Got news? Freeing Saeed Abedini

YouTube Preview Image I’m frequently pondering what makes news and what doesn’t. Take a gander at this Google News page for information about Pastor Saeed Abedini.

It’s not that you can’t find plenty of news about this Iranian-born American Christian pastor who is currently imprisoned in Iran. It’s just intriguing where that news is. Abedini has been held in Iran since the summer of 2012 and imprisoned since September. Just a few weeks ago, he was reportedly sentenced to eight years in prison for threatening national security with his Christian activities.

Read all about it in the Baptist Press, World magazine, the Christian Post and Human Events. There are also items on FoxNews.com and a Washington Post sub-blog written by someone affiliated with “the Christian right.” So you see a pattern here.

It’s not that this case hasn’t been full of interesting twists and turns. You can read over at the Washington Examiner‘s editorial page about some odd ways the State Department reportedly was handling the case:

State Department officials have reportedly hesitated to intercede on behalf of an American citizen facing trial and perhaps execution in Iran due to his “Christian activities,” in part because Iran refuses to recognize the pastor’s U.S. citizenship.

“I recently learned our State Department informed Pastor Saeed Abedini’s wife, Naghmeh, that it could do nothing for her husband’s case because Iran did not recognize his U.S. citizenship,” Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., said in a statement to The Washington Examiner. Abedini’s attorney, Tiffany Barrans of the American Center for Law and Justice, told World the State Department listed that among the reasons it could not help Abedini.

“Let me be clear: under no circumstances should the U.S. State Department allow Iran to determine who is or isn’t a U.S. citizen and who the U.S. should protect,” Franks continued.  “The State Department should be doing everything possible to ensure the safety of its citizens abroad and to defend this U.S. citizen who faces trial in Iran under the harsh Iranian judicial system.” The Iranian-born pastor married an American citizen and has a family in Idaho.

That same paper also wrote up “As D.C. parties, Iran marks Obama’s inauguration by prosecuting American pastor.” Their latest on the matter — “Lawmakers pressure John Kerry to aid American pastor jailed in Iran” — includes this information:

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Scripture verses: reporters’ Kryptonite?

The Media Research Center found this clip but I thought readers here might get a kick out of it, too. You really need to watch the exchange to get the full effect but here’s how one side posted the relevant passage from an interview of one of the Carnival cruise passengers who recently disembarked:

NBC News’s Mark Potter (Reporting during the Ed Show on MSNBC)

JENKINS: No, but one thing I do want to say that really made a huge difference in my time versus some other people’s time is we knew where hope was. We knew the Lord was in complete control of the situation. Our verse for the trip was Joshua 1:9 which is

[Microphone pulled]

POTTER: Okay, well thank you both very much. Enjoy your trip home to Houston and enjoy that first warm shower and that warm meal. Thank you very much. Thanks for talking with us.

I want to say that I can’t begin to understand how difficult a live, on-air interview is to pull off. And I know that when dealing with unknown interview subjects, you want to be careful to avoid any difficult lines of questioning that result in intractable responses. And sometimes those Bible-verse quoters can have trouble getting to the point.

But still.

This is just a great example of how Scripture verses are like Kryptonite to many reporters. The moment this pretty young woman says “Joshua 1:9,” everything changes and you can see the reporter just thinking “Abort! Abort!” as he pulls the microphone and stutters into a segue.

Now, I’m partial to letting people quote scripture in interviews. I think it can tell a great deal about a subject and is also informative and interesting to viewers and readers. But even so, a word to the wise: most Bible verses aren’t terribly long. Unless someone tells you she’s about to quote Esther 8:9, you’ll probably be out of there in no time. As it turns out, Joshua 1:9 is a rather short one:

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

It was relevant to the interview, completely on point and interesting to boot.

A more religiously literate interviewer might know the verse to begin with but either way, allowing the interview to continue and asking a good follow-up might have been preferable to this hilariously awkward handling of the Bible verse mention. (I would be dreaming to imagine a reporter able to tie in this cruise ship’s troubles with St. Paul’s shipwreck in Malta, commemorated on Feb. 10.)

I mean, if you’re going to be doing wall-to-wall coverage of this cruise ship, go ahead and explore every avenue. Even that, to the media’s discomfort, some found comfort in the words of God.

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Westernized Zen and the art of hiding sexual abuse

So many details will sound terribly familiar. At the heart of the news story is a powerful religious patriarch, surrounded by disciples who view him with a reverence that helps support an iron-clad climate of silence and secrecy.

In this case, however, the leader is Joshu Sasaki Roshi, one of the most famous Zen Buddhist monks in the world and a teacher who has had a tremendous impact in American elite culture. Now, it is being alleged (and in some cases confirmed) that since the 1960s he has sexually abused many, perhaps 100s, of his followers in Southern California and elsewhere.

