The consumer’s guide to the Bible

extreme teenCathleen Falsani, the Chicago Sun-Times religion reporter — and author of the new book The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People — had an interesting story that ran on (Western) Easter Sunday. Rather than taking the controversy tack used by so many others, she wrote an article about all the different translations and versions of the Bible:

There are literally hundreds of English versions of the Christian Bible on the market, ranging from the traditional to the trendy.

There’s a Bible for brides and another for dads. You can get the Old and New Testament bound in Moroccan leather with gold gilded edges, or download them as MP3 files onto your iPod.

The article has sidebars that give readers helpful info, including a list of websites that readers can use to help them figure out which Bible to get, a list of top-selling Bibles and a comparison of the same verse in different translations. She explains differences in translation philosophies effortlessly and concisely:

There are two basic philosophies of Bible translation: word-for-word and thought-for-thought. In the former, translators begin with the original Greek or Hebrew and try to find the most literal English equivalent.

In thought-for-thought translation, which has been the more popular mode in the last 50 years, scholars also begin with the texts in their original languages but concentrate less on literal accuracy and more on readability by finding corresponding thoughts or phrases in English. The NIV is a thought-for-thought translation.

A third approach begins with an existing English translation to create a new version, resulting in a “paraphrase” rather than a true translation. One wildly popular example of a paraphrase is Eugene Peterson’s The Message. It has sold more than 10 million copies since 1993.

Falsani gives an interesting history of translation battles and discusses the commonalities and differences that match up with the divisions in the church. The article is enjoyable and informative. The only thing that surprised me was that I kept expecting her to get into the “so what?” of the different translations. We get to learn how different translations came to be but little about why it matters. I think it’s because Falsani takes a consumerist approach rather than a doctrinal one.

My church body doesn’t believe there is one true translation, and, in fact, we use several. But even I know that my pastor tends to use the New King James Version and it’s because he has problems with aspects of some other translations. I was eager to learn more about some of the doctrinal issues involved in different translations, but there clearly wasn’t room in her already thorough piece. I vote for her to look into the deeper issues in a follow-up.

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“This” (big pause) “is G-O-D”

1591502241 01 LZZZZZZZThis has to be the laugh-out-loud little story of the greater Easter season.

Newsweek has a short little article by reporter Elise Soukup that starts like this:

It’s hard to find God in Hollywood. Just ask Robi Reed, who’s casting “The Bible Experience,” a 70-hour audio recording of the Old and New Testaments performed by black actors. These are no D-listers, either. Some of the 150 artists who signed on include Blair Underwood as Jesus, Angela Bassett as Esther, Cuba Gooding Jr. as Judas, and Denzel Washington, who’s reading the Songs of Solomon with his wife, Pauletta. But, says Reed, “we’re still looking for God.”

There’s no shortage of stars lining up. Though all participants are paid only the minimum required by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Reed says 98 out of 100 artists she approached signed on. … “This isn’t just a project,” says Louis (Buster) Brown, who’s overseeing music. “This has taken on all the characteristics of a movement.” Even if it is currently a Godless one.

Ah, come on! Let’s see, we need a really majestic, bold, yet mysterious voice that sounds like, well, the Lord Almighty. He’s played the role before, in fact, and we’re not talking about that Lord of the Sith thing.

Now who would that be? Oh, wait, and he’s one of the world’s best-known African American actors and voiceover talents. Let’s see. What’s his name again?

Over at USA Today, Cathy Lynn Grossman has all kinds of fun angles on this little story. However, the God issue is still there in all its glory. Maybe it’s just me, but it looks like the producers of this project are talking to him but can’t talk about the negotiations. That’s my reading of this:

God? Still not cast.

There’s an offer out, but “God requires a lot of recording time in hours. He had a lot to say,” says casting director and co-producer Robi Reed.

It’s nice that Denzel Washington and his wife, Pauletta, are going to read the Song of Solomon to each other. I am also sure, as Grossman notes, that the PR department for the project will have fun with Gooding as Judas, with that whole “Show me the money” thing going on between the lines.

But there might be another story hiding in between the lines here, a story about the role of religious faith in modern Hollywood. Here’s the dangerous question:

Another casting question: Should only faithful Christians get roles?

