What got that Wheaton professor suspended — her headscarf or her views on Islam?

As news broke concerning the suspension of a Wheaton College professor who voiced solidarity with Muslim women, I cranked out a quick post yesterday.

With a couple of minor quibbles, I praised the early work by the Chicago Tribune and its star religion writer, Manya Brachhear Pashman.

But a few readers took issue with the Tribune's original lede, which I had quoted in my post:

A tenured Wheaton College professor who, as part of her Christian Advent devotion, donned a traditional headscarf to show solidarity with Muslims has been placed on administrative leave.

Reader Paul Smith complained:

(T)he issue was not the hijab, but the statement that the professor made that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

Not to worry: The Tribune story got better — and more precise — as the day went on.

Imagine that: Even in this age of 24/7 information overload, it still takes journalists (who are real humans, not robots) time to report, edit and fine-tune the kind of high-quality reports that show up on the front page the next morning. Even if media critics like myself occasionally jump the gun and analyze a developing story in real time.

This is the Page 1 headline in today's Tribune:

Prof suspended for views, not scarf, Wheaton College says

That pretty much nails it, right?

The lede does, too:

Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins had simply donned a headscarf to support her Muslim neighbors without explaining herself, she still might be administering final exams this week.
Instead, Hawkins, a tenured political science professor at the private evangelical Christian college, proclaimed on social media that Christians and Muslims share the same God and was suspended by the college.
"I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book," she posted Dec. 10 on Facebook. "And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God."
That explanation rankled some evangelical Christians, who read her statement as a conflation of Christian and Muslim theology, even if they supported her symbolic gesture.
"While Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, we believe there are fundamental differences between the two faiths, including what they teach about God's revelation to humanity, the nature of God, the path to salvation and the life of prayer," Wheaton College said in a statement.

Of course, the story is all over the national news — from the New York Times to the Washington Post to USA Today.

But that coverage is pretty sketchy compared to the full, nuanced report by the Tribune.

I like that it gets into the nitty gritty of the theology involved:

Hawkins announced last week that she would wear a traditional headscarf as part of her devotion during Advent, the contemplative period preceding Christmas on the Christian calendar. She wished to show support for Muslims who have felt under attack because of harsh rhetoric on social media and the presidential campaign trail since mass shootings in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. She said nothing about her gesture or statement contradicted the college's statement of faith, which all instructors must sign and she reaffirmed Wednesday.
The statement outlines 12 evangelical beliefs, including the literal truth of the Bible, the necessity to be born again in the Holy Spirit, the imminence of the Second Coming and the bodily resurrection of the dead.
"Wheaton College faculty and staff make a commitment to accept and model our institution's faith foundations with integrity, compassion and theological clarity," the college said in a statement. "As they participate in various causes, it is essential that faculty and staff engage in and speak about public issues in ways that faithfully represent the college's evangelical Statement of Faith."

And I like that it has eliminated one of my early quibbles — the lack of an evangelical expert sympathizing with Wheaton's position. 

Here is the new, welcomed information in that regard:

Denny Burk, a professor of biblical studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said his greatest concern about Hawkins' explanation was the lack of clarity about the particulars of Christianity. Without further explaining the nuances of her argument, she implicitly denied Christian teachings, he said.
"We're people of the book, but our books are very different," he said. "They're witnessing to two different ways of salvation. The Bible is witnessing to Jesus Christ, the son of God. That's unique of all the world religions, and that uniqueness was what I thought was missing from what she said."

Yes, the Chicago paper devotes a lot of ink to students and others concerned about Wheaton's decision. But the paper also gives a voice to students who back the suspension. One of those students indirectly raises a valid question that might be worthy of further exploration: What do Muslims say about the idea that they worship the same God as Christians?

Meanwhile, this tweet from Bob Smietana, senior news editor of Christianity Today and immediate past president of the Religion Newswriters Association, interested me:

I have no doubt that many media folks might find that complicated. However, is the idea that a Christian college might maintain that Allah is not God AND try to show love to its neighbors really such a difficult concept? Just asking.

But back to the main point: The Tribune story is religion journalism worthy of praise. Kudos to Pashman, the current president of the Religion Newswriters Association, and Marwa Eltagouri, who shared the front-page byline.





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