Al Jazeera offers its own take (literally) on SBC sex summit

A week or so ago I mentioned, in a meeting that included both traditional and progressive evangelicals, that the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention was going to hold a three-day “sex summit” in Nashville and lots of people laughed. They obviously had not looked at some of the rather interesting sessions on the docket, which included newsworthy real-life topics (at least to me) such as pastors who are wrestling with their own porn addictions, advice for those counseling people caught up in a variety of kinds of sexual sins, a major session on sex trafficking and another built on new sociological data on how religious beliefs influence people’s views on sex.

Oh, right, and there was a panel discussion — as opposed to a keynote address — on “The Gospel and Homosexuality.”

This conference drew quite a bit of coverage and, at times, lit up the Twitter-verse. There really is no way to do justice to all of the coverage — some of it quite good. However, I did find a wrap-up piece from Al Jazeera America that kind of summed up the negative side of things, the attitude among some mainstream reporters that they knew what the conference was really about, even if that wasn’t what the conference was really about.

I want to take a rather different approach on this one. We are going to walk through this news feature passage by passage, sometimes paragraph by paragraph, looking for news and information that is actually drawn from this content-rich event. Yes, this news report has a Nashville dateline so the implication is that the Al Jazeera America scribe was actually present at the event.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Prominent evangelical Christian leaders met here this week to discuss a topic that’s typically taboo in Sunday church: sexuality. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) was hosting its first “leadership summit,” which its new leader said he hoped would provoke a “frank conversation” on sexual ethics. Speakers tackled topics including pornography, “hookup culture,” premarital sex, the decline of marriage, sexual abuse, divorce and, arguably the most contentious, homosexuality.

Younger attendees at the event, a meeting of the country’s largest Protestant denomination, sported beards, stylish plaid and the occasional NPR tote bag. Everyone spent the week tweeting — the summit attracted much attention from the Christian blogosphere — and one speaker jokingly asked people to “turn on their Bibles,” a nod to the popularity of e-books and Bible apps.

There are a few nice details in there. However, I thought that these churches were obsessed with sex and talked about sex and sexual sins all the time. I guess I was wrong on that. There do appear to be two short quotes from sessions, although not about newsworthy topics.

The group’s president, Russell Moore, took a gentler, less combative approach than his predecessor, Richard Land, who was known to make incendiary comments. (Just last week, Land suggested on a radio show that homosexuality is caused by childhood sexual abuse.) Most Southern Baptists, like other mainstream evangelicals, have given up talk of “reparative therapy” for gays in favor of love, grace and “peacemaking.” At this week’s summit, Florida pastor Jimmy Scroggins called for an end to “redneck theology” and said, “We have to stop telling ‘Adam and Steve’ jokes.”

OK, we have another pair of tiny quotes, but it’s hard to tell what they are about. However, it appears that this conference — from the viewpoint of this writer — was primarily about homosexuality. Let’s continue:

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It’s 5 o’clock somewhere: hymns and happy hour?

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“Beer with Jesus” might have fallen off the country music charts, but the trend has legs — er, foam — apparently.

You may remember the other half of our resident husband-wife team, GetReligionista Bobby Ross Jr., writing a post in November on the subject.  In summary, he looked at reports on churches offering services in pubs and bars and the successes and failures in each.

We have a new twist to the story now, and it comes to us from the country music capital of the world, Nashville Tenn. It also involves music, but not of the hometown variety.

The Tennessean invites us to pull up a barstool and join the Beer and Hymn Sing Group in this report:

They don’t talk doctrine. There’s no prayer or Bible study.

Once a quarter, they pack the dark upstairs bar at MadDonna’s in East Nashville to sing centuries-old favorites. The last one kicked off with “Amazing Grace,” ended with “Go Now in Peace” and featured classics such as “How Great Thou Art” in between.

The organizer, Geoff Little, said he got the idea from seeing soccer fans in London and Dublin pubs switch seamlessly from singing fight songs to singing “Be Thou My Vision.” He believed it would be a way to draw Generation X and Y friends to a religious gathering outside the classic venues for those.

