Idaho Statesman lavishes multi-story package on another evolving theology professor

Idaho Statesman lavishes multi-story package on another evolving theology professor

I make it my practice to scan newspapers all over the West for interesting pieces on religion and sadly, it’s newspapers in large cities that provide 99 percent of the coverage. Smaller newspapers tend not to have the budget for a full- or part-time religion reporter, even though there are lots of good religion stories out there.

Recently someone forwarded me a lengthy piece in the Idaho Stateman, a 47,855-circulation newspaper based in Boise. Seeing a two-story-and-sidebar package about a controversial theology professor at a local Nazarene university is a rarity for a newspaper that size.

Come to think of it, though, Boise, pop. 214,237, is larger than Salt Lake City (which has religion reporters at both of its newspapers), but there are no listings in the Religion Newswriters Association database for members in Idaho. So, it was a surprise to see the following Aug. 14 story in the Stateman’s Sunday paper:

Why does God allow evil?
How come my loved one dies of cancer, even though I pray for recovery, but others survive without faith or prayer?
Where did creation come from?
These are the kinds of tough theological questions that many people spend their lives wrestling with.
The Rev. Thomas Jay Oord wondered about these questions, too. But the answers he gave likely mean the popular theology professor at Northwest Nazarene University never works at a Nazarene university again.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Burkinis, Ghazala Khan and the overlooked issue of female religious free choice

Burkinis, Ghazala Khan and the overlooked issue of female religious free choice

You should by now be familiar with the burkini brouhaha, and French officials' (all of them male, as far as I can tell) unconvincing claims that they're acting in the public good by trying to help liberate Muslim women from Muslim male-imposed dictates about allowable female beachwear.

Frankly, I think its a ridiculous overreaction to the very real problem of Islamist terrorism that has France on edge and desperate to find a successful strategy to assimilate (or at least pacify) it's growing Muslim population.

It has made for some strange bedfellows, though. Many journalists who are normally harshly critical -- and rightly so -- of the horrible treatment of women in some Muslim-majority nations have opposed the burkini bans put in place by several French beach towns, and backed by Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

Journalistically, this issue underscores the complexity of balancing respect for religious tradition -- or religious freedom -- in an age of Western secularism. Put another way, as the French seem to be doing, it's about preserving local social norms (scanty female beach wear) in an age of globalized (Muslim) population movements.

These overlapping complexities can be downright confusing for journalists unschooled in the importance of religious traditions to individual and group identity. At the same time they're what, for me, make the religion beat so intellectually compelling.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

After that devastating flooding in Louisiana, there's hope — but apparently no faith

After that devastating flooding in Louisiana, there's hope — but apparently no faith

In the wake of the Louisiana flooding, a number of my Facebook friends posted about that Deep South state's heroic people coming together and showing their resiliency amid a major disaster.

But here's what I was curious about: how to mesh that totally appropriate narrative with the recent racial protests and violence in that same state.

I wanted to see journalists explore the big picture in Louisiana.

So here's the good news: The Washington Post did exactly that in an 1,800-word takeout on Sunday's front page. Well, sort of.

And that segues to the bad news: The more I read, the more something seemed to be missing. Something big. Something that just might have to do with all those evangelical Christians and Catholics who make up such a large proportion of Louisiana's population. 

Holy ghosts, anyone?

Let me share the crux of the Post story — dateline Baton Rouge — and then explain what I mean:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

The Los Angeles Times misses wrestler's prayer refrain: 'Christ is in me, I am enough'

The Los Angeles Times misses wrestler's prayer refrain: 'Christ is in me, I am enough'

Does anyone have time for yet another Rio 2016 religion-news post?

One of the responses that your GetReligionistas hear when we criticize the faith-shaped holes in mainstream news coverage goes something like this: You guys just aren't realistic. In today's age of short, quickie digital journalism -- with journalists dashing off three or four stories and 10 tweets a day -- reporters just don't have the time and space to add secondary, deep-background details about religion and stuff.

Or words to that effect. Trust me, we understand the pressures, in an age when the advertising crisis in mass media has left fewer reporters in mainstream newsrooms, while the World Wide Web demands more and more 24/7 content. We know that reality issue is there.

The veteran scribes here at GetReligion -- with nearly 200 years worth of experience in religion news, when you add us all up -- can see the challenges. Trust me, we know that people on beats that bump into religious content, from arts to politics, from sports to business, don't have the time to write religion feature stories.

But they do have time to listen to what people say and then include a few details and quotes about faith, when it is clear that these details are at the heart of a person's life and work.

