Friday Five: Sister Jean's rising celebrity, Bill Hybels' #ChurchToo accusers, Pence's bunny and more

Friday Five: Sister Jean's rising celebrity, Bill Hybels' #ChurchToo accusers, Pence's bunny and more

In this space last week, I highlighted Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt — 98-year-old nun and team chaplain for Loyola-Chicago — after her 11th-seeded Ramblers won in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

Thursday night, Sister Jean's team improved to 3-0 in #MarchMadness and advanced -- in yet another last-minute win -- to the Elite Eight.

"I don't care that you broke my bracket," she quipped after Loyola's latest victory.

With each game, Sister Jean's national celebrity just keeps growing.

Among the countless stories about her, the New York Times' Jeff Arnold had a really interesting feature this week on "A Day in the Life of Sister Jean, Media Darling." A note from the piece:

William Behrns, Loyola’s eeassistant athletic director for communications, is one of two staff members who have been assigned to sort the requests for time with Sister Jean since the Ramblers’ success thrust them — and her — onto the national stage last week. Behrns estimated that as of Monday evening, his office had received 75 requests for interviews with Sister Jean, from outlets including “The Tonight Show,” newspapers, radio stations and cable television networks.

Here on the religion beat, we do love this kind of detail:

Sister Jean wakes before dawn, an hour earlier than usual, and immediately spends time in her daily prayer and meditation. She routinely, and almost ironically this week, asks God for a peaceful day. She then meditates on a gospel story; lately, her choices have centered on reminders of God’s love for his children. “Whether we win or lose,” she said in an interview with The New York Times on Tuesday morning, “God is still with us.”

Loyola will face Kansas State, a No. 9 seed, in the South Region final Saturday night. USA Today calls it "an epic underdog battle." 

But enough about Sister Jean and Loyola -- for now anyway. Let's dive into the Friday Five:

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Evangelical church angers a gay couple: In Knoxville, this is still a news story

Evangelical church angers a gay couple: In Knoxville, this is still a news story

The Knoxville News-Sentinel hasn't had a religion writer, at least in my memory, for some time. But it did manage to produce a church-dumps-gay-couple story in pretty short order after said couple started making the rounds of newspapers and TV stations. 

The setting is bucolic Blount County, a rural area south of Knoxville that sits in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. I vacationed there in 2014 and found it refreshingly distant from an interstate highway.

Now, this is an area that's very conservative and it's full of churches, which is how our story begins.

MARYVILLE -- A Blount County gay couple say their hearts were broken but their Christian faith remains strong after they were denied full membership in a nondenominational church.
Now Courtney and Jessica Wright are cautious, even scared, about stepping in any church.
The Wrights were told in late January they couldn’t become full-fledged “core” members of Faith Promise Church because they're homosexual. One of the church's core beliefs is that marriage is between a man and a woman.
The couple, married in August 2016, knew Faith Promise listed heterosexual-only marriage as a belief. But they say their homosexuality and marriage were never secret, and church members made them feel accepted and included for months.

Part of me wonders: Is this really a news story?

Maybe, because the newspaper had previously reported that Faith Promise is one of the country’s fastest-growing churches. But if an attendee had complained to the newspaper about being shut out of full membership for any other reason, would the newspaper have run it?

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Religion-news story of the year? Caution is wise with alleged biblical bombshells

Religion-news story of the year? Caution is wise with alleged biblical bombshells

The mass media often turn to scriptural stuff as the world’s Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus (on April 1 this year, or one week later for the Orthodox).

This Eastertide a long-brewing story, largely ignored by the media, could be the biggest biblical bombshell since a lad accidentally stumbled upon the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947.

Or not.

Scholars are supposedly prepared to announce an astonishing discovery, a Greek manuscript of the New Testament’s Gospel of Mark written down in the 1st Century A.D. That would mean  Mark -- and implicitly other Gospels –- were compiled when numerous eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life would have been alive, thus buttressing authenticity.   

The Guy recommends caution, since sensational historical claims in recent times have flopped, or were misconstrued, and embarrassed proponents on both the religious right and left. With careful contexting, reporters should attempt to break this news  (see tips below) or at least be prepared to pounce when someone else does.  

