#RNA2019 awards honor nation's top religion writers -- many of these names will be familiar

#RNA2019 awards honor nation's top religion writers -- many of these names will be familiar

In a post last year, I described Emma Green’s piece for The Atlantic headlined “The Jews of Pittsburgh Bury Their Dead” as one of the best religion stories of 2018.

“It’s remarkable in a number of ways,” I wrote. “The strength of the idea and the implementation of it. The quality of the writing and the specific details contained therein. The depth of the religious knowledge and the ability to convey it in understandable prose.”

Green has established herself as one of the nation’s preeminent religion journalists, and it could be argued — especially after Saturday night — that she occupies that top spot all alone, especially in magazine work blending news reporting and commentary.

Here’s what I mean: At the Religion News Association’s annual awards banquet here in Las Vegas, Green got plenty of exercise walking back and forth from her seat to pick up first-place awards.

She won top honors in three categories: for the Supple Award for Excellence in Religion Feature Writing, for Excellence in Religion News Analysis and for Excellence in Magazine News Religion Reporting. A video of the awards banquet can be viewed online.

At some point, RNA typically posts links to all the winners’ stories, but I don’t see that as I’m typing this. However, I believer hearing reference to Green’s extraordinary story that I mentioned above.

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RNA conference marks 70 years amidst the shifting sands (Knives out!) of journalism

RNA conference marks 70 years amidst the shifting sands (Knives out!) of journalism

Thirty years ago, religion reporters from around the country met in Las Vegas, concurrent with the annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting, to have their annual conference. We followed preacher Arthur Blessitt dragging his cross down the Strip and cruised the casinos, exploring a bizarre world where there’s always an entrance, rarely an exit.

I was in my early 30s then; much thinner and part of a vanguard of young religion reporters making their mark. I was finishing up my third year at the Houston Chronicle and that year I came in second for the Templeton Award, at that time the top award for religion reporting in the country.

The Templeton no longer exists and the Religion News Association turned 70 this year, returning to Las Vegas this past week for their annual confab. A whole new generation of reporters has swept in and the RNA itself is quite different than the all-secular-journalists group it once was. Public relations folks and people from religious media are now members, giving the RNA a whole different feel.

In many ways, it was old home week for those of us long on the beat and there were plenty of old friends and the same inside jokes. Prizes were awarded for great writing, including a third place for our own Bobby Ross in the Excellence for Magazine Reporting Award.

But in other ways, it was a far edgier gathering judging from the unmistakeable social-justice vibe and some of the vicious tweets posted by those attending or listening in. To cut to the chase: The knives came out.

The vast divides among Americans were mirrored at our conference; not that anyone seemed all that upset about it. Only Paul Raushenbush, the founder and former executive religion editor for the Huffington Post, understood what’s at stake here. He told one panel, “We are increasing our diversity but not our pluralism. … We are at Civil War levels of distrust.” Something needs to change “or we’re not going to make it.” (Before I go on, know that tapes of all the sessions will be appearing on the RNA site. The quotes I’m running in this piece are as close as I could get while typing, so they are approximate).

Anyway, those divides appeared in living color on Saturday, when the Trinity Broadcasting Network sponsored a lunch on “The Future of Faith in the Media.”

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A final thought about coverage of suicide: Peggy Wehmeyer on the pain of those left behind

A final thought about coverage of suicide: Peggy Wehmeyer on the pain of those left behind

This weekend’s think piece offers a look at yet another religion-news story that — for those with the eyes to see — could be linked to America’s current struggles with loneliness, depression and suicide.

If you missed it, please consider listening to last week"‘s “Crossroads” podcast, with ran in a piece with this headline: “Believers must face this: All kinds of people (pastors too) wrestle with depression and suicide.

Much of this discussion, of course, was linked to the suicide of a California megachurch leader, the Rev. Jarrid Wilson, who was the co-founder of a national ministry for those facing issues of depression and suicide. He had been very open about his own struggles and, on the day he died, he led a funeral service for a woman who had just committed suicide.

