Godbeat

It's Easter for the Orthodox: Chicago Tribune comes this close to facing a weeping icon

It's Easter for the Orthodox: Chicago Tribune comes this close to facing a weeping icon

Writing a news report about an event that lots of people believe is a miracle is a difficult task. This is especially true with reports of healing when, often for legal reasons, the medical professionals linked to the case are not anxious to be interviewed or to provide relevant documentation from tests.

However, it's much easier to write about a phenomenon -- an object for example -- that can be examined by the senses, including the senses of skeptical journalists. That's what I kept thinking about as I read the Chicago Tribune news feature that ran under the headline, "Thousands flock to 'miracle' icon at south suburban church."

First of all, I am glad that the Tribune ran a story hooked to this year's Eastern Orthodox celebration of Pascha (Easter). This May 1 date on the ancient Julian calendar is very late in the spring, in comparison with this year's March 27 Easter date in the modern West.

Second, I was thankful that voices of believers are given quite a bit of space in this piece. However, well, where are the unbelievers? And if the story is going to focus on claims of a miracle then why not talk to some experts, in terms of theology and science? After all, we are talking about a very familiar phenomenon -- an Orthodox icon exuding a mysterious substance. Information on this phenomenon is only a few mouse clicks away. We aren't dealing with a large flour tortilla in Cleveland that appears to contain an image of LeBron James.

OK, let's look at a few pieces of this report, beginning with the overture:

As millions of Orthodox Christians around the world prepare to celebrate Easter this Sunday and the miracle of Jesus Christ's resurrection, thousands across the Chicago area are flocking to a southwest suburban parish to see what they believe to be a different miracle.

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Hot-button question: Is the history contained in the New Testament reliable?

Hot-button question: Is the history contained in the New Testament reliable?

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

How can we get people informed about the results of academic biblical scholarship, work that completely undermines the ordinary popular conception of Christianity and faith? Why are Christians not interested in the truth?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

“What is truth?”, Pilate asked Jesus. Or did he? America’s “Jesus Seminar” claimed the Roman tyrant never spoke those famous words and, for that matter, much else in the New Testament never happened either. Norman worries that people aren’t “informed.” Sunday School and CCD may not teach  doubts, but people who don’t know about media promotion of biblical disputes must be living under a rock.

Various degrees of skepticism usually characterize the “higher criticism” conveyed at U.S. colleges. The Jesus Seminar represented the radical wing. Even liberals scoffed at the theatrics when Seminar panelists voted on the authenticity of each verse. The verdict: “82 percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels were not actually spoken by him” while there was a “16 percent historical accuracy rate” for the 176 recorded events in Jesus’ life.

At least Jesus was indeed crucified, the Seminar said. However, two panelists doubted he even existed. They had to discount not only the Gospels but Paul’s letters 20 years after the crucifixion, Roman and Jewish writers (Pliny, Suetonius, Tacitus, Josephus), and other documents.

Skepticism is nothing new and originated in Europe’s “Enlightenment” era, especially in Germany.

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Coming soon to the pews near you: Transgender wars and copy-desk perplexities

Coming soon to the pews near you: Transgender wars and copy-desk perplexities

On the sexuality beat, much news involves the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2015 gay marriage mandate. In particular, should government should protect, or penalize, artists and merchants who want to avoid cooperating with same-sex wedding rites due to religious conscience?

Journalists need to understand that this is a mere skirmish compared with far more potent church-state fights that inevitably lie ahead.

Meanwhile, transgender conflicts are fast gaining media momentum. At issue: Should public lavatories and shower rooms be open to transgender individuals whose “gender identity” is the opposite of their birth genetics and anatomy? In other words, biological men using women’s rooms and vice versa. 

The national headlines cover federal and state actions, but the same problem will soon be coming to a public school near you -- if it hasn’t already.

What does this have to do with religion-news work? Well, religious groups and individuals are usually at the forefront of those favoring traditional toilet and shower access.

Frank Bruni, whose New York Times columns neatly define the Left’s cultural expectations, sees the wedding merchant and lavatory debates as one and the same. In both cases, he asserts, a ”divisive, “cynical” and “opportunistic” “freakout” by conservatives has “egregiously” violated LGBT equality. Thus the “T” for transgender and “B” for bisexual are fully fused with the victorious lesbian and gay causes.

Christian organizations judged to be “anti-LGBT” are on the list of “hate groups” from liberals’ influential Southern Poverty Law Center.

