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CNN offers fine look at Prince the believer (while missing a key Jehovah's Witness belief)

CNN offers fine look at Prince the believer (while missing a key Jehovah's Witness belief)

It is perfectly normal for mainstream journalists to have to explain complicated subjects to their readers. It's part of the job.

At the moment, political reporters are trying to explain the differences between country-club Republicans, libertarian Republicans, neoconservative Republicans, Log Cabin Republicans, culturally conservative Republicans and Donald Trump. This is tough work. A few years ago I read a newspaper story that managed to explain the off-sides rule in soccer. Amazing!

But when it comes to stories that involve religious doctrine, journalists often stumble or punt. How many solid articles have you seen that explained the crucial doctrinal differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims?

This brings me to two news features about the final years of Prince, the time in which he retreated even further from public view after joining the Jehovah's Witnesses. CNN offered a fine piece, but omitted a crucial piece of doctrine at the heart of controversies about this religious movement, which many Christians consider a sect or even -- in doctrinal terms -- a cult. The Los Angeles Times, however, managed to give readers a short description of this doctrinal clash.

The CNN piece was quite solid in its fine details about the singer and the believers who knew him as another believer in their flock. Here is the overture:

(CNN) The world knew Prince as a pop star with a flamboyant, larger-than-life stage presence, overtly sexual songs and videos and gifted musical genius. But at the Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall, St. Louis Park congregation, Prince was just an understated man in a simple black suit.
"He was exceptionally shy," recalled congregation secretary Bruce McFarland.
Here they called him Brother Nelson and remember him slipping in after the opening song in the Sunday morning service, dutifully holding up his hand, clutching his Bible marked with post-it notes, patiently waiting his turn to discuss the Scripture.

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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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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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The artist named Prince: Was he ultimately a rebel for, or against, the Sexual Revolution?

The artist named Prince: Was he ultimately a rebel for, or against, the Sexual Revolution?

So, in the end, was Prince Rogers Nelson a hero of the Sexual Revolution or someone who, as he grew more mature, was a heretic who -- in the name of a controversial faith -- rejected many of the sexy doctrines he previously celebrated?

I'm not sure that there's a definitive answer to that, especially when talking about someone as complex as Prince (or TAPKAP). But I do think that it was crucial for journalists to let their readers know that this was an important question to ask.

In the first stories about the artist's death, the emphasis was totally on Prince the gender-blurring hedonist. But as the day went on, a few counter themes began to emerge.

You could see the struggle (and that's kind of a compliment) most clearly in The Washington Post, where the first news reports about Prince were baptized in his sexy '80s glory, while a sidebar openly discussed changes linked to his decision to join the Jehovah's Witnesses.

In the final obit, the Post team hinted early and, at the very end, mentioned that many seemed afraid to mention. Here's the solid lede:

A musical chameleon and flamboyant showman who never stopped evolving, Prince was one of the music world’s most enigmatic superstars. He celebrated unabashed hedonism, sang of broken hearts and spiritual longing and had a mysterious personal identity that defied easy definition.

The obit hit all of the fine details of the sexy Prince, from erotic guitar eruptions to skimpy costumes. It was difficult, at times, to tell what was happening when, in terms of his music and stage personas. If he never stopped evolving, then it's crucial to be precise about the young prince vs. the mature Prince.

At the very end, the news story offered this:

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Honoring Harriet Tubman, a Methodist, Republican, evangelical woman for the ages

Honoring Harriet Tubman, a Methodist, Republican, evangelical woman for the ages

After considerable backing and forthing, the Obama administration  announced April 20 that it will put Harriet Tubman on the front of the $20 bill. She’ll be the first African-American honored on U.S. currency, and one of very, very few women to be given this honor -- even briefly. Martha Washington and Pocahontas briefly held this distinction, and Susan B. Anthony dollar coins remain in circulation, but are no longer minted.

Tubman, the famed savior of slaves via the “underground railroad” and a Republican, supplants Democratic President Andrew Jackson, who’ll be relegated to the bill’s back along with the continuing White House image. The quip of the week prize goes to conservative economist and columnist John Lott, who tweeted: “On $20 bill, Ds replace Andrew Jackson, a founding father of D Party, w Harriet Tubman, a black, gun-toting, evangelical Xn, R woman.”

Also fast on the draw was Religion News Service, issuing “5 faith facts” about this devout Methodist in a format the wire has used to good effect with various 2016 candidates. The facts:

Tubman was nicknamed “Moses” after the biblical rescuer because she led  hundreds of slaves to freedom and attributed such bravery to faith in God. She experienced many vivid dreams and visions that she believed came from God.

Her favorite song in a personal hymnal she collected was “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” She believed that God directed her to go on the hunger strike that raised $20 to free her own parents from slavery. Her death-bed words in 1913 quoted Jesus Christ, “I go to prepare a place for you.”

It will be interesting to see how much the mainstream news-media coverage notes the powerful religious faith that drove this activist to glory.

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Interracial family faces prejudice: Whoa! That generic 'church' reference just isn't enough

Interracial family faces prejudice: Whoa! That generic 'church' reference just isn't enough

So, is the following statement true: A church is a church is a church is a church?

In other words, are all churches the same? When reporters cover stories about controversies linked to "a church," shouldn't it be a standard part of their journalistic marching orders to provide some kind of modifier or brand name in front of the word "church"?

