No match? Britain's Guardian misses church context in Salvation Army's down-under funeral venture

No match? Britain's Guardian misses church context in Salvation Army's down-under funeral venture

You might wonder what a video about The Salvation Army starting a match factory 129 years ago in London's East End has to do with commercial funeral services in Australia, but there's a connection, trust me. (Click the "match factory" link above to see the Army's take. It's worth your time, I believe.)

In that connection lies a tip for Godbeat journalists today: look beyond the immediate story for any deeper background. Both you and your readers will be rewarded.

My thoughts turned to the "Match Girls' Strike" of 1888 when I read this article from Britain's Guardian about a new company in Australia promising to cut the burdensome costs of cremations and funerals:

The Salvation Army has entered Australia’s funeral industry, a move welcomed by consumer advocates concerned by a “long history” of unscrupulous providers taking advantage of the newly bereaved and a lack of competition.
Salvo Funerals officially launched in Sydney this week, following a successful six-month trial in which it delivered more than 90 funerals. Malcolm Pittendrigh, the chief executive, said it was a social enterprise designed to both meet the needs of the community and return money to the not-for-profit.
He had worked at the Salvation Army as an accountant for nearly 20 years and pitched the idea of a funeral service to senior leadership as a “natural extension” of its work.
“Part of our approach was a lean, start-up methodology, where you build, you test, you learn – just to prove that you have something that’s worthy of putting into the community.”
In a market dominated by “a couple of big players”, he said Salvo Funerals’ point of difference was its lower-cost offerings.

There's little doubt that The Salvation Army, with 152 years of service as an evangelical Christian church and about 2 million adherents worldwide, could use some positive press in Australia. Decades of alleged physical, emotional and sexual abuse have been reported in children's shelters there, and a plan to redress victims is in the works.

There is, of course, no excuse for mistreating young people, and the Army has deservedly paid a heavy public price for these transgressions.

But Salvo Funerals -- "Salvo" being the Aussie colloquialism for the organization -- offers a chance for some public redemption. So, on that level, it's certainly valid news.

What's missing?

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Another chapter in the tragic story of sin and scandal at Baylor, the world's largest Baptist university

Another chapter in the tragic story of sin and scandal at Baylor, the world's largest Baptist university

You can't buy the kind of front-page publicity the New York Times gave Baylor University the other day.

Honestly, you wouldn't want to.

This was the Page 1 headline Friday as the national newspaper added another, in-depth chapter to the sad story of sin and scandal at the world's largest Baptist university: "Baylor's Pride Turns to Shame in Rape Scandal."

The New York Times focuses on one rape victim while providing a detailed overview of the string of sexual assault cases involving Baylor football players that have made national headlines for months. 

Before discussing the recent coverage, I'll remind readers of GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly's past posts on the scandal at his Waco, Texas, alma mater. Our own tmatt (who as a student journalist in the 1970s was involved in student-newspaper coverage of issues linked to sexual assaults) expounded last year on what he describes as "the 'double whammy' facing Baylor (with good cause)": 

First, there is a solid religion angle here as the Baylor Regents try to defend their school, while repenting at the same time. Does Baylor want to live out its own moral doctrines? ...
Then there will be sports reporters covering the Baylor crisis and the complicated sexual-assault issues [that NCAA officials are said to be probing] on those 200 or so other campuses. I am sure (not) that the sports czars at other schools never blur the line between campus discipline and the work of local police. Perhaps some other schools are struggling to provide justice for women, while striving to allow the accused to retain their legal rights (while also remembering that a sports scholarship is a very real benefit linked to a contract)?

In a related post, tmatt delved into this key question:

Can you worship God and mammon? Baylor crisis centers on clash between two faiths

My own limited, personal experience with Baylor came in 2003 during my time with The Associated Press in Dallas. For a few months, it seemed like I spent half my life driving back and forth on Interstate 35 as I covered the slaying of 21-year-old basketball player Patrick Dennehy and the ensuing disclosure of major NCAA violations in Baylor's basketball program.

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RNS report confuses many crucial terms in Eastern Orthodox debates on female deacons

RNS report confuses many crucial terms in Eastern Orthodox debates on female deacons

I know that we have been over this before, but once again we need to address a complicated issue in church history -- whether the role of "deaconess" that existed in the early church is the same thing as the status being described in modern proposals to raise women to the ordained role of permanent deacons.

