Celebrating four years

celebrateKeeping with the spirit of celebrating GetReligion’s fourth anniversary, I am sharing a handful of my favorite blog posts. I am sure there are others out there that dealt with more substantial issues or generated more comments, but for one reason or another these are a few of my choice posts.

January 2008: “Old churches converted to new condos” — Old abandoned inner-city churches are converted into fancy condos. The best part of this post was reader feedback reporting from all around the country with similar stories.

February 2007: “Is talking about God news?” — The Indianapolis Colts win the Super Bowl, and Dungy talks about his faith and how it affects his coaching style on national television. There’s not much left to say here.

January 2007: “Ford’s quiet faith was just wonderful” — President Ford passes away and Newsweek editor Jon Meacham gives readers a sermon/Sunday-school lesson on why Ford’s personal quiet faith was a presidential ideal. My wife was able to take a photos of the president’s motorcade as it went by the Washington, D.C., apartment building that was our home for three months.

July 2006: “Rooting out radicalism” — British journalists struggle to understand the differences between radical Islam and everything else that is Islamic in their country.

November 2005: “Missing Lewis” — In a preemptive strike against Aslan and his fans, The New York Times launches an attack against the mind behind the Land of Narnia.

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Dude, let’s crash at the monastery

monks 02 Did you hear the one about the Super Bowl fans who crashed at the monastery? This is no joke. But it is an amusing, if unserious, story in the The New York Times.

Reporter Katie Thomas wrote about the fact that Our Lady of Guadalupe monastery in Phoenix, Ariz. is renting rooms to those in town for the Super Bowl. Naturally, Thomas’ story is about the humorous clash between the sacred and the secular. Her lede is a perfect example:

There is no sauna, no heated pool, no chauffeur or sommelier. In fact, no alcohol is allowed on the premises, and guests share a bathroom with their next-door neighbor.

But for $250 a night in a city where Super Bowl rentals are topping out at $250,000 a week for a mansion in Scottsdale, the sisters at Our Lady of Guadalupe Monastery figure they have an offer that cannot be beat.

In debt from the recent purchase of a nearby parcel, the Benedictine nuns are hoping to make a dent in their mortgage by converting their 10-bedroom spiritual retreat into a crash pad for Super Bowl fans this weekend.

You gotta love Thomas’ details — sauna, heated pool, chaffeur, sommelier. Further down in the story, Thomas piles on some more, noting that the Super Bowl guests will sleep in rooms named after various female saints — Hildegard, Helen, Monica, Ann. By marshaling specific examples of the contrast between the sacred and secular, Thomas achieved the difficult feat of making religion a topic of good-hearted amusement.

To her credit, Thomas’ story showed more than the fact that the secular (Super Bowl fans) were growing closer to the sacred (the Benedictine nuns). She showed that the nuns were secular in some ways. For example, the prioress of the monastery, Sister Linda, is an avid fan of the NFL:

“It is violent, but not as violent as some others,” she said. “Now, I’m not into boxing or some of those. But football, yeah, I like football. For the most part, it’s a down time for me, and a time to just sit back and just enjoy it.”

Sister Linda said she admired Eli Manning and Tom Brady — “they’re both talented men,” she said of the two quarterbacks — but added that she was rooting for the Patriots. “They’ve had a perfect season, and it would be so sad to lose at this point,” she said.

Call me a killjoy, but Thomas’ story was a bit too unserious. She failed to explore the consequences of the Benedictine Sisters’ decision to let rooms to Super Bowl patrons. Might the policy not be an example of creeping secularism?

Having once lived in a Benedictine monastery, I know that monks worry about their lives becoming too secular. Some monks mentioned that before Vatican II, the monastery subscribed only to religious publications as opposed to mainstream fare such as Time and Newsweek. When our group of young men plus some monks met one evening with the Benedictine sisters, a vigorous discussion broke about whether the Sisters ought to be wearing habits rather than secular clothes.

No reporter should be expected to know of such intra-mural squabbles; even the Benedictines, the most public of monastic orders, are not exactly as accessible as parish priests. But everyone recognizes that monasteries are for contemplatives, not partygoers. What happens to monastic life when monks live alongside revelers and sports fans?

Give Katie Thomas credit. Her story was worth several chuckles and smiles. It just did not induce a scratch of the head or a rub of the chin.

