Julia Duin

Heavenly visitations? Slate lifts the curtain on evangelical insider battles

Heavenly visitations? Slate lifts the curtain on evangelical insider battles

Last week, a story came out about a kid whose near-death experience developed into a book about how he saw heaven while comatose later became an embarrassing mess when the child denied the whole thing.

Written by Ruth Graham of Slate, it’s a meticulously researched piece about the boy, his mom, a dad who’s evaded press interviews until now and the gullible Christian book industry. It’s long, it’s detailed and it’s rather sad.

It’s pretty unconventional in terms of religion news. How many sites would run something this detailed about a kid (or his father) who takes the Christian book industry for a ride? If you pay attention to the details, this is a sobering look at the sometimes confused state of evangelical doctrine, these days.

After describing the car accident that nearly killed the boy, the article continues:

Six years later, a book was published that would become a sensation. The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven—with Kevin and Alex listed on the cover as co-authors—tells the saga of Alex’s improbable survival. But it wasn’t that medical miracle that launched the story to fame. In the book, Alex claimed he had spent time in heaven after the accident, and continued to be visited by angels and demons after he emerged from his coma two months later. He wrote that he traveled through a bright tunnel, and was greeted by five angels, and then met Jesus, who told him he would survive; later, he saw 150 “pure, white angels with fantastic wings.” Heaven has lakes and rivers and grass, the book says. God sits on a throne near a scroll that describes the End Times. The devil has three heads, with red eyes, moldy teeth, and hair made of fire.

Of course publishers jumped at this bait.

The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven sold more than 1 million copies and spent months on the New York Times’ bestseller list. It was also on the leading edge of a boomlet of “heaven tourism” stories in Christian publishing, including Heaven Is for Real, a memoir about 4-year-old Colton Burpo’s experience that came out later in 2010 and was eventually adapted into a movie starring Greg Kinnear. Time magazine published a cover story in 2012 titled “Rethinking Heaven,” opening with Burpo’s story — even more detailed than Alex’s — about seeing a rainbow horse and meeting the Virgin Mary.

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Modesto Bee punts when it comes to basic reporting on pastor-turned-politician

Modesto Bee punts when it comes to basic reporting on pastor-turned-politician

Normally I’m happy when smaller newspapers cover religion news. And the 33, 522-circ. Modesto Bee does qualify as a small newspaper.

The second newspaper I worked for was that size. The first one was even smaller, so I know what it’s like to be in the smaller markets. But when a big religion story is staring you in the face, it would help to provide more than the minimum of coverage.

Fox example, when a local megachurch pastor decides to run for public office, that calls for decent coverage. What did run, in this case, was pretty lackadaisical.

The senior pastor of Big Valley Grace Community Church — which is one of Modesto’s biggest churches — confirmed Monday that he is running for mayor in the November 2020 election.

“I love this town. I love the people of this town,” Rick Countryman said in a phone interview. “This is literally the right time to get involved. (If elected), I will use my energy, my passion and leadership to make Modesto a better place.”

Countryman, 58, declined to discuss his top issues or what he hopes to accomplish if elected. He said there will be plenty of time to talk about those things during the campaign. But he did say he gets tired of how Modesto ends up on the “bottom of lists of crummy towns” and wants to change that.

So here is the crucial question: What happens to the church, if he is elected mayor? How does one do both jobs?

Countryman said he has thought about running for mayor for about the past couple of elections but the time was not right. He said he now is at a stage in his life and Big Valley is in “healthy place” where running makes sense.

He said if elected, he would continue with Big Valley but his role may change as he takes on the demands of being mayor. Countryman said about 3,000 people attend Big Valley, which he said places it among the five largest churches in Modesto for attendance.

So this guy essentially runs a corporation servicing 3,000 people and he has the free time to want to run for mayor?

Something is very funny here.

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Wall Street Journal pokes fun at vain pastors with flashy, expensive sneakers

Wall Street Journal pokes fun at vain pastors with flashy, expensive sneakers

One of the upsides of paying $19 a month for the Wall Street Journal is that you sometimes find real gems on the religion beat. Like there’s this piece by their Vatican correspondent on growing pressure from secular authorities to force Catholic priests to report evidence of child sex abuse heard in the confessional.

Then there’s this piece about the Catholic Archdiocese of New York suing its insurers, which are making noises about not paying out claims by people who said they were sexually abused by priests sometime in the past 50 or years.

