New York Times features free church weddings for cohabiting couples, with predictable criticism

New York Times features free church weddings for cohabiting couples, with predictable criticism

The story is about a Texas church offering free weddings for cohabiting couples who agree to undergo premarital counseling.

The publication is the New York Times.

So it’s no surprise that the feature eventually gets around to same-sex marriage and how the church involved won’t allow it.

But overall, it’s an interesting piece.

Let’s start at the top:

A few months before Kelvin Evans married his live-in girlfriend, Pa Shoua Pha, in 2016, uncertainty gripped him.

“I had convinced myself that I wasn’t going to have any more children,” said Mr. Evans, 44, the father of two boys from a previous relationship. But his girlfriend, he said, wanted to start a family and “it became a huge sticking point.”

Fortunately, the couple had a support network through the Concord Church, a nondenominational Christian church, in Dallas. Alongside five other cohabiting couples, they signed up for a “step into marriage” challenge and worked out their issues. On Aug. 27, 2016, all six couples, plus 19 other couples who also took the challenge, married in a mass ceremony. Mr. and Ms. Evans now have a daughter, Ava Naomi, who was born this past March, and Mr. Evans couldn’t be happier. “If I was doing any better,” he said, “it would probably be illegal.”

“If I was doing any better, it would probably be illegal.” Love it! I appreciate it when the writer rewards the reader with a great quote up high.

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Bad vibrations: Riverside Church war offers perfect case study of @NYPost vs. @NYTimes

Bad vibrations: Riverside Church war offers perfect case study of @NYPost vs. @NYTimes

This certainly was not your typical media storm about a Baylor University graduate who achieved fame in the ministry by heading to Washington, D.C., and then to New York City.

However, the fall of the Rev. Amy Butler from the high pulpit of of Manhattan’s world-famous Riverside Church offers readers a classic journalism case study illustrating the differences between New York Post readers and New York Times readers. It’s also educational to note that the religious themes in this controversy played little or no role in either report.

Starting with a classic A1 headline, the Post editors knew what would zap readers awake while reading in their subway cars:

The reason for her ouster is far more stimulating than any sermon this pastor could have delivered.

The Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, the first woman to lead Manhattan’s famed Riverside Church, lost her lofty post amid complaints that she brought ministers and a congregant on a sex toy shopping spree and then gave one of them an unwanted vibrator as a birthday gift, The Post has learned.

On May 15, Butler allegedly took two Riverside assistant ministers and a female congregant to a sex shop in Minneapolis called the Smitten Kitten, during a religious conference, according to sources familiar with the out-of-town shopping excursion.

At the store, the pastor bought a $200 bunny-shaped blue vibrator called a Beaded Rabbit for one minister — a single mom of two who was celebrating her 40th birthday — as well as more pleasure gadgets for the congregant and herself, sources said. The female minister didn’t want the sex toy, but accepted it because she was scared not to, sources said.

The great Gray Lady, on the other hand, knew that the readers in its choir would want a story rooted in sexism, patriarchy and workplace politics. The headline, as you would imagine, was a bit more restrained: “Pastor’s Exit Exposes Cultural Rifts at a Leading Liberal Church.”

The sex toys angle made it into the Times story, with a nod to Post coverage, but readers had to wait a few extra paragraphs to find that angle. Here’s the overture:

When the Rev. Dr. Amy K. Butler was hired to lead Riverside Church in Manhattan in 2014, she was hailed as a rising star, the first woman to join a distinguished line of pastors at one of the pre-eminent progressive Protestant congregations in the United States.

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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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After Tyler Skaggs' death, baseball gods smile on Angels in the outfield and on the pitcher's mound

After Tyler Skaggs' death, baseball gods smile on Angels in the outfield and on the pitcher's mound

Baseball is a religion all its own, full of traditions, rituals and unexplained miracles.

Anybody who ever has seen the movie “Field of Dreams” — or watched the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs finally claim World Series titles — knows that. (Eventually, my beloved Texas Rangers have to win the big one, right?)

Sometimes, the gods — the baseball gods — make their presence known in ways that even nonbelievers must find impossible to ignore.

How else to explain what happened in Anaheim, Calif., on Friday night?

Here’s how ESPN described what happened:

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Mike Trout shook his head.

"You can't," he said, pausing for a moment to gather himself. "You can't make this stuff up."

The Los Angeles Angels scored seven first-inning runs Friday night. They finished with 13. Tyler Skaggs' birthday is on the 13th day of the seventh month, which just so happens to be Saturday.

"I'm speechless," Trout said. "This is the best way to honor him."

The Angels honored Skaggs with an emotional ceremony before their first home game since his sudden death on July 1. They honored him by donning his No. 45 jersey. They honored him by inviting his mother, Debbie Hetman, onto the field for the ceremonial first pitch. And they honored him, improbably, with a combined no-hitter, delivered by Taylor Cole and Felix Pena in a 13-0 trouncing of the Seattle Mariners at Angel Stadium.

Angels manager Brad Ausmus called it "one of the most special moments I've been a part of on a major league field in 25 years."

"You feel like it's partly Skaggsy's no-hitter," he said.

A Hollywood ending?

Nope.

It was more than that, said MLB.com:

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Podcast talking: Would Democrats take Marianne Williamson seriously if her name was ....

Podcast talking: Would Democrats take Marianne Williamson seriously if her name was ....

Donald Trump is not going to be beaten just by insider politics talk. He’s not going to be beaten just by somebody who has plans. He’s going to be beaten by somebody who has an idea what the man has done. This man has reached into the psyche of the American people and he has harnessed fear for political purposes.

