Entertainment

Friday Five: New AP religion journalists, NYT hit piece, Pulitzer donation, Randy Travis baptism

Friday Five: New AP religion journalists, NYT hit piece, Pulitzer donation, Randy Travis baptism

The Associated Press has hired four new religion journalists to join global religion editor Sally Stapleton as part of the team funded through that big Lilly grant announced earlier this year.

They are news editor Gary Fields, Islam reporter Miriam Fam, religion and politics reporter Elana Schor and investigative correspondent Michael Rezendes, who was part of the Boston Globe team featured in the movie “Spotlight” about the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal.

AP’s announcement follows Religion News Service’s recent additions — as part of the same Lilly grant — of Roxanne Stone as managing editor, Alejandra Molina as a national reporter covering Latinos and Claire Giangravè as Vatican reporter.

With the exception of Rezendes, none of the those hired is a familiar name to me. It’ll be interesting to watch their emergence on the Godbeat scene and hopefully meet some of them at the Religion News Association annual meeting in Las Vegas later this month.

In the meantime, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Our own Richard Ostling this week strongly endorsed Rachael Denhollander’s candid new memoir ”What Is a Girl Worth? published by evangelical Tyndale House.

Time magazine published an excerpt of the book in advance of its official release next Tuesday.

And for some excellent journalism on Denhollander, check out the Louisville Courier-Journal’s in-depth piece headlined “The Sacrifice: Rachael Denhollander surrendered her deepest secrets to help put Larry Nassar away.” Yes, there are important religion components throughout, as Ostling also noted.

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What a world we live in: 'Reality Criticized For Not More Clearly Distinguishing Itself From Satire'

What a world we live in: 'Reality Criticized For Not More Clearly Distinguishing Itself From Satire'

During this week’s “Crossroads” podcast — click here to tune that in — host Todd Wilken and I talked about the ongoing war between The Babylon Bee, a conservative Christian news satire site, and the progressive fact checker squad at Snopes.com.

Oh, and as often happens in discussions of religion and public life, the threat that (trigger warning) Chick-fil-A seems to pose to American civilization ended up in the mix.

Here’s a typical question from the discussion: Is it satire to satirize contemporary satire by pretending to think that the satire is actual real news?

Or something like that.

The bottom line is that real news is starting to sound like satire. As the Bee said the other day: “Reality Criticized For Not More Clearly Distinguishing Itself From Satire.” At the same time, lots of satire is starting to sound like subtle (or not so subtle) forms of real — or some would say “fake” — news. Take the top of this New Yorker piece for example:

Customers across the nation who turned out for Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day were in for a surprise, as the chicken restaurant chose today to launch a new product, Hate Sauce.

Delighted customers mobbed the restaurants to try the zesty new sauce, with many chicken fanciers ordering their sandwiches with extra hate. “It’s so spicy it makes your mouth feel like it’s on fire — like a gay couple in hell,” said Harland Dorrinson, who sampled the sauce at a Chick-fil-A in Orlando.

That’s pretty blunt and, thus, it’s easy to assume that it’s satire (which it is).

But how about the quotes in the following story about a Chick-fil-A war at the University of Kansas?

“KU granted Chick-fil-A, a bastion of bigotry, a prime retail location in the heart of our campus,” KU’s Sexuality & Gender Diversity Faculty and Staff Council said in a letter sent this week to Chancellor Doug Girod, the provost’s office and the athletic department.

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Friday Five: Alex Trebek, flipping churches, clumsy Oregonian, Babylon Bee, Twitter personalities

Friday Five: Alex Trebek, flipping churches, clumsy Oregonian, Babylon Bee, Twitter personalities

Word missing from the new “Jeopardy!” video about host Alex Trebek’s cancer recovery …

What is “prayer?”

Readers will recall that back in April, Trebek credited prayers with helping him overcome stage 4 pancreatic cancer, and we explored some of the holy ghosts in news coverage.

In this case, it seems to be “Jeopardy!” itself that is haunted in its video touting the show’s new season.

While reflecting on that, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Our own Terry Mattingly made a really important point this week on the growing trend of old churches being being sold and flipped:

So here is my question: Is the fate of the church bodies that formerly occupied these holy spaces an essential element in all of these stories? In the old journalism formula “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why” and “how,” does the “WHY” element remain important?

It would appear not, based on many of the stories that I am seeing.

Go ahead and read it all.

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Is 'Queer Eye' more Christian than most Christians? Some folks say yes

Is 'Queer Eye' more Christian than most Christians? Some folks say yes

The last time I wrote about “Queer Eye for a Straight Guy” had to do with their lone Muslim cast member and what might be his fate were he living in a majority Muslim society.

Since then, the show has become simply “Queer Eye,” a Netflix reboot and a “spiritual” icon for today’s America. Several media have taken up the idea that the gay quintet’s accepting and gracious demeanor is very much like what Jesus might look like if he was here. At the current rate, these guys are going to outdo Oprah in the spiritual force department.