This is the crucial question that reporters and editors need to understand if they are going to cover debates on female deacons in the Church of Rome and in Eastern Orthodoxy. As always, journalists do not have to AGREE with the traditional point of view on the issues involved in this debate, but they do need to understand them.

It would help, of course, if journalists knew the details of the duties that historians believe ancient deaconesses performed, as well as the liturgical work done by today's permanent deacons. (Note: "Permanent," as opposed to deacons who will soon transition to the priesthood.)

The pivotal question, as described by Pope Francis last year, is whether the church is going to restore the ancient role of the deaconess or do something new, which would be ordaining -- that's the key word -- women to the altar-centered role of permanent deacon.

I bring this up because of a recent Religion News Service story that, truth be told, is basically a press release for the movement to ordain female deacons in Eastern Orthodox churches. The headline: "Orthodox Church debate over women deacons moves one step closer to reality."

The crucial material begins here, where the issue is clearly framed as a debate about the ordination of women:

That prospect may now be a giant step closer to reality, since the Patriarch of Alexandria, who presides over the entire Orthodox Church in Africa, followed up on his 2016 decision to reintroduce women deacons and last month appointed six nuns to be subdeaconesses within the church.
In a symbolic ceremony, the patriarch blessed the women and used other religious symbols to effectively restore women’s ordination within Orthodoxy. The move follows years of discussions within different branches of Orthodoxy on whether to reinstitute women deacons, and it comes at a time of growing interest around the issue within the Greek Orthodox Church, the largest Orthodox denomination in the U.S.

This is completely over the top. And what, exactly, is a "subdeaconess"?

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Settling in to follow the Russell Moore story: Where will Southern Baptists gather to talk shop?

Settling in to follow the Russell Moore story: Where will Southern Baptists gather to talk shop?

Having seen a few Southern Baptist Convention rodeos during my time, I would assume that most of the key debates about the work of the Rev. Russell Moore have moved back into the world of emails, cellphones and talks behind closed doors.

The key for reporters -- other than paying attention to social media -- will be to try to figure out when and where young and old Baptists in the various niches will gather to talk shop over coffee during breaks in their usual meetings. (Few Southern Baptists hide out and talk in bars. But think about it: Would reporters ever think to look for them there?)

Maybe look for gatherings of pastors at the level of regional associations, maybe in North Texas and other hot zones? As I suggested in my earlier post, I would also keep an eye on Louisville and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where Moore has many ties. The leader of that campus, of course, is the influential President Albert Mohler, Jr., another articulate conservative critic of Donald Trump.

Now that public debates about Moore's work have begun -- with some journalists paying attention -- it is crucial that key leaders in the growing networks of African-American Southern Baptist churches have made their views clear. These churches are crucial to the SBC's future and national leaders know it. Click here for a strategic Baptist Press story on that, released before the March 13 meeting between Moore and the Rev. Frank Page, head of the SBC executive committee.

In terms of a mainstream news update on these developments, look to this story by Religion News Service veteran Adelle Banks, with this headline: "Black Southern Baptists: ‘We are pulling for Dr. Moore’."

Like I said, they are making their views quite clear.

(RNS) Embattled Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore, the public face of the nation’s largest Protestant group, has at least one group of vocal supporters: African-American Southern Baptist leaders.

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Hey, Los Angeles Times: GOP'ers aren't the only conservatives living under cover in Hollywood

Hey, Los Angeles Times: GOP'ers aren't the only conservatives living under cover in Hollywood

Conservatives in Hollywood are like male calico cats: You know they exist, but they’re tough to find.

The Los Angeles Times recently came out with a piece on what it’s like to be Republican in Hollywood and how -- even during this Era of President Donald Trump -- GOP'ers must remain undercover. You’d think things would be different in 2017. After all, liberals in cinema circles were anything but hidden during the Barack Obama administration.

But Hollywood wanted Hillary; they got The Donald and so there’s still a lot of wrath in La La Land. And so the Times set out to find the folks who are swimming upstream, as it were. Did they see any "religion ghosts"? We will come back to that question.

