WWROD: When reporters fail to get religion ….

A quick online confession: Yes, I am “Terry in D.C.”

You see, while I am not in D.C. at the moment, I was inside the only Beltway that really matters at the time that I fired off a quick question to veteran religion-beat writer Richard Ostling at his weblog, Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy answers your questions” (for more info click here).

In his format, readers send him basic religion questions and, well, he gives brief, journalism-driven responses. As you would expect, issues linked to religion news and events are going to be common and, once a week, we’ll be pointing readers over to his site for material with strong GetReligion-esque content.

I this case, I rather blatantly primed the pump for Ostling:

TERRY IN D.C. ASKS:

What are the five mistakes that mainstream reporters make most often when covering religion? Let’s assume these reporters are NOT religion-beat specialists.

And the Ridgewood Religion Guy answered:

Good one, especially when a secular milieu in many newsrooms (and classrooms) can foster slant and error. Some Journalism 101 pointers:

Mistake 1 is to suspect religious believers in general tend to be stupid or at least ill-informed (particularly a problem if the reporter has no close friends who are devout).

Mistake 2 is to assume this reporter could not possibly be so ill-informed as to misunderstand the belief or believers being written about. Even those of us who’ve spent decades covering this field know religious topics are usually quite complex. Always check with experts if you’re unclear or uncertain about something.

Mistake 3 is the related tendency to over-simplify. (Do all American Evangelicals subscribe to the colorful End Times scenario in those “Left Behind” novels? Are they all Tea Party enthusiasts?)

Wait a minute (I hear many readers thinking), what about plain old laziness? That has to be in the list somewhere!

By all means, click on over to the Ostling site for the for rest of that post. And please leave some religion-beat questions of your own for the master of the house to answer.

PHOTO: The cover of a rather obvious book related to all of this, which you can buy (hint, hint) with a click right here.

WWROD: Which denominations do what well?

So, GetReligion readers, have you submitted a religion-rooted question yet to veteran scribe Richard Ostling, over at his new weblog? That would be the one called “Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy answers your questions” (click here for some background).

Anyway, this week’s Ostling offering here at GetReligion focuses on a question that is sure to raise hackles in a few corners of the world of organized religion.

The provocative question, from one Judy in Pennsylvania:

The various Christian denominations seemingly have particular strengths in the theology, practice, outreach, and church polity of their forms of Christian faith. How would you see these strengths being shared among individual churches and Christians across the USA and around the globe in an effort to strengthen the Christian faith?

This is the time of year, Ostling noted, when media folks are inclined to assemble lists of various kinds.

This particular list, however, is by its nature rooted in opinion and, thus, is a bit perilous. Nevertheless, based on his decades of experience on the religion beat, he offered some of his views. The list starts like this:

Salvation Army — Taking Jesus seriously, and not just at Thanksgiving or Christmas (“as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren you did it to me.”)

Eastern Orthodox — Worship that conveys awe and mystery. Unwavering devotion to the faith that “was once for all delivered to the saints.”

Roman Catholics — Doctrinal clarity. Rich intellectual tradition. Parochial schools. Hospitals. Charities. And much, much else. But could benefit by learning from:

Presbyterian; Reformed churches — Skill with sermons (usually). Classic Protestant governance balancing regional oversight with local iniitiative, plus responsibility, voice, vote, and sense of vocation for lay members (concepts that helped create secular republics).

Lutherans — Choirs. Parish architecture and other visuals (often). Wise handling of schism to honor conscience and limit strife.

Anglicans; Episcopalians — Liturgy. Hymnody. But could learn much from the Lutherans on schism.

You get the idea.

Head on over to his site to read the rest and, by all means, leave a few questions that will force this religion-beat patriarch into hard-news terrain.

Just do it. Make our day.

WWROD: What the heck is a ‘denomination’ anyway?

As I mentioned the other day, one of the best religion-beat professionals ever — that would be Richard Ostling of Time and the Associated Press — has opened up a weblog here in the Patheos online universe.

The name of the blog is “Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy answers your questions” and the goal is, quite simply, for Ostling to field questions from readers and then to try to answer them in a simple, journalism-driven fashion.