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Vatican tells journalists to speak truth

journalistIt is not often that members of the clergy use their position to discuss journalistic ethics. Most of the complaints from clergy that I have witnessed firsthand deal with the way a particular story was handled or how their church or parish was portrayed in the local newspaper. Ministers and priests often reflect the theme we espouse here at GetReligion, that the media just does not get it when it comes to religion.

With that in mind, the statements by Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican’s press office, that “those working in the media have a moral duty to disseminate the truth,” is somewhat thoughtful and out of the ordinary. The fact that the statement is not coming in response to a specific story or the way an issue was covered is unexpected.

That said, Bruce Tomaso of the Dallas Morning News had a different reaction when he posted on the Zenit.org item titled “Journalists Have Duty to Serve Truth.” Many likely share his thoughts:

I read the following on Zenit.org:

Journalists Have Duty to Serve Truth

VATICAN CITY, JAN. 27, 2008 (Zenit.org). — Those working in the media have a moral duty to disseminate the truth, according to a Vatican spokesman.

My first thought was: So do the priests who abuse children, and the bishops who protect them.

Journalists burning out on the God beat are not an unheard of incident. In fact, it happened at least twice last year. One cites his coverage of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal.

There is more to this story from the Vatican than just an attempt to poke at journalists. Lombardi is giving an analysis of Benedict XVI’s talk for World Communications Day which is on May 4. Here is what the theme is supposed to be:

We have to ask ourselves seriously, said Father Lombardi, “if [the media] are at the service of the good of persons and the common good of societies.”

“Often, in fact, we have good reason to doubt this or to be bitterly disappointed,” he observed. Too many times “the media seem to claim not simply to represent reality, but to determine it, owing to the power and the power of suggestion that they possess.”

The Vatican spokesman continued, citing Benedict XVI’s message: “This happens when the media are not used for ‘the proper purpose of disseminating information, but to create events,’ or at least to amplify their importance, to manipulate their correct interpretation, or impose particular interpretation for ideological purposes, economic and political interests or interests of any other sort.

The question asked by Lombardi is one that is commonly asked in journalism school ethics classes. It may be news to Lombardi that his answer may not be the one given in those classes. Everyone would not readily accept the concept that the media is at the “service” for the good of people and society. I am of the belief that journalists are at the service of the facts and what they observe. The good of society is often not clear when the news is being reported.

I know journalists are not required to attend journalism school and some people don’t believe that a degree is even that helpful, but thinking through these types of important issues could do a lot to improve the media’s coverage of events and issues. Unfortunately, the news outlet for these comments did not make an effort to analyze them. Perhaps as the date for the Pope’s speech approaches, others will do some critical thinking on what he is expected to say.

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Better late than never

blue like jazzLast week the Associated Press put out over the wires a news story on Donald Miller and his bestselling book Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. The story was picked up in a number of newspapers’ religion sections over the weekend leaving many readers wondering what took so long.

Don’t get me wrong. This is an absolutely appropriate news story, but you could have written this story about Donald Miller at least a year ago, if not earlier. Christianity Today did a cover story on him back in June 2007, and even that was overdue. That said, the AP story captures Miller’s message nicely and what has drawn so many people to his writing:

Donald Miller still loves God and Jesus. Don’t misunderstand him.

His problem is with Christianity, at least how it’s often practiced.

“It’s a dangerous term so I try to avoid it,” says Miller, who considered giving up his career as a Christian writer and leaving the church in 2003 because he couldn’t attend services without getting angry.

For him, the word conjured up conservative politics, suburban consumerism and an “insensitivity to people who aren’t like us.” He sat in his boxer shorts and banged out a memoir of his experiences with God, stripped of the trappings of religion.

When I was an undergraduate, this book was all the rage amongst Christian and even non-Christian communities. Why are other authors in Miller’s area of thinking not mentioned in the story? A friend of mine who is an undergraduate passed along the names of Lauren Winner and Ann Lamott, but feel free to leave us a note with the authors (and links!) that are part of this movement.

The article does not act like Miller is the only one out there. The ideas Miller is writing about are bigger than one person. The story correctly notes that the writings by Miller and others like him are in response to something out there in the culture:

Some experts say Miller and authors like him are in sync with a generation of young adults who very much believe in God, Jesus and the basics of Christianity, but are struggling to balance their conservative Christian upbringings with a culture that embraces a go-along-to get-along philosophy.

“People like Donald Miller are speaking almost like a prophet of a new age and describing the landscape in a way people who feel comfortable in that landscape really couldn’t articulate before,” says David Kinnaman, a researcher for The Barna Group and author of Unchristian.