As an Academy Award-winning producer and a political conservative, Gerald Molen has worked in the entertainment business long enough to remember when being openly Republican in Hollywood was no big deal.
“In the ’90s, it was never really an issue that I had to hide. I was always forthright,” recalled the producer, whose credits include “Schindler’s List” and two “Jurassic Park” movies. “It used to be we could have a conversation with two opposing points of view and it would be amiable. At the end, we still walked away and had lunch together.”
Those days are largely gone, he said. “The acrimony — it’s there. It’s front and center.”
For the vast majority of conservatives who work in entertainment, going to set or the office each day has become a game of avoidance and secrecy. The political closet is now a necessity for many in an industry that is among the most liberal in the country.

The article then touched on Friends of Abe, a conservative organization whose membership of some 2,500 persons is secret because getting outed is a career killer.

Leaders of Friends of Abe said its members have sharply divergent views on the current president.
“There are very conservative people in FOA who are troubled by his rhetoric,” said executive director Jeremy Boreing, a filmmaker and self-described Trump skeptic. “There are others who are very gung-ho and supportive of him. There are people who are cautiously optimistic and others who are just cautious.”
He said it was too early to tell how Trump will affect the organization, but “if Hollywood continues to overreact to Trump and toxify people’s professional lives, FOA will grow. We got started under [George W.] Bush, not under Obama. Hollywood was a more pleasant place for conservatives during Obama’s tenure because Hollywood was in a good mood.”

The reason I’m commenting on that piece for this column is because a lot of conservatives are people of faith, yet religion isn’t mentioned at all.

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Blasphemy charges in Muslim Indonesia. No big surprise. But Denmark? That's news -- or should be

Blasphemy charges in Muslim Indonesia. No big surprise. But Denmark? That's news -- or should be

Some news stories elicit a kind of weary "not again" response. Others elicit a, "is this really happening?" response.

Consider the following two recent stories, one from each category but linked by Islam and religious blasphemy as a legal concept. The first story comes to us from Indonesia. The other -- the "is this really happening?" story -- is from Denmark.

Here's the top of the Indonesia story.

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Back in his days as a badminton coach with the Indonesian national team, Ahmad Mushaddeq traveled the world on the state’s dime. But after he became the spiritual leader of a back-to-the-land organic farming movement on the island of Borneo, regarded by his followers as the messiah who succeeded Muhammad, the government locked him up for the second time on charges of blasphemy.
This week, an Indonesian court sentenced him to a five-year prison term, and gave two other leading figures of Milah Abraham, the religious sect he established, prison terms as well. The sentences, delivered on Tuesday, were the latest in a continuing crackdown on new religious movements across Indonesia that has alarmed human rights groups.
“The verdict is another indicator of rising discrimination against religious minorities in Indonesia,” said Andreas Harsono, the Indonesia representative for Human Rights Watch. He called for a review of state institutions that “facilitate such discrimination, including the blasphemy law office.”
Indonesia’s blasphemy laws have become a focus of debate ever since Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the hard-charging Christian governor of Jakarta, was indicted on charges of insulting the Quran in November. While his case has drawn the most attention, a significant portion of the more than 106 people convicted on blasphemy charges since 2004 are not Christians or even unorthodox Muslims, but self-proclaimed prophets and their apostles.

Need some context?

Indonesia is a multi-ethnic/multi-religious southeast Asian island nation, that -- despite being overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim and home to the world's largest Muslim population -- has a reputation for moderation in its approach to religious pluralism.

But global Islam, you may have noticed, is going through a period of crisis.

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Why are media missing a key scoop on human brain-munching religion 'scholar' Reza Aslan?

Why are media missing a key scoop on human brain-munching religion 'scholar' Reza Aslan?

In a world where very little seems to shock people anymore, devouring what is described as part of a human brain, albeit charred to a crisp, is enough to shock many folks, even if the alleged brain-eating is described as part of a religious exercise. Perhaps, especially so.

Such is the lot of Reza Aslan, who has parlayed making outrageous utterances about religion into a career of "explaining" faith to the rest of us. Aslan -- not to be confused with The Chronicles of Narnia hero -- is (surprise, surprise) fronting a new series on CNN, "Believer." In this series, viewers must understand that Aslan "immerses himself in the world's most fascinating faith-based groups to experience life as a true believer."

