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Memory eternal: Was there a moral compass at the heart of Tom Wolfe's best journalism?

Memory eternal: Was there a moral compass at the heart of Tom Wolfe's best journalism?

I was a journalism major in the first half of the 1970s, an era in which -- even at Baylor University -- everyone who wanted to be a journalist was reading Tom Wolfe. I even dreamed that Wolfe would venture down to Waco and write the definite magazine piece on just how crazy things really were in Jerusalem on the Brazos.

Even in the Bible Belt, Wolfe was the essence of hip, cutting edge journalism. Of course, everyone assumed this also meant "liberal," whatever that word meant back then.

As you would expect, his writings returned to my radar during my graduate work in 1981-82 at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Then there was a lull until the explosion of criticism of his reporting/fiction in "A Man in Full" and "I Am Charlotte Simmons." 

As I read press reactions to those novels, something hit me: Some of the gatekeepers in elite American media were truly afraid that Wolfe might, well, have a moral and cultural point of view that was guiding his sniper-like attacks on American culture.

Oh. My. God. Might the man in the white suits be some kind of "conservative"? Should these books be read while listening to Bob Dylan's acidic, countercultural work on "Infidels"? Was Wolfe a heretic? Hold that thought.

My task here is not to criticize or even to summarize the many, many Wolfe obituaries and tributes that are -- with good cause -- being published right now. I recognize that it takes genuine chutzpah to try to write about Wolfe, or even to write about other people writing about Wolfe. The subject is just too big, too colorful and too complex.

So right now, I would simply like to make a few observations about the articles in The New York Times and New York magazine. After all, everything begins and ends with Wolfe (a transplanted Southerner, of course) and the city that he stalked for half a century, decked out in the white suits that he called "Neo-pretentious" and “a harmless form of aggression.”

Let's start with a symbolic fact about Wolfe's life. The Times noted:

He enrolled at Yale University in the American studies program and received his Ph.D. in 1957. After sending out job applications to more than 100 newspapers and receiving three responses, two of them “no,” he went to work as a general-assignment reporter at The Springfield Union in Springfield, Mass., and later joined the staff of The Washington Post.

How many people finish a Yale doctorate and then head straight into an entry-level job on a newspaper city desk?

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Muslim 'Queer Eye' actor needs some real questions, not just fawning press coverage

Muslim 'Queer Eye' actor needs some real questions, not just fawning press coverage

I don’t watch home décor shows or personal improvement programs since they all appear to be cleverly staged fake events to me.

Which is why I didn’t know about Netflix's reboot of the Queer Eye concept about five gay male makeover experts until I read a profile of one of them, Tan France, by the London Times. What caught my eye wasn’t the glam clothing or hunky builds but a headline that proclaimed this man to be a Muslim.

Gay? Muslim? Out of the closet? In many parts of the world, that’s a death sentence. But fortunately, in this rather fetching story, not so in the West.

The history of social change is unpredictable. But no one expected the first gay Muslim on western TV to pop up quite like this from nowhere. Or rather, Doncaster.
When watching the Queer Eye series, your eyes are too blurry at first to notice. It is an ultra-camp, ultra-American show that seems to be about makeovers. There is a gang called the “Fab Five” of gay male style experts who descend from New York to the Deep South. There they seize on a miserable redneck in a pair of stained tracksuit bottoms. Before you know it they -- foremost among them Tan, a lithe 34-year-old Asian with a GI Joe haircut -- have made him happy with a new pastel shirt collection…
Queer Eye is not a sensational popular and critical success because of a change of outerwear. It’s because of something Tan -- full name Tan France -- says at the beginning of every episode. It is not about tolerance any more, he says. Anyone who feels like an outsider -- female, black, gay, immigrant, Muslim, whatever -- is not settling for tolerance. “Our show is fighting for acceptance.”

Hmmm. Think about that for a moment. Tolerance is peaceful co-existence. Acceptance implies that the opposition agrees to your terms. 

When France was recently interviewed on NBC’s Today show, the host, Megyn Kelly, obviously struggled to make sense of this mystery man. He had never been on television before, but within six weeks of Queer Eye began to be mobbed on the street. Jon Bon Jovi wants selfies, which are broadcast to France’s 500,000 Instagram followers.
“You’re not just a gay man,” Kelly says, “but in your case an immigrant, Pakistani, Muslim gay man, all of it together!”
France smiles joyously and responds: “2018, baby!”

