NPR does well-rounded profile on dying leader who symbolizes 'California Islam'

NPR does well-rounded profile on dying leader who symbolizes 'California Islam'

Sometimes it’s tough as a journalist to get the meaty stories of what’s really happening inside a particular faith.

Islam is especially difficult because of the fear of participants in talking with media, plus it’s not a faith that many journalists know much about.

Which is why NPR’s story of Usama Canon, a Chicago imam who is dying of Lou Gehring’s disease, is so needed. It gets into the fine details of the life of a teacher who most non-Muslims would not have heard of and shows him to be a sympathetic figure that most of us can identify with.

I’m not sure what connections the reporter had to use to get this story, but there needs to more like it. It opens at a Muslim center in Chicago.

Canon, 40, gives off a laid-back, West Coast vibe. He wears a beanie and prayer beads wrapped around his right wrist like a thick bracelet. He is the founding director of this place, the Ta'leef Collective, with campuses in Fremont, Ca. and Chicago. In Arabic the name means "the coming together of many things." 
The Ta'leef Collective was envisioned as a "third place" between the mosque and home to provide Muslims, especially young or new Muslims, a space to explore their faith outside the confines of the traditional mosque. The nonprofit is part lecture hall, part gathering space, and part sanctuary. 
Participants ranging from former inmates to searching youths say Usama Canon's teachings have helped them understand Islam in their everyday lives. Those lessons feel essential to his students at a time of growing hostility toward the religion, which has more than 3.45 million U.S. adherents. 

That population figure, by the way, comes from the Pew Forum

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'Southern Baptist' voucher-hating pastor touted on Dallas front page -- but is he still Southern Baptist?

'Southern Baptist' voucher-hating pastor touted on Dallas front page -- but is he still Southern Baptist?

"Pastor's message: Vouchers are evil."

OK, Dallas Morning News, you've got my attention with that front-page, above-the-fold Sunday headline.

Spoiler alert: The newspaper never gets around to explaining why the pastor believes vouchers are evil.

But believe or not, that unanswered question is not even the most frustrating part of this Page 1 profile: That would be the story's failure to specify whether the pastor in question -- whom the Dallas newspaper three times describes as a Southern Baptist -- actually still leads a Southern Baptist congregation. 

Or is the pastor -- Charlie Johnson -- a former Southern Baptist, a la Jimmy Carter? More on that question in a moment.

First, though, let's back up and consider the lede:

AUSTIN -- Quoting Bible verses and calling the school vouchers proposal by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other lawmakers “sinful,” Fort Worth minister Charli Johnson has been driving feverishly round the state before the March 6 primary.
At rallies and impromptu meetings arranged by friendly school superintendents with local ministers, the longtime Southern Baptist preacher delivers a fiery message on behalf of public schools. His get-out-the-vote crusade has irritated GOP state leaders and staunchly conservative activists who favor using tax dollars o help parents of children enrolled in public schools pay to attend private schools.
Johnson, pastor of the small, interracial Bread Fellowship in Fort Worth, does not mince words. Christians have an obligation to embrace public schools as a social good, especially for poor children, he says.
As he said in a sharp exchange with a leading House voucher proponent at a legislative hearing just over a year ago, “You have the right to home-school your children. You have the right to ‘private school’ your children. You don’t have the right to ask the people of Texas to pay for it.”

Let's see: The piece opens with a reference to Bible verses that Johnson uses to characterize vouchers as "sinful." As I kept reading, can you guess what I was expecting to see? That's right -- I assumed the paper would mention a specific verse or two to help readers understand the theological case that the pastor makes.

Nope!

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Thinking about Billy Graham and the Queen: Religion news can be found all over the place

Thinking about Billy Graham and the Queen: Religion news can be found all over the place

Once upon a time, newspaper editors thought that religion was the kind of narrow, insider subject that could be locked into a weekly journalism ghetto called the "church page."

No, honest.

That eventually evolved into the "religion" page, but the idea was pretty much the same. This concept began fading about the time I reached the news biz, in the early 1980s.

Now, I don't think there is anything wrong with having a section or a column dedicated to religion-news topics. I had better think that, since I have been writing that kind of column for 30 years or more. It's nice to have a place in the news format in which you KNOW you can get a religion topic into print.

The crucial point, however, is that religion is a subject that wants to roam all over the place, if journalists take it seriously. It should end up on A1, on the education beat, in the business section, in the sports pages, etc., etc. I have had a lot of fun through the decades (and wrote a book about it) following religion ideas, symbols and trends into the world of popular culture and entertainment.

So with that in mind let me (a) highly, highly recommend a new Sarah Pulliam Bailey piece about the Netflix series "The Crown" that included scenes about Queen Elizabeth's faith and her 1955 encounter with a young American evangelist -- as in Billy Graham. At the same time, I would like to (b) ask people out there in dead-tree-pulp land where The Washington Post editors played this story in the actual newspaper, as opposed to its "Acts of Faith" status online. I sure hope that this ran, in print, in the Style or Entertainment sections. That's where it belongs.