In the past week or so, GetReligion posts have mentioned several issues linked to this depression and suicide — from cyber-bullying to cellphone addiction, from sky-high college loan debts to sleep deprivation. There has been some frank talk about clergy who are pushed over the edge by stress.

Now, here is a stunningly honest piece by a journalist — former CNN religion-beat pro Peggy Wehmeyer — that ran in the New York Times under this double-decker headline:

What Lies in Suicide’s Wake

Along with everything else, I wasn’t prepared for the stigma of becoming a widow this way.

Wehmeyer’s husband took his own life in 2008, during a struggle with pancreatic cancer. There is no explicit religion angle in this essay, other than the sobering reality that the people who lead religious congregations cannot sit back and ignore the pain that lingers for the spouses and families of those who commit suicide. It’s the crisis that often remains hidden.

The opening anecdote in this piece is long, detailed and agonizing. It’s a dinner party — not that long after her husband’s death — and Wehmeyer is trying to find a way to answer the questions of the woman seated next to her. Are you married? Divorced? No, widowed. The scene unfolds:

I’d always thought divorce signaled a failure in life’s greatest commitment. But in the months and years after my husband’s death, I discovered that there’s something worse than a marriage that ends in divorce — a marriage that ends the way mine did.

My table mate tiptoed further into fragile, off-limits territory.

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Podcast thinking: Why do many reporters avoid theological news on religious left?

Podcast thinking: Why do many reporters avoid theological news on religious left?

Back in the fall of 1993, I made — believe it or not — my first-ever trip as an adult to New York City. I had covered many important news stories in American and around the world, but had never hit the Big Apple.

I stayed in a guest room at Union Theological Seminary, since I would be attending what turned out to be, for me, a pivotal religion-beat conference at the nearby Columbia University School of Journalism. But that’s another story for another day.

Here is the story for this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), which is linked this week’s Twitter explosion in which Union Seminary students confessed their environmental sins to some plants and sought forgiveness.

On that beautiful New York Sunday morning, I decided to head to the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I was, at the time, an evangelical Episcopalian (with high-church sympathies) at I was trying to run into my wife’s favorite author — Madeleine L’Engle (click here for my tribute when she died). She was writer in residence at the cathedral, but later told me that she worshipped at an evangelical parish in the city.

Why did she do that? Well, in part because of services like the “Missa Gaia (Earth Mass)” I attended that Sunday. As I wrote later in a piece called “Liturgical Dances With Wolves”:

In the Kyrie, the saxophonist and his ensemble improvised to the taped cry of a timber wolf. A humpback whale led the Sanctus.

Skeptic Carl Sagan preached, covering turf from the joyful “bisexual embraces'' of earthworms to the greedy sins of capitalists. The earth, he stressed, is one body made of creatures who eat and drink each other, inhabit each other's bodies, and form a sacred “web of interaction and interdependence that embraces the planet.'' … The final procession was spectacular and included an elephant, a camel, a vulture, a swarm of bees in a glass frame, a bowl of blue-green algae and an elegantly decorated banana.

The key moment for me?

Before the bread and wine were brought to the altar, the musicians offered a rhythmic chant that soared into the cathedral vault. … “Praises to Obatala, ruler of the Heavens. Praises to Obatala, ruler of the Heavens. Praises to Yemenja, ruler of the waters of life. Praises to Yemenja, ruler of the waters of life. Praises to Ausar, ruler of Amenta, the realm of the ancestors. Praises to Ra and Ausar, rulers of the light and the resurrected soul.” …

Then the congregation joined in and everyone sang “Let all mortal flesh keep silence.' “

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Friday Five: #RNA2019, pastor suicide, newspaper credibility, culture wars, hilarious sermons

Friday Five: #RNA2019, pastor suicide, newspaper credibility, culture wars, hilarious sermons

It’s day two of the Religion News Association annual conference in Las Vegas.

That’s right — the nation’s religion journalists are discussing faith and spirituality in Sin City.

More on that as we dive into Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: I wrote about the RNA meeting in my post Thursday.

