Front-page profile of a hip youth pastor: Is it the journalism or the theology that's shallow?

Front-page profile of a hip youth pastor: Is it the journalism or the theology that's shallow?

Ah, the hip youth pastor.

He's got tattoos. He's got cool music. He's got a neat way of making old Bible stories new, such as referring to the woman who tried to seduce Joseph as "Hot-iphar."

And on Sunday, one such pastor made a splash on the front page of the Dallas Morning News.

Yes, the News — which no longer employs a full-time religion writer — devoted its Page 1 centerpiece and 1,500 total words to this profile:

With lines out the door and bouncers handing out wristbands, the Wednesday night gathering seemed more like a trendy nightclub opening than a church service.
Hundreds of students packed the youth center of River Pointe Church, about 30 miles southwest of Houston, for the weekly service of The Take. They sang along to high-energy songs about Jesus and pulled out their phones to take photos and send Snapchat messages.
“I’m at the take where ru”
“The take is lit!”
In a small green room backstage, 34-year-old Landon Pickering monitored the mood in the auditorium to make sure the focus was on faith, not just fun.
Pickering is a Keller-based youth leader who helps congregations like River Pointe develop programs that get young people flocking to church. He studies brands like Apple, Nike and Red Bull to learn how to attract young audiences. He keeps on top of the latest trends in fashion, music and social media to engage kids and bring them to Christ.
Pickering’s appearance — with ripped jeans, tattooed arms and slick hair — is more pop star than preacher. Last year he was a cover model for The Dallas Morning Newsfashion magazine FD and dubbed the “holy hunk.” His events give away the freshest Nikes as door prizes and play the hottest Drake beats in the vestibule before services.

By my sarcasm up top, you might surmise that I wasn't totally thrilled by the piece. You'd be exactly right.

But here's the thing: I'm not entirely sure whether it's the theology or the journalism that bothers me. Honestly, it's probably a combination of the two.

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Hey AP: Did you really mean to state, citing no source, that the Holy Fire rite is a fraud?

Hey AP: Did you really mean to state, citing no source, that the Holy Fire rite is a fraud?

The world's Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrated Pascha (Easter) this weekend, a full month later than Western churches this year. This is one of those exotic dates on the calendar that usually draws a little bit of coverage in the mainstream press.

At the very least, journalists spend a few lines trying to explain the mysteries of the ancient Julian calendar and why all those people with candles were marching around in the middle of the night singing (in the haunting Byzantine chant tone 6) the following, in English or the language of a particular parish's ethnic roots:

Thy Resurrection, O Christ Our Savior, the Angels in Heaven sing.
Enable us on Earth to Glorify Thee in Purity of Heart.

In recent years, there has been a growing news-media awareness of the ancient "Holy Fire" rites in Jerusalem, which offers journalists an annual chance to wrestle with claims of the miraculous. My theory is that this news story has, in part, been gaining some traction because of smartphone videos being posted on YouTube each year.

So here is the top of a typical short Associated Press report this time around, with one line that jumped out at me. See if you can spot it.

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Thousands of Christians have gathered in Jerusalem for an ancient fire ceremony that celebrates Jesus’ resurrection.

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It's Easter for the Orthodox: Chicago Tribune comes this close to facing a weeping icon

It's Easter for the Orthodox: Chicago Tribune comes this close to facing a weeping icon

Writing a news report about an event that lots of people believe is a miracle is a difficult task. This is especially true with reports of healing when, often for legal reasons, the medical professionals linked to the case are not anxious to be interviewed or to provide relevant documentation from tests.

However, it's much easier to write about a phenomenon -- an object for example -- that can be examined by the senses, including the senses of skeptical journalists. That's what I kept thinking about as I read the Chicago Tribune news feature that ran under the headline, "Thousands flock to 'miracle' icon at south suburban church."

First of all, I am glad that the Tribune ran a story hooked to this year's Eastern Orthodox celebration of Pascha (Easter). This May 1 date on the ancient Julian calendar is very late in the spring, in comparison with this year's March 27 Easter date in the modern West.

Second, I was thankful that voices of believers are given quite a bit of space in this piece. However, well, where are the unbelievers? And if the story is going to focus on claims of a miracle then why not talk to some experts, in terms of theology and science? After all, we are talking about a very familiar phenomenon -- an Orthodox icon exuding a mysterious substance. Information on this phenomenon is only a few mouse clicks away. We aren't dealing with a large flour tortilla in Cleveland that appears to contain an image of LeBron James.