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More ChurchClarity.org thinking: Digging into campus covenant details might be a hoot

More ChurchClarity.org thinking: Digging into campus covenant details might be a hoot

So here is an understatement: Some people in my life (readers included) can't seem to figure out why I think that the work of the LGBTQ activists at ChurchClarity.org is a logical, constructive and potentially positive development on the Godbeat.

To catch up on this topic, please flashback to last week's "Crossroads" podcast post: "ChurchClarity.org: Sometimes asking blunt questions about doctrine makes news." Then, to get some hints at where I am going with all this, please glace here, as well: "Here we go again: When covering campus LGBTQ disputes, always look for doctrinal covenants."

The way I see it, both of those posts are related to the Hooters video at the top of this post. I kid you not.

The other day, our own Bobby Ross, Jr., showed remarkable restraint when, in one of his Friday Five collections, he mentioned an interesting controversy on a Christian college campus in West Texas. Here is a piece of the story he mentioned, which ran at The Dallas Morning News under this headline: "Abilene Christian University urges students: Don't work at Hooters."

Hooters is set to open in Abilene this month, but students at Abilene Christian University are being urged not to apply for jobs there. ...
In a written statement, Emerald Cassidy, the school's director of public and media relations, told the station that "we have asked students to consider both what Hooters represents and whether that is something they really want to support in terms of both their faith and the value this business model places on women."

Now, pay close attention to this part:

According to the university handbook, Cassady said, students are challenged to make decisions "that ultimately glorify God" whether on or off campus, adding that the university could review any student it felt did not uphold that standard on a case-by-case basis.

Yes, lurking in that paragraph is an implied reference -- specifics would be soooo much better -- to some kind of doctrinal statement or lifestyle covenant that frames moral and social issues for ACU students.

Yes, that would be precisely the kind of document that your GetReligionistas have consistently urged journalists to find online, when covering stories about hot-button issues in Christian education.

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Style and substance: This award-winning religion writer, and this feature story, has them both

Style and substance: This award-winning religion writer, and this feature story, has them both

Somehow, Peter Smith of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette didn't win one of the top awards in this year's Religion News Association contest.

Still, Smith remains one of my favorite religion writers.

The Godbeat veteran is one of those journalists who could write a compelling story about names in the phone book (my apologies to those of a certain age who have no idea what a phone book is, or was). But I digress ... 

Style and substance mark Smith's stories — and coincidentally, did I mention that the piece I want to highlight today is about style and substance in worship? How convenient.

This story is a few weeks ago and was published right around the time of the Sutherland Springs, Texas, church shooting. So I missed it at the time. 

But here's what I like about Smith's piece: It covers an issue — the aforementioned style and substance — with which many churches grapple. And it covers it in an interesting and compelling way.

The lede sets the scene:

For years, Bruce and Aricka Ladebu would allow the worship service to run as long as they felt the Holy Spirit moving at their small Crawford County church. Typically, that meant more than two hours of prayer, worship, preaching and testimony.
The idea was that “God will touch people and they will love it and come back,” said Ms. Ladebu, who with her husband is co-pastor of Victory Family Worship Center in Conneaut Lake.
Except that people didn’t love it and didn’t come back.
Over the summer, the church set a one-hour limit to their services. And more people began to attend, and to return.
“We didn’t change the content,” Ms. Ladebu said. “We still preach Jesus, very strongly.”
But now, attendance is about 120, good for a small town, she said, and most attendees had previously not been attending any church.
Ms. Ladebu was among scores of pastors and other church leaders — Protestant and Catholic — swapping such stories at a recent conference. The event, called Future Forward, took place in late October at Amplify Church’s campus in Plum.

Keep reading, and answer this question for me: How many "conference" stories have this kind of precise, revealing detail?

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In New York Times, a bizarre story about a fake wedding (yes, there are holy ghosts)

In New York Times, a bizarre story about a fake wedding (yes, there are holy ghosts)

Two things to know about the New York Times article I'm about to critique:

1. It concerns a fake wedding.

2. I'm not sure the story is meant to be taken as real news.

My suspicion is that Times editors envisioned this feature as a light piece with some fun art — even if the article itself appeared in the A section of the print edition.

