Godless congregations copying Christian churches

Every year, approximately 4,000 new churches are started in the U.S. Out of that number, approximately 4,000 will receive no attention from the New York Times. So what makes Jerry DeWitt’s new church – located in a Hilton Hotel ballroom in Baton Rouge, Louisiana – worthy of a feature in America’s greatest newspaper?

Perhaps it’s because DeWitt, a former Pentecostal preacher, had the marketing savvy to bill his church launch as “Louisiana’s first atheist service.”

It would have been easy to mistake what was happening in a hotel ballroom here for a religious service. All the things that might be associated with one were present Sunday: 80 people drawn by a common conviction. Exhortations to service. Singing and light swaying. An impassioned sermon.

Atheist “churches” are a hot new trend and worthy of broader news coverage. But there is something about this story that strikes me as peculiar. See if you notice anything strange about this sentence:

With Sunday’s service — marking the start of Community Mission Chapel in Lake Charles, which Mr. DeWitt called a full-fledged atheist “church” — he wanted to bring some of the things that he had learned from his years as a religious leader to atheists in southern Louisiana.

The general newspaper reader will likely pass over that sentence without giving it a second thought. But for a journalist – particular one writing a feature for the New York Times – that should be a signal to start asking more questions. For example, the first query that comes to mind is, “If you are starting a new church in Lake Charles, why hold the first service in a hotel ballroom in Baton Rouge – a two hour drive from where your chapel will be located?”

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How should journalists fight back against sacred jargon?

Yesterday, CNN ran a feature highlighting the faith of members of a Bible group the meets on the PGA Tour. The article itself is well-done and provides an superb model for how to address religion in sports.

Job one: let the athletes speak for themselves and quote them accurately. Out of 175 lines in the article, 91 are direct quotes from the members of the Bible group talking about their faith.

But the commendatory approach taken by CNN also provides examples of the confusion that can arise when sources use religious language in a way that might be familiar to those in a particular faith tradition (e.g., Christianese), but may come across as inaccessible gibberish to outsiders. When people use religious jargon the denotation of certain words can vary from common usage and shortcuts can be taken based on the assumption that the listener can fill in the blanks. Journalists are not supposed to make those kinds of assumptions.

An example of the latter is the assumption by golfer Kevin Streelman that others will be familiar with the narrative pattern of personal redemption stories:

Players from across the PGA Tour meet regularly at a Bible group, whose members include high-profile stars such as major champions Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson and Stewart Cink.

Each week, the group will study one particular verse, with some players such as Kevin Streelman taking that particular scripture and getting it printed onto a golf club.

For Streelman, who won his first big PGA Tour tournament at the Tampa Bay Challenge in March, his reawakening has come following a period of struggle in his personal life.

“I would lie if I said that I was previously that way,” he told CNN’s Living Golf.

Wait, previously what way? And how did we jump ahead to the reawakening before mentioning either an awakening or a falling away? If this article had appeared in Christianity Today, readers would intuitively understand what he was referring to. But in a mainstream secular outlet like CNN, no such assumptions can or should be made.

In a later quote, Streelmen slips in the first of several other examples of Christianese:

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Oklahoma tornado doctor: a bundle of vague faith

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The Oklahoman, my hometown newspaper and former employer, is rising to the occasion in its coverage of this week’s Moore, Okla.,tornado.

That’s no surprise for a newspaper that has gained way too much experience covering major tragedies — including the Oklahoma City bombing and the May 3, 1999, tornadoes.

Nonetheless, I’m going to provide a little constructive criticism of one tornado-related story that caught my attention in today’s Oklahoman.

The story concerns an emergency room doctor:

MOORE — Dr. Stephanie Barnhart began the scariest day of her life with her usual routine — listening to Christian music on the car radio, thinking about the 12-hour workday ahead and offering a silent prayer for strength to handle whatever she might encounter.

Christian music. Silent prayer. Anybody see the potential for a strong religion angle?

Keep reading, and the writer provides a compelling narrative of the events leading up to Barnhart finding herself — and the medical center where she works — in the path of the storm.

Eventually, there’s this:

The tornado was now just seconds away. It packed 200 mph winds and was destroying whole neighborhoods as it churned across the landscape. Barnhart glanced at the TV screen in time to see the tornado was near 149th Street and May Avenue when the hospital’s lights flickered and then went out, plunging the room into darkness.

