Faith and fitness: LATimes explores God’s role in weight loss

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There’s a healthy dose of religion news on the front page of today’s Los Angeles Times.

“God is their fitness co-pilot,” proclaims the print headline on this Column One feature. The online version goes with “Cross training” (get it?).

Believe it or not, there’s no mention of that Northwestern University study from a few years ago that prompted Time magazine to report  “Why Going to Church Can Make You Fat” and USA Today to suggest “The devil may be in the pepperoni.” But I digress.

Let’s start with a large portion of the LATimes opening:

When Jim Black leads people on a robust walk three times a week on the grounds of the 120-acre Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, he’s got powerful company: God.

The several dozen people who join him have shown up with the same hopes that anyone brings to an exercise plan: They mean to lose weight, ditch inhalers, get stronger.

But at Saddleback, there’s a lot more going on. Pastor Rick Warren is using the power of his church, one of the biggest in the country, to impress upon his followers that their bodies need the same care as their spirits.

After two months on “The Daniel Plan,” Black gave up his diabetes medication. He has given up wheat, dairy and sugar. He recently bought a bicycle. In a year, he lost 90 pounds; his wife lost 40.

“It’s that one scripture: My body is not my own, my body is on loan and someday I’ll have to account for it,” said Black, 48. “I wanted to serve God at a higher level. And I wanted to be able to fit in the seat of a roller coaster and buy one seat on the airplane instead of two.”

Yeah, that one Scripture (AP style is uppercase when referring to the religious writings in the Bible).

But just to be clear, exactly which Scripture are we talking about? The LATimes just brushes right past that obvious question. I assume Black is referring to 1 Corinthians 6:19-20. From the New International Version of the Bible:

19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

The missing Scripture aside, I like the LATimes lede. It is interesting and draws me into the story. I am compelled to read more (even if I weren’t a GetReligion critic):
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Results vary as media follow Rick Warren’s return

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Over the weekend, Rick Warren returned to the pulpit for the first time since his son’s suicide nearly four months ago.

This made national headlines — and rightly so.

The coverage that I saw ranged from weak to adequate to truly exceptional.

On the weak side, the Los Angeles Times did a bare bones report that seemed to scream: “Just going through the motions! Nothing to see here! Move along!”

The full extent of the Times’ coverage from inside Saddleback Church:

Rick Warren, bestselling author and pastor of an evangelical mega church in Orange County, preached for the first time on Sunday after his son’s suicide.

Matthew Warren, 27, shot himself in the head in April following a long struggle with mental illness.

On Sunday, his father appeared in jeans and a black T-shirt in front of an estimated 10,000 congregants at his Saddleback Church in Lake Forest and vowed to fight prejudice against people with mental illnesses.

“It’s amazing to me that any other organ in your body can break down and there’s no shame and stigma to it,” Warren said. “But if your brain breaks down you’re supposed to keep it a secret.”

For those paying attention, the “Sunday” in the Times’ lede might seem strange (which is a nice way of saying “downright inaccurate”). Other media, after all, reported that Saddleback has five weekend worship services, and that Warren began preaching at them Saturday afternoon.

On the adequate side, that’s how I’d characterize The Associated Press’ report on Warren’s return to the pulpit.

AP’s story seems to provide all the relevant facts, including this section:

In the sermon, first in a series called “How To Get Through What You’re Going Through,” Rick Warren said he had the perfect role model for his struggles.

“God knows what it’s like to lose a son,” Warren said.

He remained mostly composed, but choked back tears at times, including when he thanked his surviving two children.

Obviously, that direct quote refers to Jesus’ death on the cross. Here’s my question: Should the AP specify that? Or is it OK to assume that most readers know what he’s talking about?

On the truly exceptional side, check out this report from Time magazine writer Elizabeth Dias, whose specialties include religion coverage.

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WWROD? Another stab at defining the word ‘evangelical’

Long ago, I asked the Rev. Billy Graham a question that I really thought he, of all people, would be able to answer.

The question: What does the word “evangelical” mean?

As I have reported several times, the world’s most famous evangelist tossed the question right back at me:

“Actually, that’s a question I’d like to ask somebody, too,” he said, during a 1987 interview in his mountainside home office in Montreat, N.C. This oft-abused term has “become blurred. … You go all the way from the extreme fundamentalists to the extreme liberals and, somewhere in between, there are the evangelicals.”

Wait a minute, I said. If Billy Graham doesn’t know what “evangelical” means, then who does? Graham agreed that this is a problem for journalists and historians. One man’s “evangelical” is another’s “fundamentalist.”