In other words, I feel a little awkward offering a serious analysis of a bizarre story on a phony ritual. The piece reads and feels more like journalistic cotton candy than real steak. So the lack of hard-hitting trend analysis in the piece probably shouldn't surprise me.

Nonetheless, I'll raise a question or two related to the holy ghosts that haunt this Times feature.

Before I do that, though, let's set the scene with the colorful opening:

BUENOS AIRES — On a Saturday night in Buenos Aires, hundreds of guests turned out for what might have been the wedding of the season. The bride and groom were all decked out. So were the witnesses, family and friends.
But the altar was actually a stage. The priest’s questions to the couple were not quite what one would hear in a church. The wedding rings were inflatable, the cake plastic and the Bible oversize. It was all a bit burlesque.
This was no ordinary wedding. In fact, it was no wedding at all, but a “falsa boda” in Spanish, or “fake wedding,” and a really good excuse for a party.
In case there was any doubt, as the couple (hired actors) left the stage, colored lights flashed, the disc jockey started the music pumping, and the announcement was made to the paying guests: “The wedding is fake, but the party is real.”
“The purpose of the ‘falsa boda’ is to convey joy and fun and live the happy moments related to love, without having to fall into the traditional ritual of what a marriage is,” explained Nacho Bottinelli, 30, one of the organizers.

What's causing this trend?

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Journalism tip: How to tell when the Washington Post Style goddesses approve of someone

Journalism tip: How to tell when the Washington Post Style goddesses approve of someone

Trust me on this: If you did an afternoon talk-radio show in red zip-code land about religion news, during each and every show someone would call in and ask the same question.

Here it is, in its most blunt and simplistic form: Why do so many journalists hate religious people?

I hear it all the time, because many GetReligion readers seem convinced that your GetReligionistas think that journalists hate religion and/or religious people. That's just wrong, friends and neighbors. At the very least, it's simplistic to the point of being utter nonsense.

But since I have been answering that question for a long time, let's talk about that subject -- since that was the issue looming in the background during this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in).

First of all, many journalists are way too apathetic about all things religious to work up a hot batch of hate. You know the old saying, the opposite of love is not hate, it's apathy.

Also, in the newsrooms in which I worked, there were lots of believers of various kinds. I'm including the spiritual-but-not-religious folks, the Christmas-and-Easter people and people who grew up in one tradition (think Catholicism) and then veered over into another (think liberal Protestantism, especially the Episcopal Church). Then you had people who were ex-this or formerly-that, but now they were just "Go to church/temple with the parents when at home" cultural believers. Do some of them "hate" religion? Maybe. But that's rare.

Now, here is what is common. There are journalists who think that there are GOOD religious people and BAD religious people. The question is whether you can tell who is who when you are reading coverage produced by some of these reporters and editors.

Like what? Let's take a brief look at that Rod "The Benedict Option" Dreher profile that the Style section of The Washington Post ran the other day. Click here for my post on that.

Now, start with the headline: "Rod Dreher is the combative, oversharing blogger who speaks for today’s beleaguered Christians."

Now, as I noted in the podcast, you could talk about that headline for an hour.

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Context, context, context: Financial media outlet flunks basics in millenials flock to astrology story

Context, context, context: Financial media outlet flunks basics in millenials flock to astrology story

How does potentially good journalism go bad? Perhaps it's when reporters fail to find (and editors fail to insist upon) more than one side to a story. Let's call it a context deficit disorder.

Today's nominee is MarketWatch.com, part of the Dow Jones media group, which no longer includes The Wall Street Journal, it should be noted. (That daily is now owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.)

MarketWatch readers are promised an explanation of "Why millennials are ditching religion for witchcraft and astrology." Instead, we're treated to what essentially is a puff-piece for some firms in the metaphysical realm without much, yes, context about whether this really is a thing.

