Louis Zamperini: A life transformed by … Billy Graham?

YouTube Preview Image

Louis Zamperini had an amazing, amazing life.

Actually, he had two of them since — pardon my French — he was a born-again Christian.

You can get the amazing details of his first life in all of obituaries that are running in major news publications. However, if you want to know much about how this amazing man made sense of all of the pain and suffering in his life, how he was healed (in several senses of that word) and then moved on, well, good luck with that.

Here is the top of the almost fine obit in the pages of secular holy writ, The New York Times:

Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who as an airman during World War II crashed into the Pacific, was listed as dead and then spent 47 days adrift in a life raft before being captured by the Japanese and enduring a harsh imprisonment, died on Wednesday in Los Angeles. He was 97. A statement released by his family said he had had pneumonia.

Mr. Zamperini’s remarkable story of survival during the War gained new attention in 2010 with the publication of a vivid biography by Laura Hillenbrand, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.” It rose to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list.

The story is to be retold in a film adaptation of the book directed by Angelina Jolie and scheduled to be released in December. Jack O’Connell plays Mr. Zamperini.

The details of his ordeal must be read to be believed. Yes, please read them. Yes, he shook the hand of Adolph Hitler.

It is perfectly understandable that this kind of trauma and, at one point, daily torture left scars. The news coverage of Zamperini’s death has handled that angle, sort of. Here is the Times, again:

[Read more...]

Concerning all those ‘fake baptisms’ at Elevation Church

YouTube Preview Image

Long, long, ago I covered several Billy Graham crusades or other evangelistic efforts linked to his organization. In the days before these giant events, the pros doing press relations went out of their way to explain many of the fine details of what was happening and why.

For example, they noted that after Graham extended his invitation for people to come forward to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior, or to rededicate their lives as Christians, many of the first people who came forward were actually trained counselors who would be greeting these seekers and helping to answer their questions. The counselors sat all over the stadium rather than clogging up the front rows in front of the podium.

Did this give the appearance that many people were streaming forward to make decisions, thus helping “break the ice” for those who might hesitate? That way have been a secondary affect. The key was that the counselors immediately went to work at the front of the stadium doing what they were supposed to do — work with the seekers who were coming forward. (For example, during the Colorado crusade in 1987, one of my stories focused on the cooperation between the Denver Catholic Archdiocese and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to find and train Catholic counselors to work with Catholics who came forward to make decisions.)

In other words, it was a valid question to ask about the visual effect of the counselors streaming forward. The Graham people heard the question, validated it and then provided an answer.

So how does my Graham story relate to the NBC Charlotte investigation into the the baptismal practices being used at the massive Elevation Church?

First of all, the story opens — for some strange reason — with a piece of news that really isn’t news, for anyone who has been following megachurch trends.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – You wouldn’t know it by the name, but Elevation Church is Southern Baptist. Its Pastor Steven Furtick graduated from a Southern Baptist seminary. Elevation was planted with seed money from Southern Baptists. And Elevation gives money to Southern Baptist missions.

But you won’t find the Baptist name on Elevation. Instead its campuses are marked with Elevation’s trademarked name and brand — the orange circle with the “up arrow” chevron shape inside. There’s not even the traditional cross on the outside of Elevation buildings.

So what else is new? Skilled religion-beat specialists have been covering this generic megachurch trend for a decade or more. Can you say Saddleback Community Church? I thought so.

No, the key to this report is the claim that many of the people who rush forward to take part in Elevation Church’s trademark mass baptism services are not really newcomers to the faith. They are plants used to create emotional scenes that promote inflated numbers. Readers are told:

Elevation Church keeps an exact count of its thousands of baptisms, all part of its laser like focus on numbers. But those numbers have spiked and dipped from year to year according to a confidential internal report obtained by the NBC Charlotte I-Team — from 289 in 2010 to 2,410 in 2011, from 689 in 2012 to 3,519 for the first eight months of last year.

To get those thousands of baptisms takes a lot of planning.

And Elevation produced a document to show other churches how they could do likewise. It’s titled “Spontaneous Baptisms — A How-To Guide” and the church
shared it freely on the Sun Stand Still website.

But parts of the mass baptism guide have drawn sharp criticism — from other Christians. Page one shows that the first people instructed to respond to Pastor
Steven’s call to baptism were not converts suddenly inspired but Elevation volunteers carefully planted in the crowd.

The guide instructs, “Fifteen people will sit in the worship experience and be the first ones to move when Pastor gives the call. Move intentionally through the highest visibility areas and the longest walk.”

So, in the words of one critic, these 15 people are faking people out, they are in fact “shilling” for the church’s leaders.

