Earlier this week, a reader sent us a "slightly alarmist" piece from The Atlantic on a Christian sect driving Africa. Can you guess what might be "The Upstart Christian Sect Driving Invisible Children"? Wait for it: the emerging church. That's right. The movement that no one is talking about anymore.
I asked Tony Jones what he thought of the piece, given that he has been one of the leaders of the Emergent Church Village, and he had some strong words.
I read the Atlantic piece on KONY and the emerging church, and I was dumbfounded. Firstly, I found the article nearly indecipherable. But even more troubling was the supposed connection between Invisible Children and the emergent church movement is ludicrous. But then, when the reporter referred to Mark Driscoll as a liberal, we all knew that he had no idea what he was writing about. That should be enough for the Atlantic to take the article off their website, and fire the editor who greenlighted it.
Why does Jones feel so strongly about this piece? Walk with me through bits and pieces to find out why it's such bad journalism.
For Jason Russell, co-founder of Invisible Children, stumbling into Uganda's one-time civil war wasn't an accident; it was a divine calling.
While the rest of the world laughs at or ponders the psych ward-ridden creator of Kony 2012, the unlikely Internet video sensation that brought both himself and a vicious Ugandan rebel instant and overwhelming fame, the mystery of his inspiration and success only grows more curious.
Who is this man? Is he crazy? What drives him? Russell summed it up in two hesitant words -- Jesus Christ.
Who in the world is laughing at a man in a psych ward? Other than the reporter who wrote this piece, that is?
"I can't do it without that faith," he said, calling Jesus the "ultimate storyteller." Excitement rushed through his voice. "If I thought I was doing it myself, it would feel myopic."
Behind the origins and success of Kony 2012 is an eclectic and powerful network of Christian activists, traditionally dominated by the Christian right, that has at times brought mass attention, almost single-handedly, to some of Africa's worst and most ignored conflicts, from South Sudan to the Nuba Mountains, Darfur to the Lord's Resistance Army.
Who says a Christian activists in Africa are dominated by "the Christian right" (and what does "Christian right" even mean outside of the context of American politics)?
The group is a product, and perhaps the most successful manifestation of, a little-known, ultra-liberal, and highly controversial post-Evangelical Christian movement known as the Emerging Church.
Like more traditional evangelic organizations, Invisible Children is out to spread the gospel. But they are not out just for Africa.
What is an "evangelic" organization? The emerging church network still exists, but Jones says that it's a shell of its former self. How is it currently controversial? And how, exactly, is Invisible Children out to spread the gospel? I don't see them talking about Jesus or anything associated with the gospel, but am I missing something?
No doubt, Russell is evangelic, but he and Invisible Children are spreading the gospel in the Emerging Church style. No Bibles, but movies. Instead of telling us what to believe, silently, secretly pulling our consciences towards Jesus.
"America has wrapped itself around the cross, and that is blasphemy," Russell told me. "Our point is, let humanity be the identity; then just join with humanity."
Why does the reporter keep using the word "evangelic"? How is this movement secretly pulling our consciences towards Jesus again? What does Russell's quote even mean? It's also ironic that the reporter brings up again and again how Invisible Children says it's not a religious organization. It's like the reporter was mumbling "Yeah right!" when he portrays it exactly the opposite because "A week later, that [religious] question on the FAQ page had been deleted outright." Watch for the secrets, people!
Russell's Christian upbringing focused as much on faith as an experience as it did on faith as a belief. It was a time when a generation of young believers who "crave spirituality but feel disconnected," as a local newspaper article put it, began moving towards something different. It didn't have an address, but people threw around the name Emerging Church.
Ah ha! People threw around the name emerging church during Russell's Christian upbringing. So that's where the connection to the emerging church comes in? Is there any solid evidence Russell was ever formally connected to the movement?
Brian McLaren and Donald Miller are two authors and Christian theologians closely associated with the Emerging Church movement in the United States. McLaren was once named one of the most influential evangelicals in America by Time. Miller sits on an Obama White House taskforce on family values.
