Pope and imam dial back talks about Christian concerns, with assist from some journalists

Pope and imam dial back talks about Christian concerns, with assist from some journalists

The leader of a billion-plus Catholics met with a leader of a billion-plus Muslims, and media gave it appropriately thorough coverage.

Except for one matter: persecution of Christians in Muslim lands.

Pope Francis himself was oddly timid on the point. But that doesn't mean mainstream media had to downplay it also -- especially when they cover plenty of such incidents.

Typical was the Associated Press report:

Pope Francis on Monday embraced the grand imam of Al-Azhar, the prestigious Sunni Muslim center of learning, reopening an important channel for Catholic-Muslim dialogue after a five-year lull and at a time of increased Islamic extremist attacks on Christians.
As Sheik Ahmed el-Tayyib arrived for his audience in the Apostolic Palace, Francis said that the fact that they were meeting at all was significant.
"The meeting is the message," Francis told the imam.

Following this press release-style lede, though, AP says the two leaders discussed "the plight of Christians 'in the context of conflicts and tensions in the Mideast and their protection,' the statement said." It adds that Al-Azhar broke off talks alks with the Vatican a decade ago, after Pope Benedict XVI quoted a Byzantine emperor saying that some Muhammad's teachings were "evil and inhuman."

The article also retells some bloody specifics:

Benedict had demanded greater protection for Christians in Egypt after a New Year's bombing on a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria killed 21 people. Since then, Islamic attacks on Christians in the region have only increased, but the Vatican and Al-Azhar nevertheless sought to rekindle ties, with a Vatican delegation visiting Cairo in February and extending the invitation for el-Tayyib to visit.

But if any Mideastern Christian leaders had opinions on the meeting -- and it's hard to imagine they wouldn't -- AP wasn't interested.

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Caps, gowns and prison whites: Meet Texas' newest seminary-trained pastors

Caps, gowns and prison whites: Meet Texas' newest seminary-trained pastors

Another major Texas newspaper has produced an excellent feature on state-sanctioned minister training inside the Lone Star State's toughest lockups.

Back in March, I (mostly) praised the Houston Chronicle for such a story and shared some reflections of my own experience writing about religion and prisons.

I did, however, wonder why the Chronicle didn't make clear the role of the state and the use of any taxpayer money.

That background leads to the Dallas Morning News front-page Sunday feature that ran under the banner headline "Prophets of hope."

The Morning News story is colorful, nicely written and — if you are a person of Christian faith, as I am — inspiring:

ROSHARON — For a couple of hours, the maximum-security prison felt like a real church.
Daylight illuminated stained-glass windows as voices in spiritual rejoicing sent up hymn after celebratory hymn honoring 33 new pastors in black graduation caps and gowns in the chapel’s sanctuary.
Under a towering white cross, there were sermons, handshakes, hugs and thunderous applause. Joyful pride spilled down mothers’ cheeks as the graduates filed down the aisle out of the room, clutching diplomas and grinning ear to ear.
Beneath those caps and gowns were the prison whites of men whose criminal transgressions landed them behind bars for decades. Outside the chapel walls were the concertina wire and pickets manned by armed guards at the Darrington Unit, one of the toughest prisons in Texas.
The inmates were the second graduating class from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s seminary program. On a recent Monday afternoon, after four years of studies, the men received bachelor’s degrees in biblical studies from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Now, they will be divided into teams and assigned to one of Texas’ 109 prison units, where they will minister to other inmates. Their aim: to help those who will soon be released find reconciliation and rehabilitation through faith.
“I want to commission you today to be prophets of hope,” seminary President Paige Patterson told the men, most of whom are serving sentences of at least 25 years.

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The Washington Post puts generic faith at the heart of a family's fight to save a child

The Washington Post puts generic faith at the heart of a family's fight to save a child

First things first: I have nothing but praise for the dramatic and very human story that unfolds in the recent Washington Post feature that ran under the headline, " ‘God is telling me not to let go’: A mother fights to keep her 2-year-old on life support."

This story focuses on agonizing choices and, in this age of soaring health-care costs, that means dealing with the viewpoints of medical-industry professionals as well as traumatized family members. Readers need to understand both points of view to grasp some of the core issues in this piece.

Also, the story doesn't hide the fact that religious faith is, for the parents of little Israel Stinson, at the heart of their fight to keep him alive. There is quite a bit of religious language in this piece, as there must be.

So what is missing? Well, if this family's faith is at the heart of their story, might readers want to know something about the details of that faith? Maybe even the name of this faith? Are they Baptists, Catholics, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses or what? Hold that thought.