Reed says the producers agreed that the Bible — populated with many unbelievers — would be their guide. “The Bible itself is God’s word. Who are we to judge God’s word? It’s his project, his will and his purpose. If we bring in someone who doesn’t believe or whose faith is not as strong as ours, God’s plan might be that this is a way to bring them into belief.”

Whoa. That was a close one.

For a minute there, I thought the cast list for this project was going to be the official “outing” document for African American Christians in Hollywood. That would be a very controversial piece of paper in the Passion of the Chronicles of Brokeback Mountain era of the cinema wars.

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Breaking the tightrope of objectivity

time on opus deiI guess we’ll never find out whether Opus Dei is a scary “authoritarian and semi-clandestine enterprise” or merely a “teaching entity,” an “advanced school for Catholic spiritual formation.” In this era of postmodernism, where there is no truth, might both realities be presented as truth?

The cover story on Opus Dei in Time magazine this week was a letdown, but not completely unexpected. In portraying the group, Time presented little not already known. As Time attempted to balance both “truths” on the tightrope of objectivity, the rope broke and the story came crashing to the circus floor.

Time was no doubt inspired to explore the controversial Catholic group by the much-hyped movie The Da Vinci Code. Time based a great deal of its pro-Opus information on John Allen’s recently released book Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force in the Catholic Church (Doubleday). Time says it spoke freely with the organization, but little of the article is attributed to high-level Opus Dei officials.

As a side note, I would like to take issue with the title of the cover piece: “The Opus Dei Code” is quite similar to “Cracking the Opus Dei Code,” which our own Mollie Ziegler wrote in October 2005 for the New York Sun. Go figure. (By the way, Mollie’s piece, which covers a lot of the same ground as the Time article, raises some great issues with Allen’s book that Time failed to address.)

Back to my main complaint. The Time cover piece uses the well-known journalistic trick of taking both sides of an issue and presenting both as meriting equal levels of skepticism and credibility. And it does so unashamedly:

But Opus’ public relations offensive hasn’t quite managed to close the gap between what critics say it is about and its own version of the story. On one side there is “Octopus Dei,” or, as the current issue of Harper’s magazine puts it, “to a great extent … an authoritarian and semi-clandestine enterprise that manages to infiltrate its indoctrinated technocrats, politicos and administrators into the highest levels of the state.” On the other is the portrait painted by Opus’ U.S. vicar Thomas Bohlin, who sat for several hours with Time at his group’s Manhattan headquarters. Opus, he explained, is just a teaching entity, a kind of advanced school for Catholic spiritual formation with minimal global coordination or input as to how members and sympathizers apply what they learn. “You know Dale Carnegie courses?” he asked. “Businesses send their people there to learn to speak better, to organize — they teach all these kinds of things. People go there because they get something out of it, and then when they graduate, they don’t represent Dale Carnegie.”

ciliceJames Martin, an editor at the Jesuit publication America who has written critically about Opus, offers a middle ground between Dale Carnegie and the octopus: “Opus Dei provides members with an overarching spirituality for their life,” he suggests. “It’s an ongoing relationship that helps buttress and further shape the thought of people who are already conservative Catholics. That’s a powerful symbiosis, and there’s a personal connection between members, whether they’re housewives or politicians. It’s not an evil empire, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t serious issues that need to be addressed.”

A first journalistic pass, by Allen or Time, cannot fully resolve all those issues. But it can answer some of the questions that have long dogged the organization, and it may also show how The Da Vinci Code could end up helping Opus Dei.

On seven questions — How did it start? Who are these people? How secretive is Opus? How rich is it? How much power does it have? Do members really whip themselves? What about rumors of mind control? — Time does little more than spew out rumors and attempt to pin down answers.

disciplineFour mini-profiles, two of current “supernumeraries” (here and here) and two of disgruntled former members (here and here), are somewhat compelling because they put a real face on the subject. As a reporter, though, I always add an extra dose of skepticism toward disgruntled former members or employees of any organization. Sometimes what they have to say has real merit, other times the claims turn up bogus. That said, the official line can often carry just as little truth. Digging to the bottom of the story is what journalists are supposed to do, but for profiles, presenting both sides as equally valid is probably the best one can do.