Oddly, none of the above are by the paper’s national religion reporter, Ian Lovett, whose output seems rather low compared to most other national religion reporters. Why Lovett isn’t breaking stories on the beat is the topic for another day but let’s say that the most interesting material in the pages of the Journal is written by folks on other beats.

One of these is a howler of a piece that I knew I had to write up — a cute little number on “sneakerhead pastors” that I somehow missed when it came out in April. Yes, this is a deep trip into my “GetReligion guilt file.”

Written by Jacob Gallagher, the men’s fashion editor, it’s a comic look at how some of America’s hipper megachurch pastors are spending thousands of dollars for their footwear.

MID-LAST MONTH, an Instagram account was launched to catalog a very particular sort of modern style icon: the preacher sneakerhead. @PreachersNSneakers, which is run anonymously, documents the trendy and extravagant footwear choices of popular, social-media-savvy church figures. So far, it has featured photos of megachurch pastors like Relentless Church’s John Gray (wearing long-sold-out Nike Air Yeezy 2s that resale for $5,611 on the website StockX, as @PreachersNSneakers points out), Hillsong’s Nathan Finochio (new Gucci slides that retail for $1,100) and Zoe Church’s Chad Veach (Saint Laurent Jodhpur boots with a sticker price of $1,045). The account has also caused quite a stir, racking up over 123,000 followers and thousands of comments in its short existence. Click on any photo and you’ll find a string of fervid comments debating whether or not it’s OK for pastors to flaunt their conspicuous consumption as they preach the word of God.

Now the clothes worn by these pastors often look pretty commonplace and extremely understated. But please look at those shoes!

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In the 'battle at the border,' evangelical leaders jostle for Trump-era media relevancy

In the 'battle at the border,' evangelical leaders jostle for Trump-era media relevancy

Unless you’ve been under a rock recently, you know much of the country is fixated on the mess at our border.

What’s not as visible is how evangelical Christians are fighting among themselves over all of this. In the latest development, an old foot soldier in evangelical warfare contacted all his followers to say that President Donald Trump is doing the right thing.

That foot soldier would be Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, now 83. He retired from Focus 10 years ago (although HuffPost says he was forced out), then founded “Family Talk,” a nonprofit that produces his radio programs. More on him in a moment.

With thousands of people each day forcing their way into the United States, there has erupted amongst evangelicals what I like to call the “battle at the border.”

Many of you may have heard of the spitting match between Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., and the Rev. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Moore was mourning the border situation on Twitter — specifically conditions endured by children — and Falwell slammed into him for being unqualified to speak about the matter.

The people following this have mostly been religion beat specialists. Amy Sullivan had one of the better descriptive lines in calling it a “tale of two tweets,” as it showed huge fissures among evangelicals. The secular media didn’t do a whole lot with this inside-baseball battle, but there’s now a term, #SBCdeepstate and a lot of grandstanding on What Would Jesus Do At The Border.

Last Friday, a Catholic bishop thought he had the answer to that one, which is why he personally escorted a family across the border even though they’d been turned back once by the border patrol.

Then you have the Rev. Jack Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, who in this Christian Post story tells of his visit to the border and how everything there is peachy keen.

Of course, the Babylonian Bee had to run a piece on the lunacy of it all.

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Lots of Ilhan Omar stories major on her politics -- but none really talk about her faith

Lots of Ilhan Omar stories major on her politics -- but none really talk about her faith

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar has gotten ultra-favorable coverage (this NPR piece is an example) as the history-making one-of-two-first-ever Muslim women to serve in Congress.

A one-time refugee in Kenya, the Somalia-born politician came to Virginia as a child, moved to Minnesota, got a political science degree from North Dakota State University, got involved in political activism and, like President Barak Obama, was a community organizer for minority groups in a large American city. She is now the country’s first hijab-wearing member of Congress.

She’s also faced death threats, been tweeted against by President Donald Trump and gotten major condemnation over her description on March 23 of September 11 as “some people who did something.”

I wrote about the reaction of some Minnesotans to the influx of Somali refugees in their state not long ago. This lengthy profile on Omar on the British web site MiddleEastEye.net goes in the opposite direction: Setting out the benefits of the Somalis getting politically involved.