After years of trying to get Ostling to consider writing for GetReligion from time to time, I was overjoyed to hear him commit throwing his hat into the cyber-ring. I also promised him that your GetReligionistas would point our readers toward at least one of his posts a week that we think would be especially interesting to journalists interested in religion and to readers who are interested in the kinds of issues that make the religion-news beat so fascinating and, at times, prickly.

With Ostling handling this, I would imagine that there are weeks we might pass along more than one.

Anyway, one of the scribe’s readers just asked this question about life in what many call post-denominational America:

What do you think is the future of denominations? Do you see any trends in history that may be indicators? And what do you think is the purpose (if any) of denominational affiliation?

And “The Guy” begins his response this way:

The oddities surrounding religious denominations bring to mind that incomparably sinister American clergyman Jim Jones, who in 1978 lured 909 Peoples Temple followers at his Guyana compound into an orgy of murder and suicide, a third of whom were children. More on him below.

The United States invented the “free exercise of religion” and has never had a dominant or “established” church like those in Europe. Even the big Catholic Church is merely one “denomination” among many. The term applies essentially to hundreds of Christian bodies in the freewheeling U.S. religious market, though American Jews also speak of their several denominations or branches.

The American tendency toward individualism and localism produces increasing numbers of “non-denominational” congregations. When 1960s disruptions fostered general suspicion toward authority, tradition, and institutions, the chief religious victims turned out to be the older and relatively liberal “Mainline” Protestant denominations. Meanwhile, notable expansion continues among unaffiliated congregations of Evangelical, Fundamentalist, Pentecostal and Charismatic persuasion.

Since World War Two especially, much dynamism in Protestant outreach has come from Evangelical entrepreneurs and their “parachurch” organizations instead of denominational agencies. This is sometimes a mixed blessing.

There’s more, of course. So click right here and get over there and finish the article.

Feel free to leave journalistic comments here. However, I would assume that Ostling would like to hear from our readers on his own site. And leave him a few journalistic questions that bug you. I can’t think of anyone I would prefer to take them on in a constructive manner.

So, what do Southern Baptists have to do to get some ink?

A couple of years ago the Southern Baptist Convention explored the option of changing their name to better reflect the national and international nature of the denomination. I thought at the time that it might be helpful to change the name to the “The Episcopal Church” so that the national news media would finally acknowledge the massive SBC’s existence.

Well, tmatt once offered some helpful theories for explaining why Episcopalians get so much ink by the elite press, but I’ve yet to hear a reasonable explanation why America’s largest non-Catholic flock is all but ignored.

A prime example is a story that has — so far — only been picked up by one mainstream media organization, The Tennessean in Nashville, the city in which the SBC headquarters is located:

Two Southern Baptist leaders said Monday that they reject conspiracy theories that the U.S. military will punish Christian soldiers who share their faith.

But they are worried about religious freedom in the military.

Kevin Ezell, head of the Baptist’s North American Mission Board, which endorses military chaplains, and Russell Moore, president-elect of the Nashville-based Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, issued a statement Monday about religious freedom in the military.

The full statement (which can be found at the Baptist Press news site) offers a number of hooks for reporters who are late writing about the story that was discussed in churches and on military bases across the country.

The fact that such sober-minded, media-friendly and thoughtful Baptist leaders as Kevin Ezell, president of the SBC’s North American Mission Board, and Russell Moore, president-elect of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, felt compelled to write about this issue is a signal that there’s a story out there that needs some calm, nuanced, informed reporting.

What, for instance, are the conspiracy theories they’re attempting to debunk?

If you’ve been following Smietana at The Tennessean you’d know.

(more…)

Richard Ostling — finally! — sets up an online camp

Anyone who has followed GetReligion for very long knows what the letters WWROD stand for. I mean, the first reference of this kind showed up only a few weeks into the blog’s existence, way back in 2004.

WWROD? We’re asking, What Would Richard Ostling Do?

Ostling, of course, is the former religion-beat pro at Time, back in the days when that weekly magazine was a force in hard news, and then with the Associated Press. For those of us who arrived on the Godbeat in last quarter of the 20th Century, it would be hard to name someone we respected more or whose work carried more professional authority (with Russ Chandler of the great Los Angeles Times religion team joining him in the top ranks).