Eric Hoffer this ain't. Which is where the alleged brain-munching comes in: Aslan devours what he described as barbecued gray matter on the first episode. He says he did this on a visit to the Aghori, a Hindu sect in India regarded as, well, rather iconoclastic. Aghoris reject the caste system, among other things, it's reported.

This caused no little excitement for more mainstream Hindus around the globe, which brought it to the attention of a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post:

Religion scholar Reza Aslan ate cooked human brain tissue with a group of cannibals in India during Sunday’s premiere of the new CNN show “Believer,” a documentary series about spirituality around the globe.
The outcry was immediate. Aslan, a Muslim who teaches creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, was accused of “Hinduphobia” and of mischaracterizing Hindus.
“With multiple reports of hate-fueled attacks against people of Indian origin from across the U.S., the show characterizes Hinduism as cannibalistic, which is a bizarre way of looking at the third largest religion in the world,” lobbyist group U.S. India Political Action Committees said in a statement, according to the Times of India.

A story on The Atlantic magazine's website brings in other dissenting voices:

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A drive-thru funeral window? Opposition to Bible Belt mortuary's service hints at a holy ghost

A drive-thru funeral window? Opposition to Bible Belt mortuary's service hints at a holy ghost

Is nothing sacred?

Well, I think we probably know the answer to that one (if you have online friends like my online friends who forward you lots of weird stuff), when it comes to what some people would consider strange business innovations linked to religious life.

Nevertheless, that was the question that crossed my mind as I read a news story by the Commercial Appeal newspaper of Memphis, Tenn., about a funeral home's drive-thru viewing option:

When Ryan Bernard bought the old bank building in Orange Mound, he found an unusual use for the drive-thru window.

Bernard, owner of R. Bernard Funeral Services, offers grieving loved ones the chance to pay their last respects conveniently from their car. Guests drive up and view the body through a bullet-proof window. The drive-thru visitation service is a mobile spin on the traditional wake.

"I got the idea a couple of years back when I was out in California. It caught my attention. I thought it was neat and thought I could bring it back to Memphis and this area," Bernard said. "Being in Memphis, we are surrounded by a lot of big-name funeral homes that have been around for 100 years, so being the new kid on the block, so to speak, I needed something unique to make me stand apart."
In addition to novelty, Bernard said that the drive-thru viewings offer accessibility and convenience.  

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About the Washington Post report on SBC's Russell Moore: It's best to simply say, 'Read carefully'

About the Washington Post report on SBC's Russell Moore: It's best to simply say, 'Read carefully'

Suffice it to say, I received more than a few emails yesterday asking for my reaction to yesterday's Washington Post story by former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey that ran under this long, detailed, dramatic headline: "Could Southern Baptist Russell Moore lose his job? Churches threaten to pull funds after months of Trump controversy."

One email late last night, which I will decline to share, offered a 500-word plus dissection of the whole piece focusing on this question that many others were asking: Was it accurate to say that the Rev. Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's executive committee, "indicated" that he was prepared to ask Moore -- the denomination's high-profile point man in Washington, D.C. -- to resign on Monday?

As you would imagine, this quickly morphed into discussions of whether Moore -- a consistent #AntiTrump #AntiHillary voice during the madness of 2016 -- was going to be fired.

Out of all of his blunt quotes about Trump, and there are many, here is one from an op-ed in The New York Times that I think expresses what Moore was consistently saying:

Jesus taught his disciples to “count the cost” of following him. We should know, he said, where we’re going and what we’re leaving behind. We should also count the cost of following Donald Trump. To do so would mean that we’ve decided to join the other side of the culture war, that image and celebrity and money and power and social Darwinist “winning” trump the conservation of moral principles and a just society. We ought to listen, to get past the boisterous confidence and the television lights and the waving arms and hear just whose speech we’re applauding.

As you would imagine (and I say this as someone who was openly #AntiTrump #AntiHillary), more than a few people in Southern Baptist circles argued -- in public and behind the scenes -- that Moore's opposition to Trump was the same thing as offering support to the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

This brings us to the overture of Bailey's much circulated story, a story that was updated with quite a bit of new material on Monday evening.

Concern is mounting among evangelicals that Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm, could lose his job following months of backlash over his critiques of President Trump and religious leaders who publicly supported the Republican candidate. Any such move could be explosive for the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, which has been divided over politics, theology and, perhaps most starkly, race.

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