Academia

Trying to figure out the 'Why?' in hellish reality of the school massacre in Pakistan

Trying to figure out the 'Why?' in hellish reality of the school massacre in Pakistan

All school shootings force journalists to wrestle with images from hell and the information that poured out of Peshawar, Pakistan, was tragically familiar. Here is part of the barrage from the top of a long report in The Los Angeles Times:

When it was over, 132 children and nine staff members were dead ... at an army-run school in this northeastern city in one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Pakistan’s troubled history. Many were shot in the temple at close range. One 9-year-old told his father that a classmate’s head was nearly blown off.

Seven assailants wearing explosives-laden suicide vests fought a daylong gun battle with Pakistani soldiers and police commandos, trapping hundreds of students and teachers in the Army Public School compound where the attackers planted bombs to deter the security forces.

The story is packed with the kinds of details news consumers expect in live, dateline reports from major news scenes. If you want the "who," "what," "when," "where" and "how" of this story, you are going to find it in this Los Angeles Times report and in many similar reports in the mainstream media.

But the "why" is another matter. Many journalists seem to assume that readers already know the "why" part of the equation and leave this crucial information unstated.

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Fa la la la la, la la la la -- 'Tis the season (as always) for 'news' reports that debunk the Gospels

Fa la la la la, la la la la -- 'Tis the season (as always) for 'news' reports that debunk the Gospels

“Hail the new, ye lads and lasses. Fa la la la la, la la la la,” says that old carol. The journalism angle in that?

During the Christmas and Easter seasons, journalists have come to expect -- and perhaps to hail --  new, sensationalized and commercialized bids to debunk the New Testament Gospels, the earliest and best source we have about Jesus’ life. The Religion Guy himself has played that game, hopefully with some balance and accuracy.

The most lucrative example by far was “The Da Vinci Code,” an odd novel issued for Holy Week of 2003. In 2014 that  fictional tale about Jesus marrying his disciple Mary Magdalene has been supplanted by alleged non-fiction. Before Easter, a Harvard University press release announced: “Testing Indicates ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ Papyrus Fragment to be Ancient.”  To the contrary, the testing showed this fragment wasn’t “ancient” but dates from the 7th or 8th Century A.D., and as for the “wife” business, see below.

Then, timed for Christmas the media have publicized a book entitled “The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene.”

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Your non-weekend think piece: Australian scribe Scott Stephens yearns for serious religion news

Your non-weekend think piece: Australian scribe Scott Stephens yearns for serious religion news

Care to read some provocative thoughts on the state of religion-news coverage, care of pastor and theology teacher Scott Stephens, who is now the Religion and Ethics editor at ABC Online, way down under? I hope so.

You see, Stephens once stuck his finger in the eye of the mainstream press with a blunt working hypothesis that he says has guided his journalistic work ever since. It went like this, and he has unfolded it a bit:

The more widely reported the remarks of a significant religious leader are, the less consequent they are likely to be.
I've since come to the conclusion that the likelihood of this hypothesis being true increases exponentially if the religious leader in question happens to be the pope.

The perfect example of this (no, no, no, this was before the dogs go to heaven row), he argues, was the remarks by Pope Francis on the Big Bang, science, evolution and faith -- all of which were completely compatible with the statements of earlier popes. The key is that most journalists seem to have decided that the pope's words are "newsworthy" to the degree that they can be framed in such a way as to confirm the "putatively progressive agenda they've assigned to him." Wash, rinse, repeat.

Now, Stephens has flipped his theory inside out

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Another one of those Bible puzzlers: Why did God spurn Cain’s offering?

Another one of those Bible puzzlers: Why did God spurn Cain’s offering?

JANE ASKS:

Why did God spurn Cain’s offering?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Some weeks ago our blog treated the classic Bible question of where Cain, Adam and Eve’s first son, found his wife. In response, The Guy received this about another Cain puzzler from the Book of Genesis, chapter 4.

Here’s the story from  “Genesis: Translation and Commentary” (Norton, 1996), a euphonious (look it up) rendition by Robert Alter. Cain was “a tiller of the soil” who “brought from the fruit of the soil an offering to the LORD. And Abel too had brought from the choice firstlings of his flock, and the LORD regarded Abel and his offering but He did not regard Cain and his offering.”

Then Cain “was very incensed, and his face fell.” God  said: “Why are you incensed, / and why is your face fallen? / For whether you offer well, / or whether you do not, / at the tent flap sin crouches / and for you is its longing / but you will rule over it.” God’s admonition did not overcome Cain’s resentment and he murdered his brother.

The Bible doesn’t state explicitly why God did not “regard” Cain and Cain’s offering.

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The Washington Post wrestles with the dilemma that Muslim parents are facing in the West

The Washington Post wrestles with the dilemma that Muslim parents are facing in the West

If there has been one consistent theme over the past decade in GetReligion posts about Islam it has been a complaint that mainstream journalists rarely attempt to wrestle with the religious and even doctrinal content of the debates that are taking place inside the complex world of modern Islam.

Instead, the assumption in most newsrooms seems to be that so-called "moderate," or pro-Western Islam is the true Islam and that more fervent or even radical forms of the faith are "fundamentalist" and thus fake or twisted. Millions of Muslims, of course, are on opposite sides of that debate, which only goes to show that it is simplistic to view this complex and global faith as some kind of monolith.

But what do these debates look like at the human level, at the level of families, local mosques, schools and trips to the local shopping mall? Have you ever been waiting to board an airplane in an American airport and seen a Muslim family with the dad in a suit, the mother in modest clothing with a veil and the children standing behind them -- video games in their hands, hip headphones in place and decked out in clothing fresh off the fad racks at the local mall? What are the debates inside that family?

