Journalism

Obits make Marcus Borg a "controversial" scholar, while downplaying the controversy

Obits make Marcus Borg a "controversial" scholar, while downplaying the controversy

Marcus Borg, by all accounts, blended a nice-guy approach with blunt denials of nearly every historic belief about Jesus. That often drove conservative believers to distraction, of course. But not mainstream media, which helped the Bible scholar spread his ideas for decades.

Much of that enthusiasm also marked the obits on Borg, who died Wednesday at 72. Among the most-republished obits is the detailed, 860-word obit from the Religion News Service.

RNS notes that Borg was a leader in the Jesus Seminar, which "helped popularize the intense debates about the historical Jesus and the veracity and meaning of the New Testament." The story correctly calls Borg a "liberal theologian and Bible scholar."

But it appears subtly to take sides in the debates:

Borg emerged in the 1980s just as academics and theologians were bringing new energy to the so-called 'quest for the historical Jesus,' the centuries-old effort to disentangle fact from myth in the Gospels.

Assuming that there is, in fact, myth in the Gospels puts a spin on the term. In another narrative tilt, RNS later says Borg was a "hero to Christian progressives and a target for conservatives." Borg's opponents, then, are against progress.

And although the obit quotes a couple of scholars saying they disagreed with Borg, it doesn't give the what or why of the disagreements. The article mentions Anglican scholar N.T. Wright, who often lectured with Borg and even co-authored a book with him. A live quote would have been a good idea. Otherwise, it's like recapping a horse race by talking mainly about one horse.

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Culture war of cakes: Associated Press story on gay rights, religious freedom less than perfect

Culture war of cakes: Associated Press story on gay rights, religious freedom less than perfect

There's a new twist on the ongoing story of Colorado bakers caught in the middle of the culture war.

The Associated Press boils down the latest development this way:

DENVER (AP) — A dispute over a cake in Colorado raises a new question about gay rights and religious freedom: If bakers can be fined for refusing to serve married gay couples, can they also be punished for declining to make a cake with anti-gay statements?
A baker in suburban Denver who refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding is fighting a legal order requiring him to serve gay couples even though he argued that would violate his religious beliefs.
But now a separate case puts a twist in the debate over discrimination in public businesses, and it underscores the tensions that can arise when religious freedom intersects with a growing acceptance of gay couples.
Marjorie Silva, owner of Denver's Azucar Bakery, is facing a complaint from a customer alleging she discriminated against his religious beliefs.
According to Silva, the man who visited last year wanted a Bible-shaped cake, which she agreed to make. Just as they were getting ready to complete the order, Silva said the man showed her a piece of paper with hateful words about gays that he wanted written on the cake. He also wanted the cake to have two men holding hands and an X on top of them, Silva said.
She said she would make the cake, but declined to write his suggested messages on the cake, telling him she would give him icing and a pastry bag so he could write the words himself. Silva said the customer didn't want that.

Overall, the AP story is pretty straightforward and makes an effort to present a range of viewpoints on the cake — er, culture — war.

But the opening sentence bothers me. 

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Terri Schiavo case revisited: What role did faith play in Jeb Bush's fight to keep her alive?

Terri Schiavo case revisited: What role did faith play in Jeb Bush's fight to keep her alive?

In a fascinating story, the Tampa Bay Times explores former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's role in the case of Terri Schiavo, the severely brain-damaged woman who died a decade ago after the feeding tube that sustained her for 15 years was removed.

The front-page report published Sunday focuses on Bush's decision to "err on the side of life" in a messy conflict over the fate of Schiavo, whom medical experts described as in a "persistent vegetative state."

The lede:

Tricia Rivas had never written to an elected official, but gripped with emotion, she composed an urgent email to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. "Please save Terri Schiavo!" she wrote from her home in Tucson, Ariz., on March 20, 2005. "Do something before it is too late … please! Every parent is watching this drama unfold … and will remember the outcome in future elections." Schiavo would be dead by the end of the month at a hospice near St. Petersburg, but not before Bush took a series of actions that, looking back a decade later, are stunning for their breadth and audacity.
A governor who was known for his my-way-or-the-highway approach — and who rarely was challenged by fellow Republicans controlling the legislative branch — stormed to the brink of a constitutional crisis in order to overrule the judicial branch for which he often showed contempt. Bush used his administration to battle in court after court, in Congress, in his brother's White House, and, even after Schiavo's death, to press a state attorney for an investigation into her husband, Michael Schiavo.
While many Republicans espouse a limited role for government in personal lives, Bush, now a leading contender for president in 2016, went all in on Schiavo.