By all means, follow the conference in real time via the #RNA2019 hashtag on Twitter. Also, the RNA is live-streaming sessions on its Facebook page. …

2. Most popular GetReligion post: “Believers must face this: All kinds of people (pastors too) wrestle with depression and suicide,” Terry Mattingly wrote in this week’s No. 1 most-clicked post.

If you haven’t, make sure to read the post. In it, tmatt noted that this is one of the most personal topics that he has ever touched on here at GetReligion. Yes, all of this is linked to one of the major national religion-news stories of last week — the suicide of the Rev. Jarrid Wilson, the 30-year-old founder of a a nationally known ministry for people struggling with depression and suicide. Then again, the recent 9/11 anniversary played a role in this post. And double make sure to listen to the related podcast.

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New York wants to rescind its anti-conversion therapy law and no one nails them for it?

New York wants to rescind its anti-conversion therapy law and no one nails them for it?

Remember all the sturm und drang about cities and states banning “conversion therapy?” (For the uninitiated, that is therapy that seeks to change one’s homosexual desires to heterosexual ones).

New York City was a leader in banning this therapy on the grounds that it doesn’t work and leads to depression and suicide. The idea of banning this therapy has become such a cause célèbre, there’s been two films, both released in 2018 about the issue.

Then New York decided to rescind its law.

Why? Because it was afraid of a lawsuit. That’s a big, big news story. Right?

As the New York Times tells us:

Nearly two years ago, the New York City Council celebrated when it passed a far-reaching ban on conversion therapy, a discredited practice to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

On Thursday, Corey Johnson, the Council speaker, who is gay, said the Council would act swiftly to repeal the ban.

The move is a gambit designed to neutralize a federal lawsuit filed against the city by a conservative Christian legal organization; if the case were to be heard by the Supreme Court, advocates for the L.G.B.T. community fear that the panel could issue a ruling that could severely damage attempts to ban or curtail conversion therapy.

As columnist Dave Barry used to say: You can’t make this stuff up. The article adds the city has amended a regulation in the past in the face of a lawsuit.

Supporters of repealing the conversion therapy ban say that it is a regrettable but necessary step given the Supreme Court’s conservative makeup under the Trump administration.

“Obviously I didn’t want to repeal this. I don’t want to be someone who is giving in to these right-wing groups,” Mr. Johnson said in an interview. “But the Supreme Court has become conservative; the Second Circuit, which oversees New York, has become more conservative.”

Wait a minute: If the law was so needed, why are its backers abandoning it two years later?

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About George Packer's takedown of wokeness: is moral absolutism the problem?

About George Packer's takedown of wokeness: is moral absolutism the problem?

Generally at GetReligion we try to avoid duplicate posts on one article, but Terry Mattingly has graciously agreed to let this piece follow his analysis of “When the Culture War Comes for the Kids.” I wrote it on the weekend, before I had any idea that tmatt had called dibs on a specific religion angle in this must-read piece in The Atlantic Monthly in a message to my more prolific colleagues.

Here, then, is my perspective. There are many important topics in Packer’s essay.

Packer’s 10,000-word essay on how hard-edged wokeness affected his children’s education is a stirring account of a liberal writer who has been backed into one too many corners by illiberal progressives and entrenched powers. Most of Packer’s work here makes me want to welcome him to the freedom of not caring what wokeness partisans think of you.

Packer describes conflicts in education first as a clash between democracy and meritocracy, sometimes with a self-effacing humor:

True meritocracy came closest to realization with the rise of standardized tests in the 1950s, the civil-rights movement, and the opening of Ivy League universities to the best and brightest, including women and minorities. A great broadening of opportunity followed. But in recent decades, the system has hardened into a new class structure in which professionals pass on their money, connections, ambitions, and work ethic to their children, while less educated families fall further behind, with little chance of seeing their children move up.

