports scribes hurdle religion

hurdlesSports reporters are often some of the most closely read journalists in the local newspaper. They are also often the most knowledgeable journalists about the subject they cover. To some people’s surprise, sports journalists must also have an adequate grasp on just about everything else in life, including religion.

Consider the following New York Times article on the hurdler Queen Quedith Earth Harrison’s dramatic Olympic qualification race Sunday. The reporter goes from describing a rather unique 400-meter hurdles competition to a criminal rap sheet, to an unusual religious faith:

The family names relate to belief in The Nation of Gods and Earths, a black militant group that split from the Nation of Islam in the 1960s. It is also known as Five-Percent Nation, with its adherents called Five-Percenters.

The term Five-Percenters derives from the belief that only 5 percent of the world’s people liberate themselves from worshipping a false “mystery God” and become gods to themselves and their families. Some consider it a black supremacist religion; its followers consider it an uplifting way of life.

“It’s really about finding peace with one’s self and really being clean and educated, building yourself up in society where you are known as an underdog, a minority,” Harrison said. “Each black man is considered a supreme being. Woman is the earth, the creation of all things.”

One person’s “uplifting way of life” is another’s supremacist faith. Is that all readers expect to know about this religious faith?

Any journalist would struggle to give readers a full story on this tremendous athlete without delving into the subject of religion. Fortunately, many sports reporters take note of the religious aspects of athletes’ lives. Some choose to ignore it, but most manage to do a reasonable job of explaining how an athlete’s faith drives his or her life and desire to compete.

What are often missing are deeper questions of faith that explain an athlete’s religious ideology. This can be true when the religious identity is unique or unconventional. Too often sports reporters take statements such as “I want to thank the Lord for this victory” on face value.

As the 2008 Olympics approach, I am hoping to see reporters ask athletes to explain exactly what they mean by that type of statement. Perhaps if athletes knew they would be further questioned on the subject of religion, those who are less than sincere would be less casual in making such statements and viewers would get a better understanding of how faith influences an athlete’s life.

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