Seeking the shooter’s motive at Seattle Pacific University?

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This time, it appears that a lone gunman acting for some unknown, mysterious reason decided to gun down students at Seattle Pacific University, an evangelical campus that is part of the 100-plus member Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (the global network in which I teach).

This means that religion is part of the story, right from the beginning. It also means that reporters are going to dealing with quite a bit of religious language and information, when hearing from witnesses and campus leaders.

Early on, the wire-service report I kept seeing was produced by Reuters. Other than the emerging details of the shooting, what was the crucial information that readers needed to know, according to this very early report? Check this out:

Seattle Pacific University is a Methodist liberal arts college about 4 miles (6.4 km) north of Seattle’s downtown, with about 4,000 students enrolled. The college website said students are subject to disciplinary action for such behavior as extramarital sex or homosexual activity and for the possession or use of alcohol.

Students could be seen embracing and otherwise consoling one another on campus, some crying as they recounted hearing a gunshot. An evening prayer service was being held at a campus church.

“We’re a community that relies on Jesus Christ for strength and we’ll need it at this time,” said Seattle Pacific University President Daniel Martin.

One journalism professor sent me that clip and focused on the discipline code reference with this simple question: “Relevance?”

Good question. I realize that the Reuters team was working at the online-research stage of reporting and, thus, the college website was right there and easy to find. But, with an off-campus shooter, was the basic Christian (and evangelical) doctrine reflected in that code relevant to the story? (Also, Seattle Pacific is a Free Methodist school — not to be confused with the much larger United Methodist Church.)

Was the Reuters team, essentially, saying that this was one of those strange right-wing campuses that might attract someone who was angry at intolerant right-wing Christians? Surely not.

The New York Times offered a much calmer — denominationally accurate, I might add — take on the school’s worldview:

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ESPN spots a ghost in the Seattle-Russell Wilson lovefest

Some GetReligion readers may have noticed that there is a big football game later today.

One of the teams involved in the Super Bowl this year is the Seattle Seahawks and, as always, the team’s quarterback — in this case second-year starter Russell Wilson — is getting quite a bit of attention, for a variety of reasons.

First of all, Wilson is short by NFL standards, standing only 5-foot-11. Second, he is one of those guys who walks into a room and is instantly recognized as a leader, sort of like my all-time sports heroes Bill Russell and Mike Singletary.

Finally, Wilson is rather open about his Christian faith and beliefs, although his style is more subdued than a Tim Tebow.

To no one’s surprise, ESPN produced a major feature on Wilson this week, running under the headline: “The adoration of Russell Wilson.” As is common with this kind of story, it opens with a long anecdote telling how Wilson quietly got involved in the lives of Kristina and Dave Quick and, in particular, their five-pound newborn son Franklin and his “imperfect, broken heart.” After one crisis, there is a tense, risky 10-hour surgery.

This leads to the transition into the body of the article:

The weeks and months to come would be critical. A few days later, Quick was half asleep next to his son when a stranger walked into the room. For a moment, Quick wasn’t sure if he was dreaming or imagining things. But then the stranger, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, did something the Quicks will never forget.

He hugged them. He told the Quicks he and his wife, Ashton, had heard about Franklin, and they’d been thinking about him a lot. They’d been praying for him every day. They just wanted to stop by and let the Quicks know they were pulling for Franklin.

“I think I probably experienced about 10 different emotions,” Quick says. “Shock, disbelief, but most of all, pure genuine joy. For someone of his stature to do that is just amazing. For 20 minutes, he enabled us to not think about everything we were going through. He greeted us like we were family. I’d heard about these visits, that it was something he liked to do, but you see him walk through that door and you know he’s the real deal. He is truth.”

What does a star athlete really mean to the city where he plays? It’s a complicated question, and the truth is, the answer varies depending on the market and the athlete.

Here’s the key to this story. I assumed this would be a pretty basic God-card story about an athlete who — like a Robert Griffin III — has consistently tried to express his faith through public service. I expected the ESPN team to somehow deal with the obvious subject, which is Wilson’s Christian faith.

However, I wondered if the article would take on the other religious issue in this story — Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.

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The truly interfaith church of what’s happening now

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From the very beginning of this weblog, your GetReligionistas have argued that some of America’s most important religion stories are taking place on the Religious Left, even on the evangelical and Pentecostal left. I still believe that.

Also, we have always argued that it was important for journalists to cover the religious and doctrinal content of flocks on the religious left in terms of their DOCTRINES, worship and practices, not just their political views. It’s just as bad to assume that, let’s say, liberal Baptists believe what they believe for what are assumed to be political reasons as it is to argue that Baptists on the Religious Right are, truth be told, just a bunch of cynical politicos.

So, yes, I enjoyed reading large chunks of that recent New York Times story that ran under the headline, “A Church That Embraces All Religions and Rejects ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them.’”

By the way, I am not sure that the story nails down the second half of that headline, but that’s another issue. It’s possible that the religious thinker at the heart of this story would have trouble truly tolerating believers that be believes are intolerant. Why do I say that? Hang on a minute or two.

The opening of the story is a feast of Pacific Northwest details, some predictable and some quite refreshing:

LYNNWOOD, Wash. – Clad in proper Pacific Northwest flannel, toting a flask of “rocket fuel” coffee typical of Starbucks’ home turf, Steven Greenebaum rolled his Prius into a middle school parking lot one Sunday morning last month. Then he set about transforming its cafeteria into a sanctuary and himself into a minister.

He donned vestments adorned with the symbols of nearly a dozen religions. He unfolded a portable bookshelf and set the Koran beside the Hebrew Bible, with both of them near two volumes of the “Humanist Manifesto” and the Sioux wisdom of “Black Elk Speaks.” Candles, stones, bells and flowers adorned the improvised altar.