OK, let's look at a few pieces of this report, beginning with the overture:

As millions of Orthodox Christians around the world prepare to celebrate Easter this Sunday and the miracle of Jesus Christ's resurrection, thousands across the Chicago area are flocking to a southwest suburban parish to see what they believe to be a different miracle.

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Do you believe the Bible recommends spanking? Don't move to Norway, says BBC

Do you believe the Bible recommends spanking? Don't move to Norway, says BBC

To spank or not to spank, that is the question. Corporal punishment is legal in all 50 U.S. states, but America is a bit of an outlier on spanking as far as the rest of the world is concerned. Globally, 44 nations forbid you to spank your kids.

But here's the question journalists need to think about, after a major report on this topic by the BBC: What if your religious beliefs back corporal punishment and you move to a country where that’s not allowed? Wouldn't journalists need to explore the specifics of that belief in their reporting on this topic?

Meanwhile, this story centers on the fact that one country will take your kids away if they find out you are spanking your children -- at all. Here's what BBC found out about a famous case in Norway involving a family with five kids:

Ruth and Marius's life was torn apart without warning one Monday afternoon last November when two black cars approached the farm where they live in a remote Norwegian valley.
Their two little boys, aged five and two, and their three-month-old baby son, were in their big, bright, modern living room overlooking the steel-grey fjord.
Ruth was waiting as usual for the school bus that would bring back their two daughters, aged eight and 10.
But that Monday, it never came. Instead, Ruth saw the two unknown cars. One continued along the main road; the other turned up the farm track -- and a woman from the local child protection service knocked at the door. She told Ruth to come to the police station for interrogation.

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Hot-button question: Is the history contained in the New Testament reliable?

Hot-button question: Is the history contained in the New Testament reliable?

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

How can we get people informed about the results of academic biblical scholarship, work that completely undermines the ordinary popular conception of Christianity and faith? Why are Christians not interested in the truth?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

“What is truth?”, Pilate asked Jesus. Or did he? America’s “Jesus Seminar” claimed the Roman tyrant never spoke those famous words and, for that matter, much else in the New Testament never happened either. Norman worries that people aren’t “informed.” Sunday School and CCD may not teach  doubts, but people who don’t know about media promotion of biblical disputes must be living under a rock.

Various degrees of skepticism usually characterize the “higher criticism” conveyed at U.S. colleges. The Jesus Seminar represented the radical wing. Even liberals scoffed at the theatrics when Seminar panelists voted on the authenticity of each verse. The verdict: “82 percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels were not actually spoken by him” while there was a “16 percent historical accuracy rate” for the 176 recorded events in Jesus’ life.

At least Jesus was indeed crucified, the Seminar said. However, two panelists doubted he even existed. They had to discount not only the Gospels but Paul’s letters 20 years after the crucifixion, Roman and Jewish writers (Pliny, Suetonius, Tacitus, Josephus), and other documents.

Skepticism is nothing new and originated in Europe’s “Enlightenment” era, especially in Germany.

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Mainstream media take aim at Tennessee law protecting counselors

Mainstream media take aim at Tennessee law protecting counselors

Tennessee passed a law this week that allows counselors to refer out a patient based on a counselor's personal beliefs, and news media, of course, are all over it.

The law itself sounds pretty simple: "No counselor or therapist providing counseling or therapy services shall be required to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with the sincerely held principles of the counselor or therapist; provided, that the counselor or therapist coordinates a referral of the client to another counselor or therapist who will provide the counseling or therapy."

But numerous accounts, like one by Reuters, have been raising alarms: "Tennessee's Republican governor on Wednesday signed a law allowing mental health counselors to refuse service to patients on 'sincerely held principles,' the latest in a string of U.S. state measures criticized as discriminatory against the gay community."

Reuters goes on to quote Gov. Bill Haslam's denial:  "The substance of this bill doesn't address a group, issue or belief system." He compares it to other professionals like doctors and lawyers who may refer a client to common else in case of a conflict of principles. But by then, Reuters has already planted its sarcasm quotes and framed the law as yet another attack on gays.

Lending force to the framing is the American Civil Liberties Union, which says the law assumes "that religion can be used as a free pass to discriminate" -- although religious language has been stricken from the law.

Also instructive are two stories by NewsChannel 5 in Nashville. The breaking story quotes Haslam extensively. Three hours later, the follow-up majors on gay objections.

The Washington Post attempts a broader story but fails, starting with the lede: "Tennessee’s Republican governor said Wednesday that he signed a bill into law that allows mental health counselors to refuse to treat patients based on the therapist’s religious or personal beliefs." As you know, the law doesn't mention religious beliefs, although a previous version did.

The Post then throws in an unattributed "sources say" paragraph:

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Do YOU have lots of questions about the NCAA and traditional religious schools?

