Billy Graham and Reinhard Bonnke: Partners in thought crime?

Today brings a fascinating contrast in two news reports from a meeting of the World Council of Churches. Brian Murphy, religion writer for The Associated Press, is virtually alone in covering the story, so his byline appears in all the major dailies.

Murphy reports on the council’s realization that the Global South is crucial to the future of Christian faith:

The general secretary of the World Council of Churches — the organizers of the weeklong conference — also noted the “demographic center” of Christianity is shifting into the southern hemisphere, led by explosive growth in African and Asian congregations and rising populations in Latin America.

The Rev. Samuel Kobia [pictured] encouraged churches to seek new ideas to make Christianity meaningful to cultures unfamiliar with European traditions and to avoid “insensitive” methods that undermine local languages and customs.

“Christianity’s center of gravity . . . continues to migrate southward,” said Kobia, a Kenyan. “Our vision must undergo a corresponding conversion.”

So far so good. Then comes this:

Failure of the established Christian denominations to respond could further open the door to charismatic preachers and evangelical enterprises such as the Rev. Billy Graham’s movement or the German pastor Reinhard Bonnke, who promotes himself as one of the fastest-growing Christian missionaries in Africa. The World Council of Churches conference did not include representatives of the evangelical powerhouses.

Kobia warned that charismatic movements could “likely cause conflict in the 21st century” because of their often dismissive views on other faiths.

Here’s how Stephen Brown of Ecumenical News International summarized the same section of Kobia’s speech:

Africa is one of Christianity’s fastest growing regions and researchers have predicted that by 2100, the vast majority of Christians — almost 80 per cent — will live in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania.

Kobia noted the rapid growth throughout the world in Pentecostal and charismatic spirituality.

He asked, “Are we open to mission from directions we have not anticipated, borne by brothers and sisters who have received gifts of the Spirit that were never monopolized by European or American missionaries?”

Please do wait for the translation, Mr. Ambassador.

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The New York Times folks see red

This is the rare week when I was writing a post for GetReligion and then realized that it was turning into my next Scripps Howard News Service column. As you know, I hardly ever post my column here. But here it is, only with the URLS that show what I was trying to do for the blog.

So here goes, starting here:

When it comes to capturing the worldview of New Yorkers, it’s hard to top Saul Steinberg‘s famous cartoon entitled “A View of the World from Fifth Avenue.”

It appeared — where else? — on the cover of The New Yorker. The city is in the foreground and, beyond the Hudson River, there is a void dotted with mesas, mountains and hints that Chicago, Texas, Nebraska, Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean exist.

There are no steeples anywhere.

This would have been the perfect cover for a new study (PDF) by the New York Times hierarchy entitled “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust.” The in-house panel decreed that the newspaper must do a better job covering “unorthodox views,” “contrarian opinions” and the lives of those “more radical and more conservative” than journalists inside the Mecca of American journalism.

“We should,” it said, “increase our coverage of religion in America and focus on new ways to give it greater attention. . . . We should take pains to create a climate in which staff members feel free to propose or criticize coverage from vantage points that lie outside the perceived newsroom consensus (liberal/conservative, religious/secular, urban/suburban/rural, elitist/white collar/blue collar).”

It might help, noted the report, if Times editors sought out some “talented journalists who happen to have military experience, who know rural America first hand, who are at home in different faiths.”

This is precisely what the newspaper’s “public editor” was describing last year in his column with the infamous headline: “Is the New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” Daniel Okrent’s very first sentence was his answer: “Of course it is.”

Many people criticize the Times for many things, he said, but the “flammable stuff” almost always seems to be linked to faith, family and morality and the most ticked-off people are on the cultural right.

“If you’re examining the paper’s coverage of these subjects from a perspective that is neither urban nor Northeastern nor culturally seen-it-all; if you are among the groups The Times treats as strange objects to be examined on a laboratory slide (devout Catholics, gun owners, Orthodox Jews, Texans); if your value system wouldn’t wear well on a composite New York Times journalist, then a walk through this paper can make you feel you’re traveling in a strange and forbidding world,” wrote Okrent.

