Ghosts after Seattle Pacific shooting? Not in this story

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Here at GetReligion, we blog often about holy ghosts in news coverage. However, we much prefer stories that leave no room for spiritual ghostbusting.

Such is the case with an exceptional Seattle Times report on the “grief without despair” that followed last week’s shooting at Seattle Pacific University.

Given the university’s evangelical Christian ties, religion has been a part of this tragic story from the beginning, as tmatt noted earlier.

In a piece published Sunday, the Times explores the faith angle in a simple-but-remarkable way:

In the hours after a gunman killed one Seattle Pacific University student and wounded two others, what struck many was the way the students responded.

They clasped hands in prayer circles; lifted their voices together to sing hymns; prayed for the shooter as well as the victims.

“I have never been more proud of this institution,” Richard Steele, a professor in SPU’s School of Theology, wrote in an email to friends. “The faith, courage and calmness were just stunning,”

The response of the students, faculty and staff to Thursday’s startling violence highlights the role of religious belief at SPU. The small evangelical Christian college, on the north slope of Queen Anne Hill, stands out in the Seattle area for the degree to which it works on developing students’ faith and for fostering a tight-knit community.

Yes, the reporter — a former Godbeat pro named Janet Tu — provides relevant background on Seattle Pacific:

All undergraduates must take at least three courses in theology, and are encouraged to attend worship services, Bible studies, Bible retreats and other such activities to nurture their faith. They are expected to adhere to a code of conduct that prohibits premarital, extramarital or homosexual sex, as well as the use of alcohol or tobacco on campus, and marijuana on or off campus.

The some 4,000 students are predominantly Christian, although there are a few non-Christians at the school, which was founded in 1891 by the Free Methodist Church of North America.

Faculty and staff must be professing, practicing Christians.

But this story (relatively concise at 1,000 words) is at its best when Tu steps backs and allows her sources — three professors and two students — to discuss the role of faith in their own words:

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Boy, you got a prayer in … the drive-thru lane

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I’ll never forget a sermon I heard as a young boy — mainly because I found the message extremely humorous.

In Churches of Christ, we observe the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. But some folks were showing up and quickly leaving after the communion service. So the minister got up one week and proposed distributing the grape juice and crackers through a drive-through so people wouldn’t even need to get out of their cars.

Fast-forward 35 years, and the idea of a drive-thru faith connection isn’t theoretical.

This story (which I came across via the Pew Research Center’s daily religion news email) caught my attention this week:

Drive-thru at church: The easy-pray lane

As a journalist who once wrote a national Associated Press story on 1-800 prayer lines, I found the headline intriguing. Honestly, though, I expected to find “shallow” and “cheesy” on this story’s menu. Instead, the Philadelphia Inquirer treated the subject in a thoughtful, meaty — and yet still interesting — way:

Have it your way.

No, not your fast-food burger. Your prayer.

In an age when convenience is king and religion is often ridiculed, some churches looking to widen their outreach efforts are embracing what community banks and pharmacies have utilized for decades: the drive-through.

The latest to offer a bit of spiritual uplift in the comfort of your car is Hope United Methodist Church in Voorhees.

“People go to Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee, not because it’s the best coffee, but because it’s the most convenient,” reasoned Hope’s lead pastor, Jeff Bills. “In a similar way, this is a port of entry for somebody to begin to connect with God in an intentional kind of way.”

(Dunkin’ Donuts doesn’t get a chance to respond in this story. Call me old school, but they should. Surely a Dunkin’ PR person could come up with a nice quip about coffee and prayer that fits with the story’s tone. But I digress.)

Back to the story: Three things I liked about this piece:

1. It considers the big picture: The Inquirer provides details both about the trend involved and the context in which drive-thru prayer has a chance to thrive.

The trend:

In Lancaster, there are drive-through hours Wednesday afternoons from the steps of Lancaster First Assembly of God during spring, summer, and fall months, when it’s not too cold to sit outside. Sonrise Worship Center in Lutz, Fla., extends coffee with its comfort the third Saturday of every month. Other drive-through churches have opened in Wichita, Kan.; Richmond, Va.; Aurora, Ill.; and Modesto, Calif..

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Should the high court have backed town council prayers?

