WPost probes hot debate on the banks of River Jordan

I have crossed the Jordan River twice in my life and both times the experience was quite memorable. The river itself isn’t much to look at, but the social dynamics surrounding the location are fascinating.

The first trip was a singer in a choral music tour, done with the cooperation of the U.S. government, to perform “The Messiah” for cultural and political leaders in both Israel and Jordan. No big deal, right? However, this effort took place in late December, 1972. Look that up in the history of the Middle East. The second trip was linked to the 2000 pilgrimage that St. John Paul II made to the region. Look that one up, too.

Do the math and I am automatically going to be interested in the Washington Post news feature that ran under the following headline: “Pope picks one of dueling baptism sites in visit to Holy Land.”

This is a solid story and, first things first, I want to praise the wide variety of images and information contained in it. However, at the same time, I want to challenge the Post assumption that most readers would be most interested in the financial and political angles of this story, as opposed to the religions questions that it raises. You can get to both of those subjects from the material at the top of the report:

WEST BANK OF THE JORDAN RIVER – Christians believe that Jesus was immersed in the waters of the Jordan River by John the Baptist, who wore a cloak of camel’s hair and lived on locusts and honey in the desert wilderness.

But the Gospels are not precise about which side of the river the baptism took place on — the east bank or the west.

Although it might not matter much to a half-million annual visitors who come to the river for sightseeing or a renewal of faith, it matters very much to tourism officials in Israel and Jordan, who maintain dueling baptism sites, one smack-dab across from the other, with the shallow, narrow, muddy stream serving as international boundary.

Since many of those “visitors” can also be called “pilgrims,” as in believers making pilgrimages, it matters that Pope Francis is poised to become the latest major religious leader — more on that in a minute — to symbolically visit the Bethany Beyond the Jordan site on the Jordanian, or the east, side of the river.

Thinking hard news, it’s logical that the Post team jumped from the Pope Francis news hook straight into dollars, cents, tourism and politics. Viewed from this perspective, what we have here is Israeli tourism officials fighting to protect their market share in a tussle with Jordanian tourism officials.

I get that. I’ve seen that first hand, because the tourism battle is decades old. For starters, it’s easier — some say safer — to visit the Israeli side.

But is that the most important, the most interesting angle to take on this matter, from the viewpoint of the typical reader? I’m not convinced. I would ask: Why are most people going there? Trust me, this dispute is not about the scenery.

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The Atlantic finds new sect: Southern Baptist Convention

Maybe someone at The Atlantic was trying to be clever or just writing too fast. Or maybe its online article about the Southern Baptist Convention told a subtler story: a condescending attitude toward the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

“Baptists, Just Without the Baptisms,” quips the headline, rather exaggerated but still arguable if you want to get readers’ attention. The included bar graph does show rates have been falling fairly steadily since 1999. The article also tells of failures to baptize most members between 12 and 29 years old.

But those of us who care about words found our eyes drawn elsewhere in the piece. First, the subhead:

A task force of Southern Baptist ministers reports its finding on the sect’s declining rate of dunkings, saying, “We have a spiritual problem.”

Then in the body of the story:

When the baptism numbers for 2012 were released last summer, the denomination’s national organization, the Southern Baptist Convention, put together a “task force” on the sect’s “evangelistic impact.”

A sect? You mean some small, aberrant group with strong leaders and opaque workings — weird at best, dangerous at worst? How does that word apply to an organization of nearly 16 million people in 50,000 congregations in every state — and a lot of other nations as well?

Think I’m making too much of a single word? Well, Boko Haram, the murderous terrorist group in Nigeria, often gets called a sect. So do Hasidic groups like Lev Tahor and Shuvu Banim, especially in non-Orthodox Jewish media.

Did The Atlantic team even look up the word? Because a few keystrokes yield some interesting definitions, including:

* “A group regarded as heretical or as deviating from a generally accepted religious tradition.”

* “A schismatic religious body characterized by an attitude of exclusivity in contrast to the more inclusive religious groups called denominations or churches.”

* “A Christian denomination characterized by insistence on strict qualifications for membership, as distinguished from the more inclusive groups called churches.”

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Generic person of God (or gods) busted for selling fake art

So, if you read a news report about a politician who did something really stupid or really bad — illegal even — what is the first question that would leap into your mind?