Here is the overture for the story:

Two-year-old Israel Stinson was being treated for an asthma attack in an emergency room in Northern California last month when he started to shiver, his lips turning purple and his eyes rolling back in his head.
Over the next day, court records claim, Israel had a hard time breathing, went into cardiac arrest and seemingly slipped into a coma. Soon, his doctors declared him brain-dead and decided that he should be disconnected from the machine that kept his heart beating.
But his parents protested: Discontinuing medical treatment, they argued, would violate their son's right to a life -- and their hope that he might eventually have one.

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Religion on the range: One reporter goes the extra miles to cover faith in Billings, Montana

Religion on the range: One reporter goes the extra miles to cover faith in Billings, Montana

I have a lot of sympathy for folks who work on small newspapers in out-of-the-way states.

Back, when I spent a year in northwestern New Mexico back in 1994-1995, I was the only full-time journalist in the state trying to cover the beat. I was also the city editor of my newspaper, so there wasn’t a lot of free time. Yet, I pulled in a Cassells award the following year for the little I was able to do in a market of that size.

Montana, at half the population of New Mexico, has some similarities: Large, open spaces, beautiful vistas, large populations of Native Americans and small newspapers. The Billings Gazette, at 45,000 circ., is the state’s second largest newspaper after the Missoulian to the west.

One thing the Gazette has that no other newspaper in the state does is a religion reporter.

I’ve never met Susan Olp, but she’s covered religion for more than 20 years for the Gazette in the state’s largest city. She’s committed enough to the beat that she visited Israel in 2011 courtesy of a Lilly scholarship. And she must know -- as I learned in my isolated post in New Mexico -- that religion stories don’t always come knocking at your door. You have to go looking for them.

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Journalists: What do emotions have to do with spirituality? Dalai Lama says a great deal

Journalists: What do emotions have to do with spirituality? Dalai Lama says a great deal

Still not sure about the whole spiritual-but-not-religious-thing?

Fuzzy on how someone can claim to have a transcendent worldview while insisting that organized religion is just not their bag?

Then this recent piece from The New York Times may be of help.

The story details a project backed by global Buddhism's unofficial exemplar, the Dalai Lama. The "simple monk" -- as the Tibetan Buddhist religious leader, Nobel Peace Prize-winner and all-around pop culture icon of inner-peace and outer-calm often refers to himself -- is the force behind the ambitious Atlas of Emotions.

The project is an attempt to explain the panoply of human emotions and their influence on human actions using the language of Western transpersonal psychology (Full disclosure: In the late 1970s I was a media liaison in India for the International Transpersonal Association.)

The Dali Lama's hope is "to help turn secular audiences into more self-aware, compassionate humans," as the Times article put it.

Here's how the Atlas explains itself:

This Atlas was created to increase understanding of how emotions influence our lives, giving us choice, (at least some of the time) about which emotion we are experiencing, and how our emotions influence what we say and do. While emotions are central to our lives – providing the joy, alerting us to threats, a force for change, a warning against what is toxic, and calling to others for help – we don’t choose what to feel or when to feel it. The Atlas of Emotions was created to give us more awareness of our emotions, and sometimes even some choice about what we are feeling, through better understanding of how emotions work.

The combination of deep self-awareness, emotional self-management as an essential life skill, and compassionate action to a grok degree is as an encompassing definition of the spiritual-but-not-religious (hereafter SBNR) ideal as I've heard.

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Jimmy Carter talks Baptists and racism, but SOUTHERN Baptists missing from the conversation (Updated)

Jimmy Carter talks Baptists and racism, but SOUTHERN Baptists missing from the conversation (Updated)

When a former president talks, we journalists listen.

That's part of why Jimmy Carter still makes headlines 35 years after he left the Oval Office. The other part is, of course, how active he remains. The Atlantic wrote in 2012 about "The Record-Setting Ex-Presidency of Jimmy Carter."

Today's Carter-related news involves the longtime Sunday school teacher's plans for a conference promoting racial unity among Baptists, as reported by the New York Times:

Former President Jimmy Carter, who has long put religion and racial reconciliation at the center of his life, is on a mission to heal a racial divide among Baptists and help the country soothe rifts that he believes are getting worse.
In an interview on Monday, Mr. Carter spoke of a resurgence of open racism, saying, “I don’t feel good, except for one thing: I think the country has been reawakened the last two or three years to the fact that we haven’t resolved the race issue adequately.”
He said that Republican animosity toward President Obama had “a heavy racial overtone” and that Donald J. Trump’s surprisingly successful campaign for president had “tapped a waiting reservoir there of inherent racism.”
Mr. Carter conducted telephone interviews to call attention to a summit meeting he plans to hold in Atlanta this fall to bring together white, black, Hispanic and Asian Baptists to work on issues of race and social inequality. Mr. Carter began the effort, called the New Baptist Covenant, in 2007, but it has taken root in only a few cities. The initiative is expanding to enlist Baptist congregations across the country to unite across racial lines.