I think most GetReligion readers would say "yes." Why pin some kind of blame on a vague institution when, with one or two questions, a journalist could dig out specific information to provide to readers?

You will see what I mean in the following story from The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. The headline -- "Mississippi RV park owner evicts interracial couple" -- doesn't point to the religion angle, so hang on. Here is the overture:

TUPELO -- A Mississippi RV park owner evicted an interracial couple because of the color of their skin.
“Me and my husband, not ever in 10 years have we experienced any problem,” said Erica Flores Dunahoo, who is Hispanic and Native American and whose husband, a National Guardsman, is African-American. “Nobody’s given us dirty looks. This is our first time.”
More than a half-century after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 barred discrimination on the basis of race, Gene Baker acknowledged asking the interracial couple to leave his RV park near Tupelo. Baker, who lives in Aberdeen, said he only did it because “the neighbors were giving me such a problem.”

The on-the-record reaction from Baker is crucial.

Later on in the story, readers are given this crucial information linked to Baker, which pulls the church angle into play:

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After the hate-cake blitz: It may be time for reporters to visit the Church of Open Doors

After the hate-cake blitz: It may be time for reporters to visit the Church of Open Doors

Let's pause, for a moment, and set aside in-depth discussions of Whole Foods security-camera footage and the strategic location of UPC labels.

Ditto for the zoomed-in analysis of high-definition photos that may show clashing colors in cake icing and the width of the letters on top of what is currently America's most controversial "Love Wins" cake.

There is also the irony that this story is unfolding in the people's republic of Austin, which is both the official capital of the state of Texas and the proudly weird Mecca of folks who want to live in Texas, without really living in Texas.

What I want to do is meditate, for a moment, on the difficulty of covering totally independent, nondenominational churches. During the blitz of hate-cake coverage yesterday, very few journalists paused to ask any questions about the Austin pastor at the center of this controversy and his "church plant," the Church of Open Doors.

One of the convenient things about covering large religious institutions, and religious denominations in particular, is that they offer reporters a chance to verify key facts when a minister and/or a congregation hits the headlines, for positive or negative reasons.

This basic reporting work is harder to do with independent congregations (and there are thousands of them and that number is rising all the time). Right now, it's clear that hardly anyone knows much of anything about the Rev. Jordan Brown and his flock. And let me ask again: Why do so many journalists decline to use the normal Associated Press style -- "the Rev." -- when dealing with African-American pastors?

There is Facebook, of course, where one can learn, in addition to the fact that 27 people have visited, that the church's slogan is: "We've taken tradition and religious doctrine and thrown them out the window."

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This faith-free BBC report asks: Why do so many modern wives in India commit suicide?

This faith-free BBC report asks: Why do so many modern wives in India commit suicide?

Is there a nation on earth in which religious beliefs and traditions play a more important, and more complex, role in daily life than India? At the same time, journalists have told me that it's almost impossible to write about many religious topics in India, especially in the country's own media.

Why is that?

To be blunt, there are issues that, as a Muslim student told me in a "Blind Spot" book forum in Bangalore, are too dangerous to cover, at least in explicit terms. If journalists write about some religious subjects in our newspapers, he said, then "people are going to die." Thus, reporters write about "community violence," instead of conflicts linked to religion. Their local readers know how to read the code.

Another key word in this code is "traditional." Hold that thought, as we dig into a BBC report that ran online with this headline: "Why are India's housewives killing themselves?" Here is the overture:

More than 20,000 housewives took their lives in India in 2014.
This was the year when 5,650 farmers killed themselves in the country.
So the number of suicides by housewives was about four times those by farmers. They also comprised 47% of the total female victims. Yet the high number of homemakers killing themselves doesn't make front page news in the way farmer suicides do, year after year. ... The rate of housewives taking their lives -- more than 11 per 100,000 people -- has been consistently higher than India's overall suicide rate since 1997.

This is all most strange, since -- as explained by a key source, Peter Mayer of the University of Adelaide -- marriage usually is linked to lower suicide rates. So what is happening in India?

Get ready for that key code word.

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Let punny headlines reign: Thumbs up as Dawn Eden completes doctorate in theology

Let punny headlines reign: Thumbs up as Dawn Eden completes doctorate in theology

Over the years, this here weblog has seen one or two skilled journalists hit the exit door in order to go to law school. Now, former GetReligionista Dawn Eden taken this whole post-journalism academic thing to a new level by completing a doctorate in theology.

Yes, what a long, strange trip it's been.

That popular music reference is intentional, since Dawn started out in journalism as a rock-music beat reporter before evolving into an award-winning creator of punchy headlines, at The New York Post and then the Daily News. You may want to surf this file of commentary about the writing of her famous "The Lady is a Trump" headline about one of the weddings of a certain public figure who is still in the news. Dawn offered her own very modest take on that episode in her GetReligion intro piece, called "The inky-fingered Dawn."

Now, Dawn has evolved once again, from her life as a popular Catholic apologist into an academic who has just complete a truly historic degree in theology. Here is a key chunk of a post up at The Dawn Patrol, her personal website.

The Doctoral Board ... gave me an A on both my dissertation and my presentation. Now I am set to graduate with my sacred-theology doctorate from the University of St. Mary of the Lake (Mundelein Seminary) on May 7, magna cum laude. It will be the first time in the university's history that a canonical (i.e. pontifically licensed) doctorate will be awarded to a woman.

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