Memory eternal: The life and quiet ministry of ‘Ann B.’

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One of the complicated subjects that religion-beat professionals talk about behind the scenes, if they are themselves religious believers, is how to pick out a safe congregation to join in the city that they are covering. The goal is to find a good one, but not one that has a history of making news.

During my Rocky Mountain News days, for example, my family joined what I thought was a nice safe, rather low-key parish near downtown (at this stage in our pilgrimage we were evangelical Anglicans). Lo and behold, the priest promptly became active in ministry to urban teens and gang members. Go figure.

That parish also put me in the path of a major news complication. Before long, one of my closest friends in the parish was a young man who was a leader at the local St. Francis Center for the homeless. On top of that, he was the son of one of the state’s major newsmakers, the charismatic (in multiple senses of the word) Bishop William C. Frey, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado. I immediately told my editors and then met with the bishop to establish ground rules for contacts with his family which were acceptable to him, to me and to my editors. I will leave the details private, but it helped that the bishop was not the kind of man who ducked questions.

Why bring this up?

You see, over the years several branches of the Frey family tree lived in a rambling old home in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood at one time or another, along with a wide variety of other interesting families and individuals. If you went over to watch a Denver Broncos game with one of the Frey sons and his family, that meant the bishop was probably going to there too, most of the time.

Members of this household community — think small commune — shared most finances, cleaning duties, cooking, etc., etc. This kind of idealistic arrangement was actually not that unusual in the era in which charismatic renewal swept through many mainline Protestant bodies, and Catholicism as well. There were many wonderful households of this kind and a few with dark sides (See the amazing Julia Duin book — “Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community” — about one terrible fall in Houston).

One member of the Denver community kept her Emmy Awards in the household’s television room, where they served as bookends high up on some shelves. She wasn’t very good at cooking (tacos were her norm) and she admitted that she struggled a bit with childcare. Her name, of course, was Ann B. Davis and over the years she became a friend, too.

The woman millions thought of as “Alice” was far more than her character on The Brady Bunch, or her trailblazing “Schultzy” character on “The Bob Cummings Show.” She was the kind of person that, after the conversion experience that turned her life upside down, would spend her days hidden in the back of that homeless center quietly doing laundry or sorting through donated clothes. You should have heard her cackle when she finally managed to make stray socks match.

Now Ann B. is gone at age 88. Needless to say, I have found it interesting to read the short passages in the major media obituaries that have tried to deal with the Christian content in her life story.

I think the best overall piece I have seen, so far, was in The Los Angeles Times. For example, readers were first given this short bit of information:

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Eye to eye with Mother Teresa (farewell to Scripps)

A couple of weeks ago, I flew the black religion-beat flag here at GetReligion to mark the announcement that the Scripps Howard News Service was closing its doors. That was rather stunning news for me, since — to one degree or another — that meant the end of the weekly “On Religion” column that I had written for that wire service for more than 25 years.

The end? At the very least, it meant saying good-bye to many readers who had been reading my column in papers that were linked to the Scripps list, which was taken over by the McClatchy-Tribune organization — which declined to keep my column.

However, there was always a chance that someone else would keep the column alive, especially the folks behind the Newspaper Enterprise Association, which for several years has been sending my column to 600 or so smaller- and mid-sized newspapers in North America. And that, I am happy to report, is precisely what happened.

While we are still working out a few details, I will keep on writing the column for the Universal Uclick company, which many GetReligion readers would know by its former name, the Universal Press Syndicate. I am also happy to report that it appears that some of the Scripps newspapers that have carried me for so long (Hello readers in Knoxville!) will be picking it up from Universal.

So this week I wrote my last column for Scripps Howard, but not my last “On Religion” column. I’ve got that same old Wednesday deadline coming this next week. Turn, turn, turn.

Still, this was an ending of sorts and I wanted to mark that for the readers that I would be losing.

What to say? After all, I had already written a 25th anniversary column last year that said what I wanted to say (Hello retired editor Harry Moskos in Knoxville!) about why I think the religion-beat deserves respect and support in the mainstream media. I didn’t want to write that column all over again.

So I did something different and addressed the question that I have heard from readers more than any other over the past quarter of a century:

Who is the most remarkable person you’ve met while covering religion? That’s a tough one. The Rev. Billy Graham or novelist Madeleine L’Engle? Who was the more charismatic positive thinker, the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale or actor Denzel Washington? What was more amazing, seeing Chuck Colson preach inside a prison on Easter or Bono lead a Bible-study group at the U.S. Capitol?

And the answer?

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A dynamic, hip, inked leader offers salvation to the left

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It says a lot, in this financially tight age in American newsrooms, when editors put a reporter on an airplane and send her halfway across the nation to hear somebody preach.

In other words, the team at The Washington Post has decided that the work of Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber is a truly national story, one with policy-cultural implications for American religion. After all, we know that the Post isn’t into covering mere “local” stories away from the Beltway.

That recent news feature on this rising star of oldline Protestantism is also interesting because she was about to visit Washington, D.C., for a speaking engagement, which means that the earlier feature story served as a kind of PR-friendly advance story to help build the gate and attract the base, to put this in political/entertainment terms. There was no need to head to Austin to catch the Denver-based punk pastor earlier on her tour, since she was coming to DC (which allowed the Post to feature her work a second time).

Interesting. So what is going on here?