[Read more...]

Seeking the sympathetic critics of Bob Jones University

YouTube Preview Image

As any journalist knows, institutions — secular or religious — do not like to talk about their failures, let alone their sins.

Often this is caused by their lawyers who are anxious to head off lawsuits or to protect their client’s rights when conflicts take place. When this approach is applied to media relations, the result is either total silence or a bullet-proof form of public relations that seeks to protect the mother ship — period.

We talk about this all the time in classes at the Washington Journalism Center, where my students come from a variety of different kinds of Christian college and university campuses, most of them linked to evangelical Protestantism. Sometimes it’s hard to separate legitimate legal concerns from a faith-lingo-soaked “do not hurt your Christian brother” brand of public relations that rejects all attempts to do journalistic work in times of pain, crisis or scandal.

Trust me. This is not a conservative vs. liberal situation. As a reporter, I have faced toxic denial among liberal faith leaders as well as conservative. As I have said many times here at GetReligion, the hellish sins in the clergy sexual abuse crisis touched liberal Catholic heroes as well as conservatives. There were devils on both sides, as well as heroes.

This brings me to that important, but strangely shallow, New York Times report about a sexual-abuse scandal that is unfolding at Bob Jones University, one of America’s most important academic institutions that can genuinely be called “fundamentalist.” The copy desk showed restraint in leaving the f-word out of the headline: “Christian School Faulted for Halting Abuse Study.”

As you read the story, look for the tell-tale marks left by lawyers and public-relations professionals. Here is the opening of the report.

GREENVILLE, S.C. – For decades, students at Bob Jones University who sought counseling for sexual abuse were told not to report it because turning in an abuser from a fundamentalist Christian community would damage Jesus Christ. Administrators called victims liars and sinners.

All of this happened until recently inside the confines of this insular university, according to former students and staff members who said they had high hopes that the Bob Jones brand of counseling would be exposed and reformed after the university hired a Christian consulting group in 2012 to investigate its handling of sexual assaults, many of which occurred long before the students arrived at the university.

Last week, Bob Jones dealt a blow to those hopes, acknowledging that with the investigation more than a year old and nearing completion, the university had fired the consulting group, Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, or Grace, without warning or explanation. The dismissal has drawn intense criticism from some people with ties to Bob Jones, and prompted some victims and their allies — including many who were interviewed by Grace investigators — to tell their stories publicly for the first time, attracting more attention than ever to the university’s methods.

At this point, it helps to know several things. First of all, the Grace organization has major evangelical credibility, but I stress the word “evangelical.” As the story notes, Grace was founded by Basyle J. Tchividjian, a grandson of the Rev. Billy Graham and a law professor at Liberty University, which was founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. In other words, the current leaders of Bob Jones sought help from an organization linked to two Christian leaders who had been condemned as inadequately fundamentalist by previous Bob Jones leaders.

Second, it appears that the vast majority of the reports being discussed here are about abuse that is alleged to have taken place in churches, institutions and homes that shaped students before they arrived on the Bob Jones campus. In other words, there are other lawyers of lawyers involved.

But here is the phrase that most interested me in the opening chunk of the story.

[Read more...]

Billy Graham’s 95th birthday bash: Happy or harpy?

YouTube Preview Image

In the 1984 hit movie “Sixteen Candles,” Molly Ringwald’s character, Samantha Baker, awakens on what should be the biggest birthday of her life. Only, her family has forgotten the occasion.

Overshadowed by her older sister’s impending nuptials, Samantha spends the day hoping one of her family members will remember. Hilarity ensues. Eventually everyone wishes her a happy birthday — including her hunky, sportscar-driving, secret crush Jake. He shows up. And he brings cake! They kiss. Yippee!

I couldn’t help but think of this classic coming-of-age movie (the late Roger Ebert once quipped, “Molly Ringwald was the Molly Ringwald of the ’80s”) as I read USA Today’s rehash of last week’s celebration marking Billy Graham’s 95th birthday in Asheville, N.C.

Not that the Graham family didn’t remember their patriarch’s big day. Not that there wasn’t cake. It was that on this particular occasion, the MSM Graham storyline, like Samantha Baker’s, was just so very, very wrong. Friends and neighbors, was this really a political celebrity story?

At 95 and in frail health, Billy Graham often resists family entreaties to make excursions from his mountaintop home. But the nation’s most famous evangelist attended a birthday celebration Thursday night that featured hundreds of well-wishers and what is being characterized as his final sermon.