This recent New York Times piece by Amanda Hess piece notes that the show’s makeovers, redecorating and shopping have become the new chic form of expressing repentance and beginning a new life. Born again?

Every episode is the same. Five queer experts in various aesthetic practices conspire to make over some helpless individual. Tan France (fashion) teaches him to tuck the front of his shirt into his pants; Bobby Berk (design) paints his walls black and plants a fiddle-leaf fig; Antoni Porowski (food) shows him how to cut an avocado; Jonathan Van Ness (grooming) shouts personal affirmations while shaping his beard; and Karamo Brown (“culture”) stages some kind of trust-building exercise that doubles as an amateur therapy session. Then, they retreat to a chic loft, pass around celebratory cocktails and watch a video of their subject attempting to maintain his new and superior lifestyle. The makeover squad cries, and if you are human, you cry too.

Van Ness, by the way, with his long brown hair and beard, is a dead ringer for many of the cinematic depictions of Christ over the past 50 years.

The reporter then packs a masterful punch in What It All Means.

Because “Queer Eye” is not just a makeover. As its gurus lead the men (and occasionally, women) in dabbing on eye cream, selecting West Elm furniture, preparing squid-ink risotto and acquiring gym memberships, they are building the metaphorical framework for an internal transformation. Their salves penetrate the skin barrier to soothe loneliness, anxiety, depression, grief, low self-esteem, absentee parenting and hoarding tendencies. The makeover is styled as an almost spiritual conversion. It’s the meaning of life as divined through upgraded consumer choices.

Hess’ article is dripping with spiritual lingo and is a delight to read.

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Bob the Journalist has the scoop: 'VeggieTales' is coming back (for those wondering, it did leave)

Bob the Journalist has the scoop: 'VeggieTales' is coming back (for those wondering, it did leave)

“Are you watching VeggieTales?” asked my wife, sounding surprised as cartoon vegetables sang in our living room.

“I’m watching the trailer,” I said. “It’s coming back.”

“Did it ever leave?” she replied.

For those wondering — including parents such as my wife and me whose now-grown children were raised on Bob the Tomato, Larry the Cucumber and friends — actually it did leave.

Bob (the journalist, not the tomato) has the intriguing, behind-the-scenes story for Religion News Service.

Before I get much deeper into this post, I should point out that I have a history with this story. Back in 2002, while serving as religion editor for The Oklahoman, I interviewed Mike Nawrocki, the squeaky voice of Larry the Cucumber and a co-creator of “VeggieTales" and Big Idea Productions.

I asked hard-hitting questions befitting a serious journalist, as I noted at the time:

For example, my first question: "Can you please sing me a Silly Song?"

"I'm taking requests," Nawrocki joked.

Wonderful! How about "The Water Buffalo Song," "The Hairbrush Song" and "I Love My Lips?"

I also pried into Nawrocki's eating habits. "I'm a big vegetable fan, as long as they're not talking," he told me.

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Don't look for God in Epstein selfies: It's all about who had prestige in elite New York circles

Don't look for God in Epstein selfies: It's all about who had prestige in elite New York circles

With Jeffrey Epstein, it was all about the selfies and party pictures.

Yes, his infamous “little black book” of contacts (Gawker link here) contained the names of legions of apparently innocent elite-zip-code personalities (lots of journalists here) who may have never even met Epstein — but he wanted their contact information because they had influence in the public square. Some of the man’s victims made it into the book, as well.

But then there are the people who made it into all of those photos that document the good times shared by the powerful people who were courted by Epstein or who courted him. We are talking about the people who made it to his private island or who flew — for various reasons — on the private Epstein jet. A few were, literally, royals.

It will be hard, but try to make it all the way to the end of the current New York Magazine feature that ran with this revealing double-decker headline:

Who Was Jeffrey Epstein Calling?

A close study of his circle — social, professional, transactional — reveals a damning portrait of elite New York

What do we see in this long list of powerful and famous names?

It’s hard to be more specific than the final words in that headline. This predator’s “little black book” was a guide to “elite New York” — the people with power and access to power. What role did religion play in this drama? That depends on how one defines the term “religion.” (Click here for my first post on this topic.)

Here’s the thesis of the New York piece:

For decades, important, influential, “serious” people attended Epstein’s dinner parties, rode his private jet, and furthered the fiction that he was some kind of genius hedge-fund billionaire. How do we explain why they looked the other way, or flattered Epstein, even as they must have noticed he was often in the company of a young harem? Easy: They got something in exchange from him, whether it was a free ride on that airborne Lolita Express, some other form of monetary largesse, entrée into the extravagant celebrity soirées he hosted at his townhouse, or, possibly and harrowingly, a pound or two of female flesh. …

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Childless sex in the city? No doubt about it: America's supercities will impact religion news

Childless sex in the city? No doubt about it: America's supercities will impact religion news

A quarter of a century ago, I started teaching journalism in big American supercities — first in Washington, D.C., and now in New York City.

