Terry Mattingly

The Atlantic bravely attempts a religion-free (almost) look at New York kids in the culture wars

The Atlantic bravely attempts a religion-free (almost) look at New York kids in the culture wars

One of the most talked about articles in the American news media last week, at least in the Twitter-verse, was not a news piece.

But it could have been a news piece. In fact, I would argue that it should have been a news piece — at least in a world in which New York City metro editors have their ears open and can spot religion-and-culture angles in public and private schools.

I am talking about George Packer’s essay at The Atlantic Monthly that ran with this poignant and news double-decker headline:

When the Culture War Comes for the Kids

Caught between a brutal meritocracy and a radical new progressivism, a parent tries to do right by his children while navigating New York City’s schools.

This is, I think, one of the few times that readers can see the term “culture wars” used in a manner that reflects the definition given that term in the landmark James Davison Hunter book “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.” Here is how I described the University of Virginia sociologist’s main point in a tribute column long ago, on the 10th anniversary of my national “On Religion” column. In that work:

… (He) declared that America now contains two basic worldviews, which he called "orthodox" and "progressive." The orthodox believe it's possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience, even if that requires them to "resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life."

On one level — the most obvious level — Packer’s Atlantic piece is about the role that fiercely woke “identity politics” is playing in elite New York City culture, as demonstrated in public schools. So what does “identity politics” mean, right now?

This whole article wrestles with that issue, from the point of view of a progressive parent who has been shaken awake by the facts on the ground. However, Packer also noted that not all identities are created equal, in this world. This is one of the only places where readers get a glimpse of the religious and moral implications of this fight, in the years after Barack Obama era:

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Believers must face this: All kinds of people (pastors too) wrestle with depression and suicide

Believers must face this: All kinds of people (pastors too) wrestle with depression and suicide

This week’s “Crossroads” podcast about the death of the Rev. Jarrid Wilson (click here to tune that in) was not business as usual. Here is my original GetReligion post on this topic: “Symbolic details too painful for words: Shocking death of Jarrid Wilson stunned us all.”

For me, this topic got personal really quick.

First, there was the subject of depression and suicide. Anyone who has wrestled with depression (or has had loved ones face that darkness) knows that, at times, people swim in what seems like an ocean of irrational feelings and impulses.

My senior year of high school was like that. Several times I kind of came to my senses and would not know how I got to where I was — usually the classical music section of the main Port Arthur, Texas, music store. I still cannot hear the second movement of Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 (Eroica), without shuddering. There are memories there (cue at 8:46 and hang on).

I am sure that whatever I experienced was only a glimpse of what Wilson faced. It’s amazing to me that he preached on these topics and bravely took on the task — the calling — of helping others. Wilson said that he wanted God to show him a purpose for his life. He had to know that answering the call involved risk.

Also, then there was the timing of this week’s tragedy. Yes, this unfolded hours just before Suicide Awareness Day. And then came the anniversary of Sept. 11.

I found myself thinking about Father Mychal Judge, the Franciscan friar who served as a chaplain for New York City firefighters. He ran into the North Tower of the World Trade Center with the first responders. When the South Tower fell, firefighters discovered that the 69-year-old priest had collapsed. His heart gave out. Firefighters carried his body out of the rubble and placed at the altar of the nearby St. Peter’s Catholic Church. Then the firefighters went back to work.

This priest had to know that there was risk involved in running into that last fire. But that was part of his calling. At his funeral, his friend Father Michael Duffy said this in the sermon:

Mychal Judge's body was the first one released from Ground Zero. His death certificate has the number '1' on the top. Of the thousands of people who perished in that terrible holocaust, why was Mychal Judge number one? And I think I know the reason. Mychal's goal and purpose in life was to bring the firemen to the point of death so they would be ready to meet their maker.

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From Azusa Street to Memphis: Sometimes reporters have to tell old stories to new readers

From Azusa Street to Memphis: Sometimes reporters have to tell old stories to new readers

I do not go out of my way, as a rule, to praise the religion-beat work of one of my former students in the old Washington Journalism Center (which has now evolved into the New York City Journalism semester at The King’s College).

But it’s time to break that rule.