“So, Mr. President — if you’re listening — I want you to hear me please: You have harnessed fear for political purposes and only love can cast that out. So I, sir, I have a feeling you know what you’re doing. I’m going to harness love for political purposes. I will meet you on that field, and sir, love will win.”

— Marianne Williamson’s final statement in first debate for Democrats seeking White House in 2020.

Anyone want to guess what this particular candidate might use as the anthem that plays at the beginning and end of her campaign rallies?

I’m thinking that it might be something that honors the 1992 bestseller — “A Return to Love” — that made her a national sensation back in what people called the New Age era. Something like this: Cue the music.

I focused quite a bit on that book’s old New Age theology in my recent post (“Evil, sin, reality and life as a 'Son of God': What Marianne Williamson is saying isn't new”) about a fascinating New York Times feature about Williamson and her decision to seek the White House. I thought it was appropriate that the Times gave so much attention to the religious themes and concepts in her work, instead of going all politics, all the time.

But, truth be told, the key question discussed in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast — click here to tune that in — focused on mass media, celebrity, religion and, yes, politics, all at the same time.

Look again at that debate quote at the top of this post and give an honest answer to this question: Would that quotation be receiving more attention if the candidate who spoke it was someone named Oprah? How about this person’s candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination?

Williamson is being treated as a bit of a novelty, frankly, even though millions of Americans — on the elite coasts, but also in the heartland, because of her role as a spiritual guide for Oprah Winfrey.

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Friday Five: Billy Graham rule, Marianne Williamson, nun's curveball, MZ's Kavanaugh book

Friday Five: Billy Graham rule, Marianne Williamson, nun's curveball, MZ's Kavanaugh book

A famous steakhouse off Interstate 40 in Amarillo, Texas, offers a free, 72-ounce steak.

The only catch: You must eat it all in one setting.

On a reporting trip this week, I stopped there for lunch. Spoiler alert: I didn’t order the 4.5-pound hunk of beef. I chose something slightly smaller.

While I savor the delicious memories, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: This may not be the most important story of the week. In fact, veteran religion journalist G. Jeffrey MacDonald questioned on Twitter whether it’s news at all.

But I’m fascinated by the coverage of a little-known Mississippi gubernatorial candidate who invoked the “Billy Graham rule” in declining to allow a female journalist to shadow him for a day. I wrote about all the national media attention state Rep. Robert Foster has received — and the lack of details on Foster’s actual religious beliefs — in a post Thursday.

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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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A male gubernatorial candidate, a female reporter and a Pence-like storm over 'Billy Graham rule'

A male gubernatorial candidate, a female reporter and a Pence-like storm over 'Billy Graham rule'

Remember a few years ago when a bunch of people flipped out over news that Vice President Mike Pence wouldn’t meet alone with a woman?

Interestingly, a New York Times poll later found that — surprise! — not just Pence but many men and women are wary of a range of one-on-one situations.

Fast-forward to this week.

A little-known Republican candidate for Mississippi governor is getting national attention, mostly negative, after citing the same “Billy Graham rule” that Pence did. The candidate, state Rep. Robert Foster, sparked a furor by declining to grant a female reporter’s request to shadow him (unless she brought a male colleague along).

CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post and USA Today — among other major news outlets — have covered the story. The journalist in question, Mississippi Today reporter Larrison Campbell, offered her firsthand perspective on Foster’s decision.

What is the Billy Graham rule? The Times explains:

Mr. Graham, who died last year at 99, was the country’s best-known Christian evangelist. He sought to avoid any situation involving a woman other than his wife “that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion,” he wrote in his autobiography.

In Lloyd Bentsen style, CNN Religion Editor Daniel Burke felt compelled to let Foster know that he’s no Billy Graham:

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Hey CNN: Was a Catholic-school teacher in Indianapolis fired for 'being gay'? Period?

Hey CNN: Was a Catholic-school teacher in Indianapolis fired for 'being gay'? Period?

During my four decades or so in religion-beat work — as a reporter and then as a national columnist — I have covered or attempted to cover countless (trust me on that) stories linked to the lives of LGBTQ Catholics.

I also, in the early 1990s (after I had left the Rocky Mountain News) interviewed for a teaching post at a Jesuit university, where I was grilled about my support for many Catholic Catechism statements on sexuality (I was an evangelical Anglican at the time). I was told that I would threaten gay students and others in the campus community.

Through it all, I have learned one thing: It is impossible to stereotype the lives or beliefs of many, many gay Catholics. There is no such thing as an archetypal “gay Catholic.”

This brings me — I apologize, right up front — to yet another mainstream news report about Catholic schools, church doctrines, teacher contracts, doctrinal covenants and “gay” teachers. Yes, here we go again.

In this case, look at the overture in this CNN story, under this headline: “An Indiana teacher is suing his archdiocese, saying he was fired from a Catholic school for being gay.”

The key words, of course, are “fired … for being gay.” Here’s the top of this story:

A former Catholic school teacher is suing the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, saying that he was fired because of his sexual orientation.

Joshua Payne-Elliott had taught at Cathedral High School for 13 years. But despite renewing his contract in May, the school fired him a month later under the directive of the archdiocese, he says.

On Monday, Payne-Elliott's attorney announced a confidential settlement with Cathedral High School. His new lawsuit is against the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, which he says forced the high school to fire him.

The dispute between the archdiocese and Payne-Elliott, who is publicly named for the first time in the suit, is unusual because his husband is also a teacher at a Catholic high school in Indianapolis. His husband teaches at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, which was also asked by the archdiocese to fire their teacher after the same-sex marriage was made public in 2017 on social media. The Jesuits refused.

Fired “for being gay” then leads to the follow-up statement that this teacher was “fired because of his sexual orientation.” The key term is “orientation.”

Let’s stop and think about this for a second.

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