Thus, I am happy to pass along the following email from Ostling, which followed several chats on this topic during the recent Religion Newswriters Association meetings here in Beltway territory:

Forsaking lazy retirement mode I am about to launch a new “Religion Q and A” blog for patheos.com, probably the most important interfaith site on the Internet.

Most features on Patheos are opinionated, faith-specific (Buddhist, Catholic, Pagan) … whereas mine will be non-partisan and journalistic in approach and cover wide-ranging topics.

We’ll be asking folks in cyberspace to send in questions regarding any and all faiths, any Scriptures, current church-state and religion-politics issues, moral quandaries and other such puzzlements and curiosities. If I’m able, I’ll post an answer with others then welcome others to add comments.

To get this thing launched I need savvy folks to start providing some interesting questions for me to try to answer. If willing, would you, and contacts in your circle of friends who’d be interested in this, send in questions that I’ll consider for the first postings on the site? Simply go to http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionqanda/

On the right-hand side type in your question and click “Send” which transmits it to me to consider for a posted answer.

The name, in other words, is “Religion Q and A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy Answers Your Questions.” I had lobbied hard for “The Religion Answer Man.” Whatever. This is great news no matter what it’s called. I’ve been bugging this man for years about getting involved in a blog, whether writing for GetReligion every now and then or pursuing some other online option.

Once this is up and running, Ostling will be in the Patheos “News and Politics” channel, which is also the home of GetReligion. Obviously, Ostling expects to get his share of questions about the role of religion in the news and public life and, thus, GetReligion plans to feature at least one of his posts each week. It’s the kind of cooperation we hope to see more of around these cyber-parts (hint, hint former GetReligionista Jeremy Lott and Deacon Greg Kandra, the former CBS News scribe).

Those seeking a quick introduction to Ostling, via audio, can check out this interview conducted at the Calvin Institute of Worship.

For a sample of Ostling’s print work — one that is highly relevant to his new blogging format — click here for a 2005 GetReligion post focusing on a short Associated Press analysis piece in which he tried to explain the unexplainable, as in the very divergent schools of sexual ethics found in the global Anglican Communion. That full AP report can be found stashed away right here.

Here’s a large chunk of that AP text, focusing on the four camps that Ostling calls “dismissal, perplexity, renovation and traditionalism.”

Dismissal is the left-fringe attitude personified by Bishop John Shelby Spong, former head of the Newark, N.J., diocese. In “The Sins of Scripture” (HarperSanFrancisco), he says calling the Bible “the Word of God” (a belief he himself affirmed at ordination) is “perhaps the strangest claim ever made” for a document. Spong finds the Old Testament’s homosexual prohibitions ignorant and “morally incompetent” expressions of “popular prejudices.” With the New Testament, he disdains Paul’s condemnations as “ill-informed” ravings from a zealot who, he hypothesizes, was a “deeply repressed, self-loathing” homosexual.

“The contending positions are mutually exclusive,” he concludes, and “there can be no compromise.” He dismisses conservative views as “frail, fragile and pitiful.”

The other three approaches were displayed at a … hearing before the international Anglican Consultative Council. …

Perplexity was the outlook of Anglican Church of Canada representatives. Their denomination affirmed the “integrity and sanctity” of homosexual relationships and tolerated a diocese’s blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples. The Canadians said they are “seeking discernment” but face “deep divisions” and lack consensus.

Renovation was the policy of the U.S. Episcopal Church in its report “To Set Our Hope on Christ,” written by seven theologians. It was the denomination’s first official rationale for recognition of the unhindered same-sex blessings in its ranks and for toleration of openly gay clergy, including a bishop.

Traditionalists answered that argument with “A True Hearing,” a paper by writers from nine nations that the Anglican Mainstream group gave to delegates to explain the stance endorsed in 1998 by 82 percent of the world’s Anglican bishops.

And so forth and so on. In other words, Ostling is going to help point readers and, I would imagine, some journalists toward information and resources on complex religion-news questions. I would be hard-pressed to name a better scribe to take on that task.

Stay tuned.