Mothers important to faith, of course

mother praying with childThe Canton Repository, a Canton, Ohio, daily newspaper, has a story on Mother’s Day consisting of a series of quotes from a broad spectrum of individuals representing different religious faiths stating the obvious: mothers play an important part in religious upbringing.

For the obligatory newspaper story on the sacred Sunday that is Mother’s Day, the article has a unique perspective, but the information coming out of the story is anything but novel. Stringing together a bunch of quotes from individuals of different faiths is rarely the best approach in terms of informing readers:

For most people, their first introduction to God, spirituality and other matters of faith, starts with their mother.

Often, those lessons come by example.

“I learned more about faith and God from my mother’s actions than from her instructions,” said Ruwaida Salem of North Canton. “My mother taught me the values of faith and created an environment of God-consciousness in our home. In turn, this foundation has been the foundation of my spirituality ever since. From her, I learned techniques for how to apply that God-consciousness environment with my own children … She also taught me how to pray to God.”

I’m not sure what a “God-conscious environment” is, but I’m sure with a few follow-up questions, the reporter would have been able to inform readers. But it’s the next paragraph that jumped out at me:

Salem said her mother also made an extra effort to ensure she could read the Koran in Arabic by tutoring her at home, and both parents embraced the Islamic principal of gender equality.

I am not an expert in Islam, but I do not think it is journalistically appropriate for an objective news/feature story to state as a matter of fact that gender equality is an Islamic principle. First of all, what does gender equality mean? Equality can mean many things.

Secondly, how can gender equality be an Islamic principle if a large powerful Muslim nation forbids women from driving? Reasonable people can disagree of course. A slight re-phrase of that sentence — such as stating that the “parents embraced the principle of gender equality that they believe is embraced by Islam” — would fix the problem.

The rest of the story is slightly less bland. A bit of history would have helped provide some context to the story because mothers imparting faith into their children is an old story that certainly should not be forgotten.

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The War on Whitsunday

pentecostToday is Pentecost, one of the three chief festivals in the Western Christian church year. It would be hard to imagine a complete lack of coverage of Christmas or Easter but Pentecost, the least commercial or secularized of the three days, doesn’t receive much media coverage at all. I don’t have any statistics to back this up but I think that media coverage is particularly sparse during those years, like 2008, that the High Holy Day of Mothers coincides with Pentecost.

Perhaps because Pentecost isn’t celebrated in the home as much as Christmas and Easter, reporters have trouble writing about the day which marks the birthday of the Christian Church. Of the media outlets that even mentioned Pentecost, also called Whitsunday, most simply published personal essays from religious adherents. The Times (U.K.) ran an interesting and thorough essay from the Right Rev. Dr Geoffrey Rowell, Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe. It’s probably one of the few times a piece was headlined, “The celestial fire that brings us new life and inspiration.”

The Columbia Missourian actually had a detailed explanation of the origins of Pentecost:

Although Pentecost is largely regarded as a Christian holiday, it has Jewish roots.

It was during the Jewish festival of Shavuot, which is associated with the spring harvest and marks the day Moses received the Torah from God on Mount Sinai — that the Holy Spirit came down to spread the good news about Jesus Christ.

According the second chapter of Acts in the Bible, as Jesus’ apostles celebrated Shavuot, the Holy Spirit appeared, marking the beginning of the Christian church’s mission.

The piece even mentioned the symbols, traditions and celebrations of Pentecost. The hymns it says are most popular are not ones I’m familiar with:

“Breathe on me breath of God,” “There’s a spirit in the air,” “Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me” and “O Breath of Life, come sweeping through us” are among the most popular.

I love Pentecost hymns but don’t recognize those, even after a YouTube perusal. (Today we sang one of my favorites, which we also sang at my wedding: “To God the Holy Spirit, Let Us Pray.”) I would quibble about what makes the cited hymns so popular but I won’t. I’m too excited that a reporter would think to include hymns in a story about popular liturgical celebrations.

Hank Arends, a retired religion reporter, writes a weekly column for Oregon’s Statesman-Journal. For this week, he wrote about the lack of attention paid to Pentecost:

The Rev. Don Shaw of John Knox Presbyterian Church in Keizer once did an informal survey among those who were not active church attendees.

His request: “Identify the three major Christian holidays.” Most easily named Christmas and Easter, with blank looks and answers like Thanksgiving and Lent for the third.