The editorial page is thick with “liberal theology” and many think the news is tainted, too, he said. The coverage of gay marriage “approaches cheerleading.”

In a recent “On the Media” interview with WNYC, Okrent gracefully tried to retreat a step or two, acknowledging that he gave the “paper’s enemies” ammunition they could yank out of context. The Times isn’t really liberal, he said, it’s merely liberal on “certain issues, social issues. . . . It is a product of its place and of its people, and I think it’s really important for the paper to recognize that and recognize how it is perceived.”

In other words, the New York Times is only liberal on issues such as sex, salvation, abortion, Hollywood, euthanasia, gay rights, public education, cloning and loads of other issues linked to faith and public life.

That’s all. But that’s enough.

Life does look different from the vantage point of Ninth Avenue, and also from Times Square. The self-study panel noted, for example, the urgent need for the newspaper to be careful when it pins “loaded terms” on believers. For example, there are those “fundamentalists” who would rather be known as “Christian conservatives.”

One such religious believer is John McCandlish Phillips, who is known these days as a preacher on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But long ago, he was the rare superstar Times reporter with a worn-out Bible next to his newsroom typewriter. Now he is tired of hearing top Times columnists — stuck in a “values voters” funk after the 2004 election — saying that America has become an oppressive “theocracy” caught up in a “jihad.”

The self-study is a remarkable step forward, especially with its blunt talk about religion and the need for accurate, balanced reporting, said Phillips.

“People at the Times are sensitive, as they should be, to this criticism because they know it is accurate. . . . This document seems to be a call back to the standards that made the Times the foremost engine of news gathering and presentation in the history of the world.”

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Shameless plug for another friend

Barbara Nicolosi is one of those people who cannot escape the basic journalistic description of who she is. She is your basic ex-nun turned Hollywood screenwriter. She also cranks out a wonderful blog called Church of the Masses. She has, in the recent past, ended up on the other side of a reporter’s notebook in interviews with Daily Variety and The New York Times. She shares her impressions of these interviews in her typically candid fashion. Here is a sample of the give and take:

I said to the Daily Variety guy, “You aren’t trying to narrowly define me so you can dismiss me, are you?” When it happened yesterday with the Times I got a little more annoyed. “Did you ask the Hollywood pagans you are interviewing for this story that question?” Both journalists demurred in extravagant terms. They were just “collecting context” for their pieces. But then, the Times guy came back insistently, “Would you characterize yourself as right or left of center?”

I liked both the journalists, and they liked me. The Variety guy asked me if he and I could have coffee someday soon, just to talk about a whole lot of things. The Times guy said, “This has been a fun interview. You’re not a regular Christian, are you?” I said to him, “Why, because you like me, and that doesn’t fit with your prejudice about my people?” He said to me, “You don’t sound like some other Christians I have interviewed.” I couldn’t resist coming back with, “That’s because we are a diverse people, not chained by politically correct dogma.”

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In defense of balance

Mark Brumley, CEO of Ignatius Press, has weighed in on the Thomas Reese controversy. America magazine, he writes,

shouldn’t be “balanced” in the sense of inviting those who reject Catholic or Christian tenets to present their case for their positions.

By publishing, say, a pro-homosexual-marriage piece and a pro-Catholic-view-of-marriage piece side-by-side, America gives the impression that this is a subject up for legitimate debate within Catholicism and that America is the place to go to participate in that debate. . . . By publishing “name” Catholic commentators who are orthodox, America can draw attention to itself as it says, “See, we give both sides their chance” — as if on many of the issues under discussion there are two legitimate sides within the Catholic Church, when in fact there aren’t.

He discusses the matter further and concludes,

America is not or The New Republic or Fox News. It’s published by the Jesuits, a religious order of the Catholic Church. It should not be publishing articles contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church. Period. There are plenty of other publications that do that. What we need in America is a solidly Catholic voice presenting Catholic teaching and defending it. Let the non-Catholics or the not-so-Catholics worry about giving the other side in their publications.