While the Time package fails to live up to its billing, I was able to draw a couple of conclusions from the article. One is that a lot of the initial criticism of the group came from jealous and turf-protecting leaders in the Catholic Church when the group was founded in 1928. The other is that the rest of the criticism comes from disillusioned former members.

Opus Dei’s problem is not that it has encountered turf-protecting priests, or that people leave the group disappointed, but that it has been so secret for so many years. I don’t know the reasons why Opus Dei kept itself in the dark for so long, but if the whole Da Vinci Code drama is indeed responsible for getting Opus to open up to the public, as Time claims is the case, then the end result is good.

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Private schools can write their own rules

gay christianI have waited awhile to do an update on the MSM coverage of Jason Johnson, the gay student who was kicked out of the University of the Cumberlands, a school with Baptist roots. The story is still alive at two levels: (1) Key factual details remain a mystery and (2) there is an interesting church-state issue linked to state funds. More on that later.

GetReligion readers may recall that I stressed that early coverage failed to tell us whether the Cumberlands student handbook contained language forbidding sex outside of marriage at the time Johnson enrolled as a freshman. We know it was not there when the theater major was recruited and that it was in the handbook this past fall, his sophomore year. It appears that we still do not know what the handbook said — in writing — when he enrolled and, most probably, signed documents saying that he willingly agreed to live by the university’s student-life code.

We learn, in a report by Jamie Gumbrecht of the Lexington Herald-Leader, entitled “Gay and Christian“:

Although the 2005-06 student handbook says, “Any student who engages in or promotes sexual behavior not consistent with Christian principles (including sex outside marriage and homosexuality) may be suspended or asked to withdraw,” Johnson said he was not expecting the expulsion. He was heading to class when he was told to go to the student services building. Caught unaware, he wondered if he was receiving an honor from the school, although it seemed odd to be told to skip class.

“In the back of my mind, I thought what I was doing was probably risky,” Johnson said of his Web postings. “When I’d already told my parents, I had nothing to be afraid of. If something happened at school, now there was no question that my parents would support me.”

Note that Johnson said he did not expect to be expelled, even though he knew about the policy on sex. This is actually an interesting hook in this story, no matter what you think of the policy in question. As noted in comments about the previous post, it is valid to ask if (1) the university has made consistent attempts to advocate or enforce its rules on sexual morality and (2) whether these rules are enforced for homosexuals, but not for heterosexuals.

Yes, there is a story there. The issue, strangely enough, is not whether these schools are being too conservative. The issue may, in fact, be this: Are they being conservative enough on sex? Are they being consistent? A former journalism student of mine, years ago, put it this way: Two gay guys get in trouble if they even look at each other. Meanwhile, we have straight students all but conceiving babies on couches in our dorm lobbies.

Meanwhile, we do know that private schools — left and right — can write their own student-life codes. This is true for liberal schools that want to crack down on “offensive” (usually conservative) speech or on campus evangelism. A liberal school could require on-campus Christian groups to water down traditional Christian doctrines. But here is the key: The school has to state the rules openly and enforce them consistently. (Click here for more information on that.)

HeaderBkgrdwLogoBy the way, it is interesting to note that Johnson grew up in a congregation openly identified (slogan: All are welcomed here — no exceptions) with the left or, in press speak, “moderate” side of the 25-year civil war inside the nation’s largest non-Catholic flock. This is the smaller, “progressive” camp (think Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter). As Gumbrecht reported:

Johnson has lived in Lexington with his parents and two brothers since the early 1990s. He was baptized in 1996 at Central Baptist Church, which split from the Southern Baptist Convention and the Kentucky Baptist Convention.

So there is a story in there. How can close can Southern Baptists or former Southern Baptists skate to the edge of the mainline-Protestant ice on social issues without falling through? This is a hot issue among Baptists on the left, who are often afraid to discuss the issue openly.

Journalists can and should cover both sides of these theological debates on sex. But they must also understand that private schools — left and right — have the freedom to make their own rules. It is also legal for government aid to flow to the students in these schools.