Journalists at The Washington Post tried to dig into that kind of story the other day with a Chicago-datelined piece about how some typical American Muslim teens ended up trying to flee this apostate land in order to support the goals of the Islamic State. It's clear that this was an attempt to wrestle with questions linked to what experts call "cocooning," the process of trying to keep children in the faith by, as the story says, "shielding" them from as "much American culture as possible by banning TV, the Internet and newspapers and sending them to Islamic schools."

Does this work? In this case, it didn't.

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RNS on Billy Graham, Louis Zamperini and a Los Angeles tent revival that changed history

RNS on Billy Graham, Louis Zamperini and a Los Angeles tent revival that changed history

It's a question I have heard outsiders ask quite a few times during my 40 years or so in the news business: How do journalists produce those long, deep feature obituaries so quickly after the death of a major newsmaker?

The answer, of course, is that these lengthy obituaries are written far in advance and then quickly updated when the subject of the profile passes away. This puts reporters in an awkward position, since they often need to call experts and insiders for comment on the meaning of a famous person's life and work, even though this person is still alive.

So when do journalists start producing this kind of feature package? Basically, the more famous the person the earlier newsroom prepare for their deaths. I am sure that The Los Angeles Times already had something ready when superstar Robin Williams died, because of his stature and his history of struggles with drugs and depression.

All of this is to say that major newsrooms have had obituary features ready about the Rev. Billy Graham since -- oh -- 1955 or so. I know that I worked on some Graham obit materials for The Rocky Mountain News (RIP) back in the 1980s. I have known, for several decades, the basic outline of the "On Religion" column I plan to write about his legacy.

You can hear the ticking of this clock in a new Religion News Service feature written by Godbeat veteran Cathy Lynn Grossman, which focuses on the 1949 event when Graham's path cross that of another major figure who is currently in the news -- Louis Zamperini.

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Memory eternal: Editing out P.D. James the believer and the mystery of the human heart (and soul)

Memory eternal: Editing out P.D. James the believer and the mystery of the human heart (and soul)

If asked to name the work of new fiction (in other words, as opposed to Jane Austen) that I have read in the past few decades that moved me the most, I would without hesitation say "The Children of Men" by P.D. James.

No, I have not seen the movie that is allegedly based on the book because friends who are fierce James fans warned me not to. Why? They said the team behind the movie ripped out the book's gripping Christian foundation, which I have heard referred to as a sci-fi take on the "Culture of Death"  theme in the work of Saint John Paul II.

Here is the last sentence of the book, in which an underground (and very fragile and flawed) circle of Christian believers fight to bring life back into a world that has mysteriously gone sterile: "It was with a thumb wet with his own tears and stained with her blood that he made on the child's forehead the sign of the cross."

Now, we are watching a similar editing process take place in some -- repeat some -- of the mainstream media obituaries for one of the most important English writers of the past half a century.

C.S. Lewis said the world didn't need more "Christian writers," it needed Christians who were willing to do the hard work of writing for everyone. That was P.D. James. The great Dorothy L. Sayers considered murder mysteries the perfect form of writing for Christians because they open with an act of undeniable evil (evil exists) and then someone goes into the world seeking concrete evidence of truth (truth exists) in order to produce justice (it is possible to do good in the real world). That's P.D. James, as well.

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'World' of difference when it comes to investigative reporting

'World' of difference when it comes to investigative reporting

NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: If you were working on the religion beat these days, especially if you were still new on the beat, wouldn't you welcome advice from someone who had excelled at this work at the highest levels for decades? 

I recently had a long talk in New York City with Richard Ostling -- by all means review his bio here -- to ask if, along with his Religion Guy Q&A pieces, he would to experiment with memos in which he offered his observations on what was happening, or what might happen, with stories and trends on the beat. He said he might broaden that, from time to time, with observations on writing about religion -- period. 

To which I said, "Amen." -- tmatt

*****

In all too many weeks, the Saturday “Beliefs” column provides the only coverage of religion in The New York Times. The influential daily’s Nov. 8 item dealt with World, an unusual Christian magazine because it covers mostly general news rather than just parochial topics.  This biweekly for those wanting “Christian worldview reporting that reinforces their core beliefs” has a conservative slant on politics as well as faith.  A recent GetReligion post by our own tmatt, for example, noted his differences with the journalistic philosophy of World Editor in Chief Marvin Olasky. 

Sadly, investigative reporting has suffered greatly with media downsizing and the Times rightly commends that aspect of World’s work. Religious periodicals generally don’t rake muck, especially about folks sharing their ideology.

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Memory eternal: Arne Fjeldstad and his efforts to help (global) media get religion

Memory eternal: Arne Fjeldstad and his efforts to help (global) media get religion

There is really no way to tell the story of GetReligion.org without talking about the veteran journalist and pastor who for years led The Media Project -- the Rev. Dr. Arne Fjeldstad of Norway. It is very unusual to find a Lutheran clergyman who also had a 30-year career as an editor in the mainstream press, including senior positions in the leading Norwegian daily newspaper Aftenposten. For his doctoral dissertation, quite early in the Internet age, he wrote about the potential growth of online churches.

Although his byline rarely appeared here at GetReligion, that was because he felt his management skills were best used behind the scenes. Trust me when I say that his gifts were many and they have been essential. Click here to read his global perspective on the 10th anniversary of this weblog.

Arne died very suddenly Sunday afternoon at his home in Norway, hours before he was scheduled to depart for a journalism conference in South Korea. Over the past decade, his travels took him around the world on almost a monthly basis, meeting with at least 600-plus journalists face to face at one time or another. In the photo above, he is seen -- earlier this month -- with journalists from nine different African countries gathered in Lusaka, Zambia.

My former Washington Journalism Center colleague Richard Potts, who worked with Arne on many conferences in Latin America, wrote this morning: 

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