Given the lead player, his impact on the world religion stage and the role he has played in the lives of millions of believers in the 185 countries he has visited, you’d expect some retrospective in this story. Some context. At least allusion to the cultural changes that surrounded his ministry and the decades in which he preached. Words that attempt to capture the poignancy of Billy Graham choosing his 95th birthday to present his final sermon.

Instead we get a Fox News infomercial.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, for instance:

[Read more...]

Pod people: Concerning the IRS and the God squads

It’s a basic fact of life in American politics that nothing fires up the non-profit sector on the political right like the election of a strong president whose voter base is on the religious, cultural and political left.

Thus, it’s no surprise that the election of President Barack Obama, an articulate believer from the heart of liberal mainline Protestantism, created a boom in activism on the religious, cultural and political right. That’s the way the world works.

Of course, the folks that got most of the mainstream media ink, after Obama rose to power, were the Tea Party activists. The journalistic template was established early on that we were talking about the Libertarian barbarian hordes marching into the public square to sack civilization (but, hey, at least they aren’t the religious right folks).

Thus, most of our recent media firestorm about the public confession that the IRS focused extra scrutiny on White House enemies has focused on — what are those magic words again — non-profit applications by groups that had “Tea Party” or “patriot” in their names, or were dedicated to scary activities such as distributing educational materials about the U.S. Constitution.

However, there has been some mainstream coverage of the fact that the IRS also targeted some conservative religious groups that were dedicated to activism on key moral issues dear to the heart of White House folks — such as abortion, health-care reform and same-sex marriage. If you want to create a few (repeat, a few) headlines, then you go after the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, right to life networks and similar groups.

I’ve been writing about the IRS affairs the past two weeks for the Scripps Howard News Service and, no surprise, the subject continues to come up here at GetReligion. Thus, Todd Wilken and I dug into the subject in the latest GetReligion “Crossroads” podcast.

Did you actually hear about the question that the IRS asked when considering one right-to-life group’s request for non-profit status? Here’s how one of my columns opened:

IRS Commissioner Steven Miller was already having a rough day at the House Ways and Means Committee when one particularly hot question shoved him into the lower depths of a church-state Inferno.

The question concerned a letter sent by IRS officials in Cincinnati to the Coalition for Life of Iowa, linked to its application for tax-exempt status.

“Please explain how all of your activities, including the prayer meetings held outside of Planned Parenthood, are considered educational,” said the letter, which was released by the Thomas More Society, which often defends traditional religious groups. “Organizations exempt under 501(c)(3) may present opinions with scientific or medical facts. Please explain in detail the activities at these prayer meetings. Also, please provide the percentage of time your organizations spends on prayer groups as compared with the other activities of the organization.”

Welcome back to the religious liberty wars of 2013, in a scene captured by the omnipresent eye of C-SPAN.

Now, the key to the podcast discussion was this: If this whole IRS thing is going to have legs, what is the next legitimate angle for journalists to investigate?

[Read more...]

WWROD? Another stab at defining the word ‘evangelical’

Long ago, I asked the Rev. Billy Graham a question that I really thought he, of all people, would be able to answer.

The question: What does the word “evangelical” mean?

As I have reported several times, the world’s most famous evangelist tossed the question right back at me:

“Actually, that’s a question I’d like to ask somebody, too,” he said, during a 1987 interview in his mountainside home office in Montreat, N.C. This oft-abused term has “become blurred. … You go all the way from the extreme fundamentalists to the extreme liberals and, somewhere in between, there are the evangelicals.”

Wait a minute, I said. If Billy Graham doesn’t know what “evangelical” means, then who does? Graham agreed that this is a problem for journalists and historians. One man’s “evangelical” is another’s “fundamentalist.”

So, a few months ago, I asked the Rev. Rick Warren — one of today’s most high-profile evangelicals — the same question. And his response?

“I know what the word ‘evangelical’ is supposed to mean,” said Warren, 58, leader of the 20,000-member Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., with its many branch congregations and ministries. “I mean, I know what the word ‘evangelical’ used to mean.”

The problem, he said, is that many Americans no longer link “evangelical” with a set of traditional doctrines, such as evangelistic efforts to reach the lost, the defense of biblical authority, projects to help the needy and the conviction that salvation is found through faith in Jesus Christ, alone.

Somewhere during the George W. Bush years the word “evangelical” — a term used in church history — got “co-opted into being a political term,” said Warren. …

(Cue: audible sigh)

Needless to say, this is an issue that has been discussed many times here at GetReligion, where we continue to argue that — damn the postmodernism, full speed ahead — journalists should attempt to use words precisely. On the religion beat, words with links to history and doctrine really matter. Words have meanings.

So, how are journalists supposed to know what “evangelical” means, since it is almost impossible to avoid using it these days?

