Treat theology fairly

fairness It's great when reporters take theology seriously. Some of my favorite newspaper stories are about the political and moral implications of, say, premillennial dispensation. These stories give readers a rare window into understanding the world. But it's not so great when reporters don't take theology seriously -- or even fairly. In fact, it's downright bad.

Take this story by Margaret Talev of McClatchy (Hat tip to csmith). Talev wrote about the theological beliefs of Trinity United, the church attended by a certain Democratic presidential candidate. What she did not do was treat black liberation theology fairly.

Consider her lede:

Jesus is black. Merging Marxism with Christian Gospel may show the way to a better tomorrow. The white church in America is the Antichrist because it supported slavery and segregation.

Those are some of the more provocative doctrines that animate the theology at the core of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Barack Obama's church.

The lede is interesting, provocative you might say. But Talev gives readers little assurance that those beliefs underpin Trinity's theology. In fact, her story casts doubt on whether Trinity holds those views.

Take the Jesus-is-black doctrine. From her lede, readers might well assume that Trinity believes that Jesus was "black" in a racial sense. After all, Obama is black, as is the Rev. Wright. But Talev informs readers way down in the story that actually, black theologian James Cone believes that Jesus was black in a social sense:

He said that the idea of a black Jesus didn't mean Jesus necessarily looked like a black African, but it did rule out Jesus being a white European. More importantly, he said it meant that Jesus "made a solidarity with the (oppressed) people of the land."

Talev needed to cut Trinity and Cone a break. By their definition, the vast majority of Christian theologians would consider Jesus to be black.

Talev also showed no fairness to Trinity in asserting that it believes in Marxism. She summarizes Wright's views this way:

Wright, who hasn't been giving interviews since the controversy broke, told conservative TV talk-show host Sean Hannity last year that Trinity's black value system also had parallels to the liberation theology of laypeople in Nicaragua three decades ago. There, liberation theology became associated with Marxist revolution and the Sandinistas, and split the Roman Catholic Church.

Instead of summarizing Wright's views on a talk show, she should have quoted him directly. Readers could make up their own minds whether the Reverend's theology was Marxist. To be sure, liberation theology is considered generally to have parallels with Marxist ideology. But unless Wright or his theology were quoted, readers will be relying on second-hand information.

And how about Talev's sentence that "the white church in America is the Antichrist because it supported slavery and segregation"? Well, Talev informs readers way down in the story that Trinity does not believe this:

Cone wrote that the United States was a white racist nation and the white church was the Antichrist for having supported slavery and segregation.

Today, Cone, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, stands by that view, but also makes clear that he doesn't believe that whites individually are the Antichrist.

Never mind that Talev failed to mention whether the Rev. Wright or Trinity subscribed to this doctrine. She implied that the sentence in the lede was false. Cone's view was not that "the white church is the Antichrist." (my italics). His view is that the white church was the Antichrist. Whether the white church was or was not is a debatable proposition. Which underlines the fact that Talev should not have misinformed readers in her lede.

Talev's story was not uniformly bad. She did talk with Cone, an influential theologian of black liberation. But her lede was not a teaser to her readers. It was sensationalistic.

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