Baltimore Sun finds the faith angle in the Baptist officer ensnared in Freddie Gray case

Baltimore Sun finds the faith angle in the Baptist officer ensnared in Freddie Gray case

The Baltimore Sun is no longer the dead-tree-pulp newspaper that lands in my front yard each morning. Thus, logically enough, there has been a sharp decline in the number of Sun stories that show up here on GetReligion.

Also, the newspaper's website features a numbing array of intrusive auto-cue forms of advertising, so sane readers would only go there when there are no other options. However, my many Charm City-area friends still let me know, from time to time, when something interesting shows up.

In this case, the Sun recently offered an in-depth profile of Alicia White, the only female officer charged in the death of Freddie Gray, the infamous case that still hangs over life in Baltimore like smoke from burning urban neighborhoods. This was a big story for one simple reason, as stated in the headline: "Baltimore Police Officer Alicia White, charged in Freddie Gray case, becomes the first to speak out."

The surprise in this story is that it truly explores the human side of this woman, as well as the legal and political angles of the story. As is often the case among public servants in Baltimore's African-American community, that led the reporters into spiritual territory.

Right from the get-go, the story stresses that this case has had painful consequences for White as a person and as an officer.

For the past 18 months, her co-defendants either went to trial or were called to the stand to testify while she awaited her own trial. Out of public view, White spent much of the time grappling with crippling anxiety, and at one point was rushed to a hospital. The stress led her and her fiance to call off their engagement, and she spent months unemployed. Then, in July, all charges were dropped.

In addition to the interview material from White, it's clear that the Sun team did extensive background work in the community, digging into her life and work. That's where her educational background and church ties show up.

In other words, her Christian faith was and is part of her identity and, in the past, it affected her actions. Thus, it's part of the story.

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Back to Indonesia: When covering disputes among faithful, AP should talk to more Muslims

Back to Indonesia: When covering disputes among faithful, AP should talk to more Muslims

Tensions remain high in Indonesia, where opponents of the nation's Christian governor -- he is part of the nation's minority Chinese population -- held a massive rally calling for the arrest of Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja and his trial on charges of blasphemy.

Obviously, many journalists believe that a story like this requires lots of vague adjectives in front of the word "Muslims."

In this case, the opponents of Ahok are "conservative Muslims" and the Muslims who support him are "moderate Muslims." What does this mean? Who knows, other than the fact that the conservatives are (you knew this was coming) mad about the growing presence of LGBTQ activists in public life.

Here is the key passage in an update from the Associated Press:

The crowds massed in the area of the national monument formed a sea of white that spilled into surrounding streets while gridlocked motorists sat on the sidewalks. Some held huge banners calling Ahok a blasphemer who should be jailed while others chanted and prayed. The blasphemy controversy erupted in September when a video circulated online in which Ahok criticized detractors who argued the Quran prohibits Muslims from having a non-Muslim leader.
It has challenged the image of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, as practicing a moderate form of Islam and has shaken the government of Jokowi, who accused unnamed political actors of trying to undermine him.

Recently, I criticized a Washington Post story about these events in the incredibly complex culture of Indonesia because it didn't include quotes from non-Muslims. As Ira "Global Wire" Rifkin noted at that time: "Tremendous hole in this piece: What about non-Muslim Indonesians? There are many Hindus in Java, Christian Chinese, Sikhs and others living there."

The problem with the recent AP coverage of this dispute is that it offers a different kind of simplicity -- by (a) dealing with these clashes as a matter of politics, alone, and (b) by failing to interview representatives of some of the largest and most powerful Muslim organizations in Indonesia.

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Oh, Politico! We're not laughing with you, but at you, after that 'advance God's Kingdom' scoop

Oh, Politico! We're not laughing with you, but at you, after that 'advance God's Kingdom' scoop

Hey, remember after Donald Trump's stunning election victory when some navel-gazing media types contemplated their cluelessness.

Good times.

But that didn't last long, huh?

Which brings us to Politico's laugh-out-loud "scoop" featuring 15-year-old quotes from President-elect Donald Trump's pick to lead the U.S. Education Department:

The billionaire philanthropist whom Donald Trump has tapped to lead the Education Department once compared her work in education reform to a biblical battleground where she wants to "advance God's Kingdom."
Trump’s pick, Betsy DeVos, a national leader of the school choice movement, has pursued that work in large part by spending millions to promote the use of taxpayer dollars on private and religious schools.
Her comments came during a 2001 meeting of “The Gathering,” an annual conference of some of the country’s wealthiest Christians. DeVos and her husband, Dick, were interviewed a year after voters rejected a Michigan ballot initiative to change the state’s constitution to allow public money to be spent on private and religious schools, which the DeVoses had backed.
In the interview, an audio recording, which was obtained by POLITICO, the couple is candid about how their Christian faith drives their efforts to reform American education.

Wow, talk about an insightful piece of "gotcha" journalism! (Sarcasm intended.)

Sarah Pulliam Bailey, the former GetReligionista, couldn't resist commenting on the Politico story:

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Southern Baptist offers poor churches free websites; RNS does compelling story

Southern Baptist offers poor churches free websites; RNS does compelling story

One thing I’ve noticed about churches is how awful their online presence is. Having an effective website isn’t optional these days. Yet, I’ve been amazed at the sheer sloppiness of most churches’ online offerings. And then they wonder why no one attends their services.

I always thought a model website should have a “coming attractions” kind of ad for the upcoming sermon. Churches have been asking visitors to accept on faith that the sermon will apply to them that week, only to find out that the sermon’s about marriage, but the visitor is single. Or the sermon deal with God and the workplace while the visitor homeschools her kids.

So I was glad to see Religion News Service’s piece on a Connecticut firm that’s offering to build free web sites for churches, especially those too poor or technology-phobic to get their own.

(RNS) Members of Trueworship Tabernacle used to walk their Corpus Christi, Texas, neighborhood, passing out fliers about upcoming events.
But in March, the small, multicultural church got a new website.
Six months later, its online postings helped boost attendance at its “Youth Car Wash and Enchilada Sale” as well as its “Hallelujah Night” on Halloween.
In February, TicketNetwork executive Don Vaccaro started Grace Church Websites to meet a need he discovered while talking to his friend, the Rev. Boise Kimber of New Haven, Conn.

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In ruins of the East Tennessee fires, CNN & Co. spot a kind of miracle (maybe)

In ruins of the East Tennessee fires, CNN & Co. spot a kind of miracle (maybe)

Here's the news from East Tennessee, for those who are still following the story of the worst in a century wildfires that threatened to take all of Gatlinburg, a resort town northeast of Knoxville.

First things first: the death toll remains at 13, as workers carefully pick their way through the 1,000 businesses, homes, etc., that burned or were damaged. One of those lost was the Rev. Ed Taylor, the man who pretty much put this lovely corner of East Tennessee on the map as a site for weddings.

The other news is that we are in having a long, stead, soaking rain here and there is more rain in the forecast. The winds remain rather high, however, and the local authorities stress that the fires in the Great Smoky Mountains burned deep down into the ground cover and roots of these old forests. (For those who missed my earlier post on this topic, my family lives in Oak Ridge, which is up against the face of the Cumberland Mountains to the west of the fires.)

As you would expect, here in Bible Belt territory, there continue