So, a few months ago, I asked the Rev. Rick Warren — one of today’s most high-profile evangelicals — the same question. And his response?

“I know what the word ‘evangelical’ is supposed to mean,” said Warren, 58, leader of the 20,000-member Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., with its many branch congregations and ministries. “I mean, I know what the word ‘evangelical’ used to mean.”

The problem, he said, is that many Americans no longer link “evangelical” with a set of traditional doctrines, such as evangelistic efforts to reach the lost, the defense of biblical authority, projects to help the needy and the conviction that salvation is found through faith in Jesus Christ, alone.

Somewhere during the George W. Bush years the word “evangelical” — a term used in church history — got “co-opted into being a political term,” said Warren. …

(Cue: audible sigh)

Needless to say, this is an issue that has been discussed many times here at GetReligion, where we continue to argue that — damn the postmodernism, full speed ahead — journalists should attempt to use words precisely. On the religion beat, words with links to history and doctrine really matter. Words have meanings.

So, how are journalists supposed to know what “evangelical” means, since it is almost impossible to avoid using it these days?

This is a battle and, lucky for us, the other day someone asked this question to Godbeat patriarch Richard Ostling, over at his weblog, Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy Answers your Questions.”

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Out front: the stigma of mental illness

In 2011, I traveled to rural Oregon to report on a minister who helped bring healing to his small town after a string of suicides.

As part of that Christian Chronicle story, I noted that 35,000 Americans died by suicide in the most recent year for which statistics were available:

Victims range from teenagers harassed at school to military veterans suffering war trauma to elderly people facing a debilitating illness or loss of a spouse.

However, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center cautions against oversimplifying the causes of suicide.

More than 90 percent of victims have a diagnosable mental illness and/or substance use disorder, according to the center.

“I teach counselors and ministers to recognize warning signs of suicide risk, yet you cannot always predict or prevent every suicide,” said Ed Gray, professor of counseling at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tenn. “Our compassion and caring involvement are our best responses to individuals who are at risk for suicide.”

Yet suicide remains a taboo subject for many in society — and in the church, where some view it as an unforgivable sin.

“Undoubtedly, some who take their own life do so from a mental state that makes them no longer responsible for their choices,” said Cecil May Jr., dean of the Bible college at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala. “The reason God is the final judge of such things, and we are not, is that the heart is involved, not just actions that can be seen. Only God can consider that essential aspect of things.”

When the terrible news broke about the death of pastor Rick Warren’s son, I wondered if the high-profile tragedy might prompt the media to explore how Christians deal with mental illness.

I was pleased to see the Washington Post feature Godbeat pro Michelle Boorstein’s story on the subject on Friday’s front page. The top of her 1,300-word report:

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Myopic coverage of Warren in tragedy?

Of the many sad stories this weekend, one was the news that Rick Warren’s son Matthew killed himself. Suicides are difficult to cover and there’s some (though probably not enough) debate about when and how to cover them. In this case, the news was announced in emails to the congregation and staff of Saddleback Church, the megachurch founded by Warren. It’s reasonable to cover this death, I think.

And as for the coverage, I think it was fairly decent — just covering the basics of what was known and how the information was communicated.

But former (and yet forever in our hearts) GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey tweeted out something of interest in one report:

Weird LaTimes summary: Rick Warren is a world-famous evangelist…perhaps most widely known for having delivered the inauguration invocation

Here’s the actual conclusion to the Los Angeles Times story in question:

The elder Warren is a world-famous evangelist and bestselling author of “The Purpose Driven Life.” He is perhaps most widely known for having delivered the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration in 2008.

One reporter agreed with Sarah, calling the description “more than a little myopic.” Huffington Post religion reporter Jaweed Kaleem wrote:

that may be accurate for some people not in Christian/evangelical world. I had never heard of him til ’08.

Even though I am so old that I was literally shopping for a cane today (remember my ankle injury?), I’m not so old as to have experienced the entirety of American history. But Kaleem’s comment is a very good reminder that many reporters, including many very good reporters, are simply young. Not having heard of Warren prior to 2008 means that you had to have been in utero (or high school, or something similar) during 2002 or whenever Purpose Driven Life came out and became one of the best selling books in history. If you’re a reporter, it’s a good idea to remember to ask the old fogeys about stuff you haven’t heard of. If you’re working with a reporter, don’t assume knowledge that might not be there.

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