The oldest Mark manuscript we currently know came some 150 years later than this. To date, the earliest surviving New Testament text is the celebrated Rylands Papyrus 52 (“P52”), at England’s University of Manchester, found in Egypt in 1920 and identified in 1934. Experts date P52 in the mid-2nd Century and perhaps as early as A.D. 125. This fragment of John 18:31-33, 37-38 confirmed scholars’ prior consensus that John’s Gospel originated in the late 1st Century.

Internet chatter about the Mark text comes mostly from biblical conservatives, who are understandably enthused. The first hint The Religion Guy unearthed was this opaque 2011 tweet from Scott Carroll, a professor at an online Christian school: “For over 100 years the earliest known text of the New Testament has been the so-called John Rylands Papyrus. Not any more. Stay tuned.”  Years later, Carroll said he had seen this actual Mark text two times.

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Journalists have to ask familiar questions, when 'religious' people turn to violence

Journalists have to ask familiar questions, when 'religious' people turn to violence

There are so many questions to ask, and all of them need asking as journalists probe the "why" question in the "who," "what," "when," "where," "why" and "how" of the Austin bombings.

First things first. As Bobby Ross Jr. noted earlier (please see that post), 23-year-old Mark Anthony Conditt grew up in an intensely Christian home and he has expressed views that can -- in some sense of this vague word -- be called "conservative." He was active in a small, racially diverse church and then in a popular megachurch.

Well, the prodigal Texan in me wants to note that quite a few people in Texas go to church, even in the Austin area. Lots of them go to megachurches, since many things in Texas -- as you may have heard -- tend to be big.

Also, lots of people in Texas are committed to home-schooling their children. As with any form of intense education, some children like that more than others.

I say all of this to make one point: Journalists need to investigate all of these religion angles because this young man's faith -- or his loss of faith --  may turn out to be crucial. Most of all, law officials seem to be focusing on finding the source of the pain, anger and "darkness" that seized Conditt's life in the days, weeks or months leading up to the bombings.

Where would you start, reading between the lines in this passage from the main Associated Press report?

Conditt’s family said in a statement they had “no idea of the darkness that Mark must have been in.” ...

Jeff Reeb, a neighbor of Conditt’s parents in Pflugerville for about 17 years, said he watched Conditt grow up and that he always seemed “smart” and “polite.” Reeb, 75, said Conditt and his grandson played together into middle school and that Conditt regularly visited his parents, whom Reeb described as good neighbors.

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Reporters delve into the religion of Mark Conditt, the dead man identified as Austin's serial bomber

Reporters delve into the religion of Mark Conditt, the dead man identified as Austin's serial bomber

For residents of Austin, Texas, weeks of terror ended Wednesday when Mark Conditt — identified as the serial bomber responsible for killing two people and badly wounding four others — blew himself up.

As reporters began delving into the 23-year-old Conditt's background, religious details — some more concrete than others — quickly emerged.

My thanks to GetReligion reader Deann Alford, a Texas-based journalist and author, who alerted us to crucial facts in an Austin American-Statesman story. The key: The religious questions linked to this story are valid hooks to investigate — right now. But authorities say they see no clues, so far, to motives in these acts.

The Austin newspaper interviewed Jeremiah Jensen, 24, who was homeschooled in the same community as Conditt:

The two were close in 2012 and 2013, said Jensen, who would often go to the Conditts’ home for lunch after Sunday church service and attended Bible study and other activities with him. Jensen said Conditt came from a good family, was athletic, enjoyed rock climbing and parkour and was a “deep thinker.”
“When I met Mark, he was really rough around the edges,” Jensen said. “He was a very assertive person and would … end up being kind of dominant and intimidating in conversation. A lot of people didn’t understand him and where he was coming from. He really just wanted to tell the truth. What I remember about him he would push back on you if you said something without thinking about it. He loved to think and argue and turn things over and figure out what was really going on.”
Jensen said Conditt attended regular church services at the Austin Stone Community Church on St. John’s Avenue.
“I know faith was a serious thing for him,” he said. “I don’t know if he held onto his faith or not. … The kind of anger that he expressed and the kind of hate that he succumbed to — that’s not what he believed in in high school. I don’t know what happened along the way. This wasn’t him.”