When parents on the fortunate ledge of this chasm gaze down, vertigo stuns them. Far below they see a dim world of processed food, obesity, divorce, addiction, online-education scams, stagnant wages, outsourcing, rising morbidity rates — and they pledge to do whatever they can to keep their children from falling. They’ll stay married, cook organic family meals, read aloud at bedtime every night, take out a crushing mortgage on a house in a highly rated school district, pay for music teachers and test-prep tutors, and donate repeatedly to overendowed alumni funds. The battle to get their children a place near the front of the line begins before conception and continues well into their kids’ adult lives. At the root of all this is inequality — and inequality produces a host of morbid symptoms, including a frantic scramble for status among members of a professional class whose most prized acquisition is not a Mercedes plug-in hybrid SUV or a family safari to Maasai Mara but an acceptance letter from a university with a top‑10 U.S. News & World Report ranking.

What leaves me restless in Packer’s essay is the language he sometimes uses to describe the conflict. In disputing the school’s resistance to standard testing, he refers to the tests’ fierce opponents as engaging in “moral absolutism.”

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Breaking news alert: Nation's religion journalists have gathered in, um, Sin City for #RNA2019

Breaking news alert: Nation's religion journalists have gathered in, um, Sin City for #RNA2019

OK, I hope the boss man — GetReligion Editor Terry Mattingly — will forgive me for a quick, shorter-than-normal post.

I’m in Las Vegas, either for the Vegas Dance Explosion or the Religion News Association annual conference. I’m trying to remember which one. Both are happening right now at the Westgate Resort and Casino.

So, I flipped a coin and ended up in a big ballroom for the RNA meeting.

But seriously, folks, what better place for a three-day gathering of the nation’s religion journalists than Sin City? Besides me, GetReligion’s Julia Duin is here.

A bunch of interesting and important religion issues are on the agenda for the three-day event. You can follow it all live via the #RNA2019 hashtag on Twitter. Also, the RNA is live-streaming sessions on its Facebook page.

The digital age is something else, allowing anyone with internet access to be a part of this week’s festivities.

Speaking of the digital age, Slate published a fascinating piece this week on “God’s Conversion Rate.” The focus is that “Churches are using targeted ads on social media to convert and recruit.” Now, that’s not exactly breaking news, but I don’t know that I’ve seen a specific story on it, so I enjoyed this one.

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Praying to plants: Twitter explodes when Union Seminary holds one of its interfaith rites

Praying to plants: Twitter explodes when Union Seminary holds one of its interfaith rites

Yes, this was click-bait heaven.

Yes, this was an oh-so-typical Twitter storm.

Yes, this was a perfect example of a “conservative story,” in a niche-news era in which social-media choirs — conservative in this case — send up clouds of laughs, jeers and gasps of alleged shock in response to some online signal.

I am referring, of course, to that climate-change confession service that happened at Union Theological Seminary, which has long been a Manhattan Maypole for the doctrinal dances that incarnate liberal Protestant trends in America.

It’s important to note that the spark for this theological fire was an official tweet from seminary leaders. Here is the top of a Washington Examiner story about the result:

Students at Union Theological Seminary prayed to a display of plants set up in the chapel of the school, prompting the institution to issue a statement explaining the practice as many on social media mocked them.

"Today in chapel, we confessed to plants," the nation's oldest independent seminary declared Tuesday on Twitter. "Together, we held our grief, joy, regret, hope, guilt and sorrow in prayer; offering them to the beings who sustain us but whose gift we too often fail to honor. What do you confess to the plants in your life?"

The ceremony, which is part of professor Claudio Carvalhaes’ class “Extractivism: A Ritual/Liturgical Response,” drew ridicule from many on Twitter, some of whom accused the seminary and students of having lost their minds.

OK, let’s pause for a moment to ask a journalism question: Would there have been a different response if this event have inspired a front page, or Sunday magazine, feature at The New York Times?

What kind of story? A serious news piece could have focused on (a) worship trends on the revived religious left, (b) this seminary’s attempt to find financial stability through interfaith theological education, (c) the history of Neo-pantheistic Gaia liturgies in New York (personal 1993 flashback here) linked to environmental theology and/or (d) all of the above.

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