A horrible shooting happened yesterday at a small Christian vocational school in Oakland, California. A former student went on a shooting rampage, killing seven people and injuring three. Whenever violent acts such as this take place, reporting the details is difficult. Nevertheless, journalists immediately have to start trying to piece together accurate information about the alleged killer, the small school and the affected community.
The school, according to news reports, caters to Korean immigrants and provides some type of vocational training in nursing, music and theology. The school, called Oikos University, has been repeatedly identified as Christian. OK, but what brand of Christianity are we talking about?
Here's how the Telegraph reported its denominational affiliation:
Terrified students at the Catholic Oikos University were forced to cower in their classrooms and local businesses were evacuated as the police hunted for the suspect, an Asian man in his forties, described as heavy-set and wearing khaki clothing.
Interesting. Catholic. And here's how the Huffington Post describes the same school:
On its website, several detailed pages are dedicated to describing the university's fundamentalist Christian roots and its founders beliefs in the inerrancy of the Bible, which they say should be read literally.
Hunh. Fundamentalist. Interesting.
The Telegraph doesn't explain why it thought the school was Catholic and the Huffington Post doesn't offer any other specific, detailed information about why its editors think that this school is fundamentalist. Among some reporters, fundamentalist seems to mean something like "group whose views are stricter than mine." But that's not what the definition of fundamentalist is. As the Associated Press Stylebook puts it (once again):
fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.
In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.
I looked on the school's "Our Philosophy" web site and didn't find the group describing itself as fundamentalist, explaining its roots (apart from the Korean church) or giving any hint that it seeks separation from other Christians. It does indicate that there are various things the group believes are "literal" in the Bible, including the literal fall of Adam into sin, the existence of Jesus and his death, burial, resurrection and ascension, the creation of the earth in six days and heaven and hell. It might be better to simply describe these particular things that the Korean group believes should be understood literally than to use a pejorative such as "fundamentalist" that is either inaccurate or, at the very least, not backed up by the story.
Without specific examples, I never know how helpful the phrase that the Bible "should be read literally" is when describing people's beliefs. Presumably even Bishop John Shelby Spong thinks at least some portion of Scripture should be read literally, right? Unless a group has declared war on metaphor and allegory, describing views as "literalism" seems somewhat imprecise. Or maybe there should just be more consistency about when we mention literal interpretation, adding a modifier such as "doesn't believe Jesus rose from the dead" or "doesn't believe in a literal Jesus" or "believes all of the Old Testament and most all of the New Testament is fiction and part of a patriarchal plot to control women" to groups at various other points on the Christian theological spectrum.
Anyway, the Huffington Post continues to explain the group's separatist and fundamentalist beliefs:
The university's religious objectives include demonstrating a "comprehensive knowledge of the Bible and an understanding of Christian doctrine," developing "an appreciation for the Korean and Korean-American church denomination heritage" and instilling "a desire for lifelong commitment to personal spiritual growth through daily Bible study and prayer." The university also aims to "develop attitudes of service and commitment to the local church and world missions" and "prepare students for Christian service and vocation in the Church and society."
The school is affiliated with Praise God Korean Church in Oakland and Shepherd University of San Francisco, but little is known about either institution.
That doesn't seem so separatist, does it? And if the group is fundamentalist (or Catholic), it is somewhat odd that it is affiliated with Korean Presbyterians. That's how Praise God Korean Church is identified, at least.
The local Oakland Tribune took the same info and ruled that the school was espousing "evangelical Christianity," more certain of that, in fact, than their single quoted source for the story.
The nonprofit school -- where at least seven people were shot to death Monday -- was founded in 2004 and espouses evangelical Christianity on its website...
"It would seem to be evangelical protestant, but doesn't seem to have a relationship with any one denomination," said Arthur Holder, dean and vice president for academic affairs at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.
He had not heard of Oikos before the shootings, "but there are a lot of schools I haven't heard of," he said after looking at the school mission statement on its website.
We still capitalize Protestant, don't we?
Like all stories that run quickly after a tragedy such as this, we're seeing some errors in the first drafts. But there are some good examples of articles that incorporated religion well, including the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and Oakland Tribune. The last link, in particular, shows the benefits that come from reporting a story when you have some familiarity with a community, including its minority religious or ethnic cultures. Language, culture and religious differences between reporters and the players in a story can lead to problems but a good local paper can overcome some of those challenges.
More details are coming out about the shooter, as can be read here by the Associated Press and here at CNN. According to that last link, a memorial service for the victims will be held at a local Korean Methodist church.