The piece is a must-read, if you have the slightest interest in these two towering figures in 20th Century world culture. This is top-flight popular culture writing that also -- as you would expect -- pays serious attention to the religious content.

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ChurchClarity.org: Sometimes asking blunt questions about doctrine makes news

ChurchClarity.org: Sometimes asking blunt questions about doctrine makes news

Way back in the late 1980s, the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado needed to elect a new bishop.

This led to an interesting series of events, with the various candidates -- there were a bunch -- traveling across that large and diverse state to meet with the faithful and to take questions. As the religion-beat writer at The Rocky Mountain News (RIP), I went along.

It was during that tour that I came up with a set of three questions that I have used, ever since, when probing doctrinal fault lines inside Christian organizations, both large and small. Here at GetReligion, we call these questions the "tmatt trio." One of them is rather relevant to this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in) and my recent update post on the work of the LGBTQ activists at ChurchClarity.org.

But first, here are the three questions, as stated in an "On Religion" column I wrote about the polling work of the late George Gallup, Jr. It opened with a reference to a speech he gave in 1990.

About that time, I shared a set of three questions with Gallup that I had begun asking, after our previous discussions. The key, he affirmed, was that these were doctrinal, not political, questions. ... The questions:
* Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this happen?
* Is salvation found through Jesus, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
* Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

It is interesting, sometimes, to observe the lengths to which Christian leaders, academics and others will go to avoid giving clear answers to these questions, even the one focusing on the resurrection. The key is to pay close attention to their answers, seeking insights into where they stand in the vast spectrum -- liberal to orthodox -- of Christian life.

Now, look again at the third question: "Is sex outside of marriage a sin?"

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A prophet acting out a parable: Why did Jesus choose to curse a fig tree?

A prophet acting out a parable: Why did Jesus choose to curse a fig tree?

RACHAEL’S QUESTION:

What is the significance of Jesus cursing the fig tree?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Our discussion will focus on the Gospel of Mark (11:12-14 and 20-26) rather than the briefer parallel version in Matthew (21:18-22), which most experts think was written down later. Mark records the following:

Jesus was traveling with his disciples to Jerusalem, where he was to “cleanse” the temple by driving out devious money-changers and sellers of birds for sacrifice. He was hungry and spotted a fig tree. Seen from the distance, it showed leaves, but close up there was no fruit. Jesus declared that no-one would ever again eat fruit from this tree. Returning from the temple the next day the disciples saw that the tree had withered down to its roots. (Matthew puts the “cursing” after the “cleansing” and says the tree withered immediately.)

Scholarly British Bishop N.T. Wright says this narrative “looks most peculiar,” and it’s “one of the most difficult in the Gospels” in the view of D.E. Nineham at the University of London. That’s because, as Hugh Anderson of the University of Edinburgh observed, the cursing of the fig tree was Jesus’ only reported miracle of “destruction” rather than restoration, so at first glance it seems “out of character” if not “irrational.”

Interpreters see significance in Mark’s literary “sandwich” with the temple assault enclosed within two halves of the fig tree account. It’s important to realize that the fig tree is a symbol for the Israelite nation in many Old Testament passages, an apt poetic device due to this fruit’s importance for the regional diet.

Jesus was not angry over his hunger, and certainly not angry at a tree.

Rather, scholars tell us, he was filling the role of a Jewish prophet like many before him.

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Friday Five: Minister tax break, Mormon death, The Crown's religion, Trump's dirty words and more

Friday Five: Minister tax break, Mormon death, The Crown's religion, Trump's dirty words and more

I watched the first season of "The Crown" on Netflix with my wife, Tamie.

I enjoyed it, although I wouldn't say I was goo-goo over it. When the second season came out, we caught an episode or two. Then my bride binged on the rest of it one day while I was busy with something more important (probably playing Words With Friends on my iPad). 

Suffice it to say that I haven't made it to the part featuring Queen Elizabeth II and the Rev. Billy Graham. (Right now, Tamie and I are in the middle of "Greenleaf," an Oprah Winfrey-produced drama featuring a black megachurch in Memphis, Tenn. That series reminds me of "Dallas," but with religion, not oil, as the family business. But I digress.)

Back to "The Crown": The Washington Post published an excellent Godbeat piece on it this week. More on that in a moment.

First, thought, let's dive right into this week's Friday Five:

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Big coverage of Memphis pastor and woman he assaulted provides perfect #ChurchToo hook

Big coverage of Memphis pastor and woman he assaulted provides perfect #ChurchToo hook

Although the #ChurchToo hashtag was invented two months ago, it got a huge boost this week with the revelations of the saga of an errant minister at a Southern Baptist church in Memphis. And with the same deliciousness that reporters pounced upon the Roy Moore imbroglio, they’re covering this scandal in excruciating detail.