This is a battle and, lucky for us, the other day someone asked this question to Godbeat patriarch Richard Ostling, over at his weblog, Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy Answers your Questions.”

[Read more...]

Behold: A pretty fair tribute to George Beverly Shea

YouTube Preview Image

Longtime GetReligion readers may recall that I grew up in Texas in the 1960s and early ’70s, the son of a Southern Baptist pastor. Suffice it to say that I have been to my share of Billy Graham meetings, back then and as a reporter on the religion beat in Denver and elsewhere.

So I heard George Beverly Shea sing on multiple occasions.

The purpose of this post is quite simple, but I will admit that it is a bit strange. I would like to thank the editors of The Washington Post for running a non-snarky obituary for Shea, who died April 16 at the age of 104. I don’t think I have ever heard a single person say a bad word about Shea, which would have raised the degree of difficulty in writing an obit with some teeth in it.

It is estimated that Shea sang — in person — for an estimated audience of 220 million in a career that spanned seven decades. Toss in television and shelves of albums and he would have to rank near the top, in terms of impact, in the world of gospel music.

Shea was never the main attraction and he knew it, a fact noted in the Post report. Here’s my favorite chunk of the story:

When Graham devoted himself to his evangelistic “crusades” in 1947, he invited Mr. Shea to join him. From then on, wherever Graham preached, Mr. Shea sang. He was known for his clean diction, perfect pitch and a robust bass-baritone voice that was as sturdy and as flashy as a tree trunk.

Mr. Shea had a repertoire of hundreds of hymns — some of which he composed — but was identified with a few familiar favorites, including “The Old Rugged Cross,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and, especially, “How Great Thou Art.” He began singing “How Great Thou Art,” a Swedish hymn written in the 1880s, in the mid-1950s. When Graham preached to more than 2 million people during a prolonged crusade in New York City in 1957, Mr. Shea sang his signature number on more than 100 consecutive nights.

Two alterations he made in the lyrics of “How Great Thou Art” became so well known that the original words were almost forgotten. Mr. Shea changed “consider all the works thy hands have made” to “all the worlds thy hands have made” and “I hear the mighty thunder” to “I hear the rolling thunder.”

“I got a bang when I used to hear Elvis Presley sing my two words,” Mr. Shea told the Kansas City Star in 2004.

The connections with the Graham family were strong at every possible level.

How strong?

[Read more...]

BBC probes Johnny Cash’s vague interest in redemption

YouTube Preview Image

The late Johnny Cash was a lot of things at the same time, which has often left journalists a bit confused about the sources of his remarkable passion and creativity. For starters, the man ended up in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. I think that covers most of the bases. Did I miss a hall of fame or two?

Anyway, I think Cash did a great job of covering the essentials when he was asked to describe his tastes in music:

“I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And mother. And God.”

That has to be one of the Top 10 music quotes of all time. That says it all. That’s Johnny Cash, right there — saint, sinner, whiskey, anger, grace and all.

Anyway, the venerable BBC took a shot, the other day, at a truly newsworthy subject — trying to describe the legacy of Cash and his art in terms of his impact on the movement to reform U.S. prisons. The goal was to get past the legendary concerts at Folsom Prison and San Quentin and look for the roots of Cash’s activism. Here’s one of the summary passages:

Fitting the gigs in around his relentless touring schedule, the “Man in Black” performed for inmates all over the US, always unpaid, and in the process, became a passionate and vocal spokesman for prisoners’ rights. …

The roots of Cash’s empathy lie as far back as 1953, when as a 21-year-old radio operator in the US Air Force, he saw the film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison and was inspired to write a song. Folsom Prison Blues, released two years later, after Cash had signed to Sun Records, turned the young singer into a star.

The song, and in particular the now-notorious line “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die,” was sung with such raw menace that many assumed Cash knew what he was talking about. …

This is one of the ironies of Cash’s prison reform crusade. The very thing that made convicts connect with him, and US senators hang on his every word — the air of authenticity that stemmed from the belief he had served hard time himself — was in reality a misconception.

This story captures the rough and flawed side of Cash’s story, the grim realities that stuck him in quite a few jails for overnight visits following rampages linked to alcohol, rage, drugs and a variety of other weaknesses. For the BBC team, that seemed to be the heart of the Cash story.

Well, it’s half the story. Want to guess the side of Cash’s life that didn’t make it into the story, other than one or two timely hints?

Cash, you see, was seeking more than prison reform. He was shooting at a bigger spiritual target. Here’s the chunk of this story that comes the closest to hitting the mark. The key voice is that of biographer Michael Streissguth.

[Read more...]


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X