Right. You’d want to know what kind of politician, what brand of politician, the story was talking about. Ditto for all kinds of other cultural figures, from scholars, to musicians, to business people or to any other kind of work frequented by a wide variety of people who believe a wide variety of different things.

Thus, a former GetReligionista emailed us the URL for an interesting New York Times piece, but it’s a piece with a rather strange hole in the middle of its facts. The headline:

Pastor Who Tried to Sell Fake Damien Hirst Paintings Is Sentenced to 6 Months

Nothing all that unusual there, methinks. But let’s move on to take a look at the top of the story:

A Florida pastor who was convicted of trying to sell fake Damien Hirst paintings to an undercover police officer was sentenced on Monday to six months in jail and five years of probation.

Justice Bonnie G. Wittner of State Supreme Court in Manhattan said a jail sentence was warranted because the pastor, Kevin Sutherland, had chosen to sell the works to a person he believed was a New York collector shortly after the Sotheby’s auction house said one of the paintings could not be authenticated.

Nothing usual so far, right?

But before we proceed, let’s pause and ask — for unenlightened folks who live far from New York City — a relevant question: Who is Damien Hirst and why is the term “enfant terrible” so frequently attached to his name in modern-art circles? And, oh, what is the postmodern theological statement attached to that dead Tiger Shark at the top of this post?

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That deacon and CBS veteran sacks a Womenpriests ‘story’

Should visitors to GetReligion choose to search our archives for the term “Womenpriests” they will find eight pages of results, most of them dedicated to dissecting alleged news reports about this tiny splinter movement on the left side of the world of American Catholicism.

I say “alleged” because most of these stories resemble public relations essays, rather than news reports that take seriously the beliefs of people on both sides of this issue. In at least one case (“If Womenpriests were rabbis“) it appeared that the Baltimore Sun team actually cooperated with the organizers of a Womenpriests ordination rite to help protect local Catholics (some on the payroll of the real church) who attended the event. For a few other hot links to past coverage, including the work of GetReligionista emeritus M.Z. Hemingway, click here, here, here and here.

Now, Deacon Greg Kandra — scribe at the fine weblog “The Deacon’s Bench” — has taken his turn at pounding his head, as a veteran journalist, on this particular wall. For those not familiar with his work, Kandra is a former CBS Evening News writer with 26 years, two Emmys and two Peabody Awards to his credit. So when this Catholic clergyman chooses to dissect a report from a CBS affiliate, his commentary has a unique level of clout.

This is poor on so many levels. Reporter Maria Medina should be embarrassed. My only conclusion is that it’s sweeps month and the affiliate is desperate for ratings.

Offered as another in his occasional series called “Great moments in journalism,” Kandra called this post, “How NOT to report on women priests.” It helped that the CBS affiliate in Sacramento, Calif., published a transcript of its alleged news story on the movement officially known as “Roman Catholic Womenpriests.”

Let’s let the deacon walk readers through this primer on how not to do this job. Here’s a few choice samples:

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How to ‘make sense’ of a Muslim ‘atrocity’?


As a “religious pluralist,” Michael needs to “somehow make sense of the seemingly (in many other instances) peace-loving and merciful Muhammad simultaneously being involved in what in all honesty appears quite atrocious.” He refers to Muslims killing 400 to 1,000 Arabian Jews after winning the pivotal Battle of the Trench in 627 (C.E.).


April’s mass kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram has alarmed multitudes. These insurgents claim to champion true Islam, but leaders of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation (sort of a Muslim United Nations) have denounced Boko Haram for violating teachings of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad.

History is full of battles with disputed religious aspects, and the past century added the phenomenon of anti-religious powers committing unimaginable atrocities.

Michael is concerned about the earliest such Muslim controversy over a battle in Medina, named for the Prophet Muhammad’s clever tactic of digging a trench to hobble enemy horsemen. After a long siege, the victorious Muslims killed all the town’s Jewish men, reportedly by beheading, seized their properties and consigned the women and children to slavery. The battlefield triumph and subsequent slaughter assured Muslim control of Medina and aided the capture of Mecca and unification of Arabia under one faith.

Michael says it’s hard to know what to think because information comes from either “pro” or “anti” Muslim sources. Actually, a Muslim wrote the only contemporary account but the Prophet’s defenders say the version that survived is unreliable. Still, though body counts vary there’s general agreement on events among non-Muslim historians and such western Muslim authors as Cyril Glasse. Also note the Quran 33:25-27.

