Two forgiveness stories that are worth your time

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Forgiveness has been making a lot of headlines lately, at least it seems to me.

Pope Francis asked for forgiveness for the evil committed by priests who molested children (for more insight, see George Conger’s post Wednesday). A Louisiana congressman who campaigned on a Christian family values platform requested forgiveness for an extramarital affair.

In Texas, a Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist found “one of the most moving accounts of forgiveness” ever involving a severely wounded victim of the 2009 Fort Hood shooting rampage. In California, the Contra Costa Times reported on the “power of forgiveness” by a burned Oakland teen’s mother.

But I wanted to call special attention to two recent stories on forgiveness.

The first appeared in The Tennessean newspaper and reported on a “lesson in forgiveness” taught by former hostage Terry Waite:

Chained to a basement wall for five years, his only measure of time a mosque’s blaring calls to prayer, Terry Waite didn’t feel particularly close to God.

He’d been kidnapped in 1987, an Anglican envoy and hostage negotiator now himself in need of aid after associates of the Islamic militant group Hezbollah snatched him. His disappearance made daily international news for weeks, then occasionally for years, the irresistible story of a father, peacemaker and man of God whose life was shattered trying to save others.

Every day, as Waite’s muscles deteriorated and his skin grew whiter, he took a piece of bread he’d saved from scant meals, dipped it water and experienced a true communion, mentally traveling to his home country of England, or to Africa, uniting with the worldwide fellowship he’d known. And he said a prayer from his youth that had exceptional meaning now: “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord …”

He’s not a “happy-clappy” Christian, he told a crowd of local pastors and students at a Lipscomb University question-and-answer session this month. And being starved and beaten in that basement, he felt isolated and alone. But faith isn’t dependent on how one is feeling, and Waite never lost it.

Perhaps he’s not happy-clappy, but Waite’s story of forgiveness and his dry wit — he chuckles recounting how he once mistook a Ugandan carjacker for a parking attendant — is resonating with a generation of students who’d never heard of him before.

Read on, and there’s this compelling anecdote:

That Waite could forgive his captors and return to Beirut is incredible, said Kevin Sanders, a Lipscomb student and soldier who fought in the Middle East. Sanders stood up during that Q-and-A with Waite, his voice shaking ever so slightly. “The people in the Middle East — to go back and look them in the eye and forgive them for what they did to you, I wanted to let you know that inspires me,” he told Waite.

In my view, The Tennessean story — at roughly 800 words — was much too short. I found myself at the end much sooner than I would have liked. Still, the piece presented a poignant portrait of Waite and the concept of forgiveness.

On the other hand, the second story I’d like to highlight did not suffer from a space limitation, running close to 2,000 words. In fact, the in-depth report by the CNN Belief Blog is truly exceptional. Given the byline — Tim Townsend, the former St. Louis Post-Dispatch Godbeat pro — that’s probably no surprise.

“Forgiving the unforgivable in Rwanda” is the title of Townsend’s piece.

Forgive me for feeling compelled to copy and paste such a big chunk of the opening:

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Pod people: Local vs. national press on religious liberty

Proposed religious liberty exemptions for wedding vendors — such as bakers, florists and photographers — opposed to same-sex marriage keep making headlines.

Here at GetReligion, we’ve highlighted recent media coverage of a ballot initiative in Oregon and legislation in Kansas (where the Senate, for now, has killed a controversial measure). The Tennessean reported this week on a similar bill failing in Tennessee.

Meanwhile, LifeWay Research released results of a national survey today. LifeWay’s Bob Smietana has the story:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Americans have always had mixed feelings about religious liberty. Most say it’s important, but they don’t always agree how much liberty is enough or too much.

That’s the issue at the heart of the upcoming Supreme Court hearings between Hobby Lobby and the Obama Administration over the HHS contraceptive mandate.

It’s a dispute that is unlikely to go away, no matter what the Supreme Court decides.

American preachers, it turns out, are more than a bit uneasy about religious liberty these days.

A survey from Nashville-based LifeWay Research found seven out of 10 senior pastors at Protestant churches say religious liberty is on the decline in America. About seven in 10 also say Christians have lost or are losing the culture war. The telephone survey of Protestant senior pastors was taken Sept. 4-19, 2013.

Of course, social media such as Twitter are the modern-day water cooler, and the religious liberty issue inspired an interesting discussion Wednesday between two of Religion News Service’s national correspondents: Sarah Pulliam Bailey (of former GetReligionista fame) and Cathy Grossman (who has blogged on the “values tug-of-war”).

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It’s 5 o’clock somewhere: hymns and happy hour?

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“Beer with Jesus” might have fallen off the country music charts, but the trend has legs — er, foam — apparently.