BRAD ASKS:

[Regarding the U.S. Supreme Court's new Greece v. Galloway ruling that allows prayers before town council meetings]: Is the door being nudged open for an ugly discourse on separation of church and state?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Brad fears this pro-prayer decision might stir up ugliness, but The Guy thinks there’s be more of it if the Court had instead barred invocations like those in Greece, New York. Americans generally like prayers to solemnize civic occasions from inauguration of the president on down, and politicians naturally go along. Briefs in Greece’s favor were signed by 85 members of the U.S. House and 34 U.S. Senators. Most were Republicans, but the Obama Administration likewise filed in support. Though civic prayers are popular or considered useful to the republic, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily good for the Christian faith. Hold that thought.

Politicians aside, many news reports missed that all 9 Supreme Court justices were favorable toward council prayers. The four liberal dissenters, sounding much like the five majority conservatives, stated that local council meetings need not “be religion- or prayer-free” and that’s because “legislative prayer has a distinctive constitutional warrant by virtue of tradition.” Mainly, the liberals protested because Greece loaded up its lineup of prayer-givers with earnest Christians and made little effort to include religious minorities.

The Constitution’s Bill of Rights begins “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Though that commands only Congress, the “incorporation” doctrine (which Justice Thomas rejects) extends this to actions by state and local governments.

Traditionalists say the “establishment clause” only forbids a European-style official church. Separationists embrace the Court’s 1947 interpretation that government cannot show favoritism toward either a particular religion or toward religion in general.

In the 67 years since, the Court has nudged the door open and shut, in what Justice Alito called “our often puzzling” series of church-state rulings. In that time the nation’s religious diversity has increased, especially since the 1965 change in immigration law, and foes of religious faith have become more militant. The key rulings on civic prayers:

*Engel v. Vitale (1962): Outlawed public school students’ recitation of the New York State Regents’ brief, non-denominational prayer to “Almighty God” (decided by 8-1).

*Abington v. Schempp (1963): Ordered Pennsylvania (also Maryland in a companion case) to end public students’ recitation of the Lord’s Prayer along with Bible readings (by 8-1).

*Marsh v. Chambers (1983): Ruled that prayers before sessions of Nebraska’s legislature do not violate the “establishment” ban unless they’re designed to “proselytize,” or “advance” or “disparage” a religion (by 6-3).

*Wallace v. Jaffree (1985): Abolished Alabama schools’ minute of silence for student “meditation or prayer” (by 6-3).

*Lee v. Weisman (1991): Decided a Rhode Island rabbi’s junior high graduation prayer was unconstitutional (by 5-4).

*Santa Fe v. Doe (2000): Opposed public-address prayers before Texas football games from clergy chosen by students (by 6-3).

That brings us to the 5-to-4 decision in Greece v. Galloway, which applies the 1983 Marsh case reasoning about state legislatures to town councils.

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SCOTUS prayer case: reporting, opinion in one story

Like many towns, prayer opens government meetings in Greece, N.Y. Unlike many towns, a couple of citizens voiced their offense to the practice — all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

As we heard yesterday, the high court sided with the town. And of course, the other side is crying foul.

Even including CNN, which was supposed to be doing straight reporting.

Here’s how CNN’s Belief Blog item by Daniel Burke led off the report on the high court’s decision yesterday. And keep in mind that it’s not marked as opinion or analysis or commentary:

If you don’t like it, leave the room.

That’s the essence of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s advice for atheists and others who object to sectarian prayers before government meetings.

In a 5-4 decision written by Kennedy, the Supreme Court allowed Greece, New York, to continue hosting prayers before its monthly town board meetings – even though an atheist and a Jewish citizen complained that the benedictions are almost always explicitly Christian.

Why did the Supreme Court rule as it did? We don’t find out until the ninth paragraph. Before then, we need to be softened up on the right way to view it.

“Many members of the country’s majority faith — that is, Christians — hailed the ruling,” Burke continues. He then lists some of the supporting organizations and quotes their leaders on what they see as the benefits of the ruling.

Just kidding, just kidding; he doesn’t do that at all. After that token paragraph acknowledging another side, he moves to his real interest: who objected and why.

Many members of minority faiths, as well as atheists, responded with palpable anger, saying the Supreme Court has set them apart as second-class citizens.