Brief glimpses of faith and religion appear throughout the 2,200-word story. Unfortunately, those glimpses function more as flashing lights — as buzzwords — than real spotlights illuminating any kind of spiritual insight or depth.

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Washington Post's angle on crash survivor: Cue the laugh track

Washington Post's angle on crash survivor: Cue the laugh track

It's one thing when mainstream media miss a religious "ghost," a religious or spiritual angle in a news story. It's quite another when they spot a ghost, then ridicule it.

It happened when the Washington Post wrote up the story of Kaleb Whitby, the driver in eastern Oregon whose SUV was wedged between two semis in a 26-car pileup.

Whitby's vehicle crumpled like tinfoil, yet he walked away with only scratches. He told reporters that he'd prayed as the crash happened, and he thanked God for his survival.

A very normal reaction, whatever the theological issues. But the Post's writer, or his editor, rolled his eyes:

“Thank God that I’m still alive,” Whitby told the Oregonian. “Now I’ve got to go figure out why.”
Divine sources did not immediately respond to this reporter’s repeated requests for comment, so for now we’ll just have to attribute Whitby’s improbable survival to good old-fashioned luck — and no small amount of it, either.

This cynicism, thank God (if you'll pardon the expression), wasn’t the rule in the crash coverage. The report by KTVK-3TV in Arizona actually went the other way: One of the anchors said she posted the crash video on her Facebook page, adding, "This guy definitely had an angel looking over him at this moment."

The Oregonian, where the Post got much of its material, simply quoted Whitby -- "Thank God that I'm still alive. Now I've got to go figure out why" -- without a snide comment.

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Yo, Washington Post editors: Do faith issues matter to the Islamic State death crews? Maybe they do ...

Yo, Washington Post editors: Do faith issues matter to the Islamic State death crews? Maybe they do ...

Once again, we are seeing the dreaded orange jumpsuits on our television screens during the news. Once again, it appears that we have an Islamic State video threatening the lives of hostages, if a Western power does not give the terrorists what they want.

This time, it's Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who is facing the threats made by the YouTube-seeking terrorist with the British accent.

And who are the two hostages? What are there stories and, this time around, will journalists dig into the poignant details?

In The Washington Post, readers were told early on:

Japanese officials declined to discuss whether they would consider paying for the release of the hostages: journalist Kenji Goto Jogo and self-styled military consultant Haruna Yukawa.

The Post team doesn't tell us much about Goto, but is truly interested in the details of the story behind the "self-styled" -- what a loaded term -- military consultant.

Goto, 47, a well-respected Japanese journalist, was last heard from Oct. 24. He had told friends he was traveling to Kobane, a flashpoint town on the Turkish-Syrian border, but it is unclear exactly where he was kidnapped while covering Syria’s multiple conflicts.

And Yukawa? That's another story:

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For Supreme Court, it's all about that Muslim beard — or was religious liberty case really about Hobby Lobby?

For Supreme Court, it's all about that Muslim beard — or was religious liberty case really about Hobby Lobby?

Did you hear about the U.S. Supreme Court case involving a Muslim inmate's right to grow a beard for religious reasons? 

In case you missed it, justices ruled unanimously Tuesday in inmate Gregory Houston Holt's favor.

From The Washington Post:

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the court, said Arkansas prison officials had violated a federal law passed to protect religious practices from policies set by state and local officials.
Alito said the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act does not require a prison to grant religious exemptions simply because a prisoner asks or because other prisons do. But he said Arkansas officials offered no evidence that a short beard presented security risks or could serve as a hiding place for contraband, as the officials once argued.

Most of the media coverage — from CNN, The New York Times and others — seems pretty straightforward.

But give The Associated Press and the Post extra credit for explaining the prisoner's religious reasoning.

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Religion ghosts in media coverage of 7-year-old who survived plane crash that killed her family? Pastor says yes

Religion ghosts in media coverage of 7-year-old who survived plane crash that killed her family? Pastor says yes

Was there a religion angle in the Sailor Gutzler story — and did the media ignore it?

Right after the start of the new year, 7-year-old Sailor made national headlines when she survived a plane crash that killed her family.