Take team USA wrestler Helen Maroulis, whose win over three-time Olympic champion Saori Yoshida of Japan was -- in one NBC soundbite -- something like an unknown sprinter beating Usain Bolt (that Catholic mega-star from Jamaica) in the 100 meters.

Now, it helps to know that Maroulis has been training for several years in Southern California. Thus, you would expect The Los Angeles Times to be anxious to tune her in and capture the essence of this huge Olympics upset. So here is some key material at the top of a feature about the gold-metal winner:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Post-Olympics: The Atlantic sees psychological, emotional issues, but not spiritual ones

Post-Olympics: The Atlantic sees psychological, emotional issues, but not spiritual ones

The Atlantic meant well. Its post-Olympics feature examines the depression that athletes often suffer after such sports events, as they strive to cope with their futures and stress linked to big wins and big defeats.

It's a literate, sympathetic piece, gently but incisively examining the emotional crash; the reluctance to ask for help; how intensely athletes identify with their achievements; how  much they fear losing themselves by losing in competition.

Almost every angle is covered, it seems, but -- you knew this was coming -- the spiritual one. The story leaves Mount Olympus haunted with religious "ghosts."

This is the kind of eloquent passage that makes me loathe to write off the article totally:

Take the Michigan-born swimmer Allison Schmitt. After winning five medals, three of them gold, and setting a world record in the 2012 London Games, Schmitt sank into a hole from which she couldn’t emerge. She had no idea why she felt depressed -- especially considering her undeniable success -- but realized she needed counseling. The decision didn’t come easily; depression is still a dirty word in the locker room.
"I didn’t want to show my weakness," she said in an interview with Channel 4 in Detroit. "I didn’t want to ask for help, but in this situation I found out … that I couldn’t keep fighting it by myself. … There’s this thing that they call post-Olympic blues and I think I had a little bit of that and I kept isolating myself and isolating myself."

The Atlantic also quotes sports psychologist Scott Goldman noting that the Olympics amount to a "hundred-mile-per-hour ride" that "comes to a screeching halt." He says the sudden end leaves athletes "just physiologically depleted, as well as psychologically."

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Battling cancer, major-league coach puts faith into action — but what exactly does that mean?

Battling cancer, major-league coach puts faith into action — but what exactly does that mean?

This is an inspiring story.

For those concerned about holy ghosts in the mainstream press, it's also a frustrating story.

I'm talking about a heart-tugging feature from the Dallas Morning News on a major-league coach battling cancer.

As a longtime Texas Rangers fan, I'm particularly drawn to this emotional profile by one of my favorite baseball writers. The subhead on the print version noted that third-base coach Tony Beasley sees his cancer ordeal "as a chance to put faith into action."

ARLINGTON -- This is how he has spent his season: chemotherapy treatment during spring training, five weeks of radiation in April and May and, in the next week, a five-hour surgical procedure to remove the remnants of a tumor from his bowel.
And this is how Tony Beasley describes the year: "My most rewarding in baseball."
Beasley is the Rangers' third-base coach in title, but he's had to move into more of a quality-control role for this season during a fight with cancer that is stretching into its eighth month. The disease may have turned his role upside down, but he'll be damned if it's going to do the same to him.
"It doesn't sound right to [call it rewarding] when you are dealing with a disease; you don't relate that to a reward," Beasley said. "But there has been so much good on so many fronts.
"Somebody once told me not to see obstacles, only opportunities. And this has given me the opportunity to be the man who I said I am. I've always said I'm a man of faith, but we can say things and not live it. This has given me a chance to live it. I'm thankful if people have had a chance to see it."

That's powerful writing, but I want to know more about Beasley's faith.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Haunted house Olympics: How many of the faith-driven stories did you see in Rio coverage?

Haunted house Olympics: How many of the faith-driven stories did you see in Rio coverage?

For many Rio 2016 viewers, it was the emotional peak of the entire Olympics.

I am referring to what happened -- far from the finish line -- during a preliminary heat for the women’s 5,000-meter run. That was when Abbey D’Agostino of team USA collided with Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand.

Both went down. D’Agostino didn't know it, but she had a torn ACL. Nevertheless, she stopped and helped Hamblin. Together -- with the American runner clearly injured -- they finished the race. D’Agostino left the track in a wheelchair and, later, was not able to accept an offer by Olympic judges allowing both runners to run in the final because of their fine sportsmanship.

