Pod people: Russell Wilson, ghosts, 10 years of GetReligion

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Let’s do this one backwards.

In a perfect world, the easy way to do mainstream news criticism is to find a really bad example of a problem and then, a few days later, find an example of an equally important news outlet that managed to do the story right.

In this case, we are talking about one of those GetReligion ghosts, a religion angle woven into a major news story — yet missed by reporters and editors working on the story. For the past 10 years, spotting ghosts has been one of the primary duties of your GetReligionistas.

Hours before the Super Bowl, I posted an item praising the ESPN.com team for a feature story about the life, work and faith of Seattle Seahawk quarterback Russell Wilson. Thanks, by the way, to the 20,000-plus readers who passed that post along in social media.

First of all, the creators of this story did the obvious, which is discuss the connections between Wilson’s Christian faith — which he talks about all of the time — and his life on and off the gridiron, focusing on his behind-the-scenes work as a real volunteer in a children’s hospital. That was the easy ghost to spot, one that 99 percent of the people writing profiles of Wilson (and the influence of his late father) manage to see.

However, in addition to that almost non-ghost ghost, the ESPN team went deeper and touched on a more subtle question: How are folks in the highly secular Pacific Northwest, in Seattle the Mecca of the so-called “nones,” handling the fact that this new Seahawk hero is a young, charismatic, African-American evangelical?

Now, I didn’t think ESPN nailed down that angle of the story, but I was impressed that this elite newsroom raised the question and made the attempt.

So three cheers. High fives all around.

As it turns out, that post on the ghosts in the Wilson story was where “Crossroads” podcast host Todd Wilken wanted to start out this week in our conversation. Click here to tune that in.

That’s where we started, but that isn’t where we ended up.

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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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Scoring spiritual points before Super Bowl Sunday

Every year about this time, we face a blitz of profile stories of coaches, athletes, owners, fans and even pets preparing to square off on Super Bowl Sunday (I’m a huge fan of Puppy Bowl, by the way).

The big story in advance of the 2014 human installment: the frigid temperatures and whether or not the Seattle Seahawks vs. Denver Broncos matchup can attract a proper crowd within the confines of New Jersey’s undomed MetLife Stadium.

Second to that, we’re being treated to a lineup of features on the teams, faith angles and other more spiritual sides of the Sunday offering.

Some stories, like some Super Bowl pairings, are better than others.

From the Chicago Tribune comes a winner on Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and his Christian faith:

Seattle’s franchise quarterback is a devout Christian, so fans should hope he doesn’t cut his hair prior to Sunday and lose strength much like Samson in the Old Testament book of Judges. Samson got power from his flowing locks until the temptress Delilah took shears to his dome piece.

(Christianity) has helped Wilson both on and off the football field, and there is no better time than now at the Super Bowl to have faith in what he believes in. Scroll through Wilson’s Twitter page and you will be reminded where his heart and soul reside.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

That was taken from the book of Matthew and perfectly defines Wilson, who has been searching for success in sports and as a human being. The former Wisconsin star takes excerpts from various books of the Bible and uses them in his every day life.

Touchdown, Tribune! A fine example of using Scripture and its application in proper context. We never learn precisely what faith group with which Wilson aligns himself, but we delve more deeply into his beliefs and perspective here than any other report I found.

Not to be outdone, the Denver Post found a creative angle with its piece on Archbishop Samuel Aquila, a fervent Broncos fan who plans to celebrate Mass with a group of players and coaches at the team’s hotel Saturday night.

Aquila has become close to Broncos defensive coordinator Jack DelRio, and the two men are allowed to explain more about their faith journey that developed through the course of this season:

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God, prayer and the winner of the Super Bowl


THIS WEEK, the question doesn’t come from a “Religion Q and A” reader but a headline in The Record, the daily newspaper in the New Jersey county that’s hosting a certain athletic event:

“Does God care who wins the Super Bowl?”

THE GUY (who lives in that county) ANSWERS:

You gotta be kidding.

Spiritual suffering, physical and mental illness, anxiety and loneliness, natural disasters, oppression, wars, terrorism, kidnapping, senseless murders, broken families, kids without dads, homelessness, addiction, materialism, privation, pestilence, prejudice, impossible decisions that must be made, and all manner of other woes and perplexities are abroad in the world. How could the Deity possibly be concerned about the outcome of a mere football game on Feb. 2, no matter how big the TV audience is?

Still. Though such claims of divine attention seem theologically suspect perhaps there’s more to be said about an underlying question: Is it proper to bother God with prayer about life’s trivialities like this? “Religion Q and A” wrestled with a few of the big issues concerning prayer in a Nov. 30, 2013 item, but what do religious figures think we’re supposed to do about “little” prayers?

Personal gridiron prayers are baked into American pop culture. In a January poll for the Public Religion Research Institute, 26 percent of Americans said they’ve prayed to God to help their favorite team, and 19 percent thought God actually plays a role in who wins.

