Buddhists boldly bully buzzed Brits

The obnoxious Englishman abroad is a well loved story in the British press. The opprobrium once reserved for the British football hooligan abroad has now spread to his vacationing cousins. Cheap airfares and package holidays to the beaches of the Mediterranean, Florida and points East have given the Briton abroad a reputation for boorishness, lewdness, and alcohol-fueled vulgarity.

“They scream, they sing, they fall down, they take their clothes off, they cross-dress, they vomit,” the mayor of Malia, a popular Greek resort, told the New York Times in 2008. “It is only the British people – not the Germans or the French”.

Are the British the world’s worst behaved tourists? I think Americans can still give the Brits a run for their money. Let me note the annual horror of Spring Break here in Sunny Florida in defense of my claim of American exceptionalism. Aesthetically speaking the sunburnt, tattooed, shaven-headed, bandy-legged Briton abroad is an unpleasing sight. And the men are even worse!

The British government keeps track of the bad behavior of Englishman abroad, publishing an annual report on consular support given to jailed tourists, football hooligans and other assorted louts.The British press has a love hate relationship with yobos abroad. The Daily Mail and other popular newspapers will run stories bemoaning bad behavior and vulgarity with headlines like: “Beer-swilling British women are branded the ‘ugliest in the world’.” However, British television celebrates the bad behavior with documentaries and series like Channel 4‘s “What happens in Kavos” — an English version of the soft porn “Girls gone wild” films distributed in America.

The news that a British nurse vacationing in Sri Lanka is being deported from that country due to a Buddha tattoo that state officials find to be offensive to Buddhist sensibilities is being reported along these lines — the clueless tourist acting in a way that insults the locals. The Guardian‘s story came from the French wire service AFP, which stated:

Sri Lanka has detained a female British tourist for having a Buddha tattoo on her right arm and ordered her deportation, police said on Tuesday. The unidentified woman was arrested at the country’s main international airport on Monday and appeared before a magistrate, who ordered her deportation, police said in a statement.

The statement said she had an image of the Buddha seated on a lotus flower tattooed on her right arm. “She was taken before the Negombo magistrate, who ordered her to be detained prior to deportation,” it said, adding that she was arrested shortly after her arrival on a flight from neighbouring India.

It did not say what charges were brought against her, but Sri Lanka barred another British tourist from entering the island in March last year for showing disrespect to Buddhism by having a Buddha tattooed on his arm.

Subsequent stories in the Guardian and other Western news outlets reported the woman’s name and provided a photo of the tourist showing off her Buddha tattoo. The Guardian also ran an opinion piece noting that the Buddha tattoo was offensive to Sri Lankans arguing:

The arrest and pending deportation of a 37-year-old British nurse, Naomi Coleman, from Sri Lanka for sporting a tattoo of a meditating Buddha on her right arm has once again raised the issue of tourists being woefully unaware of religious and cultural sensitivities in places they visit.

While alcohol was absent from this incident, the photos of the tattoo and its wearer, coupled with statements that the tattoo was considered offensive by Buddhists, slots this story into the ugly Briton abroad category.

But … is this all there is to say on this story? Are Buddhists offended by tattoos of the Buddha? Why is this offensive?

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The Boston Globe shows how to write about church planters

Earlier this month I called a story about a church planter in Brooklyn the worst religion story of the year. I don’t like to write harsh critiques (really, I don’t) but it’s frustrating to have an interesting story mangled by shoddy reporting. While reading that terrible Daily News piece I wondered, “What could this article have done right?”

To my surprise, the Boston Globe recently provided an answer. While their feature is about a group of church planters in Boston, rather than in Brooklyn, the similarities are close enough to show “what could have been.”

Most everything about the Globe article is praiseworthy so let’s begin with the biggest flaw, the lazily provocative title: “On a mission to save godless Massachusetts.” The headline is not only unfair to religious believers in an area once nicknamed “The Puritan State,” it’s unfair to the reporter and the subjects being written about in the article. Many readers will begin the story assuming the Evangelical Christians mentioned in the subhead claim the state is “godless,” when that is nowhere mentioned in the story.

What is claimed, and adequately defended by the reporter, Jonathan Fitzgerald, is not that the state is godless but that it has a low level of religiosity:

Once upon a time, Boston was a “city upon a hill.” Anyway, that’s what Governor John Winthrop told future Massachusetts residents sailing here in 1630. Evangelism practically started in this region in the 18th century, with Northampton’s Jonathan Edwards and his fiery sermons like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Yet today only about 11 percent of New Englanders consider themselves evangelical Christians, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. That’s compared with 26 percent nationwide and more than 50 percent in Bible Belt states.

Those numbers are for evangelical Christianity, but the rate of religiosity doesn’t seem to be much higher regardless of what (if any) faith New Englanders practice. A 2012 Gallup Poll found that the five least religious states in the country, based on the percentage of self-identified “very religious” Americans living there, are all in New England. Vermont is the least religious, followed immediately by New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. At number 11, Connecticut might as well be New England’s shining beacon of faith.

Throughout the article, Fitzgerald not only does a good job of providing context for why “church planters are eyeing the region” but he also explains why a trend that has been going on for decades (urban church planting) is worthy of a renewed attention:

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The worst religion story of the year

While struggling to find words to adequately describe the worst religion article of the year, I was reminded of a brilliant exchange in an otherwise atrocious movie, Billy Madison.

Principal: Mr. Madison, what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

Billy Madison: Okay, a simple “wrong” would’ve done just fine.

While I’m sure I’m now dumber for having read the Daily News article, “Southern Baptists about to ‘plant’ a church in the fertile soil of Brooklyn,” I won’t say that it’s insanely idiotic or that it contains no rational thought. Instead, I’ll follow the lead of Billy Madison and simply say it’s wrong – wrong on almost every conceivable level. From the captions to the quotes, this article sets a new low in local religion reporting.

Like Alex Haley, I try to find the good and praise it. However, for this feature I had to settle for finding the least worst thing to praise: The headline is not as bad as it could have been. Yes, they put unnecessary scare quotes around “plant.” But they could have also put them around “Southern” or “fertile soil” too. So there’s that.

Then there is the photo caption placed below an image of a young family smiling and standing in front of the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center:

Southern Baptist proselytizers Jon and Bonnie Carr, and their two kids, Kayla and Emily love Jesus, but they also love New York, enjoying our parks and our pizza.

Carter’s Law of Religious Labels states, “Use a religious label a person would use to describe themselves and avoid using ones they would not.” Although it has not been written into the federal code or added to the AP stylebook (at least not yet), I think it is a rule that most journalists intuitively understand and apply. I’m not a betting man (I too am Southern Baptist and we’re not allowed to gamble) but if I were, I’d bet the Carrs have never in their life described themselves as “proselytizers.” In fact, I would double-down and bet that the three times the article uses that term (seriously, three times) is probably the first time the word has been applied to the Carr’s evangelistic efforts.

And that is only the second worst photo caption in the article.

The first is under an odd image of a man pressing his hands together:

Baptists are praying for us.

Wait, who is the “us” referring to? New Yorkers? Residents of Brooklyn? The people of “Gomorrah on the Hudson”? (Yes, the article actually uses that phrase in reference to New York City.)

By this point you may wish not to continue. I completely understand. So before we get to the actual text — the part with the actual reporting — I should warn you of what to expect. Imagine a parody article like you’d find in the The Onion, only without the wit, humor, satire, or intelligence. But also a straight-news story and not a parody. In a (sorta) real newspaper. That makes you feel dumber for having read it.

Okay, you’ve been warned. Here goes:
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