Pope Francis in Kenya: AP gets some details, but misses the 'big idea,' in his message

Pope Francis in Kenya: AP gets some details, but misses the 'big idea,' in his message

Pope Francis has been on the road, again, which means that it's time for more stories about the political implications of his sermons and off-the-cuff remarks to the flocks of people who gather to pray and worship with him.

This is business as usual, of course. Want to play along and see how this works in a typical Associated Press report?

OK, first we'll look at the many excellent details from one of the Kenya talks that made it into the AP report, which ran in The Washington Post with this headline: "Pope calls slum conditions in Nairobi an injustice."

As you read several chunks of the story, ask yourself this big-idea question: What does this pope believe is the ultimate cause of this injustice?

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Visiting one of Nairobi’s many shantytowns on Friday, Pope Francis denounced conditions slum-dwellers are forced to live in, saying access to safe water is a basic human right and that everyone should have dignified, adequate housing. ...
In remarks to the crowd, Francis insisted that everyone should have access to water, a basic sewage system, garbage collection, electricity as well as schools, hospitals and sport facilities.
“To deny a family water, under any bureaucratic pretext whatsoever, is a great injustice, especially when one profits from this need,” he said.

Now, I think it is fair to ask: Is safe water the "big idea" in this talk, or is the pope saying that safe water is a symptom of larger problems? Hold that thought, as we head back to the AP text:

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Disturbing think piece for Thanksgiving week: It's time to open a file on Wilayat Sinai

Disturbing think piece for Thanksgiving week: It's time to open a file on Wilayat Sinai

Veteran GetReligion readers -- or religion-beat pros with a global perspective -- are probably familiar with the work of Dr. Jenny Taylor, a foreign-affairs reporter turned media critic, and Lapido Media, which is also known as the Centre for Religious Literacy in World Affairs.

I have featured "think pieces" from Lapido (which means "to speak up" in the Acholi dialect of Northern Uganda) here many times and will continue to do so. The simple fact of the matter is that news media on the other side of the pond are being forced -- ambushed by reality, really -- to take religion more seriously. Lapido's work is playing a role in helping journalists, and diplomats, dig deeper.

This brings me to the site's new briefing paper on the rise of Wilayat Sinai, the Islamic State affiliate that is on the rise in Egypt. This group was almost unknown in North American media -- until the alleged downing of that Russian airliner the other day.

So, reporters, are you like me? Is the name Abu Osama al-Masry almost totally foreign to you? Then this Lapido Media think piece -- continuing work the centre began publishing a year ago -- needs to go in your files. A sample or two? Sure.

A former Azhar student and clothing importer Abu Osama al-Masry claimed responsibility on behalf of Wilayat Sinai. ‘They were shocked by a people who sought the hereafter, loved death, and had a thirst for blood’, he said.
‘We will inherit your soil, homes, wealth, and capture your women! This is Allah’s promise’.

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How to fix children's Sunday school? Get rid of the Bible, Wall Street Journal reports

How to fix children's Sunday school? Get rid of the Bible, Wall Street Journal reports

At my home congregation in Oklahoma, a dedicated volunteer named Mrs. Camey has taught the kindergarten Sunday school class for two-plus decades.

After 12 months in Mrs. Camey's class, these kindergartners — typically 25 to 30 of them — can recite all 66 books of the Old and New Testaments, name the 12 apostles and tell you the fruits of the Spirit (giggling when their teacher teasingly asks if these fruits include oranges and pineapples).

Most Sundays, Mrs. Camey will read a story to these 5- and 6-year-olds straight from the Bible — and then they'll use colorful markers, scissors and glue to make a craft that helps them remember that week's lesson. About midway through the year, the children will start thumbing through their own Bibles to locate various books with the help of Mrs. Camey and her two teaching assistants.

In late July, after 12 spiritually rewarding months in Mrs. Camey's class, these students will don caps and gowns and graduate to the first grade — and a new group of kindergartners will arrive the next Sunday morning to start the process all over again.

My church's experience — with the kindergarten class and other grade levels — is a far cry from what I read about in a recent Wall Street Journal story.

As best I can tell, this Journal feature makes the case for improving Sunday school by, um, eliminating the Bible.

Go ahead and read the lede, and tell me if my synopsis is an exaggeration:

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Associated Press finds debates about Syrian refugee crisis -- among former refugees

Associated Press finds debates about Syrian refugee crisis -- among former refugees

The following is a public service announcement to mainstream journalists who are frantically trying to cover all of the different political angles of the current Syrian refugee debates: Please remember that the word "Syrian" does not equal "Muslim."