For some reason, football fans report praying more often than those who follow other sports. Fully 48 percent of adults thought “athletes of faith are rewarded with good health and success.” On that question, agreement jumped to nearly two-thirds among white evangelicals and minority Protestants. If that’s automatically the case, the demonstrably devout Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow might be at MetLife Stadium with the Broncos, or might be hoping for future bowl appearances with the Jets or the Patriots, instead of analyzing college games on television.

Atheists smirk at the idea that God cares about who has the most points on the scoreboard. For instance, how might He decide which team to favor? On salon.com, Gary Labyrinthitis commented on prayers for one’s team to win: “There is something basically wrong with God deciding the outcome. It’s illegal to fix sports games … It diminishes the game if the outcome depends on to whom God throws the game. So why do we allow God to get away with it? And doesn’t this call into question God’s sense of fair play and honesty?”

And yet. The God depicted in the Bible is so intent on mundane matters that He numbers “the hairs of your head” (Luke 12:7). The Bible also urges, “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

Everything? Really? Does this cover (actual examples from preachers) a broken toe, lost car keys, or the need for a parking space?

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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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Super Bowl: Ray Lewis is Ray Lewis — deal with it

I have said it before and I will say it again. I know that, as a rule, GetReligion readers care very little about what happens in the world of sports.

Nevertheless, some of you may have heard that there is a rather big football game being played tonight in New Orleans, with the Baltimore Ravens squaring off against the San Francisco 49ers. It’s in all the newspapers.

Some readers may also have heard that a very famous, sure first-ballot Hall of Fame linebacker named Ray Lewis is — after 17 remarkable years — playing his last game for the Ravens.

Now, whether one considers Lewis a kind of urban saint or a man who, literally, got away with being an accessory to murder, this big man is a major figure in American sports. There is no way around this. Click here for a GetReligion post containing all of the basics.

With the Super Bowl looming, ESPN.com summed this all up the other day:

Do you believe in Ray Lewis? Do you embrace the eye black, smeared down both of his cheeks, occasionally mixed with tears? Does your heart pump faster when he dances, feet sliding, biceps bulging? Do you nod and say, “Amen” when he speaks? Do you have your name in his cellphone? There are hundreds in the NFL who do, my friend — rookies, Ravens and even the poor soul he just flattened on the 20-yard line. “I love you,” Ray will tell some of them. And they love him, too. …

Do you see it in his eyes, his passion? Maybe you roll your eyes because Lewis is doing another news conference in designer sunglasses when it’s dark outside. But do you believe? That villains can become heroes? Do you buy into what he’s selling? It’s simple, really. Either you do or you don’t; you’re in or you’re out. … Do you believe in Ray Lewis? Do you believe that a man should be judged at his very worst or his very best?

Now, I know a lot about the sins in Lewis’ past and, in posts here, I have tried to deal with the press coverage of the man’s fiery, if at times vague, faith. After reading a week or two of the “last ride” coverage, I think it is rather obvious that a significant number of reporters simply want the man to shut up — especially about God.

Forget the last pre-game dance. Many are dreading the last post-game sermon.

Well, I want to urge GetReligion readers to pay close attention to the post-game sermon. In particular, I want folks to see whether Lewis is outspoken about the blessings of God if the Ravens win and silent on the blessings of God if they lose.

Personally, I want the Ravens to win, but I rather expect the ’49ers to win (with the key being whoever runs the ball most effectively). So I think we will have a chance to hear Lewis deal with defeat.

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Dang it, that Ravens executive keeps spouting Godtalk

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I get the feeling that many of The Baltimore Sun folks are starting to get tired of the Baltimore Ravens talking about God.

The other day, one of my favorite Sun writers wrote a story about executive O.J. Brigance, a former linebacker who continues to work for the team despite being ravaged by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. His story has often been told, but in a Super Bowl week it is being told again.

Why? Here’s the symbolic detail lede:

He was a mighty presence when the Baltimore Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV, a warrior who busted a wedge to make the first tackle that day and went on to make four more. If current coach John Harbaugh is to be believed, even then he was the toughest man in football.

Today O.J. Brigance has limbs that hang limp, his muscles withered. He can move only his lips and eyes and must use a computer to speak. The team’s director of player engagement is in his fifth year of battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a lethal and incurable illness.

Yet as his second Super Bowl looms, Brigance, 43, appears stronger than ever, and that lifts the title contenders.

“There aren’t enough words to describe what that man means to me and to this team,” punter Sam Koch said. “Just seeing ‘Juice’ here with a smile on his face is inspiring. If I have to choose a word for him, it would be ‘powerful.’”

Now, I am not sure that I have much to say — in terms of negatives — about the content of this story.

Nevertheless, there was a phrase in this piece that kind of rubbed me the wrong way. Yes, it’s linked to Godtalk about the essential faith element that must be included in this story, along with the strength of his marriage.

Why “must” the faith element be included?

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