June 24, 2013

There was a man bites dog story in the Australian press that caught my eye this week. It was not this story from the Sydney Morning Herald entitled “Man bites dog, goes to hospital” but an article in The Age reporting on reactions to the closure of the US-based ministry Exodus International.

The cynic in me was not expecting much from an article entitled “‘Gay cure‘ therapy will continue”. As my colleagues at GetReligion have pointed out the media has not distinguish itself in its reporting on the Exodus International story. Yet The Age published a story sympathetic to the ex-gay ministries movement and, dare I say it, was perhaps unbalanced in their favor?

Under a photo of the silhouette of two men kissing behind a rainbow flag, the story begins:

Australian religious organisations will continue using homosexual reorientation therapy, despite the closure of a leading US proponent, Exodus International, which has apologised for the “pain and hurt” it caused.

Surprise one — a non-pejorative description “reorientation therapy.” Surprise two follows — a ministry spokesman describes what they do and don’t do.

The Reverend Ron Brookman, the Australian director of Living Waters Ministries and a member of Exodus Global, said the organization had acknowledged damage caused by treating homosexuality as something that could be “cured”.  “We don’t like to call it healing, we call it transformation,” he said. “I minister to a lot of people struggling with same-sex attraction who never budge but we don’t condemn them, we don’t shame them. We stand with them and support them.”

A third surprise follows — The Age gives space to critics of Alan Chambers.

(more…)

November 5, 2012

It’s a question that I always know I will hear after a lecture on the American model of the press and its emphasis on balance, fairness and the need to cover both sides of controversial stories — which requires journalists to find solid, articulate representatives of the arguments on both sides.

Some student will always ask a question that sounds something like this: “OK, but why couldn’t you just interview really dumb, unsympathetic people on one side of the debate and then articulate, smart people on the other side? Then the article would look like it was balanced, but it would really be just as slanted as an article that only quoted one side. In a way, it would be even worse because the dumb voices in the camp that the newspaper opposes would do even more damage to their cause in the long run.”

Case in point: This is what happens when you are covering a demonstration against legalized abortion and the television crews rush right past the rows of women with “I regret my abortion” signs and then film interviews with the loner male protester with a red face and wild eyes who is carrying a “Send the baby killers to jail” sign that has been smeared with what appears to be blood. Then the news crews interview women who calmly argue in favor of abortion rights. It’s a balanced story, right?

If you want to see this technique used with great skill, precision and even nuance, check out this New York Times report: “‘Ex-Gay’ Men Fight Back Against View That Homosexuality Can’t Be Changed.” Here is the summary paragraph, following the anecdotal lede about a believer named Blake Smith:

Mr. Smith is one of thousands of men across the country, often known as “ex-gay,” who believe they have changed their most basic sexual desires through some combination of therapy and prayer — something most scientists say has never been proved possible and is likely an illusion.

Ex-gay men are often closeted, fearing ridicule from gay advocates who accuse them of self-deception and, at the same time, fearing rejection by their church communities as tainted oddities. Here in California, their sense of siege grew more intense in September when Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law banning use of widely discredited sexual “conversion therapies” for minors — an assault on their own validity, some ex-gay men feel.

Signing the measure, Governor Brown repeated the view of the psychiatric establishment and medical groups, saying, “This bill bans nonscientific ‘therapies’ that have driven young people to depression and suicide,” adding that the practices “will now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery.”

But many ex-gays have continued to seek help from such therapists and men’s retreats, saying their own experience is proof enough that the treatment can work.

Central to this article is this question: Is there anyone in the Catholic-Jewish-Protestant mainstream of the so-called “ex-gay” movement (a term that I have heard many movement leaders openly reject) who argues that someone can completely shed all same-sex desires? Most of the people I have interviewed in this camp, over the decades, see human sexuality as a spectrum of complex desires and behaviors — many will cite the Kinsey Scale theory. They argue that it is possible for people to change their behaviors and, eventually, move in the direction of stronger opposite-sex desires.

