Scoring spiritual points before Super Bowl Sunday

Every year about this time, we face a blitz of profile stories of coaches, athletes, owners, fans and even pets preparing to square off on Super Bowl Sunday (I’m a huge fan of Puppy Bowl, by the way).

The big story in advance of the 2014 human installment: the frigid temperatures and whether or not the Seattle Seahawks vs. Denver Broncos matchup can attract a proper crowd within the confines of New Jersey’s undomed MetLife Stadium.

Second to that, we’re being treated to a lineup of features on the teams, faith angles and other more spiritual sides of the Sunday offering.

Some stories, like some Super Bowl pairings, are better than others.

From the Chicago Tribune comes a winner on Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and his Christian faith:

Seattle’s franchise quarterback is a devout Christian, so fans should hope he doesn’t cut his hair prior to Sunday and lose strength much like Samson in the Old Testament book of Judges. Samson got power from his flowing locks until the temptress Delilah took shears to his dome piece.

(Christianity) has helped Wilson both on and off the football field, and there is no better time than now at the Super Bowl to have faith in what he believes in. Scroll through Wilson’s Twitter page and you will be reminded where his heart and soul reside.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

That was taken from the book of Matthew and perfectly defines Wilson, who has been searching for success in sports and as a human being. The former Wisconsin star takes excerpts from various books of the Bible and uses them in his every day life.

Touchdown, Tribune! A fine example of using Scripture and its application in proper context. We never learn precisely what faith group with which Wilson aligns himself, but we delve more deeply into his beliefs and perspective here than any other report I found.

Not to be outdone, the Denver Post found a creative angle with its piece on Archbishop Samuel Aquila, a fervent Broncos fan who plans to celebrate Mass with a group of players and coaches at the team’s hotel Saturday night.

Aquila has become close to Broncos defensive coordinator Jack DelRio, and the two men are allowed to explain more about their faith journey that developed through the course of this season:

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The Big D’s sex-loving, millionaire megapastor

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Would a major network such as A&E really consider a reality series featuring a millionaire evangelical family?

No, I’m not talking about THAT family.

Before “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson became the subject of a gazillion tweets, Facebook posts and news stories this week, The Dallas Morning News ran a 5,000-word feature on a Texas megachurch’s “sex-loving, million-dollar minister.”

The piece has been in my guilt file — those stories we at GetReligion want to cover but for whatever reason haven’t — for a few weeks now. The feature, which appeared in FD Luxe, the Dallas newspaper’s monthly luxury lifestyle magazine, teases readers up high:

Fellowship Church’s effusive Ed Young and his wife are loving the Lord, having more sex than you and staking their claim in the best neighborhoods in town. Can a reality show about this million-dollar minister and his gleaming family be far away? (No.)

Um, OK.

The story itself is one of those long, winding magazine pieces in which the writer sprinkles his own perspectives and point of view throughout (with an annoying number of parenthesis). It starts with a “reporter visits the zoo” lede:

A man approaches me in the parking lot of Highland Park Village, wearing a T-shirt that reads: “Walking Dead.” He extends a friendly hand. “Are you here for church?” Yes. “Is this your first time?” Yes. (Maybe it shows?)

It is early Sunday morning. The swanky boutiques that keep Sunday hours here — the likes of Dior, Diane von Furstenberg and Jimmy Choo — won’t open till noon and 1, but the movie theater at Dallas’ most elite shopping center is buzzing with activity, and none of it film-related. The job of the man in the T-shirt is to lead newcomers to the greeters standing beneath the theater marquee. “Good morning!” says a stylish young woman at the door.

Those newcomers are ushered inside and wrangled by volunteers, who introduce themselves in rapid-fire succession. An oversize foamcore signin the lobby depicts a desolate cityscape with bold white letters proclaiming: “Walking Dead: Life Is Too Good Not to Live. A new series by Ed Young.”

A sermon hooked to a popular cable-TV zombie show? Edwin Barry Young knows how to titillate and provoke. The charismatic, controversial founder and senior pastor of the sprawling Grapevine-based Fellowship Church burst onto the national scene in 2008, when he challenged the church’s married couples to have seven days of sex for greater emotional intimacy.

If you’re familiar with Young (I am, having written about him a few times during my Associated Press days) or megachurches, you may find yourself wondering if the story’s ever going to get to the point or tell you something you didn’t already know. Then again, maybe I just have a bias against this kind of journalism, preferring a more traditional newspaper approach.