A little later in the story, there's this:

The Austin Stone said in a statement it had no records of Conditt or his family’s active involvement in the church or interactions with staff members.
“We love and grieve with our city and we continue to pray for the victims and their families who were affected by these recent tragedies. We are cooperating with law enforcement with any pertinent information we can find that may be of help as they continue their investigation,” the church said in a statement.

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Yes, Vatican 'Lettergate' story is complicated: Kudos to AP for getting the crucial details

Yes, Vatican 'Lettergate' story is complicated: Kudos to AP for getting the crucial details

Back when I was breaking into Godbeat work (soon after the cooling of the earth's crust), one of the first pros that I met was the late George Cornell of the Associated Press. I interviewed him for my graduate project ("The Religion Beat: Out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets") at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and then we stayed in touch.

How hard was it to be the AP's religion guy in that era? Basically, he told me, his job was to cover all the religion news on planet earth, other than the Vatican (which was its own beat).

How would you like that task? Of course, our own Richard Ostling knows all about that, since he worked for the Associated Press after his era at Time magazine. However, he had some timely assistance from pros like Bobby Ross, Jr.

The bottom line: AP religion-beat specialists have a tough row to hoe. It's one thing to do good work. It's something else to do good work on complex stories when you're facing a global news storm almost every day, while working with wire-schedule realities in terms of time and space.

With that in mind, I would like to point readers toward Nicole Winfield's hard-news report on the "Lettergate" scandal at the Vatican, a very important story with multiple layers of politics, intrigue and theology. I kept waiting for a hole and, in the end, the only thing I had second thoughts about was what pieces of the puzzle went where. Here is the overture:

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Stung by accusations of spreading “fake news,” the Vatican ... released the complete letter by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI about Pope Francis after coming under blistering criticism for selectively citing it in a press release and digitally manipulating a photograph of it.
The previously hidden part of the letter provides the full explanation why Benedict refused to write a commentary on a new Vatican-published compilation of books about Francis’ theological and philosophical background that was released to mark his fifth anniversary as pope.
In addition to saying he didn’t have time, Benedict noted that one of the authors involved in the project had launched “virulent,” ″anti-papist” attacks against his teaching and that of St. John Paul II. He said he was “surprised” the Vatican had chosen the theologian to be included in the 11-volume “The Theology of Pope Francis.”
“I’m certain you can understand why I’m declining,” Benedict wrote.

Whoa. So which angle of this story should get the most attention?

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New York Times feature on Zoe Church of Los Angeles asks: Can churches be too hip?

New York Times feature on Zoe Church of Los Angeles asks: Can churches be too hip?

I have to say, this is one clever article. I rarely run into news reporters (other than religion-beat pros) who know anything about Hillsong and Mosaic.

What follows is a New York Times piece about a Seattle pastor who moved to Los Angeles to start a new church and who’s succeeded quite well. But added to the story are little hints that at some point, this young pastor has sold out to the zeitgeist. We all know the William Ralph Inge saying: "He who marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next."

But for now, marrying what’s cool in 2018 is paying off nicely for the pastor (I guess that he was ordained by someone, although the story doesn't say) at the heart of this story. It starts like this:

LOS ANGELES -- On a strip of Wilshire Boulevard, not far from where the rapper Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down in a drive-by shooting some 20 years ago, a black plastic pool had been placed on the sidewalk outside the El Rey Theater. It was a balmy December afternoon, and the theater had been transformed into an assembly for Zoe Church, a two-and-a-half-year-old evangelical congregation that got its start in a nightclub on Sunset Boulevard.
Today was Baptism Sunday and nearly a dozen adults signed up, cheered on by a crowd of mostly 20-somethings who were gathered behind a metal barricade. Chad Veach, the 38-year-old founder of Zoe, who moved to West Los Angeles from Seattle in 2014, chewed gum as he danced to a pop gospel playlist blaring overhead. “Let’s go!” he shouted, clapping. A pair of muscular men dunked a woman in the waist-high water. She surfaced, arms pumping the air, as a friend snapped photographs that were later posted on Instagram…
Zoe -- pronounced “zo-AY, like, be-yon-SAY,” as Mr. Veach often says -- is one of the newest in a wave of youth-oriented evangelical churches making their homes here. While most are content to have a church and a campus or two, Mr. Veach is claiming nothing less than Los Angeles County and its population of 10 million. “We’ll have many locations,” he said of Zoe. He is opening a San Fernando Valley campus on Sunday and plans one more per year for the next decade or so.