You can see hints of that stance in this Times articles. What readers never hear, however, are voices that explicitly make a scientific case for that belief. Instead, the “ex-gay” label is applied to everyone, even when the story makes it clear that it does not apply to various camps within this alleged movement. For example, see this passage:

Aaron Bitzer, 35, was so angered by the California ban, which will take effect on Jan. 1, that he went public and became a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the law as unconstitutional. …

Many ex-gays guard their secret but quietly meet in support groups around the country, sharing ideas on how to avoid temptations or, perhaps, broach their past with a female date. Some are trying to save heterosexual marriages. Some, like Mr. Bitzer, hope one day to marry a woman. Some choose celibacy as an improvement over what they regard as a sinful gay life.

Whether they have gone through formal reparative therapy, most ex-gays agree with its tenets, even as they are rejected by mainstream scientists. The theories, which have also been adopted by conservative religious opponents of gay marriage, hold that male homosexuality emerges from family dynamics — often a distant father and an overbearing mother — or from early sexual abuse. Confronting these psychic wounds, they assert, can bring change in sexual desire, if not necessarily a total “cure.”

Then later on, there is this reference to a headline-grabbing dust-up related to this issue:

… This summer, the ex-gay world was convulsed when Alan Chambers, the president of Exodus International, the largest Christian ministry for people fighting same-sex attraction, said he did not believe anyone could be rid of homosexual desires.

This is not really news. Chambers has made similar statements in the past.

Once again, is there someone who argues that it is normative for someone who struggles with same-sex attraction to be totally “rid,” or “healed,” of same-sex temptations? I know there are some out there who make that case, but I have never run into someone making that argument in mainstream Catholic, Jewish or Protestant circles.

I am sure that the editors believed that this article is, if anything, overly fair to the “ex-gay” stance, with many of the “usual suspects” articulating it’s arguments. It’s true that this article goes out of its way to quote some, repeat SOME, of the believers on that side of the aisle. It’s also clear that the Times team heard about (and perhaps even ran into) people who did not fit into a narrow “ex-gay” mold. I also wonder if anyone discussed the serious Constitutional issues involved in this California law’s attempts to limit the rights of parents, when dealing with issues involving sex and religious faith.

What we end up with is another visit with the usual suspects. I guess you have to be willing to imagine that new ground exists in order to find the voices that help a journalist explore it.

June 18, 2014

Finally, someone notices that Christians are suffering and dying in the Middle East. With few exceptions, many western secular media have seemed blind to the rising tide of antagonism and outbursts of violence against believers there. It apparently took the naked aggression of jihadists who have swallowed up much of Iraq’s northern sector to get some attention.

Whether it’s in time is another matter.

Holly Williams of CBS Evening News did a brisk but vivid report on Christians in Bartella, near Mosul, where a militia of 600 has organized after the Iraqi army ran off.

Williams says Christians have inhabited the town for almost 2,000 years, and the residents still pray in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. She deserves some kind of award for even visiting: She ventured to a checkpoint only 50 yards from the front line.

An evocative AP story details the plight of Chaldean Christians in Iraq, interviewing believers from Mosul who have taken refuge in the ancient city of Alqosh:

In leaving, the Christians are emptying out communities that date back to the first centuries of the religion, including Chaldean, Assyrian and Armenian churches. The past week, some 160 Christian families — mosly from Mosul — have fled to Alqosh, mayor Sabri Boutani told The Associated Press, consulting first on the number with his wife by speaking in Chaldean, the ancient language spoken by many residents.

AP writer Diaa Hadid works in historical and cultural details that give us a feel for the long heritage of Christians in a land that is being brutally overrun by Muslim militants. Hadid says that Mosul is the traditional burial site of Jonah, and that Chaldean Christians were trying to celebrate a harvest festival — including a portrait of Pope Francis with white beans on the church floor.

The article distinguishes itself also for its numbers. Documenting population movements is hard in wartime, but Hadid offers some good guesses:

(more…)

October 23, 2013

Let’s start with a few journalistic questions.

Am I surprised that The New York Times has published a story on the possibility that freethinking Egyptians are beginning to flee their troubled nation or, at the very least, to debate whether it is time to do?

No. That’s a perfectly valid news story.

Am I surprised that the team at the world’s most influential newspaper elected to focus this story on political activists, intellectuals, urbanites and artists who fit into the progressive and rather secular mold so popular with journalists from the international press who are based in Cairo?

No. While this is a small percentage of the Egyptian population, this is an essential element in a story on this topic — in large part because of the leadership roles these people played in the secular wing of the Arab spring.