Critics call Miller’s works casual and glib and say he strays from biblical truths when he downplays homosexuality.

One such critic, Shane Walker, says Miller forgets to remind readers that Jesus is also a judge and avenger who “wants to save you from his just wrath,” according to his review for 9Marks, an organization designed to help local churches re-establish their biblical bearings.

Overall, the AP report on Miller is nicely done and captures both his viewpoints and the viewpoints of those who disagree with him succinctly and thoroughly.

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Faith on the diamond

josh hamiltonYou really can’t write about major league baseball player Josh Hamilton without focusing on the faith aspect of his story. Even the reporters writing about him admit this in their articles.

Part of the reason is that Hamilton talks about it so much, and the other part is that it is hard to objectively say that faith has not played a significant part of Hamilton’s life. In other words, reporters cannot say that Hamilton is just talking about God because it sounds good. God is genuinely the reason Hamilton is doing batting practice these days and preparing for a summer on the baseball diamond.

Appropriately, a very thorough Dallas Morning News profile of Hamilton is headlined “Faith brings Texas Rangers’ Hamilton back from the brink.” The reporter Evan Grant establishes up front that you can’t ignore the importance faith has played in Hamilton’s life and his efforts to come back to the sport he loves:

Faith. It comes up often in the story of 26-year-old Joshua Holt Hamilton. It’s virtually impossible to tell his story without mentioning his Christian faith. He’d prefer you not even try.

Faith, he regularly testifies, has put him back in baseball after four years of addiction problems so ugly you can’t blame his family for not wanting to relive them. But because of faith, they do — to churches, youth groups and halfway houses.

If Hamilton could shake his habit — it included downing a bottle of Crown Royal almost daily and cocaine and crack cravings so strong he burned through a $3.96 million signing bonus — and finally get to the big leagues last season, there had to be a reason.

Hamilton highlighted the role faith plays in his life when he told his story to ESPN The Magazine‘s Tim Keown earlier last summer. Unlike the DMN profile, Hamilton explicitly states what was attacking him (“the devil”) and what saved him. It is not a generic “faith,” that saved him from his drug addictions. Jesus Christ as his personal “savior” brought Hamilton back from the brink.

Hamilton’s faith has not only saved him personally from his drug habit. From a baseball perspective, the DMN story highlights how faith played a practical role in bringing him back to baseball and now onto the Texas Rangers:

The Rangers spoke to doctors about dealing with addiction. They did some basic research on athletes and addiction. They found, at least on an anecdotal level, athletes who had strong faith-based beliefs were better positioned to stay clean.

UT-Southwestern addiction specialist Dr. Bryon Adinoff concurs.

“If you replace addiction with religion, it’s not an addiction’ it’s something meaningful, socially appropriate and rewarding,” Adinoff says. “It’s typically very healthy behavior.”

To that end, the Rangers wanted first-hand knowledge of how Hamilton expressed his faith. They sent scouts to some of his talks.

“He seemed to be presenting a very consistent message,” Daniels says. “Before he got involved with drugs, everybody who dealt with him thought he was a very high-quality guy. We saw that. I think there are two things that have played a part in why this attempt at fighting addiction has been successful: Family and faith.”

No one is going to question Hamilton’s sincerity when he says faith is what has kept him alive and playing in baseball. Baseball officials seem to believe that Hamilton’s faith is a reason to trust that he will not relapse.

I hope that Hamilton’s story can be an example to other sports reporters of the effect faith can have in an athlete’s life. When an athlete (or coach) cites faith as the reason for their success or abilities, reporters should dig deeper into those statements. As in Hamilton’s life, faith is not just something someone talks about. It is the reason that person is alive.

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New monks are revolutionaries?

merton Stephanie Simon of The Los Angeles Times scored a coup: She interviewed young evangelicals who left their previous lives to live as monastics. Her story was rich with detail and nuance. But I wonder if she missed a major story.

Simon introduced readers
to five young adults, plus their children, who left their comfortable suburban homes for a spartan, communal one. As you may imagine, Simon described in great detail the travails and triumphs of such a radical life change. Here is how she depicted the decision by one of the families, the Porrett’s, to leave the house:

“I’m never alone. I never have time to think,” [Phyllis Porrett] said. “There’s no time to grow.”

Communal life was supposed to have taught her to resolve conflicts. Instead, Phyllis said, she found herself obsessing about every grievance: how many nights in a row she made dinner, or who had scratched her coffee table.

