And this just in: The young, male, video-games crowd doesn't remember the great Ben-Hur

And this just in: The young, male, video-games crowd doesn't remember the great Ben-Hur

First, sorry for the delay on this week's "Crossroads" podcast. We had some technical difficulties, which happens every now and then in the Tower of Babel environment that is the Internet. Every now and then the software gods just don't get along.

The topic of my chat this week with host Todd Wilken (click here to tune that in) was, on one level, the box-office problems of the latest version of "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ." But my earlier post on this topic also focused on the ongoing interest, in the mainstream media, in Hollywood's quest to tap into the "Christian" movie market, in the wake of the $611 million box office haul taken in by Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."

It's a great story and a very timely one. Basically, the folks behind the new Ben-Hur made a big-budget religion-niche movie, thinking that the young, male, action-movie demographic would show up for the chariot race scene.

What chariot race scene, you ask? Well, the one that movie scholars -- but not, it's safe to say, today's video-game fanatics -- remember with awe from the 1959 classic.

What were the producers of the new flick thinking?

That would be a great hard-news story, methinks, as opposed to a kind of no-sources analysis thumbsucker like the Atlantic piece I previously discussed.

Well, what do you know? The Los Angeles Times team produced a real news story about this bad, bad summer in Hollywood. The headline: "Hollywood's summer problem? Reboots people don't want."

The opening is pretty brutal:

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Transgender, God and grovel: The Seattle Times outs a popular chef

Transgender, God and grovel: The Seattle Times outs a popular chef

Covering the transgender bathroom/showers debates has created a few conundrums for the folks here at GetReligion in that we tend to comment on pieces in which religion is a factor or there’s a “ghost;” where religion should be a factor but the reporter –- or editors –- have left it out.

A lot of folks involved in these debates do so for religious reasons, but those reasons aren't often spelled out and instead, as my colleague Bobby Ross has reported, the debate devolves into journalists simply labeling folks "anti-LBGT.".

One side of the debate does seem to get demonized. This case study concerns a Seattle Times food critic who outed a local chef who happens to be providing some of the stadium food available during Seattle Seahawks games.

The chef, known as the “steak king of Seattle,” apparently had a hidden weakness, in that he held unorthodox -- to the new normal -- beliefs on a controversial issue in the public square. Here’s what the Times reporter ran on Wednesday:

Seahawks stadium chef John Howie donated $1,000 to the Washington anti-transgender bathroom group Just Want Privacy in May, and Howie says he also signed a petition opposing transgender bathrooms.
This puts Howie on the opposite side of the issue from Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. On Monday, it was reported that Wilson and singer Ciara moved their wedding out of North Carolina due to that state’s anti-transgender bathroom law. Asked about the report today, Wilson said, “I just believe that Jesus loves all people. That’s honestly what I believe.”
Howie says he’s opposed to transgender bathrooms due to concerns about who could gain access to them. “I think that there’s a chance that the law could be abused by somebody,” he says. “I think somebody who is not transgender, a sex offender, could abuse the law -- somebody who is just out to put themselves into a women’s, or a boys’, bathroom, for that matter.

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France's high court clears up burkini's legality; mainstream media still muddy the waters

France's high court clears up burkini's legality; mainstream media still muddy the waters

In France's so-called burkini wars, hypocrisy seems to be one of the few things that mainstream media have teased out well. The latest salvo came from the nation's high court today, striking down a town's law against the modest swimwear for Muslims.

Coverage has been fuzzier or silent on other things, though -- like what the laws say, what the underlying concepts mean, religious views on the matter, even the definition of a burkini.

The Washington Post aptly compares the burkini flap with that against the burqa, banned in France since 2010:

The argument behind both was—and remains—that Muslim modesty somehow impedes the rights of women in the historic French Republic of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
This is why, for instance, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls expressed his opposition to the bathing suit in nothing less than the language of human rights: the burkini, he said, was a means of “enslavement.” By the logic of Valls and others, it is the duty of the French state to emancipate Muslim women from the clutches of their religion but also from themselves.

Last week, the New York Times quoted Marwan Muhammad, executive director of France's Center Against Islamophobia, that there is no legal definition of a burkini. But then the newspaper skirted the obvious follow-up question: "Well, is there a religious definition of a burkini? Have any Islamic scholars ruled on this?"  

