Baptists

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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Black church unites with white church: A symbolic story about modern 'Baptist' life

Black church unites with white church: A symbolic story about modern 'Baptist' life

Veterans on the religion beat know that there are Baptists, Baptists, Baptists and then there are other kinds of Baptists.

There are Southern BaptistsAmerican Baptists, several kinds of National Baptists (not to be confused with the Progressive National Baptists), Free Will BaptistsReformed (Calvinist) Baptists, various Conservative BaptistsPrimitive BaptistsCooperative Baptists and legions of others. Then, of course, there a kazillion totally independent Baptist congregations with no ties that bind them to anyone.

So the Rev. Pat Robertson, last time I checked, is a Baptist and so is the Rev. Bill Moyers. The Rev. Jesse Jackson is a Baptist, as is the Rev. Billy Graham. Former President Bill Clinton remains a Baptist and the same is true for former President Jimmy Carter, although he famously dropped his Southern Baptist ties.

What's my point? When journalists write about Baptists it helps to provide a bit of context. Take, for example, the very interesting Huffington Post story the other day that -- in the midst of #Ferguson shock waves -- ran under this headline: "Two Florida Churches Merge With Hope Of Bridging A Racial Divide." Here's the top of the report:

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Do evangelicals mistreat gay children? AP weighs viewpoints, but not evenly

Do evangelicals mistreat gay children? AP weighs viewpoints, but not evenly

Small but increasingly connected knots of conservative Christians are advocating a new approach to homosexuality, says a well-done feature from the Associated Press.

Well done, as in more than 10 quoted sources and nearly 1,400 words. Well done, as in talking to educators and institutional leaders, not just aggrieved activists. And well done, as in showing a variety of approaches to church leadership, and the variety of responses from gay activists.

The article, by veteran religion writer Rachel Zoll, is less confrontational than suggested by the headline: "Evangelicals with gay children speaking out against how churches treat their sons & daughters." You could get that impression if you stopped after the first four paragraphs. If you continued with the other 22 paragraphs, you'd get a different view.

It does start by retelling the case of a 12-year-old dying of a drug overdose when so-called "reparative therapy" failed to quell his gay impulses. But it adds some qualifiers, starting with the parents of the suicidal boy:

"Parents don't have anyone on their journey to reconcile their faith and their love for their child," said Linda Robertson, who with Rob attends a nondenominational evangelical church. "They either reject their child and hold onto their faith, or they reject their faith and hold onto their child. Rob and I think you can do both: be fully affirming of your faith and fully hold onto your child."
It's not clear how much of an impact these parents can have. Evangelicals tend to dismiss fellow believers who accept same-sex relationships as no longer Christian. The parents have only recently started finding each other online and through faith-oriented organizations for gays and lesbians such as the Gay Christian Network, The Reformation Project and The Marin Foundation.

The article shows a lot of research in piecing together the various trends and incidents related to gays and evangelicals. It does include the headliners like the Rev. Frank Schaefer, who won his case in a Methodist church court case. Also Alan Chambers, who closed his Exodus International and apologized for pushing reparative therapy, a psychological process that claims to cure homosexuality.

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Are they crazy? Despite Ebola threat, Texas missionary couple planning return to Sierra Leone

Are they crazy? Despite Ebola threat, Texas missionary couple planning return to Sierra Leone

The Ebola threat can't keep Tom and Becky Brockelman, a Baptist missionary couple from Texas, from returning to West Africa.

That was the theme of a fascinating Dallas Morning News feature over the weekend:

For months, Ebola had been a faraway worry, a concern but not a threat to the Brockelman family.
Then, one by one, relief workers started to leave Sierra Leone. Medical workers. Support staff. Other missionaries.
When Ebola finally landed near their home in a rural part of the Freetown peninsula, the Brockelmans decided it was time to return to Texas.
“We love Sierra Leone. It is our home,” Becky Brockelman said recently at her mother-in-law’s house in Sherman. “But as this thing began to spread, the rumors began to flare.”
The deadly Ebola virus was erupting throughout West Africa, with Sierra Leone and neighboring Liberia and Guinea the hardest hit. The disease was virtually uncontrolled and thousands of people were dying across the region. The meager medical centers were overwhelmed by the disease, and the Brockelmans realized they would have few options if they became ill.
The couple, Baptist missionaries, came back to Texas in early August with the Sierra Leonean boy they are adopting. They isolated themselves for 21 days, to ensure they had not contracted the deadly disease, and tried to wait out the epidemic.
But their hearts won out. Not even Ebola can keep them from their life’s work in West Africa.

But why?

Why do they feel such a strong calling to return to Sierra Leone? That was my question as I kept reading. 

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Yo, New York Times: Religion ghost in your update on Baylor's Kenneth Starr?

Yo, New York Times: Religion ghost in your update on Baylor's Kenneth Starr?

When your family is full of Baylor University graduates, there is a very good chance that someone is going to send you a link to an A1 piece in The New York Times about the president of the school that many refer to as "Jerusalem on the Brazos."

Baylor's current president is one Kenneth W. Starr, a name familiar to people here in DC Beltway-land and a name that may show up in Google searches more often as Hillary Clinton makes a run at (returning to) the White House. Yes, there is a religion ghost in this fine story about Starr.

