762 Messiahs or Why Slow News is good news

You’ve probably heard of some variation of the Slow Movement, a trend which advocates a cultural shift toward slowing down life’s pace. There are subcultures devoted to Slow Food, Slow Gardening, Slow Travel — even Slow Church. But what we really need, especially in religion reporting, is Slow News.

While “slow news” day is generally something to be dreaded by news junkies, I think Slow News could help solve one of the media’s biggest problems: the diminishment of context. As the historian C. John Sommerville wrote in an article titled, “Why the News Makes Us Dumb”:

What happens when you sell information on a daily basis? You have to make each day’s report seem important, and you do this primarily by reducing the importance of its context. What you are selling is change, and if readers were aware of the bigger story, that would tend to diminish today’s contribution.

In many ways, information technology has made it faster and easier for reporters put news story into a broader context. Yet the speed at which news is published by most media outlets makes it nearly impossible for journalists to do even the most basic of contextual research. Take, for example, the “Messiah” born in Tennessee story that Bobby Ross mentioned last week.

A judge in Tennessee changed a 7-month-old boy’s name to Martin from Messiah, saying the religious name was earned by one person and “that one person is Jesus Christ.” The AP was among the first to report on the story on August 12. That article was rather bare-boned, but later that day they put out a more in-depth feature.

A more detailed version, as Bobby pointed out, was produced by Godbeat pro Bob Smietana, who explained that baby Martin is just one of hundreds of Messiahs: 762 were born in 2012. Admittedly, the first AP story noted that “Messiah was No. 4 among the fastest-rising baby names in 2012.” But taking the time, as Smietana did, to actually nail down a number (762!) helps to put the story in a broader context. It also helps to show that the real story is not about unusual religion-themed baby names but about the religious freedom to give your baby such a name.

The New York Times‘ Mark Oppenheimer took an additional four days to weigh-in — an extensive delay in our second-by-second news culture — which seems to have given him the time not only to explore the religious freedom angle in more depth, but to provide some cultural context:
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The AP discovers the Christian hipster pastor

Does your pastor wear v-neck shirts, have tattoos on both forearms, and ride a fixed-gear bike? Is the building where you go to church on Sunday morning a tavern/microbrewery on Saturday night? Are the communion wafer at your church gluten-free?

Probably not, because you (i.e., the typical GetReligion reader) are old and no longer cool. But if you hang around with young evangelicals long enough, you’ll recognize the tropes associated with “hipster Christianity.” Although hipster churches have been around a long time, they’ve only recently begun to develop into the pinnacle of evangelical ecclesiological success, the megachurch.

Yesterday, the AP wrote a profile about the pastor of one of the fastest growing megachurches in America, a congregation located at the heart of the Hipster Kingdom: New York City.

Carl Lentz is not your typical pastor.

Along with his half shaved head and slicked back Mohawk, he’s dressed in his usual Sunday attire: black jeans and an unbuttoned denim shirt with a tank top underneath. His tattooed arms, including one with two guns crossed, peek out from under his rolled-up sleeves.

There seems to be a missing adjective between “typical” and “pastor.” Typical compared to what? The typical Baptist pastor is typically different than the typical Episcopalian, Catholic, or Unitarian pastor. And while Lentz’s style of dress may not be typical of most evangelical pastors, it’s not all that different from many typical evangelical worship leaders or youth pastors. It’s also rather typical (or at least fits the stereotype) of many hipster pastors in urban areas.

While the article is brief and focused mainly on Lentz, it does a decent job of putting Hillsong Church in context of a broader trend. For instance:

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A tune on gay evangelicals that evangelicals won’t recognize

While working on a recording together, Johnny Cash asked Bob Dylan if he knew “Ring of Fire.” Dylan said he did and began to play it on the piano, croaking it out in typical Dylanesque fashion. When he was done he turned to his friend and said, “It goes something like that, right?” “No,” said Cash shaking his head. “It doesn’t go like that at all.”

I’m often reminded of that (perhaps apocryphal) story whenever I read mainstream media reports of conversations going on within evangelicalism. While the reporter may get bits and pieces right, the overall effect is that I finish the story thinking, “It doesn’t go like that at all.”

Take, for example, a feature yesterday by the AP, “Gay, evangelical and seeking acceptance in church.”

Evangelicals are being challenged to change their views of gays and lesbians, and the pressure isn’t coming from the gay rights movement or watershed court rulings: Once silent for fear of being shunned, more gay and lesbian evangelicals are speaking out about how they’ve struggled to reconcile their beliefs and sexual orientation.

Students and alumni from Christian colleges have been forming gay and lesbian support groups – a development that even younger alumni say they couldn’t have imagined in their own school years

From the article, we can discern that four claims are being made (three from the opening lede, and one later in the feature):

1. Students and alumni from Christian colleges have been forming gay and lesbian support groups.

2. Gay and lesbian evangelicals are speaking out now, more so than in the past, about how they’ve struggled to reconcile their beliefs and sexual orientation.

3. Evangelicals are being challenged to change their views of gays and lesbians by gay and lesbian evangelicals.

4. Gay evangelicals have already prompted a backlash

The claim about students and alumni from Christian colleges forming gay and lesbian support groups is clearly supported by evidence, though the term “support group” is unhelpfully vague. This is a relatively underreported trend and could have been the focus of an entire article itself. Hopefully, the AP will provide additional coverage on that topic.

The second claim relies on a vague comparison to an undefined past. Still, it too is a relatively innocuous claim. The issue of homosexuality has become more openly discussed over the past ten years, so it would probably be fair to say that you could fill in the blank of “more gay and lesbian ______________ are speaking out” and have it be true for almost any group – including evangelicals.

The third and fourth points, which constitute the main theme of the article, raise the question of exactly how evangelicals are being challenged to change their views of gays and lesbians by gay and lesbian evangelicals and what sort of backlash is occurring:

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