Some of the congregants began arriving to help. There was Steve Crawford, who had spent his youth in Campus Crusade for Christ, and Gloria Parker, raised Lutheran and married to a Catholic, and Patrick McKenna, who had been brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness and now called himself a pagan.

They had come together with about 20 other members to celebrate the end of their third year as the congregation of the Living Interfaith Church, the holy mash-up that Mr. Greenebaum had created. Yearning for decades to find a religion that embraced all religions, and secular ethical teachings as well, he had finally followed the mantra of Seattle’s indie music scene: “D.I.Y.,” meaning “do it yourself.”

The style appears to be mainline Protestant/Reform Judaism, blended with a rather academic infusion of other faith traditions. The Times team notes that:

… The liturgy moved from a poem by the Sufi mystic Rumi to the “passing of the peace” greeting that traced back to early Christianity to a Buddhist responsive reading to an African-American spiritual to a rabbinical song. In other weeks, the service has drawn from Bahai, Shinto, Sikh, Hindu and Wiccan traditions, and from various humanist sources.

I found myself wondering why this congregation needed to go it alone. Why not hang with the Unitarian Universalists, liberal Episcopalians or the United Church of Christ?

However, the whole point of this story is that Greenebaum’s flock somehow represents the trend that researchers usually call our “postdenominational age.” This pair of fact paragraphs is crucial:

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Writing a puff piece: a how-to manual

Truth be told, in our bias for fair, accurate journalism, we at GetReligion probably focus too much on the negative.

We point out mistakes in mainstream reporting. We cry out for balance. We complain about the MSM bubble.

For once, I want to accentuate the positive. Therefore, please allow me to highlight a Seattle Times story this week as a perfect example of how to write a puff piece.

Before I begin, however, I must stress that reporters typically do not write their own headlines. In this case, the headline and deck might give the reader the mistaken impression that this will be an actual news story, not a puff piece (shame on the headline writer!):

In black churches, a gay-marriage divide

A source of debate across the country and the subject of ballot measures in four states this year, same-sex marriage remains a thorny issue within the African-American community, where objections are deeply rooted in religion and biblical teachings.

At this point, I must admit that I was worried. I feared that the story might subject me to actual intelligent voices on both sides seriously engaging the thorny issue and even providing insight (of a theological nature!) on the deeply rooted objections.

Whew! Imagine my relief when I realized that this would indeed be a puff piece.

Some key elements that make this puff piece work:

• The lede: Immediately, the Times takes readers to a gay-friendly church that stands as a stark contrast to the discriminatory black churches that — somehow in an enlightened age — still manage to claim the Bible condemns homosexuality:

Sounds of gospel music resonated through the sparse sanctuary on a recent Sunday afternoon as voices rose up in praise and a few hands sailed through the air.

Liberation United Church of Christ in Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood is a small congregation with a style of Christian worship not unlike many charismatic black churches.

But its congregants, many of them African American, come here as much for the spiritual euphoria as for this: that as gays and lesbians, they have felt unwelcome and uncomfortable in the churches of their parents and grandparents.

That’s particularly relevant in a year when questions about whether gays should be allowed to marry will appear on the November ballot in four states, including Washington.

The sourcing: The Times quotes eight sources by name, by my quick count. Fortunately, six of them support same-sex marriage and contribute mightily to the puff piece. But even the two sources who oppose same-sex marriage serve a purpose, providing caricatures with real names to highlight the lunacy of the other side:

Within the community, there are unspoken concerns, particularly among older people, that to accept gays as victims of discrimination somehow diminishes the discrimination blacks have endured.

Some have even said that given the challenges in the black community — from education to health care — marriage for gays cannot be a priority, despite a significant number of African Americans in same-sex relationships.

But ultimately for many, the Bible is the final arbiter.

“People have a hard time advocating for something that is biblically wrong,” said André Sims, senior pastor of Christ the King Bible Fellowship in Federal Way, who has participated in recent rallies in favor of traditional marriage.

“Same-gender relations are wrong because of what God said about them.”

Notice the way the story makes a lot of broad generalizations about the other side without attributing the information to a named source? That’s a brilliant tool for a puff piece. But then the story quotes a single pastor as the sole representative of the “many conservative leaders — including some black pastors” opposed to same-sex marriage. Again, brilliant.

• The marginalization: Make it crystal clear which point of view is on the right side of history and public opinion. (Hint: Don’t dare let on that a state referendum on legalizing same-sex marriage has never passed in the United States or that polls show support for the Washington state measure under 50 percent.) The proper way to write it:

While national polls now show majority support for gay marriage in the general population and among other racial and ethnic groups, support among black people remains under 50 percent — despite a bump after endorsements by President Obama and the NAACP.

Recently, black pastors in parts of the South and Midwest have encouraged voters to sit out the election or to consider not supporting Obama because of his position.

In Atlanta, Alveda King, a niece of the late Martin Luther King Jr.’s, said she would never suggest that people not vote. But she said she and some pastors are so disturbed by Obama’s endorsement they’ve formed an organization, GodSaid.org, to urge black Americans to vote their “biblical values” rather than a party line.

At this point, we’re roughly two-thirds of the way through the story. The writer has allowed token appearances by the other side. But the entire rest of the story — the final one-third — needs to provide positive, compelling anecdotes and quotes to support the need for same-sex marriage. Bingo, the Times is up to the challenge! This is such a terrific puff piece — leads with the side that’s right, ends with the side that’s right and sprinkles the side that’s wrong in the middle, but just a little bit!

All in all, I don’t think anyone could ask for a better puff piece.

Seattle skyline image via Shutterstock


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