All that said, am I surprised that this timely Times story contains absolutely zero references to a large and imperiled minority in Egypt — 10 percent of the population — that, in the face of deadly violence, is facing a rising tide of questions about its survival after centuries of persecution?

(Cue: Audible sigh.)

Yes, I was surprised that they story does not contain a single reference to the plight of the Coptic Orthodox Christians, along with other members of abused religious minorities in Egypt. Perhaps I should not have been surprised, but I was. (A potential follow-up story: Are Coptic leaders in North America preparing to help their sisters and brothers flee the old country?)

Here is a key chunk of this Times report, which includes a reference to dissident publisher Mohamed Hashem. Try to imagine taking on this topic and, after months of mob violence, not thinking about including the Copts.

Egypt has surrendered citizens to more prosperous countries for generations, unable to provide much hope or opportunity at home. But like Mr. Hashem, many Egyptians who say they are joining a new exodus had been loath to give up on their country; some had postponed the urge to leave, hoping the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 would pave the way to a better life.

Their change of heart signals a dark moment. Many people said they saw no end to the conflict between the military and its Islamist opponents, and no place for those who did not profess loyalty to either one.

Others lamented Egypt’s narrowing political horizons and what seemed like the growing likelihood that a military officer will become Egypt’s next leader. Some people said they were shocked at how cavalier their friends and neighbors had become about the rising level of bloodshed. And for everyone, there was still no relief from the grinding frustrations of daily life, the traffic, the rising prices, the multiplying mounds of trash in the streets.

There is no statistical evidence that more people are emigrating, and the notion remains far from the reach of most Egyptians, reserved for those with the qualifications or connections to find opportunities abroad. In interviews over several days, though, people said their conversations had turned more frequently, and urgently, to leaving; those who considered travel possible were just deciding when.

Please understand. The potential exiles included in this report are interesting and their stories are poignant. They are valid sources.

But is there more to this story than a potential “brain drain” of poets, graphic artists and Internet-economy pioneers?

(more…)

June 14, 2013

David Brooks wrote a very Brooksian column for today’s New York Times about how our culture was more dynamic when there were competing status hierarchies and how our current situation of one hierarchy means that the successful are less haunted by their own status and the less successful have nowhere to hide.

Now, normally we pay no attention to opinion pieces because our concern here at GetReligion is how straight news about religion is reported. But the column included this passage that I had to share:

In Corinthians, Jesus tells the crowds, “Not many of you were wise by worldly standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”

Whoopsie! Not Jesus, but Paul! Brooks has since corrected the column and added a note reflecting the correction at the end. Another correspondent said he disliked the reference to Corinthians, as opposed to 1 Corinthians or 2nd Corinthians (the verses in question here are from the first chapter of 1st Corinthians, verses 26 and 27 and come from the New International Version, for what it’s worth).

Our second example of how to mangle a Scripture reference does come from a straight news report, this time Politico. The story is about how Rep. Mark Sanford spoke at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference, which is for social conservatives:

In the latest stop of Sanford’s comeback tour, he explained that “great moments follow moments of great difficulty.”

Several months ago, Sanford recalled a supporter in the Palmetto State urging him to be more courageous in the spirit of Timothy 1:7. He called it “a pivotal point” in his race.

“You need to seize that verse and operate on it,” he told the activists. “So I would simply ask as you build a movement to make a difference … be of courage.”

Um, what is Timothy 1:7? The Apostle Paul wrote two letters to Timothy. In the first letter, in the first chapter, Paul tells Timothy to encourage people in Ephesus to reject the teaching and practice of false doctrine. The seventh verse is just a snippet of this portion:

Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith, from which some, having strayed, have turned aside to idle talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm.

In the second letter to Timothy, Paul writes with encouragement:

(more…)

December 17, 2012

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CG4bCMCrXg0

It only took 2,000-plus years, but ‘The Bible” is making news.

Seriously, both USA Today and the Wall Street Journal  ran features today on the epic miniseries scheduled to air next year on the History Channel.

From USA Today:

Famed television producer Mark Burnett tackles his projects with passion, but The Bible is a special labor of love.

