The worst religion story of the year

The worst religion story of the year August 2, 2013

While struggling to find words to adequately describe the worst religion article of the year, I was reminded of a brilliant exchange in an otherwise atrocious movie, Billy Madison.

Principal: Mr. Madison, what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

Billy Madison: Okay, a simple “wrong” would’ve done just fine.

While I’m sure I’m now dumber for having read the Daily News article, “Southern Baptists about to ‘plant’ a church in the fertile soil of Brooklyn,” I won’t say that it’s insanely idiotic or that it contains no rational thought. Instead, I’ll follow the lead of Billy Madison and simply say it’s wrong – wrong on almost every conceivable level. From the captions to the quotes, this article sets a new low in local religion reporting.

Like Alex Haley, I try to find the good and praise it. However, for this feature I had to settle for finding the least worst thing to praise: The headline is not as bad as it could have been. Yes, they put unnecessary scare quotes around “plant.” But they could have also put them around “Southern” or “fertile soil” too. So there’s that.

Then there is the photo caption placed below an image of a young family smiling and standing in front of the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center:

Southern Baptist proselytizers Jon and Bonnie Carr, and their two kids, Kayla and Emily love Jesus, but they also love New York, enjoying our parks and our pizza.

Carter’s Law of Religious Labels states, “Use a religious label a person would use to describe themselves and avoid using ones they would not.” Although it has not been written into the federal code or added to the AP stylebook (at least not yet), I think it is a rule that most journalists intuitively understand and apply. I’m not a betting man (I too am Southern Baptist and we’re not allowed to gamble) but if I were, I’d bet the Carrs have never in their life described themselves as “proselytizers.” In fact, I would double-down and bet that the three times the article uses that term (seriously, three times) is probably the first time the word has been applied to the Carr’s evangelistic efforts.

And that is only the second worst photo caption in the article.

The first is under an odd image of a man pressing his hands together:

Baptists are praying for us.

Wait, who is the “us” referring to? New Yorkers? Residents of Brooklyn? The people of “Gomorrah on the Hudson”? (Yes, the article actually uses that phrase in reference to New York City.)

By this point you may wish not to continue. I completely understand. So before we get to the actual text — the part with the actual reporting — I should warn you of what to expect. Imagine a parody article like you’d find in the The Onion, only without the wit, humor, satire, or intelligence. But also a straight-news story and not a parody. In a (sorta) real newspaper. That makes you feel dumber for having read it.

Okay, you’ve been warned. Here goes:

God’s paratroopers are about to land in Kensington.

Metro City Church — a new Southern Baptist group that originally hails from Georgia — has identified the neighborhood of rowhouses as perfect soil in which to “plant” a new tree of the Lord.

And these holy rollers aren’t thinking small.

Holy rolling paratrooper gardeners for Jesus. And that’s just in the first three sentences.

To put that first line in context – assuming it was intended to have some actual context – I should note that some people in church planting circles do use the mixed metaphor of “parachute drop” church planting model. But a paratrooper, a term for a military parachutist, and a parachute drop are not the same thing at all. Why make a mangled metaphor even worse by making it unnecessarily militaristic?

Also, as Ed Stetzer explains, “Church planting is about planting the gospel.” It is not, as the Daily News seems to think, about planting a “new tree of the Lord.” (If the Lord wants a new tree to grow in Brooklyn, he’ll probably plant it himself.)

And finally, “holy roller” is a pejorative term for Pentecostal denominations and is not really applicable to Southern Baptists. The Daily News doesn’t even seem to know enough about Christianity to use disparaging terminology that is denominationally appropriate.

“As we meet people who are interested in the church, we’ll start gathering new members and holding regular worship services,” Carr, who is in his mid-30s, said in a slight southern drawl. “It’s a great community with lots of young families.”

A great community? Brooklyn? The most-populous part of supposedly godless New York? Believe it or not, this fish out of holy water loves it here.

Keep in mind that the incredulous tone at hearing Brooklyn described as a “great community” is by a reporter whose job it is to cover local news for Brooklyn, and the article appears in the section of the paper devoted to coverage of Brooklyn. The insults about the South (those are coming) would be more offensive if the article didn’t go out of its way to offend just about everyone, including its core audience.

There are parts of the article, though, where it’s hard to discern who should be most offended. Take, for instance, the part about “fish out of holy water.” Who should be offended by that turn of phrase? Baptists, since they don’t actually use “holy water”, Catholics, because they do, or English majors who break out in hives after reading that mash-up of trite idiom and Tom Friedman-style mixed metaphor?

“We fell in love with New York,” Carr said. “My heart broke for a city that is so vibrant and diverse, but lacks an evangelical presence.”

Mostly, he loves the challenge of proselytizing in the big city — in an age when most churches have fled urban environments for more suburban settings.

In other words, Brooklyn, they come in peace.