Let's start with the introductory paragraphs. This is long, but essential:

When Coco Layne, a Brooklyn-based producer, meets someone new these days, the first question that comes up in conversation isn’t “Where do you live?” or “What do you do?” but “What’s your sign?”
“So many millennials read their horoscopes every day and believe them,” Layne, who is involved in a number of nonreligious spiritual practices, said. “It is a good reference point to identify and place people in the world.”
Interest in spirituality has been booming in recent years while interest in religion plummets, especially among millennials. The majority of Americans now believe it is not necessary to believe in God to have good morals, a study from Pew Research Center released Wednesday found. The percentage of people between the ages of 18 and 29 who “never doubt existence of God” fell from 81% in 2007 to 67% in 2012.
Meanwhile, more than half of young adults in the U.S. believe astrology is a science. compared to less than 8% of the Chinese public. The psychic services industry -- which includes astrology, aura reading, mediumship, tarot-card reading and palmistry, among other metaphysical services -- grew 2% between 2011 and 2016. It is now worth $2 billion annually, according to industry analysis firm IBIS World.

Can you say non-sequitur, gentle reader?

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Maybe there's a story here: Lutherans on left, right share some common decline issues

Maybe there's a story here: Lutherans on left, right share some common decline issues

If you hang out in the world of organized religion for several decades -- either as a participant, a reporter-outsider or both -- then you reach a point where there is something refreshing about reading an honest report by a faith-based group that's trying to address a real problem.

It's so easy to ignore problems, year after year, until you look up one day and your pews contain a dozen or so people over the age of 70. The next thing you know, you're trying to see how many nonprofits can lease space in your building so that you can keep the heat on and the doors open.

Sound familiar? Plot lines linked to declining numbers and aging sheep have been getting more and more prominent in recent decades, especially among the oldline Protestant churches on both sides of the Atlantic. That's an old story. We talked about that story in this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), but only because it was linked to something more complex and, I think, more interesting.

You see, many churches on the doctrinal right are facing some -- repeat "some" -- of the same issues as those on the left. Yes, there is some truth to the claims that American Catholics have been able to hold things together because of rising numbers in Hispanic parishes (while also importing some priests from the Global South). Southern Baptists have drifted into a slight decline, facing numbers that are not as staggering as those seen in the "Seven Sisters" on the Protestant left, but they are bad (especially when it comes to baptisms). The old-guard SBC knows that continued growth among African-American and Latino churches is crucial.

So this brings me to a report that I bumped into last year published (.pdf here) by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in its Journal of Lutheran Mission. What's it about? It's about the 40 years or so of decline in membership in the churches of this conservative synod, a decline that is quite similar to that seen on the left.

Want to see some candor? Check out these bullet points from the introduction to the Journal package:

* ... (A)ll denominations gain the overwhelming majority of their membership from natural growth: from children of adult members raised in the faith. Thus, the retention of baptized and confirmed youth is a key area on which to focus.
* The LCMS’s persistent, long-term decline manifests itself both in a massive decrease in child baptisms (down 70 percent since their peak in the late 1950s) and a smaller but still significant decrease in adult converts (down 47 percent since their peak, again in the late 1950s).

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The Amish population is booming: Could their religion have something to do with it?

The Amish population is booming: Could their religion have something to do with it?

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch had a fascinating story recently about the booming Amish population.

The trend piece — much to its credit — contained a fair amount of religion-related details that gave insight into what the Amish believe.

At various points as I read the feature, I found myself both (1) appreciative that the Post-Dispatch delved into the faith of the Amish and (2) wishing that the newspaper had unraveled the yarn just a little more. 

The lede set the scene:

LICKING, Mo. — The story of abrupt change in this small south-central Missouri town starts with the water tower. A giant baseball is painted on top as a fading reminder of when Rawlings was king.
As sporting goods manufacturing dried up, a $60 million maximum-security prison opened in 2000. The South Central Regional Correctional Center doubled the local population to more than 3,000 people.
“We just try to go with the times,” said Licking Mayor Keith Cantrell. “Whatever happens, we try to deal with it and go on.”
Unlike Rawlings, the prison hunkers out of sight, just west of downtown. Now, another group has settled that also appreciates privacy, only its members arrived under the shade of straw hats and black bonnets.
The Amish, who are undergoing exponential growth, have chosen Licking as one of many new settlements. Facing overcrowding and increased government pressure in more traditional areas, they broke new ground here in 2009, after buying an 800-acre ranch. They bought another large property a few years later.

Big question: Why is the Amish population growing? Hang on to that thought.

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