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Islamophobia: Wrestling with the subjective from Southwest Airlines to Latvia

Islamophobia: Wrestling with the subjective from Southwest Airlines to Latvia

My GetReligion colleague Bobby Ross Jr. published a post last week about the removal of a California man from a Southwest Airlines flight after another passenger overheard him speak Arabic and became concerned. If you missed the Southwest saga, click here for an Associated Press report on the incident.

Bobby's focus was that the line between irrational Islamophobia and rational precaution is often fuzzy, and that journalists sometimes rush to assume the former because "we journalists love victims."

Good point. The white-hat-versus-black-hat trope is a journalism classic.

Now let's state this issue of subjective judgement another way: Given how complicated the question of when-is-it and when-isn't-it Islamophobia can become, should journalists even try to discern between the two in what we quaintly refer to as straight, or hard, news stories, beyond the he-said, she-said level? I don't think so.

In the case of an airline about to take off, I find it difficult to argue against putting group passenger safety over all other concerns. That includes taking the risk of showing ignorance or acting insensitively toward one or more Muslim or Arab-speaking passengers in a highly sensitive, ethnically, racially and politically charged setting.

I'm not an Arabic speaker, Muslim or person or color so perhaps I'm just not as sensitive to this issue as I might be if I were any of these things. Let me also stipulate that I fly to Israel often and I can recall on more than one occasion mentally frowning when I thought some non-Israeli airline was being lax in its pre-boarding security checks.

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Yes, the Austin American-Statesman sent a reporter to the Rev. Jordan Brown's church

Yes, the Austin American-Statesman sent a reporter to the Rev. Jordan Brown's church

For those who are curious, The Austin American-Statesman did send a reporter to the anticipated Sunday Church of Open Doors service to see if the Rev. Jordan Brown or any members of his "We've taken tradition and religious doctrine and thrown them out the window" flock decided to attend.

Even though the news report that resulted was short, and rather grammatically challenged, it did yield some interesting information for journalists and news consumers attempting to follow up on the hate-cake incident.

As I said in an early post (and in this past week's "Crossroads" podcast) I am convinced journalists covering Brown's lawsuit, and the resulting counter-suit by the legal team at Whole Foods, need to know if this shepherd does, in fact, have a flock. If so, who are the lay leaders who oversee his ministry?

So here is the top of the report in The American-Statesman:

A traditional Sunday gathering led by an Austin man who targeted Whole Foods Market with controversial, viral allegations that backfired last week didn’t hold its usual services today.
Jordan Brown, who said he pastors a small group, the Church of Open Doors, didn’t have their usual meeting out of his East Austin apartment complex Sunday.

Now, take out the word "traditional" and then substitute "congregation" for "gathering" and that lede makes some sense. I really don't know what happened in the second sentence. It seems that something is missing.

The key fact here is that journalists still have had zero contact with anyone from the congregation.

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Weekend think piece: Tips for how to think your way through Pope Francis coverage

Weekend think piece: Tips for how to think your way through Pope Francis coverage

Let's get one thing clear right up front about this post. I have no intention of comparing Adolph Hitler with Pope Francis. Got that?

However, long ago -- while at graduate school at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign -- I did a readings course about post-Holocaust trends in world Judaism. You can't read about that horror without reading about Hitler.

I wish I could remember who said this, because I would like to give full credit, but one of the authors I read said that, most of the time, commentaries about Hitler almost always tell you more about the writers than about Hitler. I know I ran into this concept again years later when I interviewed journalist Ron Rosenbaum, author of "Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil."

What does this have to do with Francis?

Journalists on the religion beat, news-consumers at large, please ask yourself this question: When you stop and think about the public impact of Pope Francis, how much are you reacting to the pope's own words, as opposed to news-media (and church media) commentaries about his words? When you read elite media coverage of a new statement by the pope, are you confident that you know what the pope said as a whole, as opposed to one or two sentences that have been used to create a headline?

With these questions in mind, please consider this new think piece from The National Catholic Register by Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, which ran under the headline, "5 Ways to Avoid Unhelpful Pope Francis “Mind Reading." Here is her overture:

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After the hate-cake blitz: Where is the actual flock behind Pastor Brown's open door?

After the hate-cake blitz: Where is the actual flock behind Pastor Brown's open door?

Is there anything new to say, at this point, about the Rev. Jordan Brown, his Church of Open Doors and the mysterious case of the alleged Whole Foods hate cake?

The short answer is, "no." Of course, that tells us something about these viral, digital media storms that blow up on Twitter and then fade away. At some point, there is real reporting that needs to get done.