That's the story that everyone knows about, the drama that left viewers coping with tears. But why did D’Agostino stay behind to help, as the pack ran off into the distance? Catholic News Service looked for that angle, which was not hard to find:

“Although my actions were instinctual at that moment, the only way I can and have rationalized it is that God prepared my heart to respond that way. This whole time here he’s made clear to me that my experience in Rio was going to be about more than my race performance – and as soon as Nikki got up I knew that was it.”
She had previously recounted how her reliance on God helped calm her anxiety before a big race. “Whatever the outcome of the race is, I’m going to accept it. ... I was so thankful and just drawn to what I felt like was a real manifestation of God’s work in my life.” She told Hanlon that previous injuries forced her “to depend on God in a way that I’ve never been open to before.”

Did anyone see that angle in mainstream coverage? Actually, one or two major newsrooms saw that religion ghost and ran with it, including Sports Illustrated online. But not many.

I was exchanging emails with a media professional the other day and mentioned that there was no way GetReligion could have done posts on all of the valid, and often crucial, religion-angle stories that received little, if any, news coverage during Rio 2016. I have never received so many contacts from readers about a subject, pointing me toward more and more URLs with other Olympics religion angles worthy of note. It was like one giant haunted house of religion-ghost stories.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Some news skills never die: An obituary writer describes life on the death beat

Some news skills never die: An obituary writer describes life on the death beat

Obituary writing is an all-important corner of the news game. We are talking “first draft of history” and all that.

A key practitioner, Bruce Weber of The New York Times, is leaving the beat following eight years and 1,000 salutes to the dear departed. With considerable charm, he recently described his odd life in news and ink.

His subjects were “famous, infamous, or as obscure as the rest of us except for one instance of memorable distinction,” the latter including a stupid airline hijacker,  some guy who shot a ballplayer, a pederast, a con artist, or an embezzler, all thrown next to honored humanitarians, statesmen, and scientists seeking to cure AIDS or cancer.  (Unfortunately, these days such “mainstream media” routinely ignore the deaths of many worthy religious leaders.)

With unanticipated deaths, pieces must be knocked out in an hour or two. But at the Times and elsewhere, important obits are planned in advance. “You can’t write the comprehensive life story of a president or a pope or a movie star in an hour or even a day,” he explains. Indeed. Five months out of college, the Religion Guy compiled a two-page obit for Delaware’s Wilmington Morning News hours after JFK died, thanks mostly to canned AP and UPI copy and our "morgue" files.  

Most periodicals will (or should) have well-prepared sendoffs for religion’s big three -- The Rev. Billy Graham, now 97 and the prime U.S. clergyman of his era; the Dalai Lama, 81, and Pope Francis, 79. With such overarching personalities the temptation is to bigfoot the task, handing it to a veteran generalist instead of the staff religion specialist.

The bottom line: The result can emphasize the politics and downplay the religion.

But the religion-news professional is a better bet due to perspective and sources.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

US Catholics sort of hug ELCA: Why do liberal, oldline flocks always seem to make news?

US Catholics sort of hug ELCA: Why do liberal, oldline flocks always seem to make news?

If you walked the religion-news beat in the 1980s, and especially if you covered mainline Protestants and the Episcopal Church, then you probably knew Bishop William C. Frey.

At that time, he was the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado and he eventually (a) was the symbolic evangelical/charismatic candidate to become U.S. presiding bishop, then (b) he became president and dean of the evangelical Anglican School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa. He now lives in retirement near San Antonio, Texas, and -- it helps that he speaks fluent Spanish -- remains active in ministry in that region.

Among reporters (of all theological stripes), Frey was known as one of the most candid and, with his previous work in mainstream radio, sound-bite articulate figures on the national scene. His wit was legendary.

So what does this have to do with this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to listen) about that ecumenical document signed by U.S. Catholic leaders and the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America? We are talking about the one that led to statements (see previous post here) that there were "are no longer church-dividing issues" between them.

Host Todd Wilken and I were curious as to why this document received so little attention in the mainstream press, since -- in the past -- this was precisely the kind of progressive, ecumenical event that drew banner headlines and then appeared in lists of the Top 10 religion-news stories of the year. Thus, we talked about why the oldline Protestant churches have always received so much attention and why, all of a sudden, that coverage may have faded.

This brings me to a classic Frey soundbite. Working on a column for the late, great Rocky Mountain News, I told the bishop about statements from several other local religious leaders who wanted to know why Colorado Episcopalians were always in the news. Some of them expressed what sounded like envy -- which made Frey laugh out loud.

Please respect our Commenting Policy