A few million — er, thousand — words into the piece, we hear more about the possible reality series:

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Universalism at play? Or is this church split only about sex?

The Dallas Morning News — which dropped its paywall Oct. 1 — had an interesting story this week on a mainline Presbyterian church split. This is a big one, folks:

Members of Highland Park Presbyterian Church voted overwhelmingly Sunday to disassociate with its national body to join a more conservative denomination.

With a vote of 1,337 to 170, the church decided to leave Presbyterian Church (USA), the largest Presbyterian denomination in the country. Another vote cemented the church majority’s desire to join A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO), which was formed by former PCUSA congregations in 2012. Other churches, including First Presbyterian Church in Amarillo, have also recently made the move.

“By joining ECO, we are not walking away from our Presbyterian values; we are restoring them,” the Rev. Joe Rightmyer, interim senior pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian, said in a statement on the church’s website. “With this vote to change, we will still be in the rich stream of Presbyterian theology, and we are ready to begin working with other churches in a growing denomination that is guided by the same beliefs and tenets that direct us.”

At this point, here’s what I want to know: What exactly makes the new denomination more conservative? Conservative is such a subjective word.

Will the rest of the story provide insight into the specific theological and doctrinal issues at play?

Sort of.

But in general, this 630-word report (read: not a lot of space for a reporter to provide deep background) seems pretty disjointed and disorganized.

For example, the Morning News quotes a supporter of leaving the PCUSA up high:

Kent Krause, a church elder, said the debate about leaving PCUSA has been bubbling for decades.

Many members of the congregation disagree with the a la carte religious beliefs taken by the national body, he said.

“There’s disagreement to the extent that the church believes the PCUSA has adopted the universal approach that there may be lots of ways to salvation as opposed to what is the basic reformed belief that salvation through Christ is kind of the main [path],” he said.

OK. Universalism is, according to the church elder, a key issue. How do the opponents of the split respond to that claim?

Go ahead and cue the crickets, or click this link if you’re really curious.

The story moves from that issue into a paragraph of background on property issues related to the decision. (The Morning News does not mention this, but my GetReligion colleague Father George Conger tells me that Highland Park Presbyterian’s leaders have been talking to the breakaway Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth about how to leave. The diocese won a recent victory against the national Episcopal Church in the Texas Supreme Court. The court held ownership of church property is governed by what the deeds to the building say, not what the denominational hierarchy says. According to Conger, the Anglican wars in Texas appear to have cleared the way for conservative Presbyterians to quit the PCUSA and keep their buildings.)

But back to the real reason for the split …

Later in the story, there’s this:

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Yay! Dallas paper examines heart and soul

It’s becoming clear that The Dallas Morning News has no regard for the F-word.

Faith, that is.

I made that statement last month after the Texas newspaper allowed holy ghosts to haunt yet another major profile.

But I come today not to bury the Morning News, but to praise it: Apparently, somebody at the highest echelon of that newspaper reads GetReligion and decided to prove me wrong.

This was the headline at the top of the front page a week ago Sunday:

Healing with heart and soul

The 1,800-word story profiles Mark Pool, a heart surgeon who prays with patients. The lede:

At 83, Carl Smith found himself facing quadruple-bypass surgery and the real possibility that he might not survive.

Within hours on this spring morning, Dr. Mark Pool would temporarily bring Smith’s heart to a stop in an attempt to circumvent its blocked passages.

And to help his patient confront the uncertainty, Pool did something unusual in his profession: He prayed with him.

From there, the story (most of which is hidden behind a paywall) immediately presents the meaty nut graf:

The power of healing: Medicine and religion have both had their day, and they haven’t always been able to coexist. But as today’s medical treatment becomes more holistic, doctors are increasingly taking spirituality into account.

Studies show a majority of patients want their spirituality recognized, and most med schools now have classes related to the topic. In general, the new thinking asks doctors to note their patients’ spiritual leanings and open doors to expression, especially when life is at risk.

Now, if I’m the editor, I highlight “both had their day” and suggest that the writer come up with something less cliche.

By the “increasingly taking spirituality into account” sentence, I make a note: “How do you know this?” (In other words, I ask for attribution.)

And by the vague “studies show,” I demand to know which studies — or at least one. Give me some specific information about the study (or studies): Who did the study? When? Who did they study? What did they find? Etc. Etc. Etc.

But in general, I praise the reporter effusively for going behind the scenes and putting real human faces — the surgeon and the heart patient —  on a compelling religion, and medicine, story.