Then come the mentions of Hillsong and Mosaic. Then there's the fact that this new church draws 1,600 people per Sunday and that the pastor has major connections with pop star Justin Bieber.

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'God made me black on purpose': Be sure to read Politico's exceptional profile of Sen. Tim Scott

'God made me black on purpose': Be sure to read Politico's exceptional profile of Sen. Tim Scott

Twitter has spoken: Tim Alberta's in-depth Politico Magazine story on U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., is a must-read. 

It's a fabulous profile. 

It's a powerful look at the most prominent black elected official in America today.

Amen. Amen. Amen.

For his part, Alberta — the magazine's chief political correspondent — tweeted that Scott is as complex and fascinating a character as he has met in politics." The journalist's exceptionally well-told story reflects that.

Now, about the faith angle: From the piece's title — "God made me black" — to the revealing details shared about Scott's religious journey, Politico does a nice job with that crucial element of what makes this influential senator tick. 

A big chunk of the compelling opening scenes:

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — At the end of Forest Avenue, a narrow artery slicing through blocks of muddy lots and decaying one-story homes, Tim Scott kicks at the gravel and waits. He had shared a table Saturday night with the world’s wealthiest man, Jeff Bezos, at the annual dinner of Washington’s Alfalfa Club, the ultra-exclusive gathering of the political and financial elite that began as a celebration of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s birthday. Now, it’s Monday morning and the junior senator from South Carolina is back home, in one of this challenged city’s most challenging neighborhoods, to get a haircut. The dramatic change of scenery doesn’t faze Scott, a man who straddles disparate universes with unusual ease. But he is not without powers of observation. As conspicuous as he was at the Alfalfa dinner—one of the few black faces in the Capital Hilton ballroom—I am all the more so here. “You know,” he says, leaning in, “you’re about to be like the third white dude ever inside this place.”
The Quick Service Barber Shop is the aesthetic pinnacle of Forest Avenue; its cream-colored exterior is dressed in red and blue paint announcing the proprietors and proclaiming Hebrews 12:14: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” That’s easier said than done around these parts. There was a shooting inside the shop a few months back, Scott tells me; his friends urged him to find a new barber. The senator wouldn’t hear of it. Scott got his very first haircut here a half-century ago, courtesy of Charles Swint. His son, Charles Swint Jr.—a minister who took over the family business—is the only person Scott trusts with a pair of clippers. When his white Cadillac Escalade finally pulls up, Swint Jr., a small, salt-and-pepper-haired man wearing a dark three-piece suit, jumps out and grins at Scott: “Praise the Lord!”

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New York Times visits a fading abbey -- that plans to court spiritual-but-not-religious folks

New York Times visits a fading abbey -- that plans to court spiritual-but-not-religious folks

Let's say that you are a reporter and you are going to write a feature story about an order of Catholic monastics.

If you were writing about an order that is growing -- let's say the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville -- it would be very important for your piece to mention the larger context of this story. I am, of course, referring to the overall decline of Catholic monasticism and holy orders in the United States.

For example, see the opening of this classic NPR piece:

For the most part, these are grim days for Catholic nuns. Convents are closing, nuns are aging and there are relatively few new recruits. But something startling is happening in Nashville, Tenn. The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia are seeing a boom in new young sisters: Twenty-seven joined this year and 90 entered over the past five years.
The average of new entrants here is 23. And overall, the average age of the Nashville Dominicans is 36 -- four decades younger than the average nun nationwide.

So lots of monasteries and convents are in decline -- but not all. In other words, there are two sides to this equation.

So let's flip this around. Now you are a reporter and you have been assigned to write about the decline and potential death of a Catholic monastery. That, for example, this lovely New York Times feature with this expansive double-decker headline:

The World Is Changing. This Trappist Abbey Isn’t. Can It Last?
Meet the monks of Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery in South Carolina, who are trying to maintain age-old religious traditions in a rapidly evolving world.

You can see half of the equation right there in the headline. Throughout the piece, the challenges faced at Mepkin Abbey are -- as you would expect -- spelled out in great detail.

What is missing? The story does not include the other side of the equation.

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