Why shouldn’t they? I'd venture that #ChurchToo is evangelical Protestants having the same existential crisis about their congregations as Catholics did after revelations of their priestly sex abuse crisis hit the fan in 2002. 

About this latest drama, we start with the latest news in the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, the hometown of the erring pastor.

A canceled book deal is the latest repercussion for Memphis pastor Andy Savage as the ripples continue to spread from his admitted sexual encounter with a 17-year-old high school senior in Texas 20 years ago.
Also, a petition calling on him to resign his position at Highpoint Church is gaining momentum online, with 836 signatures out of a 1,000-signature goal Tuesday evening.
The victim, Jules Woodson, says, meanwhile, that she is "disgusted" by Savage's public apology and doesn't agree that the matter was "dealt with" at the time as Savage suggested. Woodson has come forward with her story in the vein of others in the #metoo movement.

The story is unbelievably rich in irony, including the fact that the pastor regularly did pre-marital counseling with couples he encouraged to live sexually pure lives.

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Tax-free housing for ministers unconstitutional? Chicago Tribune has the newsy scoop

Tax-free housing for ministers unconstitutional? Chicago Tribune has the newsy scoop

If you're like me, you may not be real familiar with the clergy housing allowance.

However, my minister friends assure me the allowance — a U.S. tax break — is a big, big deal.

Elimination of it would "significantly increase the tax burden, and hence, diminish the spendable income, of ministers everywhere," Dallas preacher Gordon Dabbs told me. "If and when it goes away, I would expect to see staff cuts at some churches and, almost certainly, some choosing to leave full-time (paid) ministry as it will no longer be financially viable for their families."

Why do I bring this up now? Because the housing allowance is facing a federal court challenge, as Chicago Tribune religion writer Manya Brachear Pashman highlighted in a meaty story earlier this week:

Chicago clergy are fighting a federal judge’s recent ruling that tax-free housing allowances for clergy violate the separation of church and state.
The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago will be asked to weigh in on the challenge to the so-called parsonage allowance — an Internal Revenue Service benefit that allows clergy to exclude from their tax returns the compensation earmarked for mortgage payments, rent, utility bills or maintenance costs.
The ministerial tax break has been on the books for more than 60 years and is cited by many houses of worship, particularly smaller, independent ones, as an important financial underpinning to carrying out their mission.
But it has become the latest target of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a self-proclaimed guardian of church-state separation based in Madison, Wis., that challenged the tax break, and won, in a Wisconsin court.
“This is a huge privilege and benefit for churches because tax-free dollars go further,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “They have been allowed to pay lower salaries when it’s all taxpayer subsidies. Clergy pay less, and everyone else pays more.”
Chicago-area clergy say an end to the tax-free housing allowance would drastically reduce their take-home pay, limit how close they can live to their houses of worship and impede their ministries, which often offer safety nets for the communities they serve.
“The housing allowance makes all the sense in the world,” said the Rev. Chris Butler, pastor of Chicago Embassy Church, a small Pentecostal congregation on the South Side, who plans to appeal. “If I’m looking to be God’s pastor to this community and be available to folks inside and outside the congregation, in a city like Chicago, whether I’m doing that as a pastor or an imam or the head of a nonprofit organization, it makes all the sense in the world that I live in that community. In a lot of these kinds of organizations, my church included, we’re not making the world’s biggest salary. This allowance is so important.”

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Yo, Gray Lady! Where is Tua Tagovailoa going after leading Alabama to national title? To church ...

Yo, Gray Lady! Where is Tua Tagovailoa going after leading Alabama to national title? To church ...

If you are a sports fan and live in the United States of America (or you live overseas and care about American-style football), then you have probably heard this name during the past few days -- Tua Tagovailoa.

It's an unusual name, but this freshman quarterback at the University of Alabama came off the bench the other night to throw several touchdown passes, including a go-for-broke bomb that won his team a national championship.

What else do we need to know about him? Well, his post-game comments made it very, very clear what Tua wants people to know about his life and, yes, his faith. One of his comments even raises this interesting question: Is it possible for a Pentecostal Christian to shout "Roll Tide!" in an unknown, celestial tongue?

Hold that thought, because it's interesting to note how elite media -- think The New York Times, of course -- handled this young man's story, as opposed to how he described things when offered a chance to do so. Let's start with the Times profile of Tagovailoa, which ran with this headline: "How Tua Tagovailoa Stepped Up, Dropped Back, and Saved Alabama."

ATLANTA -- While some of the Alabama players were gasping for oxygen on the sideline, others were committing unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and at least a couple were trying to prevent a teammate from punching an assistant coach, a teenager was saving the Crimson Tide from the brink of a public collapse.
The freshman, Tua Tagovailoa, a 19-year-old backup quarterback from Honolulu, had stepped into a dire situation Monday night. Alabama trailed by 13 points at halftime of the national title game when Tagovailoa took over the offense and calmly engineered one of the more improbable comebacks in college football championship history.

So let's move down in the story, were readers are offered this information about this remarkably calm young player:

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