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Kellerism on right? Dialogue with atheist reader about coverage of military chaplains

Kellerism on right? Dialogue with atheist reader about coverage of military chaplains

Your GetReligionistas get quite a few emails from readers that you never hear about "out front" here on the blog. Many are from professionals on the Godbeat and others come from journalists on copy desks and on other beats. All are read carefully and appreciated.

We also have critics, of course, and we pay close attention to them, too, especially the constructive folks who are actually talking about journalism issues, rather than their own pet political or cultural issues. One long-time reader I have always appreciated is atheist Ray Ingles, who makes regular appearances in our comments pages.

The other day he sent me a Washington Times URL for a story on another military-chaplain dispute, with the simple question in the email subject line: "Do you think this was balanced?" The story opened like this:

Soon there may only be atheists in the foxholes.
Christians are leaving the U.S. military or are discouraged from joining in the first place because of a “hostile work environment” that doesn’t let them express their beliefs openly, religious freedom advocates say.

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Peace with the aging prog-nuns: Who gets to correct them and about what?

Peace with the aging prog-nuns: Who gets to correct them and about what?

So one of the big stories of the day is this: Did the progressive nuns on the buses win or not?

I would argue that the key to reading the coverage today is linked to two other questions. The key, looking at the stories in the elite publications, is whether these other questions are even asked.

First, what was the dispute actually about? Do the stories contain any reference to the doctrinal issues involved and, especially, was any attempt made to describe them?

Second, did the discussions about what to do with women religious actually move back into the shadows of Vatican and episcopal oversight life, rather than being out in the glare of mass-media who were openly cheering for the progressives? In other words, do the stories mention the small hints in the Vatican actions -- aside from the glowing Pope Francis photo-op -- that this story is not over?

OK, third question: Did some Vatican officials simply decide that these religious orders are aging and dying anyway, so why have a war when demographics will settle the issue?

The Los Angeles Times story is a good place to start, in that it signals its bias right up front, ignores the doctrinal substance, yet also -- by quoting candid liberals -- signals that some prog-nuns are still worried. What does that look like? In the lede, note that the investigation was "controversial" while the content of the orders' theological innovations were not.

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Connecting dots between Santo Daime and blurring lines between religions

Connecting dots between Santo Daime and blurring lines between religions

I attended a Bob Dylan concert in Baltimore some years back where I fell into conversation about Mr. Robert Allen Zimmerman and his music with a high-schooler sitting next to me. Suddenly, it hits this kid: "Wow! You're from the '60s!" I smiled. But the kid had it right. I felt like an archeological artifact.

Yes, I lived as a college student and as a working journalist, when I wasn't just hanging out, in New York's East Village and San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury. I covered Jerry Rubin's Yippies and Berkeley's People's Park. And despite the cliche, I remember that period of my life quite clearly. I know what I did.

By which I mean that in addition to a lot of brown rice and mung beans, I consumed a fair quantity of psychedelic drugs, natural and synthetic, in, shall we say, non-clinical settings. I do not recommend that anyone follow my example. But I was fortunate and avoided trouble. Moreover, I experienced altered states of consciousness that provided my first hint that there was more to life than the every-day material world, and that spirituality and religious tradition would be profoundly real and important to me.

Why this confessional now? To grab your reading attention, of course. It's called a lede.

Now that I apparently have it, let's discuss a recent story in The New York Times about an experimental Brazilian prison program that provides select maximum-security convicts with a plant-based psychedelic brew in the hope it will mitigate their anti-social behaviors. In short, it's meant as psycho-spiritual therapy.

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New York Times team attends one of the first funerals in Kenya, with eyes open

New York Times team attends one of the first funerals in Kenya, with eyes open

The massacre at Garissa University College in Kenya is now fading into media memory, which is not the case for those of us who continue to be haunted by photos and stories that circulate on Twitter and Facebook among human-rights activists who are growing increasingly concerned about the persecution of the church in Africa and the Middle East.

For the most part, journalists around the world spotted the religious themes in this hellish drama -- with stunning exceptions like the early coverage in The Washington Post.

I was left asking one question: Would this story have received more coverage in television news if someone, early on, had accurately called this the "Holy Week massacre"? There was, after all, evidence that the al-Shabaab gunmen specifically targeted a pre-Easter worship service that had been announced on campus. The bloodbath took place on Maundy Thursday, for Catholics and Protestants in the churches of the West.

Sometimes, all reporters have to do to cover the religion angles in this kind of story is open their eyes and ears and take notes.

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Jousting with The New York Times: Yes, journalism deserves to be taken seriously

Jousting with The New York Times: Yes, journalism deserves to be taken seriously

This week's "Crossroads" podcast was supposed to be about the Indiana wars, but that's not how things turned out. The more host Todd Wilken and I talked (click here to tune in), the deeper we dug into a related topic -- the power of elite media to frame national debates.

Wilken found it interesting that, in an age in which traditional print circulation numbers are in sharp decline, that these publications continue to wield great power. What's up with that?

Here's what I told him, as a door into listening to the whole discussion. Remember that movie -- "Shattered Glass" -- about the ethics crisis at The New Republic, long before the digital wars felled that Beltway oracle? The reason the magazine was so important, a character remarked during the film, was its reputation (especially in Democratic administrations) as the "in-flight magazine of Air Force One."

In other words, the old TNR had very few readers, relatively speaking, but about half of them worked in the White House and in the office of people who had the White House inside numbers on speed dials.

And what about The New York Times, the great matron of the Northeast establishment? Yes, the on-paper numbers are down and there are financial issues. But does anyone believe that -- to name one crucial audience -- the percentage of U.S. Supreme Court clerks who subscribe to the Times has gone down? How about in the faculty lounges of law schools that produce justices on the high court?