“Why was Christ’s first miracle to be the ultimate bartender? Jesus was interested in celebration,” said Little, a member of Downtown Presbyterian Church. “We separate being human from being spiritual all too easily in Nashville.”

This story isn’t just throwing one back with the regulars. It does justice to all sides, including religious experts, historians and visitors who drink nothing stronger than Diet Coke. We’re also invited to explore the Bible for Scripture related to drinking and consider the temptations of excess imbibing.

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That faceless, mysterious flock of atheists in Guitar Town

One of the rules here at GetReligion is that we really, really try to understand the limitations that shape the work of many mainstream journalists in this era.

After all, we have been there and done that. We have had editors cut stories. We have been told to write 500-word daily stories on subjects that, to do them justice, would require 4,000 words and a month’s work of research. We feel your pain, fellow journalists.

Thus, we try to avoid criticizing a story by saying that it should be twice as long. If we spot a massive hole in a story — a religion-shaped hole — we try to propose ways that a time- and space-strapped reporter could fill it with a sentence or two or, or maybe a paragraph or two, of content. All journalists yearn for more reporting time and more inches of type in which to display the results.

However, I am about to break that rule.

Maybe it’s because I love the city of Nashville and know a thing or two about the people there, but that short news story in The Tennessean about the new atheist congregation in hip East Nashville — “Sunday Assembly’s atheist gathering looks a lot like church” — really needed more content. Yes, this is another localized story spinning off all of the coverage of the small Sunday Assembly on the other side of the big pond.

Launched in London just over a year ago by comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, the group has grown to 37 Sunday Assemblies across the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. Of the 16 in this country, Nashville is arguably the most unlikely location. The group meets a few miles from the headquarters of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention.

Organizers say they’re tapping into the “nones,” what religion demographers call the one-fifth of Americans who claim no religious affiliation. That group is on the rise, Pew Research Center data show, and includes atheists and agnostics but, in larger numbers, people who simply don’t identify themselves with any particular philosophy.

Sunday Assembly began meeting in Nashville in November and has faced little criticism from locals, even the most religious.

The news hook for the story? Jones the co-founder was in town for a filming session for a CNN show. What a shock.

Otherwise, the whole story — this is valid, methinks — focuses on how this non-church looks like a church once you walk inside the doors. Has anyone seen a story about one of these groups in which this was not the case?

All together now:

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Not all things considered: NPR on hymns

YouTube Preview ImageLet’s get the praise for this story about praise music and hymnody out of the way first.

NPR’s All Things Considered did something very rare and they did it nicely. The show featured a full four minutes on Christian worship music. The show managed to do this without sneering and without any politics. The show featured actual Christian voices talking about their views on worship. This is a wonderful thing and kudos to them.

If that’s all you’re looking for from NPR, you will love listening to this piece, “Modern Hymn Writers Aim To Take Back Sunday.”

As it happens, not everyone was as pleased with this piece. We heard about it from more than a few readers. I’m with them in having some criticism. Perhaps it’s because I had too-high expectations. I’m Lutheran. We take our hymnody very seriously. This week’s hymn in our house is “We Praise You And Acknowledge You,” by Stephen Starke, a modern hymn writer. (It’s the one playing in the video embedded above.) Last week’s was “To God The Holy Spirit Let Us Pray,” by Martin Luther, who hasn’t been writing new hymns for 500 years or so. I’ve had the pleasure of writing about hymns and choral music and the greater pleasure of a worship life built around hymns.

If you bill your story as “Modern Hymn Writers Aim To Take Back Sunday,” I want the story to be about that. I want to see if the prolific Stephen Starke is in it. But this story was really not about modern hymn writers so much as a very narrow subset of Christianity and just a couple of modern hymn writers. The story would have been improved by making that clear. Instead, the lede was this:

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST: In recent decades, worship music has trended away from the church organ and classic hymns in favor of more rocking songs made popular by Christian radio. Now a crop of modern hymn writers is pulling Sunday morning singing back to a more traditional style. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports from Nashville.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: There was a time when hymns were used primarily to drive home the message that came from the pulpit. Then came the praise songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “OUR GOD”)

MATT REDMAN: (Singing) Our God is greater, our God is stronger…

FARMER: Matt Redman’s song “Our God” is the most popular piece of music in Christian churches today. That’s according to charts that track congregational singing – yes, there is such a thing. But approaching the top 10 is a retro hymn co-written by Keith Getty.