Tmatt last week quoted former human rights lawyer Amanda Taub for noting the "obviousness of the contradiction – imposing rules on what women can wear on the grounds that it’s wrong for women to have to obey rules about what women can wear." But she then inches out too far on a limb:

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Bookish reporting ahead: J-preps for Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary in 2017

Bookish reporting ahead: J-preps for Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary in 2017

When the Religion Guy worked at Time magazine and The Associated Press, he made every effort to read a book per week. He also vowed to give important books as much publicity as conditions allowed because “mainstream” print media increasingly neglected religion titles. 

That neglect underscores the importance of reporters keeping up with book reviews in religious periodicals, especially the sophisticated, content-rich Books & Culture: A Christian Review. Otherwise, how can busy newswriters sift through those looming piles of review copies and decide which to cover?

Quick tip: No index, no review.

For astute religion writers, the book scene comes to the fore right now due to a huge upcoming story, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017. This epochal event deserves careful advance thought about special story packages or series. And that means journalists need some historical reading under the belt to develop the themes to ponder with scholars.

As Thomas Albert Howard of Gordon College wrote four years ago in Books & Culture, the Reformation “has been credited (or blamed) for the rise of the modern nation state, liberalism, capitalism, religious wars, tolerance, America, democracy, individualism, subjectivism, pluralism, freedom of conscience, modern science, secularism, Nazism, and so much else.” He could have added the expansion of literacy, worship in common languages, and the assault on mandatory celibacy.

The agenda includes the title of a 2005 book by Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom: “Is The Reformation Over?” Does the old Protestant-Catholic divide still make sense in the secularizing West? What crucial differences remain today?

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Hey, ESPN team: When you see Christian McCaffrey, do you see his name? Why not?

Hey, ESPN team: When you see Christian McCaffrey, do you see his name? Why not?

Believe it or not, college football season is days away. As always, this opens up a whole new playing field on which religion-news ghosts can play.

In fact, the game has already started. Several GetReligion readers have written to ask for my commentary on a new ESPN: The Magazine piece that ran with this epic double-decker headline:

The Lightness of Being Christian McCaffrey
Stanford star running back Christian McCaffrey, who broke Barry Sanders’ collegiate single-season all-purpose yardage record last year, is on a quest to dispel the misconceptions and stereotypes about athletes, both black and white.

This is another one of those in-depth "We will tell you who this person really is" features. You can tell that at the very top, with this novelty, first-person, talk-to-the-reader opening:

QUICK: WHAT DO you see when you look at Christian McCaffrey? Don't think. Just answer. Say it out loud -- commit to it.
OK, next question: How confident are you in your answer -- that what you say you see, and what you see, are one and the same?
One hundred percent, no doubt. Because the answer is as straightforward as the question is stupid, right? He's an athlete, after all, a visually explicit human being. Call up a YouTube highlight. The who and the what become obvious in five seconds.
At this particular moment, I happen to be watching a Christian McCaffrey high school highlight on YouTube ... while in the presence of the living, breathing, real-time Christian McCaffrey.

Let's turn this around for the ESPN crew: OK, when you look at Christian McCaffrey, who and what do YOU see? What about his name?

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Trans commotion again: USA Today skips religious angles in bathroom-showers ruling

Trans commotion again: USA Today skips religious angles in bathroom-showers ruling

Religious conservatives cheered this week when a federal judge blocked the Obama administration's effort to force schools to allow transgendered people to use bathrooms of their choice.

Um … they did, didn’t they? (Squinting at article) Ummm, I could have sworn they would.  But they're not in the report by USA Today on the ruling.

This story, which was also distributed by Religion News Service, does cover a lot of ground in some 700 words. It reviews the lawsuit, brought by 13 states and two school districts, protesting Obama's directive. And it adeptly summarizes both the basic question and the mechanics of enforcement:

U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor’s 38-page order said federal agencies exceeded their authority under the 1972 law banning sex discrimination in schools. The injunction applies nationwide, and follows a number of other recent court rulings against transgender students and employees.
The Texas ruling, issued late Sunday, turned on the congressional intent behind Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which requires that "facilities provided for students of one sex shall be comparable to such facilities provided for students of the other sex."
"It cannot be disputed that the plain meaning of the term sex" in that law "meant the biological and anatomical differences between male and female students as determined at their birth," the judge wrote. "Without question, permitting educational institutions to provide separate housing to male and female students, and separate educational instruction concerning human sexuality, was to protect students’ personal privacy, or discussion of their personal privacy, while in the presence of members of the opposite biological sex."

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Bible Belt jackpot: Might Alabama lose its religion and approve a state lottery?

Bible Belt jackpot: Might Alabama lose its religion and approve a state lottery?