The 10-hour, five-part docudrama, which premieres March 3 on the History Channel, will span the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, presenting some of its best-known stories, including Noah’s Ark, the Exodus, Daniel in the lions’ den and the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

Former Touched By an Angel star Roma Downey, Burnett’s wife and fellow executive producer, heads a large international cast in the role of Mother Mary. Keith David, an Emmy winner for voice-over performances, will narrate with a musical score by Oscar- and Grammy-winning composer Hans Zimmer.

“In terms of importance, nothing we’ve ever done, not Touched By an Angel, not Survivor, not The Voice, not The Apprentice, none of this could possibly compare toThe Bible,” Burnett says. “To us, as a family, we love the Bible. This is not a TV show to us. It’s images and sound and sacred text that people will still watch, way after our grandchildren are old people.”

USA Today’s relatively short story appeared on the Life section cover and did not jump. Given its brevity, it left me with a number of unanswered questions — including details about Burnett’s faith background and exactly why he loves the Bible.

As this television event draws closer, I’d love to see more reporting — by Godbeat pros or otherwise — on the specific stories chosen, the facts portrayed and the biblical and historical accuracy (or not).

The Wall Street Journal provides a little more insight into Burnett’s motivation, but not much:

Mark Burnett made his name as the power behind such reality-television hits as “Survivor” and, more recently, “The Voice.” Now he is turning his attention to a different kind of TV: biblical.

Mr. Burnett is nearing completion of a 10-hour miniseries, “The Bible,” based on stories like Noah’s Ark and Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Scheduled to air next spring on the History Channel, the series is Mr. Burnett’s first effort in scripted television programming.

It is also a project close to Mr. Burnett’s heart. In the past couple of years the 52-year-old former paratrooper says he has become deeply religious, a transition he credits to Roma Downey, his wife since 2007. “It wasn’t until I met Roma that I truly understood my faith and it’s been a dynamic shift for me,” Mr. Burnett said.

Deeply religious? What exactly does he mean by that? What does he believe? And how does the miniseries reflect his beliefs?

The Journal doesn’t delve into such questions, but it does note:

In recent years Mr. Burnett and Ms. Downey have become friends with celebrity televangelist Joel Osteen, who preaches at a church in Houston that is home to the largest congregation in the U.S. Mr. Osteen is advising Mr. Burnett on the show.

“He’s been to [our church] several times and we come over to their house for dinner and things like that,” Mr. Osteen said.

Despite the short length of its story, USA Today managed to make reference to the Connecticut school massacre:

He hopes the project brings comfort after the Sandy Hook school shootings. “What happened Friday is absolutely the saddest tragedy imaginable,” Burnett says. “Our prayers are with the families and friends. We hope The Bible, by shedding some light into the world, can help in some small way to try and stop the darkness.”

Tell me, GetReligion readers: Does tying this miniseries to the fresh tragedy make the story seem more timely? Or does the reference impress you as a stretch? Or even pandering?

November 27, 2012

Der Spiegel‘s English-language bulletin reports that conservative deputies on the Agricultural Affairs committee of the Bundestag have introduced legislation banning sex with animals. I never knew the farm beat for German reporters was so, so … so edgy?

Let’s pause for a  moment to contemplate the work of government. Courage mon amie … be brave and join me for a look at the article “Germany to Ban Sex with Animals”:

The German government plans to ban zoophilia — sex with animals — as part of an amendment to the country’s animal protection law, but faces a backlash from the country’s zoophile community, estimated to number over 100,000. Zoophilia was legalized in Germany in 1969 and animal protection groups have been lobbying for a ban in a campaign that has been fuelled by heated debate in Internet forums in recent years.

Now the center-right government wants to outlaw using animals “for personal sexual activities or making them available to third parties for sexual activities and thereby forcing them to behave in ways that are inappropriate to their species,” said Hans-Michael Goldmann, chairman of the parliament’s Agricultural Committee. In the future, having sex with an animal could be punished with a fine of up to €25,000 ($32,400).

The article continues with a response from Michael Kiok, who is identified as chairman of zoophile pressure group ZETA (Zoophile Engagement for Tolerance and Information). Mr. Kiok appears to be channeling Harvey Fierstein and one can hear echoes of “I just want to be loved, is that so wrong?” in his arguments.