Do YOU have lots of questions about the NCAA and traditional religious schools?

If you listen carefully to this week Crossroads podcast (click right here to do so), you can hear question after question passing by, questions that simply cannot be answered at this time -- yet questions that could be hooks for major news stories later on.

Here's the big question, one that I asked on a radio show several months ago and discussed again in a post this week: Will the principalities and powers at the NCAA choose (as is their right as leaders of a private, voluntary association) to eject religious private colleges and universities that (as currently is their right as private, voluntary associations) ask students, faculty and staff to live under lifestyle covenants that, among other doctrines, affirm that sex outside of traditional marriage is sin?

OK, let's back up and ask an important question that precedes that monster: Will major American businesses -- the economic giants that sponsor events like bowl games and the hoops Final Four -- hear the cries of LGBT activists and begin pressuring the NCAA to make this change?

Maybe there is a question in front of THAT one, such as: At what point will ESPN or some other force in the entertainment industrial complex begin what amounts to a "go to the mattresses" campaign to force this question on the NCAA?

So, the questions keep coming.

What will the leaders of the big religiously conservative private schools that are in the cross hairs on this issue -- think Baylor and Brigham Young -- do when forced to make a choice between the faiths that define them (and religious supporters with children and money) and the prestige and money connected with big-time athletics?

Yes, host Todd Wilken pressed me -- as a Baylor alum -- to offer an educated guess on what I thought Baylor leaders would do when push comes to shove.

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Sharia divorce: Vancouver Sun dives into what Muslim immigrants are really talking about

Sharia divorce: Vancouver Sun dives into what Muslim immigrants are really talking about

It’s really a shame that The Vancouver (BC) Sun hides its religion coverage under the proverbial bushel. Under 10 portals, the newspaper has dozens of drop-downs for all manner of specialties, such as “wine country” under the “life” portal.

I see nothing to help readers find religion news. I even checked under “staff blogs” under the “news” portal, but could not find Doug Todd, the staff writer who covers religion along with migration and diversity.

Folks south of the border appreciate his insight into the religion of “Cascadia,” the area of North America that covers coastal Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. A Seattle blog, ChristandCascadia.com, did a very good interview with him recently about spirituality in this region. 

 Fortunately, I know I can always locate Doug Todd’s columns here and that’s where I found his fascinating take on how divorce under sharia law fares in a western country.

The answer: Not so well. This passage is long, but essential.

“In the event of a separation, the defendant agrees to deliver to the plaintiff the following: I. One volume of the Holy Qur’an; II. One crystal sugar stick; III. One basket of narcissus flowers; IV. 3,000 gold coins.”
                — Delvarani v. Delvarani, B.C. Supreme Court
Lawyer Zahra Jenab often comes face to face with couples embroiled in acidic disputes over a small fortune in gold.
The West Vancouver family lawyer, who was born in Iran and raised in Canada, works frequently with ex-partners wrangling over thousands of gold coins, which may or may not have been given by the husband in a dowry under Islamic Shariah law.

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Did Washington Post run a sensitive profile, or just transgender propaganda?

Did Washington Post run a sensitive profile, or just transgender propaganda?

Ever notice how mainstream media tend to use the word "truth" as "a strong belief in our subjective viewpoint"? The Washington Post did it with a profile headlined "Truth and transgender at 70: A story of enduring love."

The enormous, 2,700-word profile was the first in a two-parter on Dr. Bill Rohr and surgeon Marci Bowers, whose surgery turned him into Kate Rohr. The articles show great sensitivity and telling detail. They also take such a hard-sell tone, they miss a list of questions, many of them religious in nature.

In a familiar script, Post tells how Rohr always felt different but submerged it for fear of censure. This self-repression also, of course, meant hiding his felt identity while attending church with his parents.

So he endured, through a childhood that was confusing and a puberty that was torture. He felt hormones "ravage" his body, turning him unmistakably male. He avoided looking at himself in a mirror, even to comb his hair. But in every other way, he tried to be the best, most typical boy he could be. Growing up in the suburban hamlet of Fanwood, N.J., he played sports and studied hard, and even though he believed God was deaf to his prayers, he dutifully sat next to his parents in church every Sunday.

This would have been a good place to check with the folks in Fanwood. What did his former classmates notice? How about his brothers? And former fellow congregants? Maybe his pastor, if still alive? We're not even told the church's name or denomination.

And do the Rohrs attend worship anywhere now? Did they ever? Many churches accept LGBT people, starting with the United Church of Christ four decades ago. The list now includes mainline Lutherans, Presbyterians and Episcopalians. Did the family try any of them?

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