Barnhart prayed.

“Please, Jesus,” she said.

The roar grew louder. Their ears began to pop from the air pressure change. They felt the ground shake and their bodies tremble. …

Barnhart said she was terrified, but also at peace that everything would be OK. She never feared for her life.

Jesus. Peace. Again, I ask: Is there a religion angle here?

Finally, there’s this nugget of religion:

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‘I’m an atheist, Wolf’


Oh what a perfect clip for GetReligion.

You have to watch it to get the full gist but CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer is, above, interviewing Oklahoma tornado survivor Rebecca, holding her son Anders. (Full interview here.) Then, as transcribed by Politico:

Blitzer: We’re happy you’re here. You guys did a great job. I guess you got to thank the Lord. Right?

Survivor:  Yeah.

Blitzer: Did you thank the Lord for that split-second decision?

Survivor: I — I’m actually an atheist.

Blitzer: You are. All right. But you made the right call.

Survivor: Yeah. We are here. And you know, I don’t blame anybody for thanking the Lord.

Blitzer: Of course not.

Is this not a perfect example of why yes/no questions are a bad idea? I mean, it turned out all right. In fact, the survivor’s response is what made this such an interesting interview, despite Blitzer’s best attempts. But what was he expecting to have someone say?

Also, though, while I object to the form of the question and how it gave too much direction to the respondent, I do find it interesting how this question rests in the general sector of “journalists are weird about religion and disasters” that I’ve noticed over the years. My favorite recent example was from another CNN interview. It was back in February and the legendary Poop Cruise had finally docked. CNN was ignoring the Gosnell trial but, for some reason, doing round-the-clock coverage of the survivors of the Poop Cruise. But when two survivors tried to say what Scripture verse had sustained them during their journey, they were cut off. It was weird.

Anyway, the vast majority of the time the problem with how religion is treated in disaster interviews is that the reporters behave as if religion plays no role in sustaining people during their time of need. Perhaps it’s the loving way in which the atheist here answered the question, but I found it oddly interesting and comforting to see that religious adherents and skeptics alike get the silly questions that make assumptions about belief or non-belief.

Another interview I want to highlight was aired on CBS. I can’t stop thinking about it. The reporter is speaking to an older woman who lost her entire house while she sat in it. She is battered and bruised but she rather cheerfully describes what she went through and talks about how she knows she lost her dog under the ruins. A few minutes into the interview, someone off camera says “A dog!” The interview subject then realizes that her precious dog is alive and she asks for help getting him out of the rubble. She’s so very happy. And then she says, unprompted:

“Well I thought God just answered one prayer to let me be OK, but He answered both of them. Because this was my second prayer.”

It’s a powerful moment and it was captured simply by letting someone speak freely about a dramatic moment.

One, two, trend: Godbeat pros changing jobs!

Here at GetReligion, we focus mainly on critiquing the mass media’s coverage of religion news.

Occasionally, though, we like to call attention to news related to the Godbeat itself.

Alas, at least three well-known individuals in the world of religion news reporting have made or announced major moves in recent weeks.

And as we all know, three examples make a trend. So we must report on this growing trend of religion journalists changing jobs.

First, there’s Daniel Burke, who has left Religion News Service for CNN.

From CNN last week:

Daniel Burke joined CNN Digital on Monday as co-editor of the Belief Blog. Burke comes to CNN from Religion News Service, where for the past seven years he covered everything from Amish funerals to the Zen of Steve Jobs. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today and The New York Times, and he has been recognized by the American Academy of Religion and the Religion Newswriters Association. He is based out of DC and reports to Meredith Artley, Managing Editor of CNN Digital.

Congrats, Daniel!

Burke’s departure, of course, created an opening at RNS.

Enter former star GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey, who will join RNS as a national correspondent in June.

From RNS this week:

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A nun, some nukes and a haunted holy ghost story


So a nun and two peace activists walk into a nuclear facility …

It’s not the start of a bad joke, but the start of what could turn out to be a bad dream for a trio of protestors convicted of trespassing and defacing a nuclear weapons site.

A few weeks ago tmatt mentioned the activists in his post on the massive 14-part feature entitled “The Prophets of Oak Ridge.” As tmatt noted, the engaging profile was pure hagiography: “That’s exactly what we are dealing with here, in this feature that runs 9,000-plus words and is illustrated with cartoonish, yet powerfully iconic, drawings and photos.”