Here is a key passage from a report in The Los Angeles Times:

A recent investigation by an independent council of Buddhist leaders has suggested that Roshi, a leading figure in Zen Buddhism in the United States, may have abused hundreds of others for decades. According to the group’s report, that abuse included allegations of molestation and rape, and some of the incidents had been reported to the Rinzai-ji board, which had taken no effective action.

“We see how, knowingly and unknowingly, the community was drawn into an open secret,” the council wrote, adding: “We have reports that those who chose to speak out were silenced, exiled, ridiculed or otherwise punished.” …

The council of Rinzai-ji oshos — senior Zen teachers ordained under Roshi — however, responded with a public statement: “Our hearts were not firm enough, our minds were not clear enough, and our practices were not strong enough so that we might persist until the problem was resolved. We fully acknowledge now, without any reservation, and with the heaviest of hearts, that because of our failure to address our teacher’s sexual misconduct, women and also men have been hurt.”

The allegations had lingered, literally, for decades and were allowed to become, in the words of one figure in the scandal “a tribal secret for 50 years.”

In this story, the details of the alleged abuse are described with hints, but that’s about it. Where this Los Angeles Times piece — for me — fell short was in its lack of crucial background material capturing the impact this man had on culture in Hollywood and among other cultural elites. This paragraph in particular intrigued me (in part because of what one Buddhist leader told me about a decade ago, that the whole New Age phenomenon in American culture was essentially Buddhism stripped of ethics and moral content):

Roshi arrived in Los Angeles 50 years ago and was among a wave of Japanese teachers to tailor Zen Buddhism to Westerners. He quickly became an exalted figure and opened about 30 centers, including one on Mt. Baldy that is known for its rigorous training regimen. It was commonly thought, Martin and other critics said, that if women left Mt. Baldy it was because they weren’t tough enough to handle the demanding conditions.

What, precisely, is meant by the statement that he was willing to “tailor Zen Buddhism to Westerners”? This would seem to be a crucial area to explore, in light of the ways his abuse was woven into his teachings. This piece is all but silent on this point.

However, a far superior New York Times piece has some fascinating material on what, precisely, Roshi was teaching and doing.

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Water-sipping and pro-life activism. A tale of media coverage.

Last month, we covered the perennial problem of why the March for Life gets the coverage it does (or doesn’t get the coverage it doesn’t get). And various journalists responded that, well, the March for Life isn’t big news, particularly after 40 years, and that the crowds aren’t that big of a deal when compared to a weekend of sporting events. One comment, for instance:

If pretty much the same people do the same thing year after year after year, is it news? Or to what extent is it news? Or what is the news in the event? Particularly if there’s a challenge in linking the event to anything that happened other than the event? These are all journalism questions to be applied to the annual marches by people opposed to abortion rights.

Yep. Big crowd. But fewer people than attended the college football bowl games. Even if you buy the crowd estimates offered by the organizers — and such are almost always hugely puffed for any large event if there’s not been actual data collected — it wasn’t even rounding error in a nation of more than 300 million. What has happened in the US because of these annual marches? What’s different this year compared with last year because of last year’s big march? Unless there are good answers to these questions — and good answers there may well be — it’s not big news.

Two days ago, the President of the United States gave his State of the Union Address (annual event, the words of the address are eerily similar year after year) and a couple of Republicans responded (also an annual event, etc., etc.). One of them drank some water during his speech. I didn’t watch, but apparently it was the most amazingly newsworthy drink of water to have ever happened in the history of the world.

Literally (and I don’t mean that in the Joe Biden sense of the word):

Rubio water-swig replay tally: MSNBC 155, CNN 34, Fox News 12 [VIDEO]

Ahem.

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Turkson wouldn’t be first African pope

Yesterday morning a Lutheran friend sent me an email joking that he was “off Team Turkson” on account of Turkson campaigning for the job of pope. That would be Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson. Now, I realize just how unseemly it is for a churchman to campaign for any job but this may be an unfair reading of an interview Turkson gave in the Telegraph.

Some media outlet called The Week pretty much just recycled someone else’s work into their story headlined “Peter Turkson not shy about his wish to become first black Pope.”

CARDINAL Peter Turkson, the Ghanaian prelate who is hotly-tipped to become the next Pope, has given a candid interview about the “life-changing” responsibility of leading the Catholic Church.

Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, the 64-year-old bookies’ favourite openly admitted he has pondered the possibility of becoming the first black Pope and what it would mean for himself and his church. He concedes it “would signal a lot of [personal] change. I have been an archbishop, which involved a certain amount of leadership, and now having to do this on a world level, the dimensions expand almost infinitely.”