What’s going on is that Bolz-Weber represents a charismatic development in the old, graying world of liberal mainline Protestantism, a highly symbolic slice of America’s religious marketplace that has been caught in a downward demographic spiral for several decades. Apparently, the consumer-friendly world of shopping mall faith likes what this woman is pushing, including her personal style — which the Post features in the lede:

AUSTIN – Nadia Bolz-Weber bounds into the University United Methodist Church sanctuary like a superhero from Planet Alternative Christian. Her 6-foot-1 frame is plastered with tattoos, her arms are sculpted by competitive weightlifting and, to show it all off, this pastor is wearing a tight tank top and jeans.

Right up front, why strip this preacher of her title? Where is “the Rev.” in front of her name?

Also, it helps to know that she is (for the most part) drawing crowds in the hundreds, while a successful megachurch Christian pastor draws regular Sunday flocks that number in the thousands. How do Bolz-Weber’s market statistics compare with someone like, oh, that charismatic feel-good superstar, the Rev. Joel Osteen? Don’t ask.

Glance at the photos and videos from Bolz-Weber appearances and it appears that she is drawing a larger version of the usual liberal Protestant house, with a heavy emphasis on older singles and white people with gray hair and comfortable clothing. For the Post team, that means (hang on, because this gets complex):

To Bolz-Weber’s bafflement, this is now her congregation: mainstream America. These are the people who put her memoir near the top of the New York Times bestseller list the week it came out in September. They are the ones who follow her every tweet and Facebook post by the thousands, and who have made the Lutheran minister a budding star for the liberal Christian set. And who, as Bolz-Weber has described it in her frequently profane dialect, “are [mess]ing up my weird.”

A quick tour through her 44 years doesn’t seem likely to wind up here. It includes teen rebellion against her family’s fundamentalist Christianity, a nose dive into drug and alcohol addiction, a lifestyle of sleeping around and a stint doing stand-up in a grungy Denver comedy club. She is part of society’s outsiders, she writes in her memoir, its “underside dwellers … cynics, alcoholics and queers.”

Which is where — strangely enough — the match with her fans makes sense. The type of social liberals who typically fill the pews of mainline churches sometimes feel like outsiders among fellow liberals in their lives if they are truly believing Christians; if they are people who really experience Jesus and his resurrection, even if they can’t explain it scientifically; if they are people who want to hear words from the Apostles in church, not Thich Nhat Hanh or Barack Obama.

In her body and her theology, Bolz-Weber represents a new, muscular form of liberal Christianity, one that merges the passion and life-changing fervor of evangelicalism with the commitment to inclusiveness and social justice of mainline Protestantism. She’s a tatted-up, foul-mouthed champion to people sick of being belittled as not Christian enough for the right or too Jesus-y for the left.

This is good stuff. The issue is whether the story will deliver the doctrinal details to flesh out the flash.

Here at GetReligion, we think this kind of detail is important since, from Day One, we have been saying that the press doesn’t devote enough ink to the religious, doctrinal content of liberal faith groups. All too often, stories about religious liberals focus on politics and that is that.

It’s clear that this Post piece is arguing that the faith content and the style of this preacher have substance and should be taken seriously. That’s good. So what is she saying? Are readers given substance, or just style?

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Man prays in airplane aisle, for no particular reason

Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying.

That was my first reaction when I saw several versions of this bizarre little story from the tense world of airline travel, especially in the skies around Washington, D.C.

This is one of those cases in which I really need to ask GetReligion readers to look at the whole story. Trust me, this will not take long. This is all of the CBS News item.

DENVER – A United Airlines flight from Denver landed safely in Washington, D.C. after its crew declared an emergency, reportedly because a passenger began praying in an aisle.

According to KUSA-TV in Denver, the plane was escorted by military jets after the crew declared the emergency. The plane landed Thursday at Dulles International Airport.

The Denver TV station says the crew made the decision because a male passenger started praying in the middle of an aisle.

United spokeswoman Megan McCarthy says a passenger on flight 662 from Denver to Washington wasn’t following flight attendant instructions for landing.

What in the world is going on here?

I mean, it’s pretty easy to figure out what is going on in this incident. Readers are, I assume, supposed to figure out that a man prostrated in the aisle during one of the five periods in the day in which practicing Muslims are supposed to face Mecca and pray. This is not the only possible interpretation of what is going on, but it is the most logical explanation.

The question, for me, is why the reporter didn’t simply provide that information. Have we reached the point where people cannot mention Islam in connection with security-issue stories, even when that is a fact readers need to know to understand an event in the news? Surely Muslims would not be offended to know that this man was trying to pray.

And then there is the issue of the jet fighters. Did anyone else want to know, if the crew had enough time to call for military intervention, how long it took for this incident to unfold? Why not simply provide a few words that give that detail?

As a Baltimore-Washington area flyer, I also know that another factor almost certainly played a role in this case. Was the airplane flying into Reagan International? If so, passengers are required to stay in their seats for the final hour of the approach. Did this man, while trying to pray, violate that law? If so, why did he stay prostrated after finishing his prayers?

Or did he stay prostrated? I suspect that he began to pray in the aisle, then the crew ordered him to return to his seat. He refused to do so and, thus, they called for the fighter jets. It would have been nice to have known if the man voluntarily returned to his seat after completing his prayers.

All of these questions could have been answered in, oh, two sentences. Why not provide the basic details?


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