From the beginning, I heard students (most from Christian liberal arts colleges) asking poignant, basic questions about the impact of journalism on their future lives, in terms of job stress, economics and, yes, marriage and family life. These questions were often asked in private. Needless to say, these questions have continued, and intensified, with the ongoing advertising crisis that is eating many newsrooms.

I continue to urge my students to talk to real New Yorkers (or Beltway folks) who are living the realities — rather than accepting stereotypes. It’s crucial to talk to married folks with children and discuss the communities and networks that help them thrive or survive. The challenges are real, but the stereotypes are — in my experience — flawed and shallow.

These subjects hovered in the background as we recorded this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in). This podcast digs into the implications of my earlier GetReligion post — “Think like a reporter: What kind of American cities are booming? Any impact on religion news?” — about an Axios story on the economic and political clout of American super-cities.

If you want a deep dive into the marriage and family issue, check out the stunning essay at The Atlantic by staff writer Derek Thompson that just ran with this dramatic double-decker headline:

The Future of the City Is Childless

America’s urban rebirth is missing something key — actual births.

The opening anecdote will cause a shudder (perhaps of recognition) among many New Yorkers that I know:

A few years ago, I lived in a walkup apartment in the East Village of New York. Every so often descending the stairway, I would catch a glimpse of a particular family with young children in its Sisyphean attempts to reach the fourth floor.

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Podcast talking: Would Democrats take Marianne Williamson seriously if her name was ....

Podcast talking: Would Democrats take Marianne Williamson seriously if her name was ....

Donald Trump is not going to be beaten just by insider politics talk. He’s not going to be beaten just by somebody who has plans. He’s going to be beaten by somebody who has an idea what the man has done. This man has reached into the psyche of the American people and he has harnessed fear for political purposes.

“So, Mr. President — if you’re listening — I want you to hear me please: You have harnessed fear for political purposes and only love can cast that out. So I, sir, I have a feeling you know what you’re doing. I’m going to harness love for political purposes. I will meet you on that field, and sir, love will win.”

— Marianne Williamson’s final statement in first debate for Democrats seeking White House in 2020.

Anyone want to guess what this particular candidate might use as the anthem that plays at the beginning and end of her campaign rallies?

I’m thinking that it might be something that honors the 1992 bestseller — “A Return to Love” — that made her a national sensation back in what people called the New Age era. Something like this: Cue the music.

I focused quite a bit on that book’s old New Age theology in my recent post (“Evil, sin, reality and life as a 'Son of God': What Marianne Williamson is saying isn't new”) about a fascinating New York Times feature about Williamson and her decision to seek the White House. I thought it was appropriate that the Times gave so much attention to the religious themes and concepts in her work, instead of going all politics, all the time.

But, truth be told, the key question discussed in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast — click here to tune that in — focused on mass media, celebrity, religion and, yes, politics, all at the same time.

Look again at that debate quote at the top of this post and give an honest answer to this question: Would that quotation be receiving more attention if the candidate who spoke it was someone named Oprah? How about this person’s candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination?

Williamson is being treated as a bit of a novelty, frankly, even though millions of Americans — on the elite coasts, but also in the heartland, because of her role as a spiritual guide for Oprah Winfrey.

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Alice Cooper's 'death pact' with wife? Press needed to include at least one crucial faith fact

Alice Cooper's 'death pact' with wife? Press needed to include at least one crucial faith fact

Hey GetReligion readers: Do we have any shock rock music fans out there?

When it comes to music, I am really a fanatic about a wide range of artists — pretty much everything except highly commercialized country, dance music (various kinds with one chord over and over) and most opera. However, I never really got into the whole glam-shock rock genre.

But it’s hard not to know the name Alice Cooper. What a long, strange road that guy has walked.

So what does this have to do with religion-news coverage? If you have read anything about Cooper in the past quarter century of so, you know that — strange as if may sound — he is a born-again evangelical Christian and very vocal about it. He’s an avid golfer, too. Those two facts may not be connected.

Anyway, a GetReligion reader recently spotted this dramatic headline at USA Today: “Alice Cooper clarifies story about 'death pact' with wife Sheryl Goddard: 'We have a LIFE pact'.

So what is this all about? Here’s the top of this short entertainment-beat story:

Alice Cooper would like to clear things up: He and wife Sheryl Goddard don't actually have a death pact.

"We have a LIFE pact. We love life so much," the 71-year-old rocker told USA TODAY in a statement.

Cooper made many a headline over the weekend following an article in the British tabloid the Daily Mirror that quotes him as saying he and his wife plan "to go together" when one of them dies, because there's "no way of surviving without each other."

"What I was meaning was that because we're almost always together, at home and on the road, that if something did happen to either of us, we'd most likely be together at the time," Cooper added to USA TODAY. "But neither of us has a suicide pact. We have a life pact."

OK, we will come back to that Daily Mirror story.

However, something important seems to be missing here, even in the short USA Today report.

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