Bookmaker William Hill was today offering odds of 7/2 on Turkson becoming Pope, making him the joint favourite with Canada’s Cardinal Marc Ouellet.

Despite his surprising candour on the subject of succeeding Pope Benedict XVI, Turkson was “quick” to take a conservative line on controversial issues such as gay marriage and other “alternative lifestyles”, the Telegraph says. He said the Catholic Church needed to find ways to “evangelise” or convert those who had embraced “alternative lifestyles, trends or gender issues”.

The article then quotes Queerty — noted experts on all things papal.

Anyway, where, oh where, to begin.

First off would be my question as to why The Week contends Turkson would be the first black pope.

I know of at least three African popes and I don’t believe I’ve heard anything about their skin color. I have heard that Victor I — the first African pope — was the first black pope but I don’t think that’s been proven. Apparently skin color is a more modern obsession. As for Miltiades and Gelasius I — and any other African popes — no reports on their skin color.

Does anyone have a good answer on this?

I’m seeing this “first black pope” thing all over the place. I’m not sure the history can confirm such a claim regarding Turkson.

But it’s that last paragraph that is so bizarre.

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Palinphobia hurts journalism

The Washington Post published something yesterday that it shouldn’t have.

Why? Because it was false, as in fake.

Nevertheless, it’s worth highlighting here for the lessons we can learn from it. The piece was headlined:

Sarah Palin’s Plan to Reach Millions of Devoutly Religious People Through al Jazeera

It’s since been completely rewritten — because it was false — but the HTML for the botched item remains “sarah-palins-plan-to-reach-millions-of-devoutly-religious-people-through-al-jazeera.”

Oh, it remained that way when I first wrote this piece last night, but now it’s been redirected to “sarah-palins-when-politics-and-celebrity-meet/.” Interesante.

The entire hook of the piece was proven false, but the item was simply edited and rejiggered and so now the headline is:

Sarah Palin Tries to Stay Relevant

The piece was written by Suzi Parker, “an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of ‘Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt.’” It’s the same misogynistic claptrap the media have been feeding us regarding Palin for years.

The item begins: “The Sarah Palin Story is a cautionary tale about what can happen when politics and celebrity meet.”

I’d argue that this whole embarrassing debacle for the Washington Post is actually a cautionary tale about what can happen when unbridled fear and loathing of Palin meets journalism.

It’s been bad for Palin, obviously, but just horrible for journalism. It has destroyed trust with many of its readers. It has turned some journalists and the media outlets that publish them into laughing stocks.

Two thoughts, though. The first is that if you are a media outlet that falls for a fake news item on a satirical website (that in this case published the item about Palin joining al Jazeera) and you run an entire piece about it, the proper correction is not to rewrite the story so that the “point” stays the same but, rather, to simply pull the story. The limp correction (since beefed up slightly) is not sufficient.

Secondly, the item wasn’t just false. It fell short of other journalistic standards as well. It included the old trope of quoting a poly sci professor who happens to agree with the journalist. Isn’t that also something we need to get past? How hard is it, in this country, to find an academic that will back up your hatred for a particular Republican?

That Suzi Parker wrote a false story is bad enough. And I get — believe me I get — how much the media are deranged when it comes to Palin. But certain journalistic standards must be met.

I didn’t go to journalism school but I have some advice I’d like to offer in any case: Don’t run false stories. When false stories are run and then proven to be false, retract them, don’t edit them as if they were “false, but essentially true.” Balance out stories with perspectives that are — wait for it — different from your own rather than those perspectives that reinforce your prejudices. Am I missing anything?

Picture of man whose fear and loathing of Sarah Palin has left him on the brink of insanity via Shutterstock.

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Cardinal Dolan dares to tweak the NYTimes

If you’ve paid attention to religion news at all in recent days, you probably know that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has responded to the latest attempt by the White House (.pdf here) to draw a legal line between religious liberty in church pews and freedom of religious expression in the marketplace and the rest of American life.

The bishops’ key point appears to be that this latest version of the Health and Human Services mandate “falls short” of the mark.

The New York Times put it this way:

The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops on Thursday rejected the latest White House proposal on health insurance coverage of contraceptives, saying it did not offer enough safeguards for religious hospitals, colleges and charities that objected to providing such coverage for their employees.

The bishops said they would continue fighting the federal mandate in court. … The bishops said the proposal seemed to address part of their concern about the definition of religious employers who could be exempted from the requirement to offer contraceptive coverage at no charge to employees. But they said it did not go far enough and failed to answer many questions, like who would pay for birth control coverage provided to employees of certain nonprofit religious organizations.

In the eyes of Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who is also the current leader of the U.S. bishops, that simple word “rejected” does not capture the full intent of his organization’s response. Thus, he took to his blog to say:

Unfortunately, there were some news reports today that claimed the bishops “rejected” the White House proposal, ignoring the fact that we bishops said, “we welcome and will take seriously the Administration’s invitation to submit our concerns through formal comments, and we will do so in the hope that an acceptable solution can be found that respects the consciences of all.”