Yes, Brooklyn, like aliens from Mars, the holy rolling paratrooper gardeners for Jesus “come in peace.”

In between all its missionary work, the family has had plenty of time to get to know Gomorrah on the Hudson. The blog has pictures of them checking out the tree in Rockefeller Center and celebrating the diversity of pizza options that are a far cry from Dixie.

See? And you thought I was kidding about that “Gomorrah on the Hudson” comment.

But the article saves the best for last:

In religiously diverse Kensington, reactions were mixed.

“He should go back down south,” said Rose Ann Lozinski, a Catholic. “We believe in everybody getting along here. I’ve been down south and seen how they treat certain groups of people. I have no great love for the south. I don’t think they’ve ever come together after the Civil War.”

Another resident, Peter Hallsworth, 36, said he has no patience for proselytizers.
If someone tried to convert him, he said, “I’d say I have something on the stove,” and walk away.

Out of the 2.5 million people living in Brooklyn, one of the most diverse areas of the country, the Daily News decided that these were the two people who could provide the most representative quotes for their community?

Whether or not they are representative of Brooklynites, they are certainly intriguing. Indeed, I’d much rather just read an entire article where Ms. Lozinski and Mr. Hallsworth answer questions. Who wouldn’t love to hear what Ms. Lozinski thinks about her former U.S. senator and reverse carpetbagger from Arkanas, Hillary Clinton? And I’d love to ask Mr. Hallsworth why he’s out walking around, potentially bumping into proselytizers, when he has something cooking on the stove. Also, I’d be curious to hear why Lozinski is identified by religion and Hallsworth by age. (Or maybe “36” is some sort of obscure minority religion found only in “religiously diverse Kensington.”)

Someone should also let those folks know that the Carrs are not the first Southern Baptists to venture into the godless wilds of Brooklyn, nor are they the first church plant in New York City. There are already at least 30 Southern Baptist churches in the bourough, an average of one for every three square miles. And GetReligion’s own Bobby Ross, Jr. was reporting on the church planting in New York trend back in 2006.

This is such bad reporting the paper ought to have to return one of their ten Pulitzer Prizes as penance. The stale topic, clichéd writing, condescending editorializing, and insulting caricatures combine to make this the worst religion reporting of the year. That’s quite an ignominious feat. So congratulations, Daily News. You may only be the fourth most widely circulated daily newspaper in America, but when it comes to horrendous religion reporting, you’re number one.

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29 responses to “The worst religion story of the year”

  1. This will also be the worst religion story of next year.

    And don’t insult Tom Friedman. 😉 “fish out of holy water” is a Dan Brownism if I ever heard one.

  2. This story is so bad I literally felt painful and embarrassed for the reporter while reading it yesterday. I looked around and around on the site where it was, wondering if I’d stumbled into a satire section without realizing it, questioning my own sanity / powers of comprehension; and then slowly realized that it really was just actually this bad.

  3. I’m calling dibs on “The holy roller paratrooper gardeners for Jesus” I think that’s the best band name I’ve ever heard. The article even provided the name of our debut C.D. “I Come In Peace.” We can do like a paratrooper gear look with a full face gas mask, holding up one hand in a fear not type of position. I just had to get that out of my system. Sorry. Carry on.

  4. Golly, the Daily News can’t get anything right in this article.

    It’s “Sodom by the Sea”, not “Gomorrah on the Hudson”. The charm is in the alliteration.


    • I think San Francisco is “Sodom by the Sea”. I did find the “fish out of holy water” line funny. It would have been better used about a priest, of course.
      Seriously, have “most churches” really the city? In addition to the traditional churches that might still be there, I keep reading that evangelical churches are making serious progress. Redeemer Presbyterian, anyone?
      So was Spiderman’s Daily Bugle modelled on the Daily News?

        • When I lived there in the 60’s it was Baghdad By the Bay. It may have been coined by Emperor Norton.

      • Hey, don’t insult “The Daily Bugle” – J. Jonah Jameson would never have permitted a story like this to hit the presses! 🙂

        Joe, “worst religion story of the year”? It’s only August, plenty of time left – and just wait for the usual pre-Christmas “Jesus was born anytime between 5 B.C.E. to some unspecified date afterwards, there weren’t three wise men, there was no star/the star was a planetary conjunction, Mary wasn’t a virgin, and Joseph was/was not the genetic father”, not to mention “The writers of the Gospels just threw all that Messiah stuff in decades later, besides lifting myths of gods fathering sons on mortal women wholesale when Christianity was taking off, because they wanted their founder to be a god like the heroes and deities of the other Mediterranean cultures around them”.