“Not one of those I questioned came up with Pentecost,” Shaw said. He pointed out that the church holy day falls on the seventh Sunday after Easter and “marks the birth of the church.

“So why is Pentecost unknown in our culture, while Christmas and Easter are widely acknowledged? I believe the answer lies in the very nature of Pentecost.”

The pastor said while Christmas and Easter remember the one time events of a birth and resurrection, Pentecost recalls the power of the Holy Spirit coming upon the early church and is “ongoing and continuous.”

Holly Andres, a staff writer for the LA Daily News, used Pentecost as a hook to talk about a local congregation with an interesting approach:

Furious winds and flames overhead are not what the parishioners at St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Rite Catholic Church would ever want to experience at their Chatsworth building near the brush-fire prone Santa Susana Mountains.

Except for this Sunday, when it might be thrilling for them to personally experience what Jesus’ Apostles did on Pentecost, which the parish will celebrate Sunday.

Pentecost, which comes 50 days after Easter, is the day Christians believe the Holy Spirit descended and brought spiritual gifts to the Apostles and then, ever since, to anyone who affirms to be a Christian.

“There was a sound like a rushing, mighty wind. There were tongues of flames over their heads. Then the Apostles were speaking in tongues,” said the Very Rev. Anthony F. Rasch from St. Mary. “Our Lord said he would send the Spirit to remind them (of his teachings) and lead them to all truth.”

The small congregation worships God in an historic cemetery chapel and uses the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. I love the way the reporter used the hook of a major church festival to discuss this liturgical congregation.

The three pieces I highlighted here were fine and good. Pentecost is difficult to cover since it has no secular or commercial angle. It is also not celebrated by Christians themselves as much as Christmas or Easter. But perhaps reporters — other than those in the Catholic press — can do a bit better on this in the future.

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All those hillbillies are bigots

hillbillies 01 It’s no secret that Barack Obama fared poorly among white-working class voters in the Indiana primary. Why did he not win them over? Thomas M. DeFrank of The New York Daily News knows — Joe Six-Pack is a religious bigot:

While the case for Hillary Clinton to stay in the race is shakier than ever, one ugly reason for staying in could be found Tuesday amid the ruddy, sun-kissed Hoosiers who cheered her on to victory at the Indianapolis Speedway.

With Clinton posing alongside pioneering Indy speedster Sarah Fisher, there were almost no African-Americans to be seen. Many in the white, working-class crowd were simply not ready to back Barack Obama – for reasons that are disturbing.

“I’m kind of still up in the air between McCain and Hillary,” said Jason Jenkins, 32, who cited information from a hoax e-mail as a reason to spurn Obama.

“I’ll be honest with you. Barack scares the hell out of me,”he said. “He swore on the Koran.”

Obama did manage to pull in many white voters, but still encountered similar sentiments from a man who refused to shake his hand at a diner in Greenwood, Ind.

“I can’t stand him,” the man said. “He’s a Muslim. He’s not even pro-American as far as I’m concerned.”

Give DeFrank some credit. He talked to ordinary voters, and he got revealing quotes from them about religion. Neither is an easy task.

Yet it is outrageous for DeFrank to assert that the two men represent the sentiments of all white-working class voters. It’s nothing more than a smear. (DeFrank’s alternative explanations — that Joe Six Pack was mortified by the Rev. Wright or is a racist — are no less assuring).

DeFrank gives his readers no evidence that the two voters’ views are widespread. He offers no statistical or survey data. He did not talk to a representative sample of white-working class voters or even a small sample. He simply implies that the part stands for the whole.

This journalism is beneath a man of DeFrank’s prestige.

His story also inspires speculation about whether national-class reporters give, as one Hoosier Democrat sang, a damn about the Jackie Browns of this world.

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Are there churches in Middletown?

muncie, ind.The economy is big news these days. The rising gas prices and increasing number of foreclosures are important stories throughout the Midwest. When Indiana became a key state in the Democratic primary a few weeks ago, religion and the culture war issues took a back seat to economic plans, job growth issues and ideas about how to lower gas prices. Even Barack Obama’s Rev. Wright issues seemed to drop off the radar in the days before Tuesday’s election.

But religious issues should never be so far removed from the public discussion that a 1,600-word article on the state of Middle America not mention religious issues at least once.

On Tuesday, The Washington Post‘s style section had a remarkably straightforward article on Muncie, Ind. Unless I’m missing something, there is no snark, but neither is there any mention of religion. Coming away from this article one would think that Muncie, Ind., doesn’t have any churches or people who believe in God:

On the eve of the Indiana primary, does Muncie have anything to tell America? (And is it sick of being asked?)