The key, is this point, is that there is little evidence that the same mainstream media that ran with the story early on -- The Austin America Statesman, for example -- are interested in exploring the next stage of the drama. In a post the other day, and in our "Crossroads" podcast this week, I suggested that it would be important to find out more about Brown's congregation -- such as whether it's alive and viable. (I just noticed that it's last schedule worship service was at noon on April 3 -- the week after Western Easter).

So what happens this Sunday?

Now, a GetReligion reader went online and dug out some basic, very helpful information that would have added some depth to the tsunami of early online items about this alleged hate crime:

I am not a journalist but I did do some checking on the Church of Open Doors. The "congregation" meets in the community room/area of an apartment complex. The official mailing address is a post office box at an establishment named "Drive Thru Postal". On the "church" website, there is no mention of governance or oversight.
According to Facebook link, the "church" utilizes MailChimp, I went to MailChimp and found the archive of emails for the "church" and the majority of them are pleas for money. This is the most recent:

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Why did Catholic News Service fire its editor? You won't learn much about that from NPR

Why did Catholic News Service fire its editor? You won't learn much about that from NPR

One piece of news that slipped beneath some peoples' notice last week was the quiet exit of Tony Spence, longtime editor of Catholic News Service. CNS is not known as a bastion of liberal thought, so I was surprised to learn the problem here was some tweets that Spence had posted on his personal feed. 

Posting sentiments that cut across the grain of your full-time employer is pretty risky but maybe Spence, 63, felt he had the seniority and stature to speak his mind. But the blogosphere got him, as it tends to do, to the point where his employer could not defend him.

It's a sign of our edgy cyber-times. Read more about it from NPR

 

The director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, a news agency affiliated with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has reportedly been pushed out of his position after an outcry over tweets endorsing LGBT rights.
Two prominent Catholic news outlets have reported that Tony Spence resigned this week at the request of an official in the bishops conference.
Spence, who has headed the CNS since 2004, was active on Twitter -- tweeting mostly about news within the Catholic Church, but occasionally sharing stories on the journalism industry, world news and pop culture. He tweeted about sainthood dates, the pope and refugees, Flannery O'Connor's faith and the infuriating failures of the D.C. metro.
But it was tweets about the gender identity legislation in North Carolina and what supporters call the "religious liberties" measure in Mississippi, and related issues of LGBT rights, that reportedly led to his dismissal.

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'Jesus man': Franklin Graham backs Phil Robertson prayer and Charlotte Observer growls

'Jesus man': Franklin Graham backs Phil Robertson prayer and Charlotte Observer growls

Oooooooo, two trigger words: "Jesus" and "man." That brought the usual howls of outrage from the likes of the New York Daily News, which said Robertson "goosed at least half the country" with his prayer. And from the Sporting News, which said that allowing Robertson's prayer made NASCAR "look like a confederacy of dunces."

We could ask: When you request a public prayer from a backwoods fundamentalist supporter of Ted Cruz, what did you expect? But more disappointing to me is how the otherwise responsible Charlotte Observer held up for derision not only the prayer, but evangelist Franklin Graham for defending it.

In an article mysteriously bearing the byline of Godbeat pro Tim Funk, the Observer first joins those who read a ton into Phil's prayer:

Robertson, who has endorsed Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas for president, would seem to have ruled out a Democrat in his prayer: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is a Methodist but not a man, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is a man but not a Christian (he’s Jewish).
Various racing writers criticized Robertson for using his prayer before the Texas Motor Speedway’s Duck Commander 500 to further his own political agenda.
"There are Democrats who enjoy NASCAR," wrote one of them, Associated Press auto racing writer Jenna Fryer. "Jews and atheists and women, too."

Then the article segues into a kind of syllabus of errors, protesting the religio-political pronouncements on Graham's Facebook page. It tells how Graham defends a 1994 federal crime bill, criticizes Bruce Springsteen for canceling a concert in Greensboro, and endorses a bill in Alabama to recognize the fetus as a person.

Oh, and the Observer also notes Graham's support of a North Carolina law branded a "bathroom bill" by opponents. The law declares all government lockers and restrooms, including schools, to be used by people of their biological gender. It sparked anger in Charlotte for overturning that city's LGBT ordinance.

This is all written up as if it's freakish to see someone write his beliefs on Facebook. And it was all in a newspaper article labeled only "Religion" -- not "Opinion" or "Commentary" or any other warning to "Brace yourself for 700 words of my views."

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