I compliment the fact that the story treats Pool’s faith with respect and gives him an opportunity to describe his beliefs and perspective while at the same time providing different points of view from other medical experts. This is what is known in some circles as JOURNALISM.

More from the story:

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Nolan Ryan’s son and the F-word

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In his 27-year major-league career, Nolan Ryan regularly fired 100-mph fastballs. He pitched seven no-hitters and struck out 5,714 batters — both records.

Now the CEO of my beloved Texas Rangers, the 66-year-old “Ryan Express” is a baseball legend — a Hall of Fame right-hander who needs no introduction to fans.

Nolan’s son Reid Ryan, 41, is a different story.

Except for his famous father, the younger Ryan remains relatively unknown. However, the Houston Astros hired him as team president in May, increasing his profile in the Lone Star State.

Enter The Dallas Morning News.

Over the weekend, the Dallas newspaper ran an in-depth, “what makes him tick” feature on Reid Ryan.

Unfortunately for non-subscribers, most of the 1,700-word profile is hidden behind a paywall. Fortunately for you, kind GetReligion readers who so much enjoy posts on sports stories, I am a subscriber and read the whole ghost-ridden thing.

Since I pay $9.99 a month mainly to peruse the Morning News’ behind-the-scenes Rangers coverage, I was enjoying the story as a baseball fan when the first holy ghost caused my GetReligion antenna to rise.

Early in the piece, the writer eloquently describes the major turning point in Reid Ryan’s life. It occurred when he was 7 years old and was hit by a car. Let’s enter that scene:

At the hospital, the doctors had no trouble diagnosing Reid’s shattered left leg.

After the surgeons carved him open to check for internal injuries, they removed his severed spleen. When the pain lingered into the next week, they opened him up again and removed a damaged kidney they had hoped to save.

Then came the body cast.

It was sometime during his confining next two months in the hospital that Reid, described by his mother as previously “vivacious” but turned eerily “subdued,” took a silent oath.

“God blessed me with a second chance,” Reid Ryan says 34 years later. “That time shaped how I look at the world. I decided that no matter how many more years I had on this earth, I was going to be extremely positive in everything I do.”

Let’s see: The money quote that describes the most significant event in Reid Ryan’s life involves G-O-D.

Did anyone at the Morning News catch that reference or consider delving more deeply into the role of Ryan’s faith? Apparently not, because the story immediately heads in a totally different direction using a, shall we say, ironic description given the ghost just mentioned:

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Holy Scouts! Southern Baptists didn’t do what we expected!

So, when push came to shove, what did the Southern Baptist Convention decide to do about the Boy Scouts of America?

To the surprise of the national press, the debate in the national convention ended up featuring a variety of voices making a variety of interesting and valid points about Scouting and its new approach to gay members. In the end, the nation’s largest Protestant flock elected to do something that was more Baptist and congregational than it was political — they left the ultimate decision about supporting or leaving the Boy Scouts of America up to local congregations.

Thus, some news organizations clearly didn’t know how to handle this.

Did The New York Times even do a story? I cannot find one on the site. The lesson? If the story doesn’t go the way you expected, then don’t cover it.

Or, you can take the approach used in The Los Angeles Times. Try to find the key fact — the fact that the SBC said churches should make their own decisions — at the top of this report:

HOUSTON – Members of the Southern Baptist Convention at their annual meeting Wednesday voted to support families who leave the Boy Scouts due to the group’s plans to accept gay Scouts, urged the removal of Boy Scout leaders who championed accepting gays and encouraged former Boy Scouts to join a Southern Baptist youth group instead.

“Homosexuality is directly opposed to everything that Scouting stands for. I am disappointed in Scouting,” said the Rev. Wes Taylor in speaking for the resolution endorsed by the convention. “They are moving away from the principles that it was founded upon. This is an attempt to open the door to broaden the acceptance of homosexuality in that organization. It is an environment that would prove just fertile for young boys to be exposed to something that is ungodly and unacceptable.”

The proposal was submitted by the Southern Baptist Committee on Resolutions.

All valid, but the story totally missed the point of the key debates on the convention floor. In fact, the story does not include a direct reference to the most important element of the decision — the defense of local-church autonomy. It is clear that thousands of SBC churches will continue to be critical (in multiple meanings of that word) participants in Scouting for some time to come.

You can tell that the newspaper’s scribe heard some of the debate. The following information is crucial and hints at the issue lurking in the background — the distinction the Boy Scouts (echoing language used by Catholics and Mormons, to cite two key groups) are drawing between sexual orientation and opposition to sexual activity, gay or straight, by Scouts.