“I don’t know what to tell you about Muncie, but it’s a dying town,” says Ron Cantrell, working the cash register of a dusty liquor store on the south side of town, where things are bleakest. “It’s almost dead. It’s like a cockroach lying there with its legs in the air.”

Muncie looks okay from certain angles, kind of like America. North of the White River, which bisects Muncie, things are pretty good. There’s Ball State University and Ball Memorial Hospital, both large employers. There’s Muncie Mall and the big-box stores, and — why would anyone shop in Muncie’s historic downtown anymore? How could those little shops possibly compare with Wal-Mart?

By leaving out religion, the article gives the impression that Muncie doesn’t have anything to tell America about God or their churches.

In a slideshow attached to the on-line version of the article, there is a photograph of a church, so we know the reporters were aware of at least one house of worship. I have limited personal experience in Muncie, Ind., but friends of mine who grew up there would say that there are churches in Muncie that are apart of the community.

As newspapers shrink and reporting staffs dwindle, it becomes more important for reporters from every section of the newspaper to be aware of the religious issues in the stories they cover. This article was focused primarily on economic issues in Muncie, but that shouldn’t mean religion should be left out.

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Why Oprah left and Obama stayed

obama and wrightNews reporters are starting to step up to the challenge of exploring the complicated issue of why a person joins a church. A pair of articles published this week explore both sides of the coin that is a person’s decision to attend the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

On one side, Sunday’s The Chicago Tribune an article exploring “what led Obama to Wright’s church.” On the other side, Newsweek asks why afternoon television talk show star “Oprah Winfrey left Rev. Wright’s church.”

Here’s the heart of the Tribune‘s news analysis:

But in Chicago, the choice to attend Trinity for so long is a little less of a puzzle, given Obama and Wright’s shared history on the city’s South Side and the spiritual and cultural haven the church and pastor offered the aspiring politician.

Membership at Trinity is often taken as a progressive credential, a sign that a person is attuned to issues of social justice and equality and supportive of issues important to its gay and lesbian members.

“Rev. Wright is more sophisticated intellectually than many pastors,” said Kwame Raoul, the state senator who took Obama’s place in the Illinois legislature and who is a member at Trinity. “He’s well-read, he takes the theology seriously. He doesn’t just make quick references to the Bible but offers a very deep analysis and an application to current events.”

Shocking isn’t it, that Obama sought out a liberal/progressive church?

But his choice of church — as tmatt stressed the other day — shows a rather strategic decision. Obama intended to avoid what the article puts forward as the less intellectually “sophisticated” pastors in America’s black churches. As for what it takes to be considered sophisticated, the Tribune explains:

Theologically, Trinity has always stood apart from the constellation of black churches in Chicago, many of which offer a more socially conservative message. Wright questions the common sense of Scripture, ordains women, defends gay rights and preaches a theology of black liberation, which seeks to make the gospel relevant to the black experience.

Rev. Dwight Hopkins, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a longtime member of Trinity, said Wright has always defied boundaries by cultivating an array of black religious traditions. Visitors on a typical Sunday morning might see and hear flavors of Pentecostal worship, prophetic preaching, political activism, self-empowerment and individual salvation and healing.

Those paragraphs are so packed with the need for explanation. What exactly does it mean for Wright, a very informed pastor theologically, to question “the common sense of Scripture?” Could there be a more vague way of stating what a person believes about what the Bible says? Since what a Christian believes about the Bible is pretty close to the heart of what one believes, vague undefined language is not good enough. A better explanation is needed.

As for Oprah, her decision to leave Wright’s church seems to be motivated by even more self-interest than the aspiring politician’s reasons for joining the church. Oprah, who has endorsed and campaigned for Obama, wanted to set up her own church:

According to two sources, Winfrey was never comfortable with the tone of Wright’s more incendiary sermons, which she knew had the power to damage her standing as America’s favorite daytime talk-show host. “Oprah is a businesswoman, first and foremost,” said one longtime friend, who requested anonymity when discussing Winfrey’s personal sentiments. “She’s always been aware that her audience is very mainstream, and doing anything to offend them just wouldn’t be smart. She’s been around black churches all her life, so Reverend Wright’s anger-filled message didn’t surprise her. But it just wasn’t what she was looking for in a church.” Oprah’s decision to distance herself came as a surprise to Wright, who told Christianity Today in 2002 that when he would “run into her socially … she would say, ‘Here’s my pastor!’ ” (Winfrey declined to comment. A Harpo Productions spokesperson would not confirm her reasons for leaving the church.)