This is, of course, a variation on another equation that causes trouble for some journalists who are not used to covering religion: "Arab" does not equal "Muslim."

Thus, if and when you seek the viewpoints of Arab refugees who are already settled in America, including those who came here during previous waves of bloodshed in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, please strive to interview a few Syrian Christians and members of other religious minorities.

This is especially important when covering tensions in the declining industrial cities of the Midwest and Northeast, where Arabs of all kinds have been settling for generations. You will often find that many of these tensions are, literally, ancient.

This is a rather personal issue for me, since my family was part of an Orthodox parish for four years in South Florida (including 9/11) in which most of the families had Syrian and Lebanese roots. It also helps to remember that many people who come to America from Lebanon were driven into Lebanon by persecution in Syria, much earlier in the 20th Century.

To see these factors at work, check out this recent Associated Press "Big Story" feature that took the time to talk to a variety of voices on both sides of some of these divides.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) -- A few days ago, a pastor asked Syrian-born restaurant owner Marie Jarrah to donate food to a welcoming event for recently arrived Syrian refugees. Jarrah, who said she regularly helps people in need, declined.

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Lutherans and Catholics: Some major, major overlooked news to pursue

Lutherans and Catholics: Some major, major overlooked news to pursue

Pope Francis continues to confound conservative Catholics. A notable incident Nov. 15 got little attention in the mainstream press as the globe was transfixed by Islamist terrorism. This is an incident worth a second look from reporters.

During a Rome meeting with Lutherans, a wife asked the pontiff when she could receive Catholic communion alongside her Catholic husband. Francis responded:

“... You believe that the Lord is present. And what’s the difference? There are explanations, interpretations, but life is bigger than explanations and interpretations. Always refer back to your baptism – ‘one faith, one baptism, one Lord,’ this Paul tells us; and then consequences come later. I would never dare to give permission to do this because it’s not my own competence. One baptism, one Lord, one faith. Talk to the Lord, and then go forward. [Pause] And I wouldn’t dare, I don’t dare say anything more.”

Leaving aside the pope’s “competence,” his “go forward” is reasonably interpreted as “go ahead” if your own conscience says "go." Francis has roused similar debate over Communion for  remarried Catholics without the required annulments of first marriages.

Catholicism’s Catechism is explicit that Protestants shouldn’t receive at Mass until the whole tangle of doctrinal disagreements is resolved:

“Ecclesial communities derived from the Reformation and separated from the Catholic Church ‘have not preserved the proper reality of the Eucharistic ministry in its fullness, especially because of the absence of the sacrament of Holy Orders’ [quoting the Second Vatican Council’s 1964 decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio]. It is for this reason that Eucharistic intercommunion with these communities is not possible for the Catholic Church” (#1400).  

The Religion Guy learned about the pope’s words from Rod Dreher’s comments on his blog at

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$15 million lawsuit threat: Muslim 'clock boy' Ahmed Mohamed looking to strike it rich?

$15 million lawsuit threat: Muslim 'clock boy' Ahmed Mohamed looking to strike it rich?

Muslim "clock boy" Ahmed Mohamed is back in the news.

You may recall that we first highlighted media coverage of the Texas teen after his disputed arrest back in September.

The 14-year-old made headlines again in October after his family decided to move to Qatar.

The latest news has dollar signs (15 million of 'em) written all over it.

For an editorialized spin on this new development, Fox News (as always) is happy to oblige:

Ahmed Mohamed is looking to strike it rich before the clock strikes midnight on the “clock kid” story.
Attorneys for Mohamed, 14, and his family want $15 million in damages and apologies from several officials stemming from Mohamed’s September 14 arrest, when he brought to school a homemade clock that a teacher flagged as a possible bomb.

CNN provides a less tilted lede:

(CNN) Fifteen million dollars and apologies from the mayor and police chief.
That's what an attorney says the family of Ahmed Mohamed is demanding from city and school officials in Irving, Texas, or they say they'll file a civil suit.

And The Associated Press goes old-school inverted pyramid (not a bad approach at all on a story such as this):


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Washington Post goes inside ISIS propaganda machine (with near zero interest in message)

Washington Post goes inside ISIS propaganda machine (with near zero interest in message)

I was about halfway through the latest Washington Post news feature on life inside the Islamic State -- "Inside the surreal world of the Islamic State’s propaganda machine" -- when something hit me.

