Podcasts

Why the whole 'Is President Obama a Christian?' controversy just won't die

Why the whole 'Is President Obama a Christian?' controversy just won't die

This week's "Crossroads" podcast focuses on the Frankenstein question in American public life that has left journalists shaking their heads and muttering, "It's alive, it's alive!"

I am referring, of course, to the whole Gov. Scott Walker and the "Is President Barack Obama a Christian?" thing. Then that media storm -- click here for my previous post -- led into the silly "Does Scott Walker really think that he talks with God?" episode.

Then again, am I alone in thinking that some rather cynical political reporters are creating these monsters and trying to keep them alive? Whatever. I remain convinced that Obama is what he says he is: A liberal Christian who made a profession of faith and joined the United Church of Christ, a denomination that has long represented the left edge of free-church Protestantism.

Anyway, host Todd Wilken and I ended up spending most of our time talking about the subject that I am convinced is looming behind the whole "Is Obama a Christian" phenomenon, especially this latest flap with Walker. Click here to listen in on the discussion.

Believe it or not, this brings us to a discussion of a question that quietly rumbled through the Southern Baptist blogosphere the other day: Forget the question of whether the 21 Coptic Christians who were beheaded by the Islamic State should be declared as Christian martyrs? Were they actually Christians in the first place?"

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Does it matter that a pro-Second Amendment rights, pro-abortion-rights, pro-gay rights atheist killed three Muslim students?

Does it matter that a pro-Second Amendment rights, pro-abortion-rights, pro-gay rights atheist killed three Muslim students?

Well, you just knew that Craig Stephen Hicks had to be some kind of conservative, even if of an angry libertarian stripe.

So is it relevant that the man who is alleged to have gunned down three young Muslim college students has described himself -- his social media profile, or parts of it, are now fair game for mainstream journalists -- as a "gun toting" atheist and that he had a concealed weapons permit? Of course it is.

Does it matter that, as the Associated Press reported that:

... Hicks often complained about both Christians and Muslims on his Facebook page. "Some call me a gun toting Liberal, others call me an open-minded Conservative," Hicks wrote.

Yes, that matters, too. Still, I am not sure that "complained" is the right word, in this case. As The Los Angeles Times has noted, scores of people online are just not buying that:

"U won't see this on the news because it's about a Muslim," one Muslim user tweeted overnight, in a sentiment that was retweeted more than 1,400 times and that was widely shared across social media. Many users also criticized CNN for an early-morning tweet that asked, "Did their faith play a role in the shooting?"
"THEIR FAITH!!!" one Egyptian user tweeted back, earning dozens of retweets. "how about the beliefs of the terrorist who shot them, CNN?"

Yes, Hicks is a man who appears to have had many, many beliefs and they don't add up to a convenient label that fits in 140 characters.

The key question, as the day-two coverage rolls in: Which of his religious, political and cultural beliefs are relevant when discussing possible motives?

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Year 11: It's still important to keep saying that the mainstream press needs to get religion

Year 11: It's still important to keep saying that the mainstream press needs to get religion

The conference last month in Westminster was called "Getting Religion," which tells you something right there. It was sponsored by England's Open University and the Lapido Media, an organization that promotes religious literacy among diplomats and journalists.

The chairman of Lapido Media could not be at the event, however, since he had died weeks earlier at his home in Norway. His name, as loyal GetReligion readers know, was the Rev. Dr. Arne Fjeldstad and this academic, Lutheran pastor and mainstream journalist also served as the director of The Media Project that has backed GetReligion since Day One.

Today marks the 11th anniversary of the birth of this weblog and, to be blunt about it, there is no way to talk about this past year without starting with the death of Arne Fjeldstad and, at the same time, the continuing relevance of the academic and journalistic materials that he worked so hard to produce through GetReligion, the "Getting Religion" event and many other similar projects. He was convinced, as we all are here, that there is no way for journalists (and diplomats as well) to understand real news in the lives of real people living in the real world without taking religion seriously.

Here is some of what British media critic Dr. Jenny Taylor, the founder of Lapido Media, had to say when Arne died:

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Why doesn’t the Bible mention dinosaurs? (Plus, the Religion Guy visits 'Crossroads')

Why doesn’t the Bible mention dinosaurs? (Plus, the Religion Guy visits 'Crossroads')

EDITOR'S NOTE: Check out Richard Ostling's first "Crossroads" podcast, focusing on coverage of Islam and violence. Listen in right here, or subscribe to the podcasts at iTunes.

TOM SAYS:

I am confused when the Bible talks about God creating the world in seven days but there is no evidence of humans living with dinosaurs.

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This problem arises if “creationism” controls Bible interpretation. That term has come to identify those Protestants whose strictly literal reading of the Bible’s Book of Genesis requires a “young earth.” That is, if God created the cosmos and all species 10,000 years ago at most, then humanity and dinosaurs must have lived at the same time.

“Creationism” is a common but simplistic, misleading label because multitudes who worship God as the creator of all nature also accept standard geology’s vastly longer time frame, based on radiometric and other dating techniques of the past two centuries. By this reckoning, dinosaurs first inhabited Earth some 230 million years ago and became extinct 65.5 million years ago, eons before humanity appeared. The most recent report last November said a dinosaur find in southwestern Alberta, Canada, may be 80 million years old.

“Old earth creationists” believe scientists’ long chronology readily fits with faithfulness to the Bible’s account of origins, but criticize Darwin’s theory of evolution. A third camp of self-identified Bible believers embraces both an old earth and “theistic evolution,” seeing Darwin’s scenario as God’s method of forming species while opposing contentions that evolution was random and without purpose or a Creator.