This particular story focuses on Starr's role in current NCAA debates about the amateur status of the athletes whose skills bring millions of dollars into the bank accounts of American colleges and universities. I love the fine details and close connections in this summary passage near the top of the story:

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Speaking of religion and politics, this is not your run-of-the-mill cause for pastor activism ...

Speaking of religion and politics, this is not your run-of-the-mill cause for pastor activism ...

Same-sex marriage. Abortion. Liquor by the drink.

It's not uncommon for pastors to speak out on controversial public issues — either from a strictly moral perspective or a political angle.

But this one, courtesy of Kentucky's Lexington Herald-Leader, is new to me (even though I live in a state where the deceased have been known to turn out in large numbers for elections):

There's no "Thou shalt not" on vote buying in the Bible, but it's a sin nonetheless, according to a group of Magoffin County pastors trying to discourage the pernicious practice in a place where it has long corrupted the fabric of politics.
The ministers have asked local candidates in the general election to make a public pledge not to buy votes or provide money for others to buy votes for them, and to report anyone who buys votes for them to Attorney General Jack Conway's office.
The local Salyersville Independent newspaper has been running a copy of the pledge in the paper with the names of those who have signed, and posting photos of the signed pledges on its Facebook page.

Keep reading, and the Herald-Leader provides a nice piece of religious imagery, straight out of Exodus:

Judge-Executive Charles "Doc" Hardin said nearly every candidate for local office has signed the pledge, himself included.
Justin Williams, who pastors Lakeville Baptist Church and helped organize the effort, said the hope was that the pledge "will ultimately lead to a day that when I take my daughters to vote for the first time, that vote buying will be a distant memory in Magoffin County."
That wouldn't qualify as a miracle on the order of parting the Red Sea, but it would be remarkable.

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And this just in! Southern Baptists still convinced Christianity has been correct on marriage for 2,000 years

And this just in! Southern Baptists still convinced Christianity has been correct on marriage for 2,000 years

I think it is time for a moratorium on the use of the word "rail" by mainstream journalists, or at least by those who are not writing editorial columns or essays for advocacy publications.

Maybe it is time to say that we should only rail unto others as we would like them to rail unto us.

Now, I know that the word "rail" is legitimate and can be used accurately. I am simply saying that there is a high test for communications that can be accurately described with this word. Consider the following online dictionary material:


rail ... verb (used without object)
1. to utter bitter complaint or vehement denunciation ... to rail at fate. complain or protest strongly and persistently about. "he railed at human fickleness"

Elsewhere, you can find synonyms such as to "fulminate against, inveigh against, rage against, speak out against, make a stand against" and so forth. Now, some of those are fairly neutral and others capture the way this term is commonly used in news reporting. I think "rage against" is the hot-button concept.

So with that in mind, consider this USA Today report about the current Southern Baptist Convention conference on the dark side of family life in a post-Sexual Revolution world. 

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New twists in Jahi McMath case -- but same old generic religion in media coverage

New twists in Jahi McMath case -- but same old generic religion in media coverage

Jahi McMath -- the teenage girl from California whose family is fighting to keep her alive against a hospital's brain-death diagnosis -- is back in the headlines.  Yet, even as Jahi's family says she is showing new signs of brain activity,  there is little sign that mainstream journalists feel the need to exercise their brains when describing the family's faith. Instead, they continue to keep the faith angle as generic as possible, chalking up the persistence of the teen's family to vague "religious grounds."

The San Jose Mercury News clearly sees recent developments in McMath's case as newsworthy, highlighting their novelty:

OAKLAND -- Her attorney calls her "Patient No. 1," a groundbreaking test of widely accepted standards defining brain death as a form of irreversible mortality. Indeed, as far as brain-dead patients go, Jahi McMath has entered uncharted territory.
Most families, according to medical experts, come to terms with a medical diagnosis of brain death within days. Loved ones gather to say goodbye as machines are shut off, organ donation decisions are made, funeral services planned.
Not so for Jahi, who would have celebrated her 14th birthday on Friday. Almost 11 months after she was first declared brain dead and became the subject of a national debate, the Oakland 13-year-old remains on machines -- a case unlike any recorded in the United States since the medical establishment first recognized brain death as a form of death in the past century, experts said. ...
Jahi's doctors say original tests performed on the girl were accurate but contend that, over time, the swelling in her brain has receded, and tests now show different results. Videos released by Dolan also show her limbs moving when her mother commands her to move.

The story doesn't link to the videos. Here is one in which Jahi appears to kick her foot at her mother's prompt.

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Generic god urges son of first U.S. Ebola victim to rush to Dallas hospital

Generic god urges son of first U.S. Ebola victim to rush to Dallas hospital

What we have here is another case of what we could call "generic-god syndrome." That's when claims of divine guidance or deliverance are important enough to feature in a mainstream news story, but not important enough to define with facts -- perhaps with a single clause in a single sentence.

Most of the time we see generic-god syndrome in sports coverage, or stories about the Grammy Awards. The stakes are much higher in a news story about Ebola.

As a former GetReligionista put it in an email: "Did the dallas ebola patient have faith? ... Looks like his son did ... maybe that offers a clue?" In this case, our former scribe was talking about material strong enough (yet it still needed to be vague) to provide the human-interest hook for a CBS News story.

Here's a large chunk of the story -- about the death of Thomas Eric Duncan -- to provide context. This comes right after the lede:

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