But Winfrey also had spiritual reasons for the parting. In conversations at the time with a former business associate, who also asked for anonymity, Winfrey cited her fatigue with organized religion and a desire to be involved with a more inclusive ministry. In time, she found one: her own. “There is the Church of Oprah now,” said her longtime friend, with a laugh. “She has her own following.”

It’s great that journalists are starting to take a closer look at why Obama joined Wright’s church. It’s also interesting to compare him to why someone like Oprah would leave Wright’s church.

Obama’s motivation for joining seems pretty well established. He wanted to be apart of a liberal church that was active in helping others in inner city Chicago.

The next question to answer is whether American voters will hold this decision against him and see it as a flaw in his judgment. As Indiana demonstrated Tuesday night, the answer is anything but clear.

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Silence about Obama, Catholic vote

catholicvoter Demography is destiny. For the most part, this apothegm has defined this year’s Democratic presidential election results. It sure characterized last night’s results in Indiana and North Carolina. As Christi Parsons and Mike Dorning, my old colleague at The Chicago Tribune, wrote,

Blacks, young people and college-educated voters overwhelmingly favored Obama, while white working-class voters, seniors and white women lined up decisively behind Clinton, a division in the Democratic Party that now appears impervious to gaffes, attacks and multimillion-dollar ad buys. The results followed each state’s demographic makeup.

Yet one voting group has been a demographic outlier: Catholics. In several states, Catholics have flitted between Obama and Clinton. True, Catholics have been a constituency of Hillary Clinton’s overall, but they have gone for Obama. As Eve Conant and Richard Wolffe of Newsweek point out,

Obama beat Hillary Clinton among Catholics in Louisiana and Virginia and tied her in Wisconsin. But in more recent primaries, Catholics have decisively turned away from him. In Ohio, exit polls showed that 65 percent backed Clinton. In Pennsylvania, Clinton won 70 percent of the Catholic vote.

What’s going on here? “The short answer is, I don’t know,” says [former Rep. Tim] Roemer, who has spent hours quizzing Catholics at rallies and town-hall meetings. One possibility: Obama’s ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. Roemer says that, like other voters, the Catholics he meets mostly want to talk about what the candidate will do about the economy, gas prices and the mess in Iraq.

In search of an answer to the question, I scoured stories from the nation’s major newspapers. Here is what I found: nothing. The Washington Post had nothing on the Catholic vote, let alone the religious vote. The New York Times had nothing. The Tribune had nothing. You know what a whole lot of nothing adds up to, right?

Maybe reporters think that they wrote too many stories about the Catholic vote in Pennsylvania, but that excuse is weak. Almost one-fifth of Indiana were Catholic.

I just think that the absence of coverage about Catholic voters is unjustified. I mean, Democratic operatives refer to Catholic voters, as the Tribune noted:

“Senator Clinton continues to run very strongly among people who are likely to be the swing voters in the November election–among moderate-income voters, blue collar voters, non-college educated voters, seniors, Catholics–and we think the results last night strengthen the case that she will be the strongest candidate for the Democratic Party in November,” [Geoff] Garin said.

With MSM reporters ignoring this angle, I refer readers to Dan Gilgoff’s Web site at Beliefnet. Here is a man doing reporting about the Catholic vote.

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A less than saintly story

pio2 In popular Catholic piety, Padre Pio Pietrelcina is still a revered figure, if not to the extent that he was for decades after World War II. The Italian Capuchin monk bore the stigmata on his hands, chest, and feet. He cured people. He made prophesies. So how will the intellectual Pope Benedict XVI treat the saint and his emotional followers?

Jeff Israely of Time, whose surname I misspelled previously, poses this question in his mini-profile of the popular monk. His answer is … it depends. Pope Benedict XVI may feel differently about Padre Pio than his predecessor:

Everyone knows what John Paul II felt about Padre Pio. But how can Benedict, the intellectually rigorous theologian, dubbed “the Pope of Reason,” sanction such widespread belief in faith-healing and emotional attachments to icons and relics?