Far from learning to live like Christ, she’d realized just how far she was from that ideal. “I’m not a very gracious person,” Phyllis said. “I don’t love people the way God does.”

In August, she and Kyle announced that they could not keep their yearlong commitment to the house. They had learned they could adopt their foster children, and they wanted to start fresh in their own home that fall.

Yet why did these five adults decide to form a religious community? To my mind, Simon’s answer is inadequate:

The couples came to monasticism out of frustration, a sense that modern Christianity had grown soft and self-centered.

Jeromy, 29, and Debbie, 30, worshiped at an evangelical church with a bouncy six-piece band, but they thought the sermons empty; they went more out of habit than conviction. Kyle, 30, and Phyllis, 25, had stopped going to church because their lives were too hectic.

The two couples and Jake, 29, sought a more fulfilling path in the Bible. They found themselves drawn to accounts of how Peter organized the early church into communities of believers. Members sold all they owned, shared necessities in common, and “continuing daily with one accord . . . did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart.”

In other words, the couples were dissatisfied with their religion and sought to imitate the early Christians. Maybe this is true, but it sounds like something’s missing. Dissatisfaction with one’s religion at some point is practically a universal sentiment. Few believers, however, abandon their former lives to live like monks.

Simon mentions earlier in the story that the couples are part of “the New Monastic movement sweeping white, suburban evangelicals.” But she makes it sound like a fad rather than a revolutionary social movement. Indeed, the movement describes itself in radical terms:

Throughout the history of the church, monastic movements have arisen during times of rapid social change. When the minority movement that Jesus started was flooded by converts after Constantine, desert mothers and fathers went into their cells to discern a new way of life. When Europe collapsed into the Dark Ages, Benedictines carved out spaces for community and new life. When the advent of a cash economy revolutionized European culture, St. Francis started an order of beggars to proclaim the divine economy of providence. Over the past two thousand years, monasticism has helped the church remember who we are.

Ours is a time of rapid social change. We are post-modern, post-Cold War, post-9/11, even post-Christian. All signs point to change, and we know things aren’t what they used to be. But we hardly know who we are. Amidst wars and rumors of war, our global identity crisis threatens to consume us.

This description casts the adults’ decision to form a religious community in a wholly new light. These people are more than a bunch of well-meaning Christians. They are spiritual revolutionaries, ones who seek to create alternative communities in our age of globalization. They seek mysticism and community, not materialism and individualism; prayer and alms, not money and fame; the way of Thomas Merton and Mother Teresa, not that of Creflo Dollar and Joyce Meyer.

Now perhaps the young evangelicals depicted in this story don’t see their lives in those terms. But at the least, Simon should have probed their motives more.

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Church of the Jedi has a new hope

church of jediThe force is growing in North Wales. What started as something of an Internet joke has grown into something more significant and concrete as a group of Jedi-loving residents of Holyhead are taking their 2001 census statements seriously that their religion is Jedi.

From a journalistic angle, I am not sure how I would have treated this story out of the Daily Mail. In one sense, it is an endearing story of a group of people taking their love for science fiction a little too seriously. But then again, Jedi ranked as the fourth most cited religion in the 2001 census of England and Wales and the third largest in Scotland. What these statistics tell us about the United Kingdom is a completely separate story, but it is certainly worth noting.

What this story does tell us is a bit about what the religion’s followers believe and teach:

“We will have teachings based on Yoda – the 900-year-old grand master – as well as readings, essays submitted, meditation and relaxation, visualisation and discuss healthy eating.

“The Jedi religion is about life improvement, inner peace and changing your lifestyle so you have a more fulfilling existence.

“It’s based on the films but we have brought things into it because the films are a bit more sci-fi.

“But we have developed on the film’s teachings, introducing teachings we believe the Jedi Knights would seek.

“We used to watch the films over and over again and it came about from that.”

There will be no chance of their empire striking back at people who mock the Jedi, as they are a peace-loving bunch, said Barney.

Of course, there is a lot more that could be said about the Jedi philosophy/theology (consider this from tmatt a whole decade ago). For more on all of that, I recommend Stan Guthrie’s 2005 interview with faith and culture commentator Dick Staub (ironically just posted on the Web this morning). Staub says that the stories by filmmaker George Lucas are “more theologically attuned with Hinduism, but there are some Christian themes embedded in the stories:

George Lucas created an epic tale that taps into the universal themes of good versus evil, and did it in what was at the time a next-edge use of technology and special effects. The alienation of parents and children and allusions to the spiritual and unseen connected at a deep level with a generation seeking something more. A great story and an advancement of filmmaking combined for a memorable and enduring series.