Later in the Times story, the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, enters the discussion:

He pointed out that the evangelicals in the Southern Baptist Convention had aligned themselves with the Republican Party and organized the Moral Majority, a conservative Christian political group, only in the late 1970s, while he was president. Mr. Carter announced that he was leaving the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000, after the denomination solidified its turn to the right and declared that it would not accept women as pastors.

But what's missing from the story? That would be Southern Baptists. 

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RNS focuses on concerns of African Methodists (minus the voices of their critics on left)

RNS focuses on concerns of African Methodists (minus the voices of their critics on left)

While doctrinal fights over sexuality keep grabbing the headlines, anyone who follows United Methodist affairs knows that the real news in this denomination, like so many others, centers on issues of demographics and geography.

While the number of baptisms and conversions sink in America, accompanied by a rapid graying of the surviving people in the pews, the ranks of new Methodists are growing in the lands of the Global South. Since the denomination's General Conferences are global in nature, this means that United Methodists around the world are gaining power, while the Americans slowly fade.

As a rule, journalists covering conflicts inside the United Methodist Church have explained the basic facts of this mechanism. At the 2016 gatherings, most of the weight was carried by Religion News Service, the rare mainstream newsroom that -- in these hard times for journalists -- had a reporter on site.

As things came to a close in Portland, RNS offered a long, interesting news feature that looked at recent events through a global lens, with this headline: "African Methodists worry about the church that brought them Christianity."

I am sure that conservative United Methodists, here in America and abroad, found much to applaud in this piece. However, this was the rare case in which a mainstream newsroom produced a story that had large hole in its content -- on the doctrinal left. While the Africans were allowed to speak, RNS did little to let readers hear the voices of their First World critics.

Does this matter? Yes, it does, because that is where the action is right now.

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Think piece: Has anyone at an Orthodox parish near you heard of St. Moses the Black?

Think piece: Has anyone at an Orthodox parish near you heard of St. Moses the Black?

Every liturgical year, hours after the great feast of Pascha, Eastern Orthodox Christians gather for a unique service called the Agape Vespers -- during which passages from St. John's Gospel are read in as many languages as possible (based on the membership of the parish).

In this highly multi-ethnic Communion, it is common for churches to have readings in six or seven languages. At my family's parish in the Baltimore-D.C. area -- Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Linthicum, MD. -- we used to hit 16 or more on a rather regular basis.

What's the point? Theologically speaking, The Big Idea is that the church must always remember to proclaim the Gospel to as many people and cultures as possible. In the Orthodox context here in America, it's a regular reminder that the borders of Orthodoxy are not defined by the language and culture of the Old Country (think Greece or Russia), or by the language and culture of the new (think converts here in North America).

Truth is (attention reporters and editors) many, many seeker-friendly Orthodox parishes are becoming quite diverse, when it comes to ethnicity and even languages.

This brings me to an interesting, and quite straightforward, "Have Faith" feature at The Daily Beast that ran the other day. Here was the info-driven, sprawling headline:

The Brotherhood of Moses the Black
It may come as a shock to some, but one surprising religion is making serious inroads into the African-American community.

And here is the feature's overture:

When Karl Berry walked into an Orthodox Church for the first time in 1983, he saw icons of black saints.

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Atheism studies: New York Times scores scoop on a planned program at University of Miami

Atheism studies: New York Times scores scoop on a planned program at University of Miami

If there is a God, he must be smiling on the New York Times.

The newspaper beat everyone else in announcing a planned chair for the study of atheism at the University of Miami -- said to be the first in the nation.

The 1,000-word article suffers, however, from a lack of secular-style skepticism. But let's look at the good stuff first:

With an increasing number of Americans leaving religion behind, the University of Miami received a donation in late April from a wealthy atheist to endow what it says is the nation’s first academic chair "for the study of atheism, humanism and secular ethics."
The chair has been established after years of discussion with a $2.2 million donation from Louis J. Appignani, a retired businessman and former president and chairman of the modeling school Barbizon International, who has given grants to many humanist and secular causes -- though this is his largest so far. The university, which has not yet publicly announced the new chair, will appoint a committee of faculty members to conduct a search for a scholar to fill the position.
"I’m trying to eliminate discrimination against atheists," said Mr. Appignani, who is 83 and lives in Florida. "So this is a step in that direction, to make atheism legitimate."

The article notes a rise of interest in atheism, including conferences, courses and even a journal -- and names names, like the American Humanist Association and Pitzer College's "Secularism and Skepticism" class. Another coup is a phone talk with uber-atheist Richard Dawkins in Britain.

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