Such broad strokes, eh? If I tell you that later in the story we’re told that we’re more or less talking about Southern Baptists in this piece, would that help? It helped me. I mean, the Southern Baptists are a large group and a story about their worship practices and trends is great. But it was weird to read about these “charts” that track congregational singing. I know that my large Lutheran denomination doesn’t track these things and I wasn’t terribly familiar with either the praise song or the hymn mentioned in the lede. So I spent the next few minutes trying to figure out how narrow the story would end up being.

It’s quite narrow. And nicely so. Bob Smietana’s piece on the same topic from April of this year helped the reader much more by laying the focus all on the line right there at the top:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) Most songwriters in Nashville want to get their songs on the radio. Keith and Kristyn Getty hope their songs end up in dusty old hymnbooks.

Both stories are interesting and both stories are about the Gettys but I appreciate Smietana’s approach.

Back to this NPR piece, I did think it managed to get some helpful doctrinal points in. Here’s one perspective:

KEITH GETTY: Our goal is to write songs that teach the faith, where the congregation is the main thing and everybody accompanies that.

FARMER: There’s no definition for what’s a hymn and not a praise song, but Getty says it should be singable without a band, easy for anyone sitting in the pews to pick up. And it should say something bold.

GETTY: And I think it’s to the church’s poverty that the average worship song now has so few words, so little truth, is so focused on several commercial aspects of God, like the fact that he loves our praises.

Later we’re told that the Gettys have 12 hymns in the latest Southern Baptist hymnal. (This caused me to look something up in my hymnal, where I saw that Starke has 32(!) listings, more than Paul Gerhardt or Martin Luther.) And we learn that the substance of the Getty’s work is helping encourage other songwriters to follow suit. We hear some of the repetitive sections of praise music but also a defense of them:

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Hanging out with Sheryl Crow and her kids — where?

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While I have not lived in Nashville (yet), I have spent a lot of time there and know quite a bit about the town.

Thus, I really enjoyed the new Associated Press feature about rocker Sheryl Crow‘s decision to move — as in pack up her life and really move — to Guitar Town and give country music a try.

The story is full of all kinds of details that stick, if you get Nashville, but I thought it really needed one or two additional paragraphs, or at least a few extra lines. Yes, this is Nashville, so we are talking about a religion ghost that slipped into this story, but was given very little attention.

Now, the whole key to this story is that the life of a musician in Nashville — the pop-culture capital of the Bible Belt — is somewhat different than life in a place like Los Angeles. In the country music biz artists need to court a broader audience, including the people who run radio stations. It’s a place where even the big stars are expected to project a bit of down-home attitude.

Like I said, this story gets that down, starting with some advice from a guy named Brad, who urged her to go country for keeps:

Crow thought about it and Paisley’s message took hold. But it meant she would have to change things up and embrace Nashville’s country music culture. Eventually, he helped kick start the new record, suggested producer Justin Niebank and introduced her to songwriter Chris Dubois, who served as a co-writer and informal song editor. She changed her songwriting tack, looking to match the more visceral, story-telling style of the genre.

And no one succeeds in country music without courting radio — thus the bus. Most of country music’s biggest stars started that way and Crow — 20 years after releasing her first album, the five times platinum “Tuesday Night Music Club” — didn’t see herself as exempt, no matter how many millions of albums she’s already sold.

The first day of radio tour she hit larger markets like Knoxville and Chattanooga in Tennessee, Atlanta, Orlando, Fla., and some privately owned stations in smaller towns, too. One day, three states. Welcome to country.

“I say that it’s fun, but it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Crow said. “Because sitting on the bus and only getting the gratification of only playing like a couple of songs, and then driving for two more hours and then getting to play a couple more songs. It’s really hard, but it’s great, you know? … I’ve felt really embraced.”

So the musician is adapting.

But what about the woman whose private life has, on occasion, been the stuff of tabloid headlines? How’s she doing?

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