For now, Alabama remains one of six states without a lottery, according to an ABC News report.

But could that soon change?

As early as the Nov. 8 general election, voters in that Bible Belt state may be asked to approve a lottery to help fund state government and education.

Is there a potential religion angle here? 

You think?

Fortunately for news consumers, veteran Godbeat pro Greg Garrison, who writes for the Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group, already is on top of the story.

Garrison wrote last week:

A Jefferson County ministry group representing dozens of area clergy has issued a statement opposing a state lottery in Alabama.
The Gatekeepers Association of Alabama, a group of about 25 pastors that has met monthly for the past year and has included as many as 41 clergy, said a lottery runs counter to biblical principles.
 "We serve one another; we don't rob another," said the Rev. Jim Lowe, senior pastor of Guiding Light Church in Birmingham. "It's blatantly obvious that countless Alabama families would have a stumbling block placed before them if a lottery passes."
The group quoted Romans 14:13-19, in which the Apostle Paul urges Christians to "make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister."

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The Atlantic covers (sort of) the Ben-Hur flop and the epic quest to sell Christian films

The Atlantic covers (sort of) the Ben-Hur flop and the epic quest to sell Christian films

Let me start with a question: I do not know if the following piece from The Atlantic is a news report, an opinion essay or a movie review.

It addresses a topic that is certainly worthy of a news report -- the box-office flop (so far, I guess) of the latest version of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Lurking behind this movie is a larger topic, which is Hollywood's ongoing attempt to tap into the "Christian audience" that turned out for Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ in 2004.

Studio executives have been chasing Gibson's Passion demographic for a decade and major newsrooms have been covering those efforts over and over and over. Like I said, this is a topic worthy of serious reporting.

Here's the crucial question: Is this "Christian" niche a $50 million or so marketplace for low-budget movies or a place where Hollywood players can find the magic formula that produces big box-office bucks for major releases that cost $100 or so? So that's what is going on in this Atlantic piece, that ran with this headline:

Ben-Hur Was Hollywood’s Epic $100M Mistake
The film flopped hard at the box office after studios tried to copy the success of 2004's The Passion of the Christ.

The following summary material is long, but you need to read it to understand my main point in this post.

The fifth film adaptation of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was a $100 million co-production between Paramount Pictures and MGM. It starred the relatively unknown British actor Jack Huston in the title role, was directed by the mid-tier action maestro Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), and drew largely negative reviews. Many critics noted the film’s supreme inferiority to William Wyler’s 1959 version of the tale, which won 11 Oscars and is widely viewed as one of the greatest classic Hollywood epics. Just the idea of remaking Wyler’s film feels like a colossal error in an age of tiresome franchise reboots -- but when you consider how studios tried to belatedly capitalize on religious audiences to save the movie, the existence of Ben-Hur seems all the more cynical.

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Surprise! Kansas City Star covers only one side of United Methodist debate on sexuality

Surprise! Kansas City Star covers only one side of United Methodist debate on sexuality

Let's say that you are a mainstream reporter covering a story about a liberal United Methodist congregation that has been sent a very conservative pastor who decides to take a controversial stand on gun control.

People in the region are outraged and efforts are made to replace the pastor.

Who are the crucial people and groups that journalists would need to contact for input and quotes? First, you would have the pastor. Then you would have the pastor's supporters and critics in the congregation. Then -- absolutely -- you would need quotes from the regional UMC leaders who are in charge of resolving this situation and could speak to the state of church teachings related to this issue. Finally, if reporters have the time and space, they might contact activists on both sides of this hot-button issue.

Now, with these basic journalism values in mind, let's return to the case of the Rev. Cynthia Meyer, the openly gay and non-celibate United Methodist pastor who recently was removed, with some national media fanfare, from her altar and pulpit. Click here for my previous post on this case: "Do ordination vows matter? A crucial hole in RNS report on United Methodist dispute."

Now, The Kansas City Star has an update that starts like this:

On a cold Sunday in January, Cynthia Meyer, pastor at Edgerton United Methodist Church, came out to her congregation.
She did so with hope that change regarding the denomination’s stance on homosexuality was coming. But eight months later, that hope, for now at least, is gone. And after the end of August, Meyer will be gone as well.
To avoid a church trial, Meyer and Methodist officials agreed that she would give up her duties and go on involuntary leave. Her final sermon in Edgerton in Johnson County will be Aug. 28. ... She said she was glad to avoid a trial, which could have resulted in her losing her credentials to ever pastor again.

Before we get to the sourcing issue, let's note a few questions raised in that passage.

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