Two things: Donald Miller has never self-identified with the emerging movement. Also, is he still on the Obama taskforce? I thought those rotated by year. Anyway, the best part of the piece comes right here:
Contemporary institutional religion, as opposed to "redemption," is "the most disgusting false gospel in the world!" Pastor Mark Driscoll, who identifies himself as an Emerging Liberal, declared in a sermon on YouTube. "Religious people are the ones murdering Jesus."
Anybody who knows anything about Mark Driscoll knows that he could not be considered an Emerging Liberal in the sense that this reporter is describing him. The Atlantic should fix the description and update the story with a correction. The idea is completely laughable, considering Driscoll would probably see himself as pretty much the opposite of that description. See the above video at about minute 5 to see how Driscoll really feels about the emerging church. The article's photo of Driscoll angrily pointing illustrates ...what again?
There's also a part where the reporter brings in that supposedly scary organization in DC called The Fellowship because they also do work in Africa. The leaps the reporter makes are pretty amazing: Christian founder>Christian movement>other Christian leaders>other Christian groups in Africa>Uganda's homosexuality bill. I won't go into all the Uganda homosexuality bill details, but it's safe to say that the reporter is making crazy leaps and painting sweeping pictures of Christian involvement in Africa.
I actually laughed at this line:
Evangelists fly to Uganda regularly, holding mass prayer sessions with blind, broken-limbed, or AIDS-afflicted Africans. They pass out bibles and political advice.
Today we retweeted this line from an AP stylebook satirical Twitter feed:
@FakeAPStylebook: Always capitalize "Bible." You don't want to get letters from those people.
And then the article includes these sweeping claims:
But Russell's evangelism, like the Emerging Church faith that drives him, is different. And that's part of Kony 2012's power, as well as the subtext against which many critics seem to be reacting.
Again, where's the connection between Russell and the emerging church? And how do we know that there's this subtext? The leaps! The piece amazingly finds a way to bring Rick Warren into the mess. And I love how he throws in Justin Bieber "(he's got Jesus tattoos)."
There is a line in the piece that makes me think, "Okay, maybe that's where the reporter made the connection between the group and the emerging church." Here it is: "In 2006, Invisible Children received roughly $10,000 from an Emerging church in Santa Barbara." Mind you, though, this is a fraction of the organization's budget. "And it's not only Christians who are giving: Invisible Children won $1 million from a Chase Bank charity competition." Are you sure? Because the rest of the piece makes it seem like it's mostly a Christian-financed organization.
The other line in the piece between the emerging church and Invisible Children came from a mention of one of the board members who is described as an openly gay pastor and the head of an emerging church. But between those two pieces of evidence, it's still not clear how the reporter made a connection between the movement and organization.
I also laughed at the line that described the Kony video's sequel video. "Yet only 1.3 million people have bothered watching so far..." Okay, next time you make a video with a million views, you can say "yet only" about it. The reader who submitted the piece noted how many of the comments point out the errors in the piece, so it's kind of amazing The Atlantic hasn't moved to fix anything.
What's most interesting to me about this isn't the multitudinous mistakes (Mark Driscoll? a *liberal*?), but the fact that the extensive comment section has many, many people pointing out all the errors. Twenty or even ten years ago, you wouldn't have had that. I've more or less given up hope that the Atlantic will ever again have someone who really gets religion, but it's pretty clear that there are a lot of their readers who do.
The sad part about this piece is that there are actually some interesting details about Russell's background and the organization's connections to some Christian groups, but it's couched in such a terribly reported piece. How do we know we can trust the basic facts if other parts are exaggerated or flat-out wrong? Much of the sourcing comes from other news articles or radio interviews, so it's hard to tell what percentage is original work for the 5,000 word piece. All we really know is that this reporter thinks he knows a lot about the emerging church movement and read several previous reports on Invisible Children.