Thus, the story notes:

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Ghosts in interview with Navy SEAL sniper’s widow

This past weekend, The Dallas Morning News ran an in-depth story on Taya Kyle, widow of slain Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle.

It’s one of those meaty, emotional stories that make Sunday the best day of the week to read the newspaper. (Unfortunately for non-subscribers, the nearly 2,000-word piece is mostly hidden behind a paywall.)

Here’s the compelling lede:

The first Saturday in February began in typical fashion, Taya Kyle recalled, with “kid sports” on the agenda.

Taya and her husband, Chris Kyle — a highly decorated Navy SEAL, veteran of four combat tours and bestselling author of the memoir American Sniper — attended their son’s ball game near their home in Midlothian.

It was one of those ordinary family activities that Taya cherished sharing with Chris after he left military service four years earlier at her urging to spend more time with their son and daughter.

Just a few hours later, Chris Kyle, 38, and a friend, Chad Littlefield, were shot and killed at a gun range southwest of Fort Worth in Erath County while helping a troubled war veteran through target practice as a form of recreational therapy. Eddie Ray Routh, 25, faces charges of capital murder.

In a rare interview at her home, Taya, 38, spoke about trying to hold life together even as she continues to struggle with the death of her husband four months ago on Feb. 2. Though still in mourning, she talked about wanting to carry on her late husband’s legacy, including his work with veterans.

Keep reading (assuming you’re a subscriber), and a surefire religion angle pops up:

In American Sniper, published in 2012, Chris had written about the rocky times in his marriage while he was still on active duty. Admittedly short-tempered, he wrote about frequent arguments with Taya and his struggle with road rage. Taya felt that he considered his SEAL teammates more like his family — that they took precedence over her and the two kids.

In 2008, Chris had to decide whether to re-enlist. In American Sniper, which is interspersed with first-person viewpoints from Taya, she relates how she gave Chris an ultimatum: After four combat tours, he had done enough for his country; his duty was now to his family.

“I told Chris that both our kids needed him, especially, at that particular time, our son. If he wasn’t going to be there, then I would move closer to my father so that at least he would grow up with a strong grandfather very close to him,” she wrote. “Part of it came down to the conflict we’d always had — where were our priorities: God, family, country (my version), or God, country, family (Chris’)?”

God.

Did you catch that reference?

Apparently, the Dallas newspaper did not because the story fails to elaborate at all on what the couple believed about God or what role God played in their lives — or still plays in the widow’s life.

Ghost, anyone?

But the Morning News is not finished with vague reporting on the Kyles’ religious faith.

The story ends this way:

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In a twist, vague evangelicals all oppose immigration reform

Stop me if I sound like a broken record.

Once or twice or maybe even three times, I’ve complained about major media reporting that the nation’s evangelicals — all acting in lockstep — have jumped on an immigration reform bandwagon.

My concern about these stories has been purely journalistic: a lack of adequate reporting and sourcing to back up broad generalizations about a vaguely defined group of Christians.

For a twist, how about we consider a story from the Deseret News, a Salt Lake City daily newspaper owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

In GetReligion-esque fashion, the Deseret News takes issue with media coverage of evangelicals and immigration. Let’s start at the top:

It’s been in the headlines for months.

“Evangelicals push Congress for immigration changes.”

“Among U.S. evangelicals, surprising support for immigration reform.”

“Obama’s immigration plan encourages evangelicals.”

Outlets including The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, Reuters and numerous others have written more or less the same story on the subject.

The problem is that it’s not exactly true. Evangelicals are not largely behind comprehensive immigration reform, which is commonly taken to mean a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and, simultaneously, measures for improved enforcement of immigration law.

Since our focus is journalism, anyone see a problem with that lede?

My first problem is a personal one. In other words, I’ll leave open the possibility that my opinion could be wrong. But if I were the editor, I’d suggest the reporter focus less on other media and more on reporting the actual facts. Do some digging, and write a news story on what’s happening with evangelicals and immigration. Save the media weeping and gnashing of teeth for GetReligion.

My second problem is the same one I’ve had with previous reports by CNN, the Tampa Bay Times and The Dallas Morning News: Blanket statements about evangelicals with no named attribution. Who says evangelicals are not largely behind comprehensive immigration reform? How do you know this? These are basic, Journalism 101 kinds of questions.

The story continues:

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