You may remember the other half of our resident husband-wife team, GetReligionista Bobby Ross Jr., writing a post in November on the subject.  In summary, he looked at reports on churches offering services in pubs and bars and the successes and failures in each.

We have a new twist to the story now, and it comes to us from the country music capital of the world, Nashville Tenn. It also involves music, but not of the hometown variety.

The Tennessean invites us to pull up a barstool and join the Beer and Hymn Sing Group in this report:

They don’t talk doctrine. There’s no prayer or Bible study.

Once a quarter, they pack the dark upstairs bar at MadDonna’s in East Nashville to sing centuries-old favorites. The last one kicked off with “Amazing Grace,” ended with “Go Now in Peace” and featured classics such as “How Great Thou Art” in between.

The organizer, Geoff Little, said he got the idea from seeing soccer fans in London and Dublin pubs switch seamlessly from singing fight songs to singing “Be Thou My Vision.” He believed it would be a way to draw Generation X and Y friends to a religious gathering outside the classic venues for those.

“Why was Christ’s first miracle to be the ultimate bartender? Jesus was interested in celebration,” said Little, a member of Downtown Presbyterian Church. “We separate being human from being spiritual all too easily in Nashville.”

This story isn’t just throwing one back with the regulars. It does justice to all sides, including religious experts, historians and visitors who drink nothing stronger than Diet Coke. We’re also invited to explore the Bible for Scripture related to drinking and consider the temptations of excess imbibing.

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Godbeat losing one of its best and brightest

Usually, we critique religion news here at GetReligion.

Occasionally, we report on significant developments on the Godbeat.

This is one of those times, although — as lightning fast as news travels in the social media age — many of you probably already heard this.

Bob Smietana, a regular GetReligion reader and commenter and the award-winning religion writer at The Tennessean, is leaving the secular news business.

Here’s the note that Lisa Green, Bob’s editor, sent to the staff:

He’s covered snake-handling preachers and mosque arson, lawbreaking charities and babies named Messiah. He’s introduced us to the guy who quit his job over 666 and the clergyman who says God doesn’t care if you smoke weed. And now I’m sad to announce that Bob Smietana will be leaving The Tennessean and taking his talents elsewhere. Bob has been our religion writer since 2007 and has been racking up awards all the way through – claiming first place just last month in the Tennessee Press Association contest for both feature writing (the snake handlers story) and best personal column, for his first-person account of his battle with diabetes. He has broken news both locally and nationally with his key connections on a passion-topic beat. He’ll be going across the railroad tracks to LifeWay, where he will be writing about research on church and cultural trends for Facts and Trends magazine. His last day with us will be Aug. 30. Please join me in wishing Bob well. We will miss him greatly. – Lisa Green

The snake-handling story drew praise from GetReligion, as did the diabetes column and a host of other Smietana bylines.

Bob’s impact on religion news has extended far beyond Nashville, as many of his stories have found a way to USA Today — also owned by Gannett — and Religion News Service, giving his work a strong national presence.

Bob shared his thinking with me:

It’s a big move. The reasons are mostly personal. Journalism is 24/7 right now and I can’t give it all my attention.

Being a husband and dad is my first priority. Am (I am) also excited about writing about religion research — am intrigued by sociology of religion.

Plus, (Ed) Stetzer and LifeWay Research do good work — respected by secular news pubs.

I personally consider Bob a friend, although he and I have sparred occasionally on this website. A time or two, we even have found it necessary to apologize to each other “off camera.” I attribute our few disagreements to the passion that we share for quality journalism and religion news.

Bob’s departure comes on the heels of USA Today religion writer Cathy Lynn Grossman taking a buyout earlier this year. If USA Today has hired a new religion writer, I have not heard about it.

And now Smietana’s impending departure leaves a big hole at The Tennessean — a newspaper that serves a city some refer to as the “buckle of the Bible Belt.”

Stay tuned.

Agnus Dei: Presbyterian hymnal fight makes news

Before we look at a news story from The Tennessean, a little background. Last week I read a fascinating piece in First Things about a particular kerfuffle in one denomination’s hymnal development. It began:

In his 1934 book, The Kingdom of God in America, H. Richard Niebuhr depicted the creed of liberal Protestant theology, which was called “modernism” in those days, in these famous words: “A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Niebuhr was no fundamentalist, but he knew what he was talking about. So did Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he named the kind of mainline religion he encountered in 1930s America: Protestantismus ohne Reformation, “Protestantism without the Reformation.”

Sin, judgment, cross, even Christ have become problematic terms in much contemporary theological discourse, but nothing so irritates and confounds as the idea of divine wrath. Recently, the wrath of God became a point of controversy in the decision of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song to exclude from its new hymnal the much-loved song “In Christ Alone” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend.  The Committee wanted to include this song because it is being sung in many churches, Presbyterian and otherwise, but they could not abide this line from the third stanza: “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied.” For this they wanted to substitute: “…as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.” The authors of the hymn insisted on the original wording, and the Committee voted nine to six that “In Christ Alone” would not be among the eight hundred or so items in their new hymnal.