The rest of the story is a balanced assessment of Benedict’s views about Padre Pio. But I thought it odd that Israely pulled a Descartes in the story: posing a dualism between the mind (Benedict’s intellect) and the body (the emotional attachment of ordinary Catholics). So did reader Tom Stanton:

the articles references to faith-healing and special powers are just ridiculous and demonstrate a clear inability or unwillingness to even discuss the theology behind the Communion of the Saints. I think it places a false dichotomy … trying to pit the relics of Augustine against the relics of Pio.

In other words, the mind-body dualism in the story says more about Time than it does Benedict. Israely’s story would have benefited from a one-sentence explanation of why his mental category was relevant.

I also think that the story should have explained briefly the process by which the church canonizes a believer. As is, the story leaves the impression that the process is subjective; it all depends on the pope. Now it’s well documented that secular factors (e.g. the institution or popular support behind the candidate) influence who becomes a saint. But the story fails to mention that in order to become a saint, the local diocese and Congregation for the Causes of Saints must determine that the person achieved heroic virtue and that two miracles were achieved through their intercession, although the pope does have discretion.

I know, a sentence or two about theology and church processes can be staid. But in this case, their absence marred an otherwise well-reported and interesting story.

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Hoops, cancer and vague faith

The University of Tennessee’s men’s basketball program now has a couple of religion ghosts following its rather successful hoops program. In addition to the team’s coach Bruce Pearl, who is said to be passionate about his Jewish faith, one of its best players, prolific 3-point shooter Chris Lofton, has suggested that his faith helped him beat a cancer that he has kept silent about until now.

A reader of ours in submitting the story to us said that the story is incredible but fails to discuss in any substantive way how his faith helped him beat cancer:

Lofton talks a lot about how his faith kept him going, and also about the “why me?” questions that he had. The reporter does a nice job with the story, but doesn’t dig into Lofton’s faith at all, not even to find out what kind of church (if any) he attends, what Bible passages his parents read to him (which is one of Lofton’s anecdotes), etc.

I couldn’t agree more with this reader’s sentiments. The story is a great exclusive for ESPN, and the reporter seems to handle the subject fairly delicately. Since Lofton took strong measures in the past to protect his privacy, perhaps his faith is something he didn’t want to discuss. If that was the case, the reporter should have mentioned it to the reader in the interest of full disclosure.

Here are the sections of the story where Lofton’s faith is mentioned:

Cancer wasn’t going to beat him.

“I just remembered my mom and dad telling me, ‘It’s all going to be OK. Just pray about it and keep your faith,’” Lofton recalled. “You’re going to go through tough times. We all are. It’s how you respond to them that counts. It’s how you get back up.

“You’re going to get knocked down. It’s whether you stay down or whether you get back up and fight that counts.”

And make no mistake. Lofton had one hell of a fight on his hands. …

“I cried myself to sleep a lot of times talking to them on the phone,” Lofton said. “You’re by yourself and there’s really nothing anybody can do. You just have to deal with it. My mom and dad kept me strong. They gave me passages out of the Bible to read to help keep me strong. We all leaned on our faith.”

By comparison, check out this Washington Post/Newsweek On Faith Q&A with NBA star Michael Redd from about a month ago. If you’re into basketball, and don’t mind that Reed’s team is not playing these days, it’s a great read and does a tremendous job of digging into Redd’s faith:

How much does your faith impact your daily life?

Every day I rely on my faith to be the best husband I can be, the best father I can be. I rely on my faith not so much to score 50 points or win a basketball game, but you know travel, you travel so much in the NBA. We definitely pray for our health and our strength as we play every night. And you know just praying for that I can be a light for Christ even though I’m playing basketball because I know that’s what I’m really here for. It’s not just to play basketball but it’s to show who Christ really is. That’s my goal. It’s not necessarily to win a championship every year, which would be wonderful, it would be wonderful and that’s why I play, but I think ultimate success is if someone says what must I do to be saved? That’s the ultimate success. It’s an awesome responsibility but at the same time I love it, I love it.

What do you typically pray for or about?

I just mainly talk to God. I don’t necessarily get on my knees all day. I just pray to God help me with me, help me with me. God, you know my issues, you know my weaknesses, continue to cleanse me, continue to purge me, help me to be the best father I can be, best husband I can be every day, be the best teammate. Also, I pray for my family all the time, my friends, that’s an every day.

Obviously the format for this interview is different, as it’s not attempting to be a straight news piece, but the point that religious issues deserve additional question and depth still stands. When a journalist tells the story of a person’s life that mentions faith, deeper issues of faith should not be lightly skimmed over.

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