But what about state money flowing to the schools themselves? That is another issue and that is the second layer to the Cumberlands story. The Louisville Courier-Journal notes that gay-rights groups are now pouncing on this question, in the wake of the Johnson expulsion. At stake is Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s drive to steer state funds to the Cumberlands administration for a new pharmacy school.

The state budget includes $1 million in pharmacy scholarships and $10 million to build a pharmacy school at the 1,743-student, Baptist-affiliated school in Williamsburg. Fletcher spokesman Brett Hall said the governor has not decided whether to issue any vetoes in the $18 billion budget for 2006-08 that state lawmakers passed this week.

Fletcher issued a statement saying, “My administration does not condone discrimination of any kind.”

As you would expect, this has led to a small effort to protest what happened to Johnson and to attack the possible state grant to the Baptist university. As you would expect, the demonstrators mixed liberal theology into their political views on the funding issue.

A sophomore and dean’s list student, Johnson reached an agreement with the university Tuesday that will allow him to finish his coursework and receive a transcript that will reflect his grades for the semester. His boyfriend, Zac Dreyer, was one of several speakers at the rally.

Some attendees wore T-shirts with such sayings as “Gay and Proud,” “Jesus Loves My Gay Friends, Too,” and “I’m For the Separation of Church and Hate.” Some carried signs that said: “If God Didn’t Make Homosexuals, Why Do They Exist,” “Jesus Wouldn’t Kick Him Out,” “WDJG: Where Did Jason Go” and “God Does Not Condone Hatred.”

That’s all fair game. Free speech is a good thing, for Johnson and for the millions of conservative Baptists who disagree with him.

For journalists, the goal is to cover both sides accurately and fairly while focusing on the bigger issue — the rights of private colleges and the rights of students to attend them or leave them. Perhaps this is a pro-choice story.

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Does God need good PR?

Larry RossSunday’s New York Times Magazine carried a relatively in-depth profile of Larry Ross, dubbed as possibly “the top public relations man for Christian clients in America.” The premise of the article (which goes along the lines of “Why does Jesus Christ need a publicist?”) is thought-provoking, and one that I’m sure came easily to the author, Strawberry Saroyan (author of Girl Walks into a Bar: A Memoir).

In introducing the question, Saroyan compares Mother Teresa’s need for a lawyer with the need of Rick Warren, and the entire Kingdom of God, for the help of public relations. “Why does God need someone to sell him?”

That’s a good question, but is Ross really trying to sell God? How about selling the earthly creation that is the church? I know most reporters have this image of public relations officials, especially the type you can hire for a buck, as sellouts and willing to represent anyone at the price, but this is not always the case.

In the nearly 5,000 words devoted to the subject, Saroyan fails to consider that while Ross has been behind some of the biggest Christian-themed moneymakers in the last few years and has directed big-budget marketing campaigns, the most basic need of those he represents is someone with the time and ability to explain their message to journalists who often have a poor understanding of religion.

If successful Christian leaders, preachers and evangelists are to use the mass media to spread their message, modern PR is necessary for the job. One can argue that, as Christians, they should be humble and not seek the spotlight. However, drawing 30,000 members to a congregation is bound to attract media attention. The following paragraph is a great example of this angle:

But Ross seems to be mostly at peace with his role and described it to me one afternoon this way: after invoking a biblical story about Moses’ engagement in a lengthy battle for the children of Israel, he said: “Moses stood there on top of a cliff, and as long as he held up his arms, the children of Israel won. Well, after a while he got tired, so there were two men that came and held up Moses’ arms so they could win the battle. That’s my job — to hold up the arms of the man of God, like Billy Graham or Rick Warren, in the media.” But his eyes really lighted up when he moved onto another topic — the press reception Graham received during his New York crusade last June. “He ended up doing 15 interviews, including all the major talk shows,” Ross told me. “At the press conference itself we had 250 journalists.”