I say that because of a feature story by Katherine Burgess — a name to watch on the religion beat — that ran at The Memphis Commercial Appeal. The headline: “Bishop Mason built COGIC out of revival, the faith of former slaves.

In roughly 40 years of religion-beat work, I know of no organization that is harder to cover than the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). As a result, this massive Pentecostal flock receives way less coverage than it deserves. I don’t think the denomination’s leaders are hostile to the press (although I have encountered one or two who were), but they certainly do not seek out the attention.

How many news-consumers in West Tennessee, white and black, know the history of this important institution or even know that it is based in their region? Thus, Burgess needed to start at the beginning, with the story of one man:

He preached in living rooms, in the woods and in a cotton gin.

When he returned from the Azusa Street Revival speaking in unknown tongues, Bishop Charles Harrison Mason was followed by just 10 churches out of more than 100 in the split over the theological disagreement.

Today, the denomination founded by Mason, the son of former slaves, is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States, with more than 6.5 million members.

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Symbolic details too painful for words: Shocking death of Jarrid Wilson stunned us all

Symbolic details too painful for words: Shocking death of Jarrid Wilson stunned us all

Did you need more evidence that we live (and strive to do good journalism) in a broken world?

Did you need a reminder that any journalist who works on the religion-news beat needs to dig into a dictionary and learn the meaning of this theological term — “theodicy.”

The death of the Rev. Jarrid Wilson unfolded on social media, with shock waves ripping through the digital ties that bind (including in newsrooms). He had worked to bring comfort to those suffering with mental-health issues — while being candid about his own life. Wilson reminded those struggling with suicidal thoughts that they were not alone and that God knew their pain.

This gifted preacher — married, with two young children — knew that and believed it. But something snapped, anyway.

Here’s the top of the team-written Religion News Service report about this tragedy which, hopefully, will shape the mainstream coverage of that will follow.

(RNS) — Jarrid Wilson, a California church leader, author and mental health advocate, died by suicide Monday evening (Sept. 9) at age 30.

Wilson, known as a passionate preacher, most recently was an associate pastor at megachurch Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California. A co-founder of the mental health nonprofit Anthem of Hope, Wilson was open about his own depression, often posting on his social media accounts about his battles with the mental illness.

“At a time like this, there are just no words,” said Harvest Senior Pastor Greg Laurie in a statement.

But there were words with which to wrestle — from Wilson, on the day he took his own life.

What journalist would imagine details more symbolic than these?

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Hurrah for blue pews! New York Times embraces small, doctrine-optional Manhattan flock

Hurrah for blue pews! New York Times embraces small, doctrine-optional Manhattan flock

Reporters who are truly interested in the future of the American faith-scene need to know this number — 100. Or maybe it’s 85 or 90. I’ve heard others say the crucial number is 115 in expensive zip codes.

But the late Lyle Schaller, a legendary church-management guru in oldline Protestant circles, once told me that it took about 100 actively contributors to fund the salary-and-benefits package for a credentialed minister in a mainline church. When Schaller said “mainline,” he was talking about the “Seven Sisters.” In descending order by size, that’s the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

In other words, if a church had more than 100 active members (or households) it could provide for its minister and then do other things — like keep the building from falling down. With fewer than 100 members, a church would be constantly struggling with basic expenses, trying to keep the doors open.

So that’s the statistic that looms over that glowing New York Times feature about a lively Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that represents the future of the religious left. The dramatic main headline states: “The Church Where Believing in God Isn’t Strictly Necessary.”

Yes, I hear what many readers are thinking. This is a church that even the New York Times can love. And how many people are in these pews? Readers will have to read way down into the story to find that information. Meanwhile, the summary lede contains a few details:

Observant Presbyterians are always part of gatherings at Rutgers Presbyterian Church. But much of the time, so are Roman Catholics and Jews, as well as a smattering of people who consider themselves vaguely spiritual. Valerie Oltarsh-McCarthy, who sat among the congregation listening to a Sunday sermon on the perils of genetically modified vegetables, is, in fact, an atheist.

You have to love that detail about the “perils of genetically modified vegetables.” However, the thesis statement comes a few paragraphs later, as the editorial angels sing a song of hope for a future free of nasty stuff like ancient doctrines:

Typically, the connective tissue of any congregation is an embrace of a shared faith.