I take Brumley’s point, but then I’m not terribly certain what to do with it. As a Catholic, I understand — or at least I think I understand — the importance of orthodoxy. I agree with the principle that Catholic institutions and publications should be Catholic. And I do understand that a publication of the Jesuits is ultimately a publication of the Catholic Church.

But it just does not compute for me as a journalist. If a publication got carried away with Brumley’s advice, even letters to the editor would have to be massively filtered — can’t have someone offering the other side, after all.

And, no, I do not think I am caricaturing the position. Many people think that Catholic newspapers and journals should be modeled on diocesan newspapers. The church foots the bills and the content is ultimately controlled by the local hierarchy.

Here’s my problem with this model: the sex scandals in the Catholic Church. It stands to reason that a lot of reporters and editors at these journals had some evidence of the scandals way before us pew-warming types had a clue. Their business was the activities of the church, after all. But their salaries came from the church, and their papers function more like newsletters anyway, and so it was up to secular journalists and “dissenting” Catholics like the muckrakers at the National Catholic Reporter to expose some really heinous behavior by priests and church leaders.

Say what you want about the Reporter — I personally think the editors are a little bit nutty on a whole host of theological issues — what “orthodox” Catholic publication, what thundering voice of truth, has the guts to offer an invaluable service on the level of the Abuse Tracker?

Maybe they keep tabs on such things for the wrong reason. Maybe the Reporter crew wants to advance a theological agenda that many would find odious. Even granting those things, that is still no reason to write off the information they dig up as tainted and unclean.

Similarly, if America is to be a journal of opinion, it has to be lively. There has to be back-and-forth and debate and, sure, some of what is said in the process of disagreeing with one another is going to sound very unorthodox — or even un-Catholic — to a lot of readers.

I hope I’m not creating a straw man out of Brumley’s argument. If so, I invite him to beat the stuffing out of me in the comments for this post. And let’s be clear: He does have a point. I think there is a tension in any Catholic journalistic project between orthodoxy and journalism. It’s a high wire that Catholic newspapers and magazines are going to have to get better at navigating in the future.

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Smile when you say that

A GetReligion reader known as ceemac recently raised a good question about my use of the phrase sneer quote, and asked that I define the term.

Using quote marks would be appropriate, ceemac suggested, for phrases like these: “Christian Right,” “Jim Wallis Liberal,” “Christian Worldview,” “Liberal Worldview” “Southern Fried,” “Damn Yankee,” “Prestige Media,” “Eastern Elite,” “Dittohead,” “Free Bird Republican,” “Willie Nelson Democrat” and “Sneer Quote.”

I cited these four sources for my objection to such punctuation:

1. “Quote Unquote,” The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time (2004), William Safire, p. 288:

The meaning of the spoken or written quote-unquote . . . is “so-called,” casting aspersion on the word or phrase that follows. In American English, however, so-called is falling into disuse; it has the flavor of usage by speakers whose English is a second language. Quote-unquote — as a complete phrase, not separated by the words quoted — is now our primary deragator. A sneer is built in.

2. “Distinctive Treatment of Words,” The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th Edition, 6.63:

Other devices, notably the use of italics and question marks to achieve special effects, are not outmoded but are used less and less as time goes on, especially by mature writers who prefer to obtain their effects structurally . . .

[An example follows]

But writers who find themselves underlining frequently for emphasis might consider whether many of the italics are not superfluous, the emphasis being apparent from the context, or whether, if the emphasis is not apparent, it cannot be achieved more gracefully by recasting the sentence. The same reservations apply to frequent use of quotation marks to suggest irony or special usage.

3. Index to English, Seventh Edition, Wilma R. and David R. Ebbitt, p. 224:

But putting a word in quotation marks to signal sarcasm or ridicule (The “cute” Great Dane had eaten my sweater) is on a par with putting a question mark in parentheses to get a laugh.

4. The Associated Press Stylebook 2004, pp. 207-08:

FULL vs. PARTIAL QUOTES: In general, avoid fragmentary quotes. If a speaker’s words are clear and concise, favor the full quote. If cumbersome language can be paraphrased fairly, use an indirect construction, reserving quotation marks for sensitive or controversial passages that must be identified specifically as coming from the speaker.