What followed was a fascinating discussion of atonement theories and God’s love, featuring Protestants, Pope Benedict XVI and church fathers alike.

You could also read about this hymnal debate in Christianity Today and throughout the Christian press and blogosphere. It was huge news and a major point of discussion.

Everywhere, that is, except for in the mainstream media.

The thing is, as anyone who regularly worships God with the aid of a hymnal can tell you, liturgy and song are major issues. They define our relationship to God and our understanding of hymn. They convey the doctrine of the church with amazing efficacy. Martin Luther called music theology’s handmaiden. One of the most exciting stories of my church body’s recent history was the assembly, production and widespread acceptance of our latest hymnal, Lutheran Service Book “proclaiming the Good News of forgiveness, life, and salvation; celebrating Christ and all His benefits; giving voice to the people’s thanksgiving and praise”). Even if my church body’s worship wars aren’t quite as dramatic as other denominations, developing a hymnal used by millions is no small feat. I know a little bit about that story and it involved some hard-fought battles over theology and practice.

Some readers had noted the lack of mainstream media discussion about an interesting story from the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s hymnal development project. And it is interesting that 100% of all stories related to anything involving same-sex attraction are greenlighted for the front page of metro dailies (or so it seems) while a really interesting theological debate isn’t even covered.

So major props to The Tennessean for not just reporting the story but adding some helpful depth to it as well. It begins:

Fans of a beloved Christian hymn won’t get any satisfaction in a new church hymnal.

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A top-notch profile of Baptist ethicist, with a few caveats

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I really liked Tennessean Godbeat pro Bob Smietana’s profile last year of Richard Land, then the embattled president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. But what did I think of this week’s sequel?

Hey, good news: I really liked it, too.

I’m referring, of course, to Smietana’s story on Russell Moore, Land’s successor.

The opening sentence is fantastic:

Russell Moore, the new chief ethicist for the Southern Baptist Convention, has Jesus in his heart, Wendell Berry on his bookshelf and Merle Haggard on his iPod.

Did you catch how much information — and insight — Smietana packed into those first 27 words? That’s a really nice lede, one of the best I’ve read in a while.

The opening continues:

His first few weeks in office have been a kind of baptism by fire.

The 41-year-old Moore took over as president of the Nashville-based Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission on June 1, just as prominent Southern Baptists were calling for a boycott of the Boy Scouts. Then came the Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, which landed Moore in the spotlight as an opponent of same-sex marriage.

In between, he’s been meeting with pastors and politicians about immigration reform, all while keeping up a lively feed on Twitter. Moore, a native of Biloxi, Miss., and former seminary dean, is having the time of his life.

“A friend of mine called me ‘giddy,’ ” Moore said. “I don’t think I am giddy. But I am happy.”

That summary does an excellent job of introducing Moore to the average reader and making it clear why he’s a newsmaker worthy of a major newspaper profile.

By way of constructive criticism, a couple of phrases — “baptism by fire” and “time of his life” — struck me as cliche, as did a “rising star” reference later in the story. I wish the editor had highlighted those phrases and asked the reporter for fresher terminology. Then again, maybe I got spoiled by the high bar for creative writing set at the very beginning.

Later in the piece, Smietana describes Moore this way:

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So, what do Southern Baptists have to do to get some ink?

A couple of years ago the Southern Baptist Convention explored the option of changing their name to better reflect the national and international nature of the denomination. I thought at the time that it might be helpful to change the name to the “The Episcopal Church” so that the national news media would finally acknowledge the massive SBC’s existence.

Well, tmatt once offered some helpful theories for explaining why Episcopalians get so much ink by the elite press, but I’ve yet to hear a reasonable explanation why America’s largest non-Catholic flock is all but ignored.

A prime example is a story that has — so far — only been picked up by one mainstream media organization, The Tennessean in Nashville, the city in which the SBC headquarters is located:

Two Southern Baptist leaders said Monday that they reject conspiracy theories that the U.S. military will punish Christian soldiers who share their faith.

But they are worried about religious freedom in the military.

Kevin Ezell, head of the Baptist’s North American Mission Board, which endorses military chaplains, and Russell Moore, president-elect of the Nashville-based Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, issued a statement Monday about religious freedom in the military.

The full statement (which can be found at the Baptist Press news site) offers a number of hooks for reporters who are late writing about the story that was discussed in churches and on military bases across the country.