Yet Rutgers, a relatively small church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has rejected that. Sharing a belief in God — any God at all — isn’t necessary.

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Oh yeah -- this post is about that RNS column on why journalists just can't 'get religion'

Oh yeah -- this post is about that RNS column on why journalists just can't 'get religion'

If you ever needed proof that the editor of The New York Times saying something is what makes a point of view “real,” then check out the new Religion News Service opinion piece with this headline: “What it means to ‘get’ religion in 2020.”

Charles C. Camosy of Fordham University starts his “Purple Catholicism” column in a perfectly logical place. That would be the celebrated National Public Radio interview nearly three years ago in which Times executive editor Dean Baquet sort of admits that many journalists have trouble grasping the importance of religion in real life in America and around the world.

That’s the interview that, at the time, was marked with a GetReligion piece under the headline, “New York Times editor: We just don't get (a) religion, (b) the alt-right or (c) whatever.”

(RNS) — Following the 2016 presidential election, Dean Baquet, then executive editor of The New York Times, declared that one of his “big jobs” was to “really understand and explain the forces in America” that produced such a surprising result. Leading media organizations, he admirably admitted, simply do not “get religion.”

Baquet was right to be concerned. Otherwise sophisticated journalists and commentators regularly display minimal understanding of religion and how theological claims ought to function in public discourse. This not only hampers journalists’ ability to get to the heart of a story, it contributes much to the massive and growing distrust religious people tend to have of major media institutions.  

Comosy seems to assume that Baquet’s words brought this sad situation into the light of day, as opposed to millions of words of media-criticism and praise published here at GetReligion over nearly 17 years. I could note my cover story on this topic at The Quill in 1983, but that would be rather indecorous.

However, I will pause to be thankful for the first URL included in this RNS piece — the “minimal understand of religion” link — which points to at GetReligion post with this headline: “Mark Hemingway takes GetReligion-like stroll through years of New York Times religion gaffes.” Yes, that Mark Hemingway.

But here is the key to this piece: Rather than focusing on embarrassing religion errors that make it into print (even though errors are a sign of deeper issues), the RNS columnist digs deep into a philosophical issue noted many, many, many times at here at GetReligion. I am referring to the tendency by journalists that some subjects are “real” (politics and economics), while others are not so real (religion).

Here is the heart of the matter, from his perspective.

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Thinking about Africa, Pope Francis: While seeing through eyes of BBC and The New York Times

Thinking about Africa, Pope Francis: While seeing through eyes of BBC and The New York Times

In my opinion, the world’s two most powerful and influential news outlets are the BBC and The New York Times.

Needless to say, both of these news organizations have offered coverage of Pope Francis and his latest visit to Africa. It’s interesting to note some consistent thin spots — doctrine-shaped holes, really — in the background coverage explaining why this trip matters so much, in terms of certain demographic realities in the modern Roman Catholic Church.

Consider this crucial passage in the BBC advance feature that ran with this headline: “Pope Francis in Africa: Is the continent the Catholic Church's great hope?” This three-nation trip to Africa will be:

… his fourth visit to the continent since he became the head of the Roman Catholic Church in 2013, compared to the two his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, made during his eight-year papacy. 

The importance of Africa to the Catholic Church can be summed up in a word — growth. 

Africa has the fastest growing Catholic population in the world, while Western Europe, once regarded as the heartland of Christianity, has become one of the world's most secular regions, according to the US-based Pew Research Center. And many of those who do identify themselves as Christian in Western Europe do not regularly attend church.

Here is a stunner of a statistic, care of the Center for Applied Research.

Start here. The number of Catholics in the world increased by 57% to 1.2 billion, between 1980 and 2012. However, growth in Europe was just 6%. Frankly, I am surprised to hear that Catholic numbers rose in Europe at all. I would be interesting to see a comparison of Western and Eastern European nations.

Meanwhile, the Catholic population rose 283% in Africa.

So why is that happening? Thinking like a religion writer, the first things that leap into my mind are (1) African Catholics are having more babies and (b) they are making more converts. Both of those factors have major doctrinal components in the post-Vatican II Catholic world. You could also note that the African church is raising up many more priests than the somewhat frozen European churches.