One thing I learned from this good exchange with ceemac: People favor scare quotes over sneer quotes by nearly six to one. I’ll probably use scare quotes on future reference, and I’ll try to do so with moderation.

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The eyes have it

It’s taken me several days to realize this, but Jennifer Wilbanks is the anti-Ashley.


• Both women have some shoplifting in their past.

• Both have been hurled into the media spotlight (though Ashley Smith was more cooperative about being on camera).

• Both captivated the nation because of how they responded to stress.

• Both, as residents of Georgia, gave The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the chance to highlight its finer writers.

• Both are living testimonies that the eyes are the window to the soul.

But Jennifer Wilbanks has held the nation’s attention for reasons other than heroism. The Journal-Constitution described the items she sought as wedding gifts:

The wedding, according to all reports, was a doozy in the making. The bride registered for more than $20,000 worth of household items, including china, crystal, sterling silver, linens, bakeware and cooking appliances.

Solitaire by Lenox, pure white with a band of platinum, was the china she chose. Lismore Tall by Waterford, a popular etched design, was her crystal of choice. Grande Baroque by Wallace, an intricate pattern introduced in 1941, was her sterling, and Union Street by Kate Spade, a sleek, modern line, her everyday stainless.

The New York Post contributed its customary subtlety of headline (CHASTE-Y RETREAT) and text:

Bolting bride Jennifer Wilbanks was chaste away — by her fiancé’s insistence on abstinence, friends of the sex-deprived couple claim.

“She told people the fact that she and [husband-to-be John Mason] were not having sex was upsetting,” a friend of Wilbanks’ told People magazine, which hits newsstands today.

Mason was once a “wild” guy who “dated a lot,” his running pal Ted King said.

But he became a born-again virgin — eschewing premarital sex — five years ago after pledging himself to his Baptist faith, friends said.

“He’s been saving himself for the right woman,” Mason’s friend Andy Parsons told the magazine.

And friends say that likely drove the marathon enthusiast to run — from the altar.

And Cary Tennis of Salon turned cheered Wilbanks on, as she was trying to escape the creepy Bible belt:

So while the groom stewed, the media speculated and indignant townspeople knit their brows in censorious disapprobation, I secretly wished that the Runaway Bride had gone off to become a showgirl. Just for the thrill of it, I wanted to see her go as far as she could. Go, go, go, Runaway Bride! Go as far as you can from Georgia, beyond Las Vegas to California, Oregon, Alaska, across the Bering Strait to Siberia and over the Steppes into Mongolia, China, Tibet! Go, frightened bride of the South! Run from that Bible-toting paramour with the square head, flee the harsh whisky-soaked legacy of slavery and politely simmering women, flee the pecan groves and peanut farms, flee all those Southern belles who never ring and all those good old boys who are neither all that good nor all that old! Flee! Go! Run away!

Like Smith, Wilbanks appealed to her faith while she asked for privacy. But unlike Smith, she mixed in a larding of therapy-speak:

In my mind, it was never about the timing, however unfortunate. I was simply running from myself and from certain fears controlling my life.

Each day I am understanding more about who I am and the issues that influenced me to respond inappropriately. Therefore, I have started professional treatment voluntarily. . . .

As John said on countless occasions recently, may we follow the teaching of Scripture, in being kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving, just as God in Christ forgives us.

And many of the people said — “Whatever.”

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On the Academy and offensive speech

This is a note from a reader, addressing my take on the one-sided Los Angeles Times series on religious tensions at the Air Force Academy. This is an important issue to this blog, so let’s dig into it a bit.

Is this really a story about First Amendment rights?

I don’t think so. This is a story about harassment and abuse of power. The cadets’ superiors are applying pressure to try to make them adopt the superiors’ religion. This is like a boss putting pressure on employees to do something that is not job related. That “something” could be anything from sex to buying his kids raffle tickets.