The other thing that I cannot help but think of when I think of science fiction and religion is Scientology.

Scientology of course is the beliefs and practices started by another (less successful) American fiction author L. Ron Hubbard in 1952. This Daily Mail story does not mention this connection, but that is probably appropriate. Scientology is a highly organized and secretive organization while these Jedi followers seem to be just the opposite of organized and have little to hide.

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Journalists mirror red/blue divide

obama 01 Every couple of years, journalists and pundits proclaim the death of the red-state/blue-state divide in American politics.

In 2004, political expert Charlie Cook rejected the idea that cultural issues would influence the presidential election. Last year, E.J. Dionne, Jr. wrote that “the old red-state-blue-state maps are becoming obsolete.” And this morning, Daniel has written that the hot moral issues that pulled “the pew voters into the Republican big tent are seeming to disappear in the face of the economic downturn.”

Yet those comments have never jibed with my own interviews with voters. When I spent days knocking on doors in Western Pennsylvania, I would frequently get one of two responses: I could never vote for a candidate who supported gay marriage or abortion; or I could never support a candidate who opposed environmental protections. Fewer than a fifth of voters made such remarks, but there were enough of them to swing elections, usually in favor of a socially conservative candidate.

Barack Obama is often depicted the candidate of “purple America,” the candidate who transcends the red-state/blue-state divide. Indeed, Obama conducted two interviews recently about his views of faith, religion, and politics. But all the interviews served to highlight was that journalists continue to proceed from a red-state/blue-state mindset.

Reporter and author Dan Gilgoff interviewed Obama for Beliefnet. Although Gilgoff wrote an acclaimed book about Dr. James Dobson, practically the religious leader of red-state America, his talk with Obama was less than rigorous. In fact, Gilgoff asked about Obama’s well-known line that blue-staters actually are religious and received the following response:

Your 2004 Democratic National Convention speech introduced you to the nation. And perhaps the most repeated line from that speech was, simply, “We worship an awesome God in the blue states.” Did you think that line would have as much resonance as it wound up having?

Yeah, I did. That’s why I put it in there. I thought it was an important message to send to the country as a whole, but also to my fellow Democrats that nobody has a monopoly on religious belief.

No one of course has a monopoly on religious belief. But what types of beliefs are those? To my disappointment, Gilgoff seems to have failed to pin Obama down. The interview makes no mention of Obama’s answers to the tmatt trio and makes no mention of Obama’s views of controversial cultural issues. The absence of such responses might play well in blue states, but it doesn’t in red states.

redstatebluestae Case in point: Christianity Today‘s interview with Obama. Interviewers Sarah Pulliam and Ted Olsen asked Obama his views of abortion. Instead of pulling their punches, Pulliam and Olsen asked the culturally liberal candidate a tough question:

For many evangelicals, abortion is a key, if not the key factor in their vote. You voted against banning partial birth abortion and voted against notifying parents of minors who get out-of-state abortions. What role do you think the President should play in creating national abortion policies?

Obama’s answer did not go beyond the usual Democratic talking points on the issue. Perhaps Pulliam and Olsen should have asked a follow-up question. But Obama’s answer made clear that on this issue, he has not transcended the red-state/blue-state divide.

The CT interview also contained one more piece of news. If elected, Obama might scrap President Bush’s faith-based initative:

So would you keep the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives open or restructure it?

You know, what I’d like to do is I’d like to see how it’s been operating. One of the things that I think churches have to be mindful of is that if the federal government starts paying the piper, then they get to call the tune. It can, over the long term, be an encroachment on religious freedom. So, I want to see how moneys have been allocated through that office before I make a firm commitment in terms of sustaining practices that may not have worked as well as they should have.

While Gilgoff failed to ask Obama about his positions on cultural issues, Pulliam and Olsen failed to ask Obama about his positions on poverty or his health-care plan. I would like to have known whether Obama considered his stands as consistent with his Christian faith.

To his credit, Gilgoff asked about Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, a black nationalist; and like Pulliam and Olsen, he asked whether Obama considered himself born-again. So the red-state/blue-state divide is not the second coming of the Berlin Wall.

Even so, reading both interviews, you can’t help but think that journalists are as much part of the red-state/blue-state divide as voters.

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