The lede of The Associated Press' riveting account:

KUTTAWA, Ky. (AP) — Bleeding and alone, 7-year-old Sailor Gutzler had just survived a plane crash that killed her family. She walked through about a mile of woods and thick briar patches, wearing a short-sleeve shirt, shorts and no shoes in near-freezing temperatures when she saw a light in the distance.
The beacon led her to Larry Wilkins' home, police said, and she knocked on the door. Wilkins answered to find a thin, black-haired girl, whimpering and trembling.
"I come to the door and there's a little girl, 7 years old, bloody nose, bloody arms, bloody legs, one sock, no shoes, crying," Wilkins, 71, told The Associated Press on Saturday. "She told me that her mom and dad were dead, and she had been in a plane crash, and the plane was upside down."
Federal Aviation Administration officials arrived at the crash scene Saturday to try to determine why the small Piper PA-34 crashed on Friday evening, killing four people, including the girl's parents, Marty Gutzler, 48, and his wife, Kimberly Gutzler, 46, authorities said.
Also killed were Sailor's sister Piper Gutzler, 9; and cousin Sierra Wilder, 14. All were from Nashville, Illinois. The bodies have been sent to Louisville for autopsies.
The plane reported engine trouble and lost contact with air traffic controllers around 5:55 p.m. CST, authorities said. Controllers had been trying to direct the pilot to an airport about 5 to 7 miles from the crash scene, authorities said.
About 40 minutes later, 911 dispatchers received a call from Wilkins, who reported that a girl who had been involved in a plane crash had walked to his home.

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With USA Today and gay marriage, impatience is a virtue

With USA Today and gay marriage, impatience is a virtue

Come on, Catholic schools! Iit's been a whole week since gay marriage was legalized in Florida, and you still haven't given them medical and retirement benefits!

That's the impression that emerges from the lede of a story that USA Today ran on Jan. 14. A federal judge legalized same-sex marriage on Jan. 6, but Catholic schools didn't immediately extend to gay couples the same benefits as those for heteros.

The USA Today story seems to brim with impatience:

One week after gay marriage was legalized in Florida, several Catholic universities have not provided a clear same-sex benefits package for employees. There is increasing pressure for public and private employers alike to offer all benefits — from medical insurance to retirement — to all married couples regardless of sex, starting on the day that state gay marriage was legalized. In this case, that date was Jan. 6, 2015.

By "several Catholic universities," USA Today means two schools: Barry University in Miami Shores and St. Leo University in west-central Florida.  The state's other three Catholic schools of higher education -- St. Thomas University, Ave Maria University and Ave Maria School of Law -- are not in the article.

That doesn't stop USA Today from scolding all of the schools.  The newspaper literally lays down the law, via a quote from a gay rights leader:

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Your weekend think piece: Concerning the ratio of Paris coverage to that of Boko Haram

Your weekend think piece: Concerning the ratio of Paris coverage to that of Boko Haram

I am not a Calvinist, but it became very clear this past week that my "think piece" entry this weekend was predestined to be about this question: Why did the Charlie Hebdo massacre receive so much more coverage than the massacre of thousands of Christians and moderate Muslims in Nigeria?

On Twitter, I tried to point this out with a simple appeal: #IAmANigerianChristian. There weren't many takers.

How bad was this latest wave of death and destruction by Boko Haram? By the end of the week, GetReligion readers were sending in URLs about the fact that the best way to assess the damage was through satellite images. Check this out in The New York Times:

DAKAR, Senegal -- Thousands of buildings were burned, damaged or destroyed in northern Nigerian towns in recent days when Boko Haram militants stormed through, using scorched-earth tactics against civilians, according to a new analysis of satellite images by human rights groups.
In a succession of attacks, fighters from Boko Haram, an Islamist insurgent group that has gripped northern Nigeria and battled the government for years, have swept through a cluster of villages along the shores of Lake Chad in a “systematic campaign of arson directed against the civilian population in the area,” according to Human Rights Watch.
About 57 percent of one town, Doro Gowon, the location of a now-destroyed military base, appears to have been leveled, probably amounting to several thousand residential and commercial structures, Human Rights Watch said.
Amnesty International, which has also analyzed the satellite images, said Thursday that about 3,100 buildings in the town had been damaged or destroyed, demonstrating a “deliberate attack on civilians whose homes, clinics and schools are now burnt-out ruins.”

How bad was it? Eventually, journalists were so tired of hearing questions about the imbalance between the coverage of these two big stories -- almost always framed as lots of coverage of white, French secularists vs. minimal coverage of black, Nigerian Christians -- that some journalists began to fight back.

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