What can we make of the prayers of Oscar Pistorius?

When it comes to famous Bible passages, even those favored by athletes, 1 Corinthians 9: 26-27 will not appear near the top of many lists:

I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air:

But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.

Nevertheless, anyone who pays close attention to the left shoulder of runner Oscar Pistorius will be able to see most of that verse in a tattoo that juts out from underneath his sleeveless running jersey.

Why is it there?

I have no idea. I also have no clue as to the nature or seriousness of this controversial man’s faith after reading the following Agence France?Presse report about an emotional day in his tabloid-friendly “blade runner” murder trial in Pretoria. Here’s the top of that:

Pretoria (AFP) – A weeping Oscar Pistorius shielded his ears as a witness in his murder trial on Thursday gave harrowing evidence about desperate attempts to save Reeva Steenkamp’s life after she was shot.

Rocking back and forth in the dock, Pistorius put his hands over his ears as neighbour and radiologist Johan Stipp recounted how he entered his house to find the distraught Paralympian bent over, attempting to resuscitate his girlfriend.

Stipp noticed a wound on Steenkamp’s right thigh, right upper arm, and “blood and hair and what looked like brain tissue intermingled with that” on top of the skull.

So what does religion have to do with this scene? Stripp’s graphic testimony included the following:

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The second storytelling rule: Get the name of the church

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The first storytelling rule: Get the name of the dog.

So says Poynter Institute writing guru Roy Peter Clark.

For the purposes of GetReligion, I’ll add a second rule: Get the name of the church.

I found myself frustrated with the generic churches featured in a Wall Street Journal story on South Africa’s national day of prayer, held Sunday in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death.

QUNU, South Africa — South Africans filled houses of worship on Sunday to remember their first black leader, Nelson Mandela, whose death last week sparked an outpouring of grief, remembrance and preparations for his hometown funeral and a memorial at a soccer stadium.

Mr. Mandela, who died Thursday evening at his Johannesburg home at 95 years old, enjoyed near mythical status in the racially divided country, and President Jacob Zuma had designated Sunday as a day of prayer and reflection on his life.

South African officials fanned out to different churches and synagogues in what amounted to a campaign to use the spirit of the late statesman to bridge the nation’s lingering societal divides.

“We should not forget the values that Madiba stood for and sacrificed his life for,” President Zuma told those gathered at a church in Johannesburg, using Mr. Mandela’s clan name. “He actively participated to remove the oppressor to liberate the people of this country. When our struggle came to an end, he preached and practiced reconciliation to make those who had been fighting to forgive one another and become one nation.”

That’s a perfectly fine summary of the day’s events. Except I want to know the name of the church. And beyond that, I’d love some insight on why the president chose the particular church where he spoke. Was there a historical or spiritual significance to the venue?

Later in the story:

“I’m worried about this current government but we must release Mandela because he has worked hard for us,” said 71-year-old Beatrice Mathsqi, attending another prayer service in Mqhekezweni, where Mr. Mandela lived after Qunu.

But what was the name of the church where she attended the prayer service? Am I wrong to want less vague identification of the houses of worship featured?

Contrast the story by the Journal — an exceptional newspaper that I praise way more often than I criticize — with the prayer day story published by the Washington Post:

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Mandela the sinner? Mandela the prophet? Yes, cover both

One of the greatest mysteries in life is the moral complexity that is often found in the hearts of great men and women who live truly great lives and, even, in their best moments perform great deeds that can be called blessed, or even holy.

There is no question that the turning points in the life of Nelson Mandela, the times when he went to the mountaintop, required him to make stunningly courageous choices about issues that can only be described in terms of morality and justice, forgiveness and grace, sin and redemption. Where did the content of these decisions — especially his decisions to oppose vengeance and revenge on white oppressors — come from? What was the well from which Mandela was drinking?

Yes, he was a brilliant political figure and a flair for the dramatic. But something else was going on, too.

Meanwhile, what about the many personal valleys along the way?

Out of today’s tsunami of coverage, much of it hagiographic in nature, I thought two pieces stood out in wrestling with this duality. Consider the top of a major news essay at The Daily Beast, which even dares to use the term “sinner,” in large part because the great man himself spoke it.

The headline? “Mandela: The Miracle Maker.”

Nelson Mandela, who died December 5, refused to be thought of as a saint. “I never was one,” he insisted — “even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps trying.”

He wasn’t just being modest. He had a weakness for fine clothes and good-looking women, and he certainly was no pacifist. But a halo was the last thing Mandela needed. He spent half a century wrestling South Africa’s white-minority rulers to the negotiating table, and when he finally got them there, he had to be a hard bargainer, not a holy man.

And yet he worked miracles. … By insisting on looking forward rather than back, Mandela kept the nation from collapsing into a bloody orgy of revenge. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who received the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the fight against apartheid, said it unequivocally to Mandela’s biographer Anthony Sampson: “If this man hadn’t been there, the whole country would have gone up in flames.” No one else — not even Tutu himself — had the moral authority to hold South Africa together.

The question journalists are wrestling with, of course, is this: What was the source and nature of his moral authority?

A sidebar at The Los Angeles Times directly addressed this issue, as well.

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The Methodist roots of Nelson Mandela

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Comrade. Leader. Prisoner. Negotiator. Statesman.

A giant banner outside the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg — which I visited during a 2009 reporting trip to South Africa — uses those terms to describe Nelson Mandela, although many more certainly could be applied.

It’s difficult to overstate the magnitude of Mandela’s life and — from a news perspective — his death Thursday at age 95.

Or, to put the news in a more personal perspective, here’s a tweet from a friend.

Alas, it would be impossible for anyone — not even your brilliant GetReligionistas — to critique all the millions of words written about Mandela just since his passing less than 24 hours ago. But we can take an initial crack at exploring the coverage of the faith angle. First question: What was Mandela’s religious background?

From that United Methodist News Service report:

Throughout his life, Nelson Mandela had many connections to Methodism.

A graduate of a Methodist boarding school where many future African leaders were educated, the anti-apartheid champion was mentored by Methodist preachers and educators and formed a bond with a Methodist chaplain while in prison.

As president of South Africa, he worked with church leaders in shaping a new nation and eventually married Graça Machel, a United Methodist, widow of the former president of Mozambique and an advocate for women’s and children’s rights.

The Gospel Herald suggests that Mandela’s “Christian faith was the bedrock of his extraordinary life legacy.”

Christian Today — not to be confused with Christianity Today, which is mentioned below — reports:

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