Saroyan seems to think that pastors should be unwittingly put before the media horde, free to stumble over explanations of ecclesiastical language and possible fire and brimstone. Here’s one of my favorite paragraphs:

Perhaps the most intensive training that Ross offers is his “media and spokesperson” sessions. These can last as long as two days and usually include several mock interviews, which are taped. Ross encourages his clients to engage the media, but he wants to prepare them for worst-case encounters, so he administers tough questioning. To loosen clients up, he shows them an old “Bob Newhart” episode in which a talk-show host suddenly turns on Newhart. “It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen,” Ross says. He advises clients to avoid ecclesiastical language when addressing the mainstream (“Somebody talks about the Holy Ghost or the Army of God — that sounds like a revolution and it’s coming out of Iran,” says Lawrence Swicegood, who has worked for Ross and [Mark] DeMoss) and to use metaphors because they stick in people’s minds. Toward the end of a session, Ross looses a “bulldog” interrogator, a role played these days by Giles Hudson, a former writer for the Associated Press, who poses questions ranging from financial queries to “Do homosexuals go to hell?” “Obviously not,” Hudson says is a good response to this challenge. “Each person has their own relationship to Christ. People don’t just go to hell because you’re an alcoholic.” Sometimes Ross and Hudson add a separate, ambush interview. After taking a “break” from a session with Promise Keepers, Ross’s team confronted its president in the reception area, camera crew in tow.

So am I in favor of PR consultants walling off their clients and keeping them from the unfriendly media folks? No, not at all. I deal with those types in my day job. The goals Ross seems to have put before him in his job are not blocking information, but rather spreading information about Jesus Christ, which is a core tenet of being a Christian. This message came through clearly in the article, and for that Saroyan deserves praise:

Ross takes pains to distance himself from the more unsavory associations with publicists. Once he playfully asked me, “So, where would a P.R. man fit on the social scale between used-car salesmen, lepers and incurable lepers?” But he also tries to serve his two masters fairly. When he was working with “The Early Show” at CBS during a Graham crusade in 2005, he was approached by “Good Morning America.” He recapped the incident for me: “Their ratings are significantly higher, but I said, ‘I have to tell you, we’re here with CBS, and we have to honor the fact.’ I feel dutybound. It’s not enough to do things right — we have to do the right thing.” Ross also said he is attuned to the spiritual needs of his colleagues in the media. On one occasion he spoke to a producer from a network newsmagazine for six hours, answering her personal questions about Christ. “We have people who come to the crusades to report the story and put down their pens and microphones and commit to God,” he said.

Finally, I believe Saroyan nailed it in explaining Ross’ “near-refusal to acknowledge anything other than the glowingly positive” as a tendency of Christians to not “want to let on to anything negative because they fear it will reflect badly on God.” Sadly, I’ve found this to be true in my own experience. It’s one thing to want to keep the Church from being unfairly criticized in the media, but it’s another thing to attempt to cover up its spots and blemishes.

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The importance of religion stories

whitehousedinner johnrobertsEven though I’m a reporter, I only recently began reading bylines as part of my newspaper experience.

I can credit Robin Givhan for that. She’s a staff writer for the Style section of the Washington Post. I was so aghast at reading a piece of hers years ago that I actually started noticing her byline. She said that Katherine Harris couldn’t be trusted to deal with the 2000 election mess in Florida because of something about the way she applied her mascara. What was this, 1952? High-achieving women are judged not for their degrees from Harvard or being elected to a statewide office but for their makeup?

Of course, it’s not hard to criticize fashion in Washington, where the women look like they’re in an Ann Taylor cult and the men wear Dockers and pennyloafers to work out at the gym.

I love fashion criticism, it’s just that rather than treating good fashion as its own virtue, Givhan extrapolates opinions about aesthetics into moral judgments. Beauty becomes equivalent to political virtue, ugliness to political vice, and Givhan writes it up in a manner that is extremely one-sided. She ridiculed John Roberts’ family for looking too perfect, referred to Condoleezza Rice as a dominatrix and said Dick Cheney dressed horribly for a blizzard.

So when someone said that Givhan won a Pulitzer yesterday, I laughed. I saw a few other references to a Givhan Pulitzer and figured there must have been some joke on Wonkette that people were referencing. A full seven hours later I checked out the official list and saw that Givhan’s name was on it. I turned to my fiance, who fortunately had some smelling salts on hand. When I came to, he explained to me in soothing tones that it was true.