When Muhammad’s Hijra (“Flight”) took him from Mecca to Medina, three Jewish tribes lived there alongside pagan Arabs. The Jews and Muslim newcomers were friendly at first, but relations deteriorated as Jews resisted appeals to convert and sometimes ridiculed the Prophet. The Muslims eventually drove two of the Jewish tribes into exile, leaving the Qurayzah (or Quraiza or Kuraiza) Jews, who allied with pagans against Muhammad, culminating in this battle.

Muslims contend that the Qurayzah broke a pact with Muhammad, secretly conspired with the pagans, and so were properly punished for treason. Muhammad referred the verdict to Sa’d ibn Mu’adh, a heroic Muslim convert who was dying of battle wounds. Islam’s own Hadith traditions indicate that the Prophet chose Sa’d, agreed with his verdict, could have overruled him, and thus bears responsibility for the outcome. Glasse states that Sa’d decided “the adult men should be put to death and the women and children sold into slavery.” (He does not mention beheading.) To this day Jews (also Christians) are barred from entering Medina.

Michael is especially upset because Muhammad’s involvement contrasts markedly with the moral examples of the Buddha and Jesus. Muslims can argue that it’s unfair to compare Muhammad with the founders of Buddhism and Christianity because he was the supreme political and military ruler with duties toward his community, whereas the other two were teachers who never sought such powers.

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What’s the black-market value of a Host in Ottawa right now?

When dealing with a crime, journalists (as well as police, of course) often ask question about what may or may not have been the motives behind the illegal act. That’s pretty logical, right?

With break-ins and common thefts, it is commonly assumed that the criminals want to sell valuable stolen goods on the black market. Diamonds are valuable, as are computers, etc. Money is money.

If that is the case, then the following story from The Ottawa Citizen — “Special mass held after theft of church’s tabernacle” — has a rather glaring hole, journalistically speaking.

First things first: Under Associated Press style, that reference in the headline — and later on in the story text — should be “Mass,” rather than the lower-case “mass.”

Second, the first question that jumped into my mind after reading the headline was this: Did the whole Harvard University “black Mass” story receive much coverage on wire services in Canada?

Why ask that question? Well, because of that logical crime-motive question I hinted at earlier.

So there is another question to ponder: What is the street price these days for a holy tabernacle stolen from a Catholic altar? And, yes, what is the going price on the fake-pagan market these days for containers of consecrated bread and wine? What is the price per Host? After all a “black Mass” with a consecrated Host is much more scandalous than one served with cookies, potato chips, ordinary bread or whatever banal or crude substance leaps to mind.

One key detail in this crime didn’t make it into the headline or the lede, but was briefly mentioned in an early quote. The first thing Catholic readers are going to want to know was whether the tabernacle’s contents were stolen. The golden box is valuable. The consecrated items inside are Sacraments.

As police began investigating the break-in, theft and graffiti as a possible hate crime, priests and parishioners from other local Catholic churches went to the St. Martin de Porres church in Bells Corners for a special “reparation” mass Friday.

“We have a long history of tradition and rituals and we have special masses and special prayers we can say when someone has done something like this, when they’ve desecrated a church, when they’ve stolen the blessed sacrament,” said Father Geoffrey Kerslake, episcopal vicar with the Archdiocese of Ottawa.

Kerslake, one of the leaders of Friday’s mass, said he found the parishioners’ response “striking.” He said the community wasn’t angry at whoever took the tabernacle and sprayed graffiti, which police said contained hateful words towards the Catholic church. “Although people were obviously shocked, and sad, I didn’t see any anger,” he said. “I didn’t see hatred. I didn’t see people screaming out for vengeance.”

Once again, Associated Press style is “Blessed Sacrament” rather than “blessed sacrament,” but it appears that the Ottawa Citizen copy desk disagrees with some doctrines in the omnipresent bible of daily journalism.

It’s clear that the material value question was asked, in this case. The spiritual question? Read on:

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About that prophetic USA Today story grilling Mark Jackson

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It’s time for a quick trip into my very large folder of GetReligion guilt, that place where I put stories that I think deserve attention — once I get done with the news of the day. And then a day turns into a week and then a week into two weeks and so forth and so on.