Groups from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism to the Hindu American Foundation decried Monday’s decision.

“The court’s decision to bless ‘majority-rules’ prayer is out of step with the changing face of America, which is more secular and less dogmatic,” said Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which litigated the case.

Finally, the story adds five paragraphs on Kennedy’s majority opinion, which leans heavily on historic precedent going back to the First Continental Congress. The story also cites a poll that found less than 23 percent of Americans object to prayers at public government meetings. (This, of course, counters Rob Boston’s argument that such prayers don’t match the American mood, but he apparently wasn’t asked to account for the contradiction.)

Burke then asks about people “who like their local government meetings to be religion-free?” Interesting choice of word, that: The absence of religion spells freedom. He then gives 11 paragraphs to the dissenting opinion of Justice Elena Kagan, whom he points out is Jewish.

She spins a hypothetical case of a Muslim at a town meeting where a minister invites everyone to pray in the name of Jesus. In her view, avidly reported by Burke, the Muslim must either comply and violate his beliefs, or object and risk giving offense.

But the article doesn’t report that the majority Supreme Court opinion, too, dealt with the question of coercive effects:

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Half-naked dancers and public prayers in Oklahoma City

“Gonna wear my Thunderwear in Times Square.”

My friend Randy Roper, the preaching minister for my home congregation in Oklahoma, came up with that winning slogan in a 2009 contest sponsored by the Oklahoma City Thunder. As a result, Roper earned a free trip to New York for the NBA Draft Lottery. (That was, of course, before the Thunder emerged as one of the league’s top teams.)

At least once a season since then, the Thunder have asked Roper to lead the public prayer that precedes each home game.

I thought of my friend when I read a New York Times sports feature this week headlined “Praying for the Home Team in Oklahoma City.” The top of the 2,000-word story by NBA writer Andrew Keh:

OKLAHOMA CITY — Before the plumes of smoke and the shimmering pyrotechnics and the two dozen or so dancers gyrating in microscopic shorts and the hip-hop and the hairy mascot on stilts and the sponsorships — “Tonight’s free throws are brought to you by Hooters!” – there is prayer.

Chesapeake Energy Arena, home to the N.B.A.’s Oklahoma City Thunder, so fully incorporates the complete assortment of flashy sports entertainment tropes that the building has been called Loud City.

But amid the cacophony here, there is one significant difference: preceding each game is a stadiumwide prayer of invocation that on most nights briefly turns a raucous sports event into something resembling a megachurch gathering.

“We feel people’s faith is important to them,” said Dan Mahoney, the Thunder’s vice president for corporate communications and community relations, who noted that the prayers are nondenominational and that those offering them have ranged from Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy to Jewish rabbis to Native American spiritual leaders. ”Gathering to support our team, we feel it’s appropriate to build in a time of reflection.”

Actually, I think Keh’s lede nails it.

I’m in the minority in Oklahoma City in that I have not become a devoted Thunder fan. My allegiance remains with baseball and my beloved Texas Rangers, three hours south of the Sooner State’s capital city. But I attend a Thunder game or two a year — usually when I can find a cheap seat up high.

And I can attest to the irony that the Times writer captures: a spiritual leader asking for God’s blessings followed by half-naked dancers gyrating all over the big screen, as this father does his best not to blush with his teenage son and daughter standing on each side of him.

But back to the journalism: Keh does an excellent job of explaining the history behind Oklahoma City’s prayer. In addition, he puts the tradition into the larger context of both the community and the NBA and sports world:

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Pod People: Prayer’s place in science, sports and submission

Where is Jahi McMath, and what is the latest installment of her story?

I’m glad you asked! Host Todd Wilken and I talked some about this and other subjects during this week’s installment of Crossroads.

(This is my third podcast, and I like to think I’m not embarrassing myself as badly with experience. This being interviewed business is tough when there’s not a delete key between you and your thoughts.)

As you’ll remember from my post last week, McMath is the brain-dead 13-year-old California girl whose parents won the legal battle to take possession of her still-ventilated body from Children’s Hospital Oakland and move it to an undisclosed location. Early reports indicated the family and their attorney had found a facility and physicians to “care for” the child and use restorative measures, presumably to bring her back to life. And prayer, lots of prayer. And they’ve raised tens of thousands of dollars via their gofundme page.