He argues the new law is unfair telling Spiegel: “We see animals as partners and not as a means of gratification. We don’t force them to do anything.” Mr Kiok goes on to describe his relationship with an “Alsatian called Cessie” and argues that the cruelty animals undergo as they are prepared for slaughter in the meat packing business should be addressed before the police come looking for him. The author rounds out the story with a summary of European laws banning zoophilia — illegal just about everywhere but Denmark — and this scientific nugget:

Sexual research in the 1940s suggested that 5 to 8 percent of men and 3 to 5 percent of women engaged in zoophilia. “That would put the figure in Germany at 1.6 million but that’s definitely too high. Taking a wild guess, I’d say it’s well over 100,000,” said Kiok.

From what I have seen, this legislation appears to follow a February 2012 article in the Frankfurter Rundschau. Its article “Verbot von Sex mit Tieren gefordert” reported on the efforts of an animal welfare office in Hesse to criminalize zoophilia in light of her experiences in working on farms. This story has also been an occasion of journalistic fun — some of the French accounts of this story I have read are a delight. “Wink, wink, nudge, nudge … What can you expect from the Germans.” The Mail and other English newspapers also have fun with this story. The Guardian has the best, most complete story, I’ve seen so far and it is written in a matter of fact tone that attempts to keep a straight face — yet the Minister of Agriculture’s face is prominently plastered a top the story.

The Guardian‘s thorough reporting brings out the information that the zoophilia group, ZETA, has 100 members and gives details about Herr Kiok.

But it is the British tabloid, The Sun who has the best quotes, has the most fun and raises the best question.

Bestiality dropped off the statute books as a crime in 1969 but in recent years incidents of it have mushroomed along with websites promoting it. There are even “erotic zoos” for perverts to visit and abuse animals ranging from llamas to goats. Hans-Michael Goldmann, chairman of the agriculture committee, said the government aimed to forbid using an animal “for individual sexual acts and to outlaw people ‘pimping’ creatures to others for sexual use”.

But pro-zoophilia campaign group ZETA — Zoophiles Commitment to Tolerance and Enlightenment — vowed to challenge any ban on bestiality. Chairman Michael Kiok said: “Mere concepts of morality have no business being law.”

Leave it to the tabloids to be the only forum where issues of ethics and morality are raised in conjunction with this story.

Perhaps this issue is clear there was no need to have an explanation why it is necessary to re-criminalize zoophilia after its having been made legal for 43 years. It is not necessary to explain why Nazi race theory, for example, is repellant and its arguments not disseminated. Yet, I believe Michael Kiok’s assertion that “mere concepts of morality have no business being law” need be addressed.

The Frankfurter Rundschau story raises the issue of mutual consent. Bestiality is wrong because an animal cannot give consent to participation in sexual acts with a human. But should not the ethical and moral tradition that lay behind laws banning bestiality be acknowledged — and perhaps a word or two from an ethicist or moral theologian on why this has always been considered wrong?

In the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) bestiality is a sin. Beginning with the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament passages from  Exodus 22:19, Leviticus 18:23, Leviticus 20:15-16, and Deuteronomy 27:21) the Western religions have held that sexual contact with animals is a form of self-abuse, defiles the body and dishonors God and his creation. It is, to use that wonderfully old fashioned word, an abomination.

While little studied, the current state of medical knowledge classifies zoophilia as an illness. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III R 1987), zoophilia (bestiality) is a mental disorder in which human beings have sexual desires for animals. The DSM-IV, (1994) placed it under the residual classification “paraphilias not otherwise specified”. Paraphilias are inappropriate sexual deviant fantasies and fetishes, such as bestiality, pedophilia, sadomasochism, and other inappropriate forms of sexual thoughts, urges, and actions.

All of which brings me back to Der Spiegel. There is a hesitancy by the German news weekly to say that this is wrong. Is that the business of a newspaper? Should the moral voice be extinguished in modern newspaper reporting? Is Herr Kiok’s argument that morality should not govern law true?

Der Spiegel appears to think so, as it has framed this story in such a way as to remove the moral element. By not providing contrary voices to the Zoophilia activists, the newspaper does not address the issue as to why this conduct should be governed by law. Popular disgust with the practices under consideration might make such arguments appear superfluous, but when Der Spiegel writes from the philosophical presupposition of antinomianism — the rejection of socially established morality — it concedes the argument to the Michael Kioks.

Zoophilia was illegal for centuries. Has been legal for 43 years, and now will be criminalized once again. Why?

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