  5. That poor reporter got stuck with a BS fluff piece about evangelical Christians moving into ‘the big, bad city.’ For these ‘human interest’ pieces, the traditional lines of journalism are a lot more grey and the author wasn’t attempting to be ‘accurate.’ Who cares if a few Christians move in and make some waves? They’ll be running for the suburbs in six months. In fact, I’d say the article probably conveys the feelings of most of the community they are planting in: fix my walls, but shut up about Jesus.

  6. As a former NAMB missionary in Chicago (from Seattle), I think there is great confusion in the north regarding the name continued use of ‘Southern,’ by Great Commission Baptists. The fact that the SBC has been active in New York since the 1950’s and has hundreds of congregations in the State is easy to overlook, but a good journalist wouldn’t have. Not to mention the fact that there have been Baptist Churches in New York since the early 1800’s. Thank you for playing into media stereotypes New York Daily News. Then again, I hopped ship to the Baptist General Conference and there hasn’t been much confusion ever since.

    • Baptist General Conference? I thought it was Converge Worldwide. I’m confused. 😉

    • It is sad how the modifier “Southern” has somehow become a dirty word. I think because among the Protestants it is the largest denomination it is simply the biggest target. For the most part Baptists have for most of the prior century had a rep mainly for being “agin” things: agin booze, gambling on horses or lotteries, agin gays, agin elective unrestricted abortions.
      The Catholic church is for many folks still an “ethnic” church. If you criticize it you are likely going to be labeled some type of KKK nativist type revealing your bias against Italian, Mexican immigrants or Irish folks.

  7. It was awful, but I do have one comment. “Plant” being used to describe starting a new church community is not well known. I only know what it means from reading religion blogs. I’m Catholic and don’t like what is happening to words we have used for centuries – like “scandal”. But the world moves on; we cannot expect the public to get special uses of common words; and probably 95% of US citizens have never heard about “church planting”.

    • I’m used to seeing the word when a new Episcopal or Anglican congregation is established.

  8. I have been to New York, and lived in Boston. I now live in the south. The people of the northeast are rude and provincial. They are so busy looking down on people in the south that they fail to see themselves as the narrow minded people that they really are. I would rather live in any city in the South than in any city in the Northeast. I would not live in New York if you gave me the place. I have been to Paris, London, Rome, Berlin and most large Western European cities. The last time that I was in New York, I was amazed how dirty and garbage filled it was and how rude the people were. Even the people of Chicago, which is a beautiful city, are more polite and friendly than the arrogant people of New York.

    • My wife is a thorough-going Long Islander, I’ma Texan and our 3 girls were born in Texas (oldest 2) and Louisiana (baby). NY area will never have any type of big southern metro “mega church” but that is not a bad thing. The church where my wife grew up is quite small. I liken it to the bar in Cheers where everybody knows your name.

    • I grew up on Long Island, the south shore, near Babylon and Massapequa, and worked in “The Big Apple” for decades. Moved to Oregon the first chance we had. Enjoyed going to the theater in NYC. The rest is dreck. We have the Oregon Shakespear festivel near us now and about 6-7 smaller theaters where Broadway shows are done. No reason to return to NYC now. The water and air are great except when the forests are burning becuase the tree huggers will not them be thinned out.

  9. We were married in a Baptist church on Long Island. It was CBCA affiliated not SBC. How many folks even know who Roger Williams was and where the very FIRST Baptist church was started?

  10. I was taught as a journalist that you write with the language your audience understands. Brooklyn is heavily Jewish; the Jewish term for evangelism is proselytization. Even Jesus used this term. Not to stereotype or anything, but the author’s last name is Goldstein. But, so what? If a South Korean family established a church in Brooklyn, it would be absurd to describe them using Korean words.

    I get church plants in my community, too, and frankly I’ve no desire to attend one. Not because I have something on the stove, but because the leaders tend to be culturally tone deaf. The fact is, the northern and western parts of America are so much different from the South that, as Carter observes, they don’t even use the same language. If you spent all your time, as Carter does, belittling the locals for their unwillingness to embrace YOUR culture, your church plant is destined to fail.

    This is why I’m personally more in favor of Timothy ministries, where you put a local person in charge who understands the cultural nuances.

  11. I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said in your review. It IS a fair assessment. However, it’s also only fair to point out that in writing this public review, it would appear you have compartmentalized your “religion” by removing your “ambassador for Christ” hat and putting on your “media review” hat. Does his last name exclude him from an eligibility for a saving knowledge of Jesus? Based on his lack of familiarity with our Christian lingo, it would appear he likely does not know Christ. How do you suppose he feels about Jesus now that he’s been publicly chastised and raked over the coals by one of Christ’s representatives? Of course, you can yell “Jesus Juke” and that’s fine. Go ahead and berate me if you like, I know Jesus. But, at the end of the day, apparently somebody else’s job of sharing the Good News of Jesus with this reporter just got way harder! Way to go…

  12. Good grief lighten up. It was an admittedly poorly written piece but surely its not all that big a deal. I’ve seen a lot worse.

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