Now, my goal here is not to argue with Dolan on his point about the accuracy of that “rejected” paraphrase.

Instead, I would like to voice a hearty “amen” to the post written by the omnipresent Rocco Palmo over at “Whispers in the Loggia” in which he notes a significant trend — which is the willingness these days of Catholic leaders to use social media and/or the Internet to directly debate major newsrooms about issues of content and interpretation.

Palmo writes:

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Covering opposition to syncretism in a syncretized world

There is nothing more fun about being a confessional Lutheran than explaining our position on syncretistic worship to those who aren’t.

I kid, it’s not fun at all. See, the world embraces syncretism. The general idea is, it goes without saying, that all religions are good and valid and different paths to understanding the same truth. If you don’t ascribe to that notion, you are probably a bad guy.

Civil religion has many components but one aspect is that it rather tries to transcend all religions while including them. All religions and all gods are to be equally tolerated, honored and respected everywhere. One of the most important aspects of American civil religion is participation in interfaith — or syncretistic — worship services. These worship services used to be more about “unionism” — the blending of Christian worship — whereas now they explicitly blend in groups that reject Christianity. It turns out that confessional Lutherans not only don’t support unionism and syncretism but it’s a big part of our story about how we came to America. The head of Germany was forcing joint worship (with the Reformed Christians) on confessional Lutherans and we took our doctrinal beliefs so seriously that we were forced to flee.

It’s a very serious issue for us. And one that most of our fellow Americans don’t understand (though they’ve graciously allowed us in and allowed us to practice our doctrinal beliefs).

We don’t do interfaith worship because of our understanding of the First Commandment, which is a demand for, as one of our scholars puts it, “a radical and absolute exclusivity in our relationship with the realm of divine beings.” And since the first duty of the believer is to worship, this is most clearly expressed in how we worship.

If you are a journalist who is genuinely interested in this topic and why we believe what we do, I’d encourage the book “The Anonymous God: The Church Confronts Civil Religion and American Society.” It’s a highly readable, succinct explanation of our doctrines and how American culture is hostile to our views. If you’re going for the quick and dirty version, I’d recommend (sorry …) my own Wall Street Journal piece on the matter the last time this became a big issue in the media, after a clergy member was suspended for his participation in interfaith worship:

In late June, the church suspended the Rev. David Benke, the president of its Atlantic District and the pastor of a Brooklyn church, for praying with clerics who don’t share the Christian faith.

Naturally, the suspension caused all hell to break loose. From the New York Times’ editors to FoxNews’ Bill O’Reilly, pundits and commentators chided the Lutherans for their intolerance. Mr. O’Reilly, not otherwise known for theological expertise, even accused the church of “not following Jesus.” A column in Newsday said Mr. Benke’s accusers were “advocating religious isolationism.” …

To participate in an interfaith service is, as the synod announced upon suspending Mr. Benke, “a serious offense” strictly forbidden by tradition and church law. But the source of the prohibition is Christ’s own words. “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). As the Rev. Charles Henrickson, a Lutheran minister in St. Louis, explains: “The gospel is not served, it is not confessed — indeed, the gospel is eviscerated — when Jesus Christ is presented as one of many options from which to choose on a smorgasbord of spirituality.”

Basically we think it’s fine to set aside differences to work together in many things unless the thing we’re supposed to agree to disagree on is Jesus and the context is worship.

Another issue arose when a Lutheran pastor who everyone agrees is doing a great job ministering to his congregation in Newtown in all sorts of ways took part in a syncretistic worship service. He explained why he thought it was ok, but many Lutherans thought it not, it was becoming a bit of a “scandal” (in the church sense of the term), and his supervisors asked him to speak a word of apology. He did. The President basically told both the people who thought his apology didn’t go far enough and those who want to change church teaching on syncretism that they should work together in love and compassion. While it’s not a huge issue within the church body, some folks have been pushing for secular media coverage of same since that’s a much more favorable climate for changing church teaching on this matter.

So if you thought it was less than enjoyable to have your patriotism questioned after 9/11, you can imagine how easy it is to explain your church doctrine on the First and Second Commandments in the subtle and unpolarized aftermath of the Newtown massacre. The headlines and stories have been full of outrage. Some of that is to be expected for anything as countercultural as our doctrine on this matter. Some of it is just not the best work.

Or as Vanity Fair‘s Kurt Eichenwald put it:

Truth: Lutherans angry at minister 4 praying w/ a Rabbi 4 a dead Jewish boy wouldve been angry 4 prayers at the Crucifiction of Jesus, a Jew

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