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Why are 'Christian movies' so bad? Talking about Jolie, Zamperini, 'Unbroken' and wisdom from Robert Duvall

Why are 'Christian movies' so bad? Talking about Jolie, Zamperini, 'Unbroken' and wisdom from Robert Duvall

It's a question I have puzzled over throughout my career as a journalist and as a mass-media professor: Why are "Christian movies" so bad?

Yes, there need to be quotes around the term "Christian movies." We are not talking about movies that are made by talented Christians who work in mainstream film. We're not talking about Frank "It's a Wonderful Life" Capra in the past or Scott "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" Derrickson in the present.

No, we're talking about, well, you know -- "Christian movies." The kinds of movies that resemble fundraising letters aimed at people in niche pews. Yes, Hollywood makes some preachy movies, too. That's a topic for another day, another podcast.

But why are those "Christian movies" so bad? Another Christian in the Hollywood mainstream, David "Home Improvement" McFadzean once offered up this brutal quote: The typical "Christian movie" is very similar to a porno movie. "It has terrible acting. It has a tiny budget. And you know exactly how it's going to end."

Ouch.

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Pod people: Looking at the year's Top 10 religion-beat stories, through the eyes of the late George W. Cornell

Pod people: Looking at the year's Top 10 religion-beat stories, through the eyes of the late George W. Cornell

Anyone who knows their religion-beat history knows this byline -- George W. Cornell of the Associated Press.

When he died in 1994, the national obituaries called him the "dean of American religion writers" and that was precisely the role that he played for decades, especially for those of us who broke into the religion-news business back in the 1970s and '80s.

However, when I did a series of interviews with him in 1981, for my graduate project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign ("The Religion Beat: Out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets") he simply described himself as the AP's religion writer for all of planet earth. How would you like to try to handle that job? (The Vatican bureau didn't count, he explained, because editors tended to view that as a political and international-news bureau.)

George had a private tradition in which, every year, he analyzed the Associated Press list of the world's top 10 stories and counted the ones that -- seen through his veteran eyes -- were built on facts and history rooted in religion. He never saw a year with fewer than five of these stories, he told me, and frequently there would be more than that.

Ah, he explained, but were the religion facts and angles in these stories (a) covered accurately, (b) presented in a way that could be understood by the general public or (c) covered AT ALL?

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Concerning 'holiday movies,' 'Christmas movies' and the civil religion found in shopping malls

Concerning 'holiday movies,' 'Christmas movies' and the civil religion found in shopping malls

It was one of quieter moments in the Christmas classic "Home Alone," tucked in between the church-pew chat with the scary next door neighbor and the open warfare between young Kevin McCallister and the "wet bandits." Do you remember the line?

Bless this highly nutritious microwavable macaroni and cheese dinner and the people who sold it on sale. Amen.

As prayers go, it wasn't much. However, this iconic moment also featured an heroic America child making the sign of the cross as he blessed his food. That's not your typical Hollywood gesture, either.

It caught my attention and it also intrigued the conservative Jewish film critic Michael Medved, especially when the film became a (surprise!) runaway hit with a US box-office gross the came close to $300,000,000.

I talked to Medved about the film back in 1991 -- pre-WWW, so no URL to that full column -- and he told me that "Home Alone" was a perfect example of a typical "holiday movie" that, with just a few nods of respect for faith and family, turned into a box-office smash that is also known as a true "Christmas movie."

I've been interested in this phenomenon ever since and, this week, that served as the hook for the latest GetReligion "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Now, there is much that can be said about that "holiday movie" tag.

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So what was the point of that 'Tom Hanks goes to church' post the other day?

So what was the point of that 'Tom Hanks goes to church' post the other day?

Hang in there with me for a moment on this one. I want to respond to a few comments I have heard after my recent post on that faith-free Washington Post feature story about superstar Tom Hanks.

But first, let me dig into a topic that "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I discussed in depth while recording this past week's podcast (we're getting to this late because of technical issues). Click here to tune in on that.

Why is Hanks such an important, symbolic cultural figure in the first place?

Let's ponder this for a bit.

Long ago, I had a chance to interview Hollywood director Phil Alden Robinson about some of the cultural and religious themes woven into his famous "Field of Dreams" blockbuster. We discussed, for example, (a) the mental process he went though as he was casting the highly symbolic role of Dr. Archibald "Moonlight" Graham and (b) what he thought of the theory, which some articulated even as he was preparing to film this classic, that he was trying to produce the Baby Boomer edition of "It's A Wonderful Life."

Imagine, he told me, how many people would have connected those two movies if his first choice to fill the Moonlight Graham role had been able to play the part.

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Do 'evangelicals' in the Church of England support or oppose female bishops? Yes

Do 'evangelicals' in the Church of England support or oppose female bishops? Yes

For the past 20-plus years, the overwhelming majority of my students have come from schools that could, to one degree or another, accurately be described as part of "evangelical" Protestant life here in America.

Yes, there are quotes around the word "evangelical," not because the word is scary, but because many people, including journalists, are not sure what it means.

Early on, most of my students -- when asked what kind of church they attend -- would have described themselves as part of flocks that were "independent," "nondenominational" and "evangelical." A few would have added the word "charismatic." The common denominator, however, was the word "evangelical."

Then, about six or seven years ago, that totally changed. Oh, most of my students still come from schools that can be called "evangelical." Most grew up in "evangelical" churches and most still attend churches that can be called "evangelical" to one degree or another. However, many if not most students are now backing away from that word -- "evangelical."

The reason why is pretty obvious: "Evangelical" has become a political term in public discourse.

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