But the Pulitzer committee has made mistakes before. It’s still a prestigious award, even if its biases are pretty obvious.

It got me wondering, though, about the Godbeat. How well are religion reporters represented among the 2006 winners? I had hoped that Stephanie Simon might win for her excellent coverage of religious and moral issues for the Los Angeles Times. Alas, no. I imagine New Orleans’ Times-Picayune and Biloxi-Gulfport’s Sun Herald had some good religion reporting in their Katrina coverage, for which they won awards.

Here’s the full list of awards. Some were given to reporters for stories that have religion ghosts — such as the Jack Abramoff scandal or stories related to counterterrorism efforts. The Rocky Mountain News won two awards for a story and photographic essay about how Marines honor fallen comrades.

I guess I’m surprised that there weren’t more overtly religious stories. Awards are given for stories written in 2005. Terry wrote about the top 10 religious stories for 2005. I see very little overlap between the Pulitzer awards and the Religion Newswriters Association’s list of the year’s biggest stories. What’s more, the Pulitzer list has the same blind spot that Terry noted: the religious dimensions to terrorism.

And that’s probably because the media have done a horrible job of exploring those dimensions. But at least we know all about those scary Roberts children.

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News flash: Resurrection story has staying power

Resurrection2Holy Week is so nice that we have it twice here at GetReligion. The Western Church, which includes Daniel and me, had Holy Week last week. The Eastern Church and Terry are in the midst of Holy Week now. Oh that wacky Julian Calendar! Because of our many services, I was a bit out of the loop on what religious stories ran over the weekend. But I couldn’t miss one story as I received almost a dozen emails about it. The headline sort of says it all:

Is Jesus Risen? Literal View Gains Ground

Yeah, the Washington Post‘s Michelle Boorstein penned a piece about how some (some?) Christians believe Jesus literally rose from the dead. They even have a whole day set aside to celebrate this bizarre belief in a literal, science-defying resurrection. Who knew? It’s a bizarre story and headline for Christians because the physical resurrection of Christ is a central tenet of the church, to understate wildly. Here are her nut graphs:

The Easter story is the centerpiece of Christians’ faith. For most, the miracle of Jesus overcoming death three days after the Crucifixion — whether in body or spirit — is not open to debate. Others do not view the Resurrection in a literal way but as a powerful, transformative metaphor about his message living on.

In the past two decades, there has been a heightened scrutiny of Scripture, with basic Christian tenets such as the Resurrection challenged by biblical scholars and others in their search for historical facts about Jesus. But in recent years, there has been a rise in the popularity and stature of books that embrace [the] traditional view of Easter, experts say.

We could talk about the problems with using descriptors like “most” and “others.” We could talk about the problem of not better describing the theology of people who renounce key Christian doctrines. We could discuss the odd use of the phrase “past two decades” to describe historical revisionism, which is a century old and has wreaked havoc on church bodies that used to be so important they were called mainline.

But I’m still stuck on the headline! To say that the key doctrine of Christianity is something on the rise within Christianity shows a lack of historical perspective and an odd starting point for a story. Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass said it best:

Obviously, I work in the secular media, and we’re usually skittish about spiritual matters. But we’re quite dogmatic when it comes to some other things. For example, we’re almost severe in our collective belief in scientific progress, in the ability of government officials and technology and reason to solve the problems of the modern world. . . .

Just think about that. All across the world on Sunday, and again next Sunday, millions of folks will confirm their belief in something that can’t be proven by scientific means. That yearning is news, isn’t it? Even though it takes place year after year, it’s still news.

So we have the annual rite of questioning in the weeks heading up to Easter. This year we got the stories about how Jesus didn’t walk on water, but an ice floe; that he wasn’t crucified in the manner in which people think; and that his father was a Roman soldier named Pantera. And on Easter weekend we get stories that focus on controversies — that sell books — rather than the stories taking place in Christians’ lives throughout the week. It will happen against next year. On that note, one controversy story this Easter that was fairly informative was the Associated Press’ Richard Ostling piece on beliefs about whether Jesus rose from the dead. But for Christians, the Easter story is not about controversy! It’s about salvation, peace and forgiveness of sins. Stories can be interesting and focused on what Easter means for Christians as opposed to what Easter means for non-Christians who love to cast aspersions on believers. It is possible. Just look at how well controversy stories go over with readers, judging from today’s letters to the editor section at the Dallas Morning News:

Great article, guys. Can’t wait for your coverage of how the Quran isn’t the last word for Muslims. You can run that during Ramadan. Or how about a story on the plutocrats and dictators who have resulted from various Mexican revolutions? Page One for Cinco de Mayo? Millions dead because of the DDT fad? Run it on Earth Day.

resurrectionThe other letters weren’t much more kind.