The Post team had produced a fascinating and haunting piece about the ISIS teams that crank out its propaganda, while focusing only on the hellish or heavenly images in the videos. Apparently the words that define the messages contained in all of this social-media material are completely irrelevant.

This is rather strange, considering the meaning of the word "propaganda," as defined in your typical online dictionary:

prop·a·gan·da ... noun
1. derogatory information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.

After 20-plus years of teaching mass communications and journalism, trust me when I say that I know that we live in a visual, emotional age. The Post article does a great job of describing the care given to the images and the music that are helping define the Islamic State for both its converts and enemies.

But are the words that define the visual symbols completely irrelevant? Why ignore what the voices and texts are saying about the goals and teachings of the caliphate?

I can only think of one reason: Quoting the content of the propaganda would require the reporters and editors at the Post to deal with the twisted, radicalized version of Islam that ISIS leaders are promoting, it would mean dealing with the content of the state's theology (as opposed to its political ideology, alone). Ignore the words and you can continue to ignore the religion element in this story.

OK, that's my main point. I also want to stress that this is a must-read story, even with this massive Allah-shaped hole in its content.

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USA Today plays it straight: Star running back who is headed to the Catholic priesthood

USA Today plays it straight: Star running back who is headed to the Catholic priesthood

I had a sense of dread -- two of them, come to think of it, if that's possible -- as I started reading this USA Today story about Division III football star Jordan Roberts and his journey into the Catholic priesthood.

On one level I was afraid that the story would simply be too cute. You know: Future priest runs to glory and all that, like a bad version of "Rudy."

The flip side of that would have been to label on the snark, either about the church itself or the quality of football being played at this level. No, honest. A writer could have pulled that off. This school is so minor league that even a man in a collar can run the ball off tackle.

Instead, this turned into one of the most moving God-and-gridiron pieces I have read in quite a long time. I especially like the fact that the story started in church, rather than on the playing field.

ST. PAUL -- Sundays are sacred at the St. John Vianney Seminary, a plain five-story red-brick building across a grassy quad from the main chapel at the University of St. Thomas. It is the only day Jordan Roberts and 133 brother seminarians studying to be Roman Catholic priests may wear priestly garb for Mass -- black cassocks with the white Roman collar.
Rising at 6 a.m., they begin their day with Holy Hour prayer and morning Mass. They end it with a rosary and lights out at 9:30 p.m. Last Sunday, seminary officials permitted Roberts a brief leave in late afternoon to join another fraternal group -- his St. Thomas football teammates -- to watch the NCAA Division III playoff selection show. Roberts is the Tommies' top rusher and scorer.

There are all kinds of interesting details, starting with the fact that Roberts converted to Catholicism as a young man.

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Three things to know about 'Spotlight,' the new movie about journalists investigating clergy sexual abuse

Three things to know about 'Spotlight,' the new movie about journalists investigating clergy sexual abuse

I saw "Spotlight" over the weekend and loved it.

Of course, I'm a journalist, so I obviously would appreciate a film in which all the actors dress as crummily as me.

Seriously, I identify with the reporters and editors who meticulously dig to tell an important story. They knock on doors to interview key players, sue for access to crucial court documents and develop relationships with inside sources.   

With cheap ink pens and notepads as their major tools, they change the world. That's journalism at its best.

For Godbeat watchers, here are three important things to know about "Spotlight":

1. It's a great movie.

A Wall Street Journal reviewer gushed:

To turn a spotlight fittingly on “Spotlight,” it’s the year’s best movie so far, and a rarity among countless dramatizations that claim to be based on actual events. In this one the events ring consistently — and dramatically — true.
The film was directed byTom McCarthy from a screenplay he wrote with Josh Singer. It takes its title from the name of the Boston Globe investigative team that documented, in an explosive series of articles in 2002, widespread child abuse by priests in the Catholic archdiocese of Boston, and subsequent cover-ups by church officials. The impact of the series, which prompted the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law and won a Pulitzer Prize for the paper, was cumulative and profound — what began as a local story ramified into an international scandal. Remarkably, Mr. McCarthy, his filmmaking colleagues and a flawless ensemble cast have captured their subject in all its richness and complexity. “Spotlight” is a fascinating procedural; a celebration of investigative reporting; a terrific yarn that’s spun with a singular combination of restraint and intensity; and a stirring tale, full of memorable characters, that not only addresses clerical pedophilia but shows the toll it has taken on its victims.

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