So let’s flash back to the recent NBA series between the Los Angeles Clippers and coach Doc Rivers and the Golden State Warriors and their coach, The Rev. Mark Jackson. Yes, “the Rev.” That series led to a very interesting, some would say prophetic, USA Today story about a quiet, behind the scenes controversy in professional basketball. Here’s the top of the story:

Long before Doc Rivers found himself defending his Los Angeles Clippers players who were the unwelcome participants in team owner Donald Sterling’s racist comments all week, he was concerned about another sensitive subject.


It was late 1999, the start of Rivers’ first season as coach of the Orlando Magic, and he saw a situation in the locker room that he felt needed to be addressed. As his players took part in the pre-game prayer that was part of their routine — with veteran point guard Darrell Armstrong handling the message like always, future New Orleans Pelicans coach Monty Williams serving as unofficial co-messenger and the entire team standing in a circle — Rivers noticed something he didn’t like.

“I looked up in one of the prayers, and Tariq (Abdul-Wahad) had his arms folded, and you could see that he was really uncomfortable with it,” Rivers … told USA TODAY Sports.

Rivers made the decision, with a Muslim believer on his team, to shut down the prayers, saying that his players should keep their religious devotions private. The very next paragraph was what caught my attention.

Rivers calls himself a “very religious” man, having grown up in the Second Baptist Church in Maywood, Ill., and praying on his knees every night in his home to this day. But he prefers to practice privately and is quick to note that he has attended church only for funerals the past 15 years.

Now, no matter how you look at it, that’s a very interesting paragraph full of mixed signals. Why has this strong believer stopped going to church? What was the big idea that the USA Today team was trying to communicate? And what did this have to do with the Golden State series?

Well maybe this is the connection:

This NBA season has been unprecedented when it comes to the blending of basketball and unresolved social issues — from Jason Collins becoming the first openly gay athlete to play in a major professional league to Royce White, who has dealt with mental illness, to the Sterling situation — there has been a widespread push for increased tolerance on all fronts. Yet the conversation about religion and how it’s best handled by coaches and players remains fluid.

With Rivers handling his work world one way and Warriors coach/ordained minister Mark Jackson another, there’s no better sign of the breadth of this debate than this particular series. After all, their growing rivalry reached this point in part because of an Oct. 31, 2013 controversy over pre-game chapel and the Clippers’ decision to break league-wide tradition and force the Warriors to pray on their own.

Now, both of these teams include players with very high profiles as Christian believers. That’s not the issue here. The very first time I read this story I wondered if there was some bigger religion-linked issue that the USA Today team was trying to address, if only by circling around and around it without being specific.

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So #bringbackourgirls is finally a news story! Why now?

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At this point, the kidnapped girls in Nigeria are officially “A News Story,” which means that CNN is even breaking into its coverage of missing airliners to get into the big details. Of course, it helps when the details are on video:

(CNN) – The girls sit quietly on the ground, dressed in traditional Islamic garb, barely moving, clearly scared.

“Praise be to Allah, the lord of the world,” they chant.

The video, released by French news agency Agence France-Presse, purports to show about 100 of the 276 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram fighters nearly a month ago. It’s the first time they’ve been seen since their abduction April 14.

This doesn’t mean, however, that everyone is completely comfortable with the clearly religious foundations of this hellish story.

In the print version of this CNN report, for example, the editors waited for 12 paragraphs to offer background on why it mattered that the girls — in the heavily Islamic Northern half of Nigeria — were wearing hijabs and chanting Islamic prayers.

In separate shots filmed against a green backdrop, the man who claims to be Shekau says the girls — who come from a Christian stronghold — have converted to Islam.

So the girls have been kidnapped, forced to convert to another faith and face threats that they will be sold into forced marriages and/or slavery. How many violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are included in that equation?

Big issues. Nevertheless, that’s pretty much it in terms of the religion content in this lengthy CNN report.

Meanwhile, over at The New York Times, this moving report on the crisis features photographs showing mothers weeping in church pews for their missing daughters — but the story itself never mentions that religion played any role in why these girls were targeted. The bottom line: The girls were taken from Chibok Government Girls Secondary School and the vast majority were Christians and the others were Muslims who were willing to attend a non-Islamic school with Christians, a violation of Boko Haram’s vision of true Islam.

Still, some mainstream reporters are realizing that religion has something to do with this story and that Boko Haram’s reign of terror in this corner of northern Nigeria is, in fact, a story.

Why? Why now?

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