The BBC team, I think it’s safe to say, saw zero doctrinal component in the African church’s growth.

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That John Harbaugh! The Ravens coach sure loves to read the Bible for some strange reason

That John Harbaugh! The Ravens coach sure loves to read the Bible for some strange reason

Are you ready for some real NFL football? It’s that time of year again. Which only raises another question, are you ready for some more haunted ESPN features about mysterious behaviors in the lives of religious people who happen to be coaches and athletes in the National Football League?

If you read GetReligion — and a handful or two of you care about sports — you know that there are almost too many of these stories for GetReligion to handle them, year after year. I tend to notice stories about the Baltimore Ravens containing God-shaped holes (click here for a sample) because that team commanded my loyalties during my D.C.-Baltimore years (and they still do, to be honest about it).

So ESPN recently served up a new story about the head coach of the Ravens with this headline: “John Harbaugh's T-shirt game is strong and motivating the Ravens.” Fans will recognize that this is the latest episode in the ongoing tale of journalists trying to grasp Harbaugh’s love of “mighty men” images. Here’s the overture:

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh loves a good T-shirt. So much so that he's got a guy on staff making custom designs for him.

At training camp last year, Harbaugh showed up with three words printed on a T-shirt.

Trying to set the tone after the 2017 season ended with a last-minute loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Harbaugh wanted to move past one of the most gut-wrenching moments in team history and put his players in the right mindset.

At a team meeting, Harbaugh told the story of the biblical figure Benaiah chasing a lion into a snowy pit and killing it.

"If you want to do great things, you have to have courage,” said Harbaugh. "You got to know your moment.” And boom ... not long after that, Harbaugh later appeared at practice wearing a shirt reading, “Chase the Lion.”

ESPN noted that Harbaugh is the NFL’s fourth-longest-tenured coach at that he has a unique ability to find symbolic ways to motivate his troops. The coach explains that this is part of “culture-building” and establishing a “world view” for his team. The t-shirts — and the words on them — are part of all that.

Now, with the word “biblical” included in that overture, I thought that we were about to read an ESPN story that finally dug into the details of Harbaugh’s unique blend of Catholic faith and a muscular-Christianity style that is popular with modern evangelicals.

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Read it all: Slate reporter goes to Kansas and spends a few minutes with 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick

Read it all: Slate reporter goes to Kansas and spends a few  minutes with 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick

Ponder this please. When you hear that someone has landed an exclusive “interview” with a leader of global importance, how much content do you expect this “interview” to contain?

I am not, of course, talking about one of those two- or three-minute “Entertainment Tonight” reports — “We’ll be back with an exclusive interview with Brad Pitt!” — in which a star answers two dishy questions during a Hollywood junket. I am talking about an “interview” with a newsmaker about a serious subject.

I bring this up because of a fascinating Slate piece that is billed as the first interview with former Washington D.C. cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who has been exiled to the vastness of Western Kansas, a region that journalists from elite zip codes rarely visit, to say the least. I happened to drive past the Cathedral of the Plains the other day and it just as hard to imagine Uncle Ted McCarrick in Victoria, Kansas, as picturing Truman Capote in nearby (relatively speaking) Holcolm, Kansas.

The dramatic double-decker headline proclaims:

Theodore McCarrick Still Won’t Confess

Banished in the dead of night to a mistrustful Kansas town after sexual abuse allegations, the defrocked archbishop of D.C. speaks publicly for the first time since his fall from grace.

Please understand: I think that reporter Ruth Graham’s brief encounter with McCarrick showed moxie and yields interesting and, some will say, predictable answers from the fallen prince of the church. I also enjoyed (I kid you not) her 2,500-word introduction to the interview, which is both a quick summary of the McCarrick disaster story and a touching look at the lives of the intensely Catholic Volga German culture of West Kansas. If this second subject does not intrigue you, reading this intro is going to seem like a long, long drive across the Kansas plains.

The interview itself is short — but important. This is true even though it reinforces many themes that have been woven through this tragedy from the start. McCarrick, for example, does believe that he was the victim of a conservative-Catholic plot.

When the reader finally reaches the encounter with the fallen cardinal, Graham stresses that she had been told he was not doing interviews. Still, she rang the doorway at the friary he now calls home:

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