In other words, it isn't how many people read these publications, but WHERE people read these publications. We are talking about what C.S. Lewis called the Inner Ring.

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What in (pardon me) Hell is Salon talking about? Missing the story of Holy Saturday

What in (pardon me) Hell is Salon talking about? Missing the story of Holy Saturday

Permit me a few moments here to talk about liturgy and doctrine, a bit. In a moment I will link this to a rather bizarre Salon.com that someone called to my attention.

Since I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I spent several hours this morning at church taking parts in the rites of Holy Saturday. If you want to know what Holy Saturday is about, look at the icon at the top of this post. Tomorrow, of course, is Pascha (Easter) on the older Julian calendar.

This is the Orthodox icon that most people think of as the icon of Pascha (Easter) and the Resurrection of Christ. But look carefully. In this icon, Jesus is standing on gates that he has just broken, gates that are surrounded by bones and even a body in a shroud. Also, he is grasping the hands of a woman and a man -- it's Adam and Eve -- and pulling them out of their tombs.

What is happening here? Well, this image is actually of Christ breaking the gates of hell on Holy Saturday. The Resurrection is already a reality, but he has other work to do. It is perfectly normal to hear Orthodox priests preach on this point in Holy Week and, of course, on Holy Saturday.

In the ancient Divine Liturgy of St. Basil, which was used this morning, here is the relevant language in the consecration prayers:

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Beating a Dead Sea horse: Seeking intellectual diversity at The New York Times

Beating a Dead Sea horse: Seeking intellectual diversity at The New York Times

Once again, let's return to the pages of that famous -- some would say infamous -- 2005 self-study done of The New York Times entitled "Preserving Our Readers' Trust," which followed one of that newsroom's most spectacular series of editorial disasters, ever.

Toward the end of its report, the "Credibility Group" tip-toed into a crucial minefield, asking if the world's most prestigious newsroom had focused on many different kinds of diversity -- except for intellectual and cultural diversity (which are rather crucial forms of diversity, if you stop and think about it).

What does this have to do with Moses? Wait for it.

People who care about what happens at The New York Times -- which mean anyone who cares about journalism and public discourse in America -- will remember some of the following summary quotes, including this one with obvious relevance to GetReligion:

Our news coverage needs to embrace unorthodox views and contrarian opinions and to portray lives both more radical and more conservative than those most of us experience. We need to listen carefully to colleagues who are at home in realms that are not familiar to most of us.
We should increase our coverage of religion in America and focus on new ways to give it greater attention, such as expanding the Saturday report beyond the religion column.

In other words, cultural diversity matters and can affect crucial news beats -- with religion being the most obvious.

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Hey Washington Post editors: Did al-Shabaab say its goal was to kill Christians in Kenya?

Hey Washington Post editors: Did al-Shabaab say its goal was to kill Christians in Kenya?

Sad, but true. Mainstream European newspapers, as a rule, pay much more attention to foreign news than their American counterparts (unless, of course, a particular story involves Americans who are overseas). In recent years, it also seems that European newspapers are being much more candid about the role that religion plays in many international stories.

Want to see an example? Let's contrast two examples of coverage of the hellish Holy Week massacre at Garissa University College in Kenya, one from England and one from America. Let's start with The Telegraph, and then look at the main story in The Washington Post, which seems to have buried some key details.

At least 147 people have been killed after Islamist terrorists attacked a Kenyan university, singling out Christian students to murder.
A five-man cell of the Somali-based al-Shabaab group stormed into halls of residence at Garissa University College, 200 miles east of the capital Nairobi, Thursday morning, shooting at students before taking others hostage. ...
Many of those who had been killed had their throats cut, according to one source who had spoken to morgue workers. The report could not be immediately verified.
Security analysts feared that the gang intended to keep their remaining hostages overnight ahead of further violence on Friday, to maximise attention for their attack during the Easter holidays.

That is terribly blunt stuff. I thought it was crucial that -- consistent with the vast majority of reports in world media -- the Telegraph editors made the decision to put the word "Christian" in the lede and also, within a few paragraphs, to note the rather obvious Easter-holiday timing factor in the attack.

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Mirror, mirror: Press wrestles with a clash between open discrimination and rare acts of conscience

Mirror, mirror: Press wrestles with a clash between open discrimination and rare acts of conscience

A wise journalism professor once told me that it always helps, when trying to think through the implications of a controversial story, to try to imagine the same story being seen in a mirror, in reverse.

So let's say that there is a businessman in Indianapolis who runs a catering company. He is an openly gay Episcopalian and, at the heart of his faith (and the faith articulated by his church) is a sincere belief that homosexuality is a gift of God and a natural part of God's good creation. This business owner has long served a wide variety of clients, including a nearby Pentecostal church that is predominantly African-American.

Then, one day, the leaders of this church ask him to cater a major event -- the upcoming regional conference of the Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays. He declines, saying this would violate everything he stands for as a liberal Christian. He notes that they have dozens of other catering options in their city and, while he has willingly served them in the past, it is his sincere belief that it would be wrong to do so in this specific case.

Whose religious rights are being violated? Can both sides find a way to show tolerance?

This is, of course, a highly specific parable -- full of the unique details that tend to show up in church-state law and, often, in cases linked to laws built on Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) language. It's clear that the gay Christian businessman is not asking to discriminate against an entire class of Americans. He is asking that his consistently demonstrated religious convictions be honored in this case, one with obvious doctrinal implications.

Is there any sign that reporters covering the RFRA madness in Indiana and, eventually, in dozens of states across the nation are beginning to see some of the gray areas in these cases?

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