The fact that such sober-minded, media-friendly and thoughtful Baptist leaders as Kevin Ezell, president of the SBC’s North American Mission Board, and Russell Moore, president-elect of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, felt compelled to write about this issue is a signal that there’s a story out there that needs some calm, nuanced, informed reporting.

What, for instance, are the conspiracy theories they’re attempting to debunk?

If you’ve been following Smietana at The Tennessean you’d know.

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Media treatment of Mikey Weinstein under scrutiny

Earlier today I mentioned some questions I have about this crazy “court-martial” story that blew up this week. The post is headlined “I share, you evangelize, they proselytize,” in reference to GetReligion reader Will Linden’s saying about how the same action can be described in different ways.

Much of the media coverage has been devoted to tamping down conservative Christian concern about whether Christians in the military will be court-martialed for sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with fellow soldiers. And that’s a good thing, since the story was clearly overblown and mishandled.

I was reading Ed Stetzer’s piece “Some Thoughts on the Newest Christian Concern: Court-Martials for Evangelism,” in which he goes after Christians for hyping the story (and while we’re at it, here’s a great Warren Throckmorton piece with quotes from the actual regulations). The comments to his post were instructive, though. For instance:

I know I for one was in an uproar when I read the story on Breitbart, but not simply because I feared that our men and women in uniform could be facing court martial for being Christian and sharing their Christian faith. My indignation was over the administration’s willingness, and apparent desire, to bring in Mikey Weinstein as some sort of special advisor on the issue–a man who seemingly makes no bones about calling Christians who share their faith “monsters” and associating us with rapists. My contempt for this policy (and I’ll admit that I, too, rushed to judgment) was not simply about the policy itself, but the fact that Weinstein, among others, was brought in to advise the administration on this policy. He can call it freedom from religious persecution all he wants, but how can he justify advocating such a thing when he is clearly so hostile toward men and women like you and me–men and women who desire to see people come to Christ and experience the gift of salvation from sin and death that He offers to each and everyone of us.

and

I appreciate your desire to be the voice of calm and reason, but I’m not reading much in your post that re-instills my faith in the pure motives and direction of this administration. Their apparent willingness to meet with the character in the Breitbart report does nothing but build legitimate suspicion, especially when all of their other priorities are taken into account.

I definitely think tamping down Christian concern by reporting this story fairly is a great journalistic service, as The Tennessean did here. But I do wonder if reporters are missing this other huge angle: that Mikey Weinstein is a player in this story!

It might be worth noting that religion reporters have different types of sources. Compare how a source such as the Jesuit Father Thomas Reese is portrayed with how a source such as Pamela Geller is. What’s tricky about Weinstein is that he has a little bit of both attributes. Reporters love Reese because he is great at making journalists’ jobs easier. He’s always good for a helpful quote and he makes himself available to reporters. He is genuinely helpful and speaks in a quotable manner. It’s great. Geller is treated less favorably for many reasons, but her extreme rhetoric when talking about Islam plays a major role in that treatment.

Weinstein is great with public relations like Reese is — he makes himself nothing if not available to reporters and he pushes out hot-button stories on the religion beat. He (Weinstein) also speaks in the Geller manner about Christians and yet, unlike her, he gets used as a source and is treated neutrally or favorably by the media.

Back to the Religion News Service story we discussed earlier, it mentions that the controversy arose after Weinstein, the head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, met with Pentagon officials:

Weinstein is known for his inflammatory rhetoric about religious believers and Christians in particular, and he didn’t disappoint this time: he told The Washington Post after the April 23 meeting that proselytizing in the military is akin to “spiritual rape,” among other things.

It’s good that the “inflammatory rhetoric” is mentioned but it might understate things.

National Review Online published a piece where author David French also disputes the court-martialing for evangelicals aspect of the story, saying he’s “not aware of any immediate or pending change in Pentagon policies regarding religious liberty.” However, he’s deeply concerned about the military’s involvement with Weinstein. In an article headlined “Are Military Leaders and the MSM Embracing an Anti-Christian Extremist?,” he quotes a handful of comments made by Weinstein. The first example:

Our Pentagon has been turned into a Pentacostalgon, and our DOD has been turned into an imperialist, fascistic contagion of unconstitutional triumphalism by people that want to kill us – or have their version of Jesus kill us if we don’t accept their Biblical world view.

He provides four other similar, but somehow much worse, comments (seriously, you must read them, they’re amazing) and adds:

I’m sorry, but these are just ravings. And he met with generals? And the Washington Post, CNN, ABC News and others treats him as a serious commentator on faith in the military? Substitute “Muslim” for “Christian” in any of these comments and the brass wouldn’t let him darken the Pentagon’s doors. Sally Quinn might write about him, but only as a Terry Jones–like threat to peace, as the fanatical equivalent of a Koran-burner.

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