Omar, as the first Somali-American to make it to the Minnesota state legislature and then to Congress, is part of a new cohort of path-breaking politicians daring to challenge not only US President Donald Trump but the broader American political establishment.

But Omar is more than just a congresswoman with fight. She is a refugee from a country that is now part of the president's Muslim ban; she is black, visibly Muslim; a walking antithesis to Trump's purview of America.

Within months, she has shaken the halls of Congress. As an "other" she is now the embodiment of what is fast becoming a fight for America's soul.

The story is an interesting meander through the many Muslim personalities the author meets while trying (somewhat fruitlessly) to get an interview with Omar. He does get a few words with her here and there but Omar seems loathe to divulge too much.

What strikes me in this –- and other articles I’ve dug up -– is how little Omar refers to her Muslim background. We hear nothing about how her faith influences her life. We get no idea of what mosque she attends, how she fits prayer into her work schedule and what precepts of the Quran she follows.

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The Los Angeles Times' piece on Instagram-loving witches lacks any critical edge

The Los Angeles Times' piece on Instagram-loving witches lacks any critical edge

Ever since the Los Angeles Times re-started its Column One feature in January, there’s been some really innovative journalism there, even though the material featured there always seems pretty one-sided.

So I was intrigued to see a recent piece on the “working witches of Los Angeles.” Kind of brings back memories of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, right?

How much would religion, I wondered, be part of this story?

Not so much.

Oh, there was a ton of content on New Age practices and shamanistic spirituality but it’s tough to categorize these folks. Are they Wiccans? Pagans? Goddess worshippers? Just because the reporter left no hints about their leanings doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

The Oracle of Los Angeles was feeling frazzled.

It was already 2 p.m. and she hadn’t had time to prepare lunch, much less wipe the ash from her altar. A tarot card client had just left her yellow Craftsman house in West Adams, evidenced by the smell of incense still lingering in the air. Within an hour, she was scheduled to meet with another client who was struggling to complete a PhD thesis.

In the meantime, she still had to prepare for her weekly podcast, create a purifying ceremony for a new business--and get her nails done for a reality TV appearance. Any downtime would be consumed with writing. The second draft of her memoir was due to her publisher in a week.

The Oracle, who also goes by Amanda Yates Garcia, is a former arts educator with a master of fine arts in writing, film and critical theory from California Institute of the Arts. For the past eight years she has made her living as a professional witch, performing “energetic healings,” “intuitive empowerment sessions” and the occasional exorcism, while also teaching workshops on the art of magic online and at her home, independent stores, and sites like the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Sadly, the story never unpacks what “the occasional exorcism” entails, as this witch doesn’t believe in either God or Satan.

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Want religion coverage in Winnipeg? Readers need to be prepared to pay for it

Want religion coverage in Winnipeg? Readers need to be prepared to pay for it

We complain a lot about the dearth of full-time religion writers here in the USA, but our situation is positively lush compared to our neighbor to the north.

Whereas Canadian religion reporters once featured the likes of Tom Harpur, Doug Todd, Bob Harvey., Gordon Legge and Harvey Sheppard, Todd now does religion plus a bunch of other beats. Other professionals have moved on, retired or died.

In the crunch that is today’s print newspaper world, dozens of religion writers have either been laid off or transferred to other beats. A younger generation of reporters, mainly Gen X’ers, never got to work full time because the beat was crashing in major regional newspapers from coast to coast just as they were coming into their prime.

But one newspaper: the Winnipeg Free Press, has a full faith page with local religion news. The reason?

Viewers are paying for it.

I want to draw your attention to a column (in J-source; the online publication for the Canadian Journalism Project) by Free Press religion freelancer John Longhurst, who explained how the Godbeat has appeared in the Winnipeg paper.

(A story about a local Catholic priest) is an example of the new approach the Free Press is taking to religion coverage, in a unique year-long pilot project in partnership with the city’s faith groups.

As editor Paul Samyn put it in a note to readers on March 2 when the project was launched: “Over the past nine months we’ve been on a mission, meeting with various members of the city’s faith groups to gauge their willingness to help fund the journalism we produce. The offer was simple: if you value faith coverage in your newspaper and you want to see more — help us do more.”

The faith community responded, contributing just over $30,000 to fund additional freelance writing by the Free Press’s two regular religion writers, along with other contributors.