Anyway, I think this is my favorite passage from Boorstein’s piece:

The Rev. Steve Huber of St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in the District said he sees a “deep spiritual hunger afloat in our culture” but isn’t sure whether that translates into more people believing in the physical Resurrection — or whether it matters. . . .

“If Easter is about proving the veracity of some historical event that happened 2,000 years ago, that misses the point,” Huber said.

She doesn’t just leave the comment hanging, exactly, but a point-counterpoint approach to reporting on an issue like this just doesn’t suffice. She doesn’t reference it in any way, but the issue of whether Christ literally rose from the dead was addressed by the apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. In chapter 15, he wrote:

Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up — if in fact the dead do not rise. For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.

If Jesus did not rise from the dead, the apostle Paul says, then you are the most pitiful loser to have faith in him. And Steve Huber says you’re not. Pick your sides. But if you are a reporter covering this issue, you have to understand who has more sway in Christianity. And you have to mention how central to Christianity a belief in the physical resurrection is and how it is the basis for Christian beliefs about life, death and forgiveness of sins.

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Worshiping those Bible Belt Idols

magazine 4covers2You just know that there has to be a religion ghost in there somewhere if the oh-so-cynical folks at the Washington Post Style section are going to get all worked up about a story that pits those strange folks out there in red-zip-code Middle America against the befuddled elites in dark-blue zip codes.

Sure enough, God, church, family, Wal-Mart and who knows what all (where was Mama?) make special appearances in reporter Neely Tucker’s “Who Put The Y’all In ‘Idol’? The Competition Is National but Its Finalists’ Accent Is Unmistakable,” which ponders the mystery of why so many American Idol hotshots are from the Bible Belt, of all places. Let’s go ahead and, with a giant wink, get the opening of the story out of the way:

What is it with this Southern thing on “American Idol,” anyway? Here we go, a national singing competition. It’s lousy with Juilliard proteges, Hollywood High sensations, right? Top-notch overachievers, best-that-money-can-buy training? Um, no.

For five years, the most wildly popular talent contest on American television has been dominated — thoroughly, totally and completely — by kids from Southern Hicksville, USA. Seven of the eight top-two finishers in the first four years were from states that once formed the Confederacy, and five of the seven remaining finalists this season are, too.


And guess what? While the Bible Belt folks — for some strange reason — eat this stuff up like cornbread with milk and honey, the math shows that the mega-vote folks in the big-city rating zones (mostly blue) also appear to like those golden-throated warblers from, what was that phrase again, “Southern Hicksville.”

Now please understand, I say all of this as a person who has, of his own free will, never (it may be dangerous to say this, scientists may want samples of my brain tissue as a control device) seen an episode of American Idol. I mean, if I liked that kind of music I would attend a megachurch.

But what is going on out there in the heartland? Could it be that ordinary Americans like over-the-top emotions when they are woven into shows that do not go out of their way to offend people who think the Tony Awards have gotten a bit, well, strange? Does this have something to do with Baby Boomers liking songs with three chords and a hook? Or is there something deeper? Is America a land of simple people who yearn, bless their shallow little hearts, for simple things?

… (A) softer Southern accent persists, as does the cultural memory of things long gone. There is still an emphasis on church and family, both entities that, in the course of Southern life, heavily influence music, particularly among the working class.

“There’s still an awful lot of old-school singers who got their starts in church, and many mainstream country musicians still do a gospel album,” said John Reed Shelton, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of North Carolina and one of the region’s most respected observers. “Everybody tends to go to church, and Southern evangelical Protestantism, both black and white, emphasizes and rewards musical performance.”

Ain’t that sweet?

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