Posted by ceemac at 8:23 pm on May 7, 2005

As I have said before, it does appear that harassment has taken place. That is not the issue. However, we do not know if it is taking place in classrooms and official forums. So far, the emphasis seems to be on non-official activities. And, as I have said before, to what extent do all student groups have access to email lists, bulletin boards, student-life forums, etc.?

If all groups have access, this would seem to be a matter for equal-access laws and it would be wrong to discriminate against religious content. Please see the original post. “Viewpoint discrimination” is supposed to be out of bounds. At the very least, this is a question that reporters need to be asking.

It would also help to realize that the whole issue of what military chaplains can and cannot preach has become a hot-button issue. Evangelicals insist that military structures dominated by liturgical-church chaplains have been showing serious bias against evangelicals who simply want the right to preach their own doctrines to their own believers in their own services.

Yes, the key issue is who is going to heaven and who is not. Apparently, a Baptist who is willing to preach like a Unitarian, or an Episcopalian, can get promoted while a Baptist who preaches like a Baptist will struggle to move up the ladder.

Sure enough, some of the Air Force Academy bias claims are linked to the content of sermons in services held for evangelical students. So are we really talking about creating tax-dollar-enforced speech codes that limit what men and women can say in their own sermons? Does this apply to Muslim clergy? Jews? Catholics? Wiccans?

Meanwhile, veteran USA Today reporter Patrick O’Driscoll, who has spent some time in the past on the religion beat, has filed a report on all of this that includes some new information. Here is a clip:

The investigation grew out of a survey of cadets and staff last year after another academy controversy: a 2003 scandal in which nearly 150 female cadets alleged that they had been sexually assaulted by fellow cadets in the previous decade.

Write-in remarks on religion prompted officials to conduct focus groups during the summer. The academy’s superintendent, Lt. Gen. John Rosa, told the school’s civilian oversight board last month that those yielded complaints of 55 instances of religious bias in the past five years, including proselytizing by Christians, use of Bible quotes in official e-mail and an ad promoting Jesus in the base newspaper, signed by 200 academy leaders.

OK, quotes in official email? That’s serious. That is, it could be very serious. We need to know the meaning of the words “official email.” Is that anything sent over the campus servers? Anything on letterhead? Anything that students are required to read? What are we talking about and to what degree do other student groups — secular and religious — get to use the same email systems?

Meanwhile, the word proselytizing gets thrown around a lot. The key is where this speech takes place. People have a right to debate all kinds of issues, including issues that make other people mad. If this speech took place in an official forum, with academy leaders doing the p-word stuff, then that is really serious. If it is a student being offended by one remark made by another student, the whole issue hinges on whether the offending student backed off when displeasure was expressed.

Again — free speech causes tension. The goal is not to discriminate against religion in open forums, such as walking down a campus sidewalk or hanging out in the coffee shop.

And the ad in the newspaper? Again, is this a forum to which other religious groups have access? Could those offended by the ad purchase space and sign their names on an ad protesting the Jesus ad? If so — just do it.

Official promotion of a faith with tax dollars is out of bounds. So is using tax dollars to crush free speech by religious people. We need reporting that lets us know about both sides of this equation. And one more question: Has anyone asked if religious conservatives are more likely, these days, to seek military careers than religious liberals or secularists? Just asking.

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Shameless plug for a friend

Please pardon this shameless plug for the official grandmother of this blog, Frederica Mathewes-Green of Beliefnet, NPR and lots of other places. The Dallas Morning News just ran a very interesting Q&A with her — gentle and blunt at the same time — linked to the content of her recent lectures in an Episcopal church in Dallas. The title of the lectures was a flag-waver if I have seen one: “Sex and the City: Men, Women and the Future of Civilization.”

Here is a sample from the interview:

Question: Why is it important for you to speak out about social issues such as abortion, and feminism?

Answer: Abortion has always been the most important issue to me because of the numbers of the deaths. An issue that causes people to die is more important than one that causes them to live in poverty.

If soldiers are killed in a war, that’s a tragedy. But if it’s little children dying, that’s more urgent. The numbers now are about 40 million since Roe vs. Wade. And I think all other sexual issues are connected.

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