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In heavily Catholic Guam, press struggles to find Catholics to quote on abortion issues

In heavily Catholic Guam, press struggles to find Catholics to quote on abortion issues

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has shown no signs of overturning Roe v. Wade, you’d think — from all the press coverage that’s out there — it’s going to happen tomorrow.

One place where these debates have gone almost unnoticed is the U.S. territory of Guam, the South Pacific home to a U.S. naval base where women wanting abortions have a 7-hour flight (to Hawaii) ahead of them. That makes any difficulties faced by women in the lower 48 pale in comparison.

The few news stories done about life on this island mention that it is “heavily Catholic;” which translates to 80 percent of the island’s 165,000 residents.

Press coverage has been pretty light. In all the stories I’ve seen, only one Catholic woman is quoted. Surely with more than 100,000 Catholics on the island, there must be more than one person willing to speak to the press. The photo atop this article shows Catholics in Guam demonstrating against abortion in January.

Here’s another question to think about: What is the religious identity of Gov. Lourdes Leon Guerrero?

We’ll start with what the Associated Press has written:

(HONOLULU) — Lourdes Leon Guerrero vigorously defended abortion rights as she campaigned to become the first female governor of Guam. She won, but now no doctors are willing to perform the procedure she fought so hard to defend. The last abortion provider in the heavily Catholic U.S. territory retired in May 2018. That’s forcing women seeking to end their pregnancies to fly thousands of miles from the remote Pacific island — a costly and sometimes prohibitive step.

“I truly believe that women should have control of their bodies,” Gov. Guerrero, a former nurse, told The Associated Press in a phone interview Thursday. “I’m very sad and very nervous about what’s happening across the nation.”…

A Catholic anti-abortion group protested the recruitment idea at the governor’s office on Friday. Patricia Perry, co-chair of the group, sent invitations encouraging people to attend a prayer rally.

“If the governor is not convinced, we’ll do other measures to further our cause,” Perry said. “We will not stop until all abortion is outlawed and all anti-life laws will be abolished.”…

The archdiocese on the heavily Catholic island said in a statement it was appealing to the governor to change her position.

Meanwhile, are there any other religious groups on Guam — liberal or conservative — that may have an opinion on these issues?

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New York Times attacks anti-Muslim tensions in small-city Minnesota, but reality is more complex

New York Times attacks anti-Muslim tensions in small-city Minnesota, but reality is more complex

On the face of it, Thursday’s New York Times story about a Minnesota city that doesn’t want any more Somali refugees sounds like a racist-town-hates-Muslims kind of piece.

I decided to look deeper into it and ask a few questions the article didn’t raise to see why everyone’s so upset why a 16 percent growth in non-white residents –- and mostly Muslim ones at that -– has frazzled the populace.

As you would expect, there’s lots of information here about politics and life in the Donald Trump era — complete with red “Make Saint Cloud Great Again” hats and lots of references to locals reading conservative websites online.

However, this is also a story in which it is important for readers to pause and do some math. The bottom line: It’s simple to write a story about racist right-wing Christian bigots who don’t want any more Muslims moving in. It’s not as easy to look at some of the other factors, like overcrowded classrooms in public schools; school districts having budget money for interpreters and ESL instructors; crowded emergency rooms at local hospitals and a tax base that’s not being greatly added to by all the new arrivals.

First, here’s the opening of the story:

ST. CLOUD, Minn. — John Palmer, a former university professor, has always had a cause. For decades he urged Minnesota officials to face the dangers of drunken driving and embrace seatbelts. Now he has a new goal: curbing the resettlement of Somali refugees in St. Cloud, after a few thousand moved into this small city where Mr. Palmer has lived for decades…

On Thursdays, Mr. Palmer hosts a group called Concerned Community Citizens, or C-Cubed, which he formed to pressure local officials over the Muslim refugees. Mr. Palmer said at a recent meeting he viewed them as innately less intelligent than the “typical” American citizen, as well as a threat.

“The very word ‘Islamophobia’ is a false narrative,” Mr. Palmer, 70, said. “A phobia is an irrational fear.” Raising his voice, he added, “An irrational fear! There are many reasons we are not being irrational.”

In this predominantly white region of central Minnesota, the influx of Somalis, most of whom are Muslim, has spurred the sort of demographic and cultural shifts that President Trump and right-wing conservatives have stoked fears about for years.

So “right-wing conservatives,” and people who rally in church pews, are all basically racists?

That does appear to be the thesis of this Times article.

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