While that feature certainly created an idealized version of the protestors, it also painted a clear picture of what motivated the activists: religion.

Compare that with the recent CNN story about how the activists are now facing decades in prison for breaching the nuclear site. Although the story identifies them as a “nun and two peace activists” the article almost completely ignores the religion angle. The closest it comes is a mention of the activists singing hymns:

When the guilty verdict was read Wednesday evening, the three defendants appeared content, even singing along with protest hymns before they were taken into custody, according to WATE.

What exactly is a protest hymn? Is it merely a protest song that is sung by a nun, or is there some religious content to the songs? That should have been a tip off that more needs to be said about the religion in a story that includes a nun. Also, since the term “nun” could apply to a variety of Christian traditions (Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, etc.) as well as other religions (Jains, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, etc.) it’s helpful to clarify what religious order the woman belongs to rather than assuming that all nuns are Catholic.

Clarifying what type of protestors they are would have also been helpful. While the trio is shown in a video wearing anti-war t-shirts and are described by their attorney as “peace makers,” the CNN feature refers to them as “environmental protesters.” The only reason I could find for the description is that in the video clip the (Catholic) nun, Sister Megan Rice, says the real sabotage wasn’t any act committed by the protestors but rather the “sabotage to the planet.” While the use of nuclear weapons would certainly harm the environment, I suspect the sister had a broader, more human-centric, meaning in mind.

Had I not read the previous Washington Post feature, though, I would have had no clue there was a strong religious aspect to the story (even activism by nuns — of whatever religion — can be mostly politically motivated). The CNN article treats the activists mainly as pawns in a broader story about the security of nuclear materials.

There’s nothing wrong with focusing on the national security aspects, of course.

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‘Apparently,’ there’s a news story about Wisconsin church

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The lead story on CNN’s “Belief Blog” at this moment concerns a former National Football League player who apparently lost a church speaking engagement after tweeting support for basketball player Jason Collins, who this week revealed that he’s gay.

Stop the presses!

Seriously, this is national news?:

Washington (CNN) – LeRoy Butler, a former safety for the Green Bay Packers, is one of many professional athletes to tweet support for Jason Collins, the NBA player who came out as gay this week.

“Congrats to Jason Collins,” Butler tweeted April 29, the day Collins came out in a Sports Illustrated cover story.

But Butler says the four-word tweet cost him a speaking appearance at a Wisconsin church.

The church’s response?

Well, that’s where the apparently comes in:

He was scheduled to speak at the church (whose name he has not revealed) about bullying and his new book, “The LeRoy Butler Story: From Wheelchair to the Lambeau Leap.”

However, Butler announced the trouble in a series of tweets on Wednesday and Thursday.

CNN links to a similarly vague, one-sided Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel story:

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Why is Paula Broadwell’s faith such a mystery?

Former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey noticed something weird about today’s stories about Paula Broadwell. They all refer to her faith but they don’t tell us what her faith is.

Above you see the example from CBS News, headlined:

Seeking “redemption” after Petraeus scandal, Paula Broadwell looks to faith

Reuters:

Paula Broadwell looks to faith to rebuild after Petraeus affair

And here’s CNN:

Petraeus’ mistress Broadwell: I’m looking forward with faith

All of the stories are based on an interview she gave to the local CBS affiliate in Charlotte. And it’s Broadwell who is oblique about the “faith-based” environment she’s referring to. She’s interviewed while attending a YWCA prayer breakfast, which could give a clue, but the YWCA is no longer necessarily Christian (as it’s original name, the Young Women’s Christian Association, would lead you to believe).

She mentions God and family and trying to find meaningful work, none of which narrows it down terribly much.

To be completely honest, I don’t even see the need for a story on Broadwell’s faith right now. But if you are going to do it, do it! The basic questions of journalism should be answered in a story on a given topic. Readers should not have to guess or surmise what the faith in question is … in a story about someone’s faith.

More than that, I’d like a bit more digging down on the particulars of a person’s faith. Once you find out which general religion we’re talking about, wouldn’t it be nice to learn a bit more about what, specifically, their religion is helping them with or what has been most challenging?

In light of the journalistic response to Chris Broussard’s comments on sin the other day, I’m wondering if the media have just completely dropped the ball on knowing how to talk about such religious concepts as sin and redemption. It’s clear they’re not handling the topics very maturely or very well. This is just the latest example.


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