We don’t know where Jahi is, nor do we know whether her heart still beats, which previously had been because of electrical currents and IV medication. Nor do we know whether they are part of an organized group of believers. We do know, courtesy of the NBC Bay Area affiliate, that her classmates have hope, and that school administrators say they’re honoring the child’s family’s wishes in what they tell the children:

Though a death certificate has been issued for Jahi McMath, many of the 13-year-old Oakland girl’s classmates still believe the “quiet leader” who laughed at jokes that weren’t funny will one day return to school — if they just pray hard enough.

“The school told us that she’s not officially dead yet,” said Dymond Allen, one of Jahi’s friends at EC Reems Academy of Technology and Arts in East Oakland, a public charter school that serves mostly disadvantaged kids. “And we should keep her in our prayers. I still hope. And God has the last say-so.”

Wilken and I also talked a bit more in-depth about my Candace Cameron Bure post from last week that dealt with the biblical concept of wives submitting to their husbands. Media outlets continue to get it wrong, both in headline and story form, by confusing the Scriptural meaning that Bure discusses with the social/relational/professional one.

The comments from readers reflect that inaccuracy. Some cite instances of spousal abuse as a reason wives should not submit to their husbands. Others point to hard-won rights and the feminist movement as proof that women have evolved to a point where they can care for themselves and should be treated in equals.

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A God-decided Super Bowl? 70 million Americans say yes

Super Bowl XLVIII is just two weeks away. And if The Huffington Post is to be believed, a huge number of folks are about to hit their knees. Not in a line stance, mind you, but in prayer.

HuffPo’s top religion story today claims “Half of Americans Say God Plays A Role In Super Bowl Winner: Survey.” (We have to throw a flag here with headline and story agreement, incidentally, as the U.S. population is estimated at 314 million, and the story alludes to 140 million sports fans. Penalty declined. Now let’s move forward with the game.)

How can you not click on that headline? I mean, who isn’t ready for some God-decided football. I, for one, think it would be a nice change from the referees deciding the outcome.

We have a poll, folks. A survey from Public Religion Research Institute indicates that millions of my neighbors, near and far, think the Almighty chooses which team gets the trophy.

“As Americans tune in to the Super Bowl this year, fully half of fans — as many as 70 million Americans — believe there may be a twelfth man on the field influencing the outcome,” Public Religion Research Institute CEO Robert Jones said in a statement. “Significant numbers of American sports fans believe in invoking assistance from God on behalf of their favorite team, or believe the divine may be playing out its own purpose in the game.”

Football fans … pray for their own teams to win, with 33 percent saying they ask God to intervene in games, compared to 21 percent of fans of other sports.

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God, faith, Jahi McMath and church (or not)

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I can’t remember the last time I became so engrossed in a story.

Perhaps it’s because I also have a teenage daughter (who, by the way, also is interested). Maybe it’s the unprecedented attention, or the opportunity to educate myself about an issue I had not previously considered: whole brain death and all its scientific and physical ramifications. More likely, it’s the passion on both sides and the way people of faith everywhere are reacting so emotionally to the case.

I can’t look away, in other words.

Jahi McMath, the brain-dead teen from Oakland, Calif., continues to make global headlines as family members, their lawyers, the medical community and media outlets …

What? What are they doing, exactly?

No one outside those intimately involved know where the child is or what the family is thinking and doing, outside of their press conferences and social media posts. But those statements and Instagram updates are filled with requests for prayers and allusions to miracles, in spite of the signed death certificate with her name on it. The mother, against all scientific data, precedent and the physical state of her child, believes God will heal her daughter. And she says she is pursuing a level of recovery-themed care for the legally dead child (a feeding tube, a tracheostomy tube) that will aid in the physical side of her vigil.

In the absence of real-time news in a society obsessed with instant updates, the media has focused some on the religious aspect of the story.

The Los Angeles Times has provided extensive coverage on the story. In its first report after the brain-dead child was taken by ambulance from the hospital, released to the Alameda County coroner’s office and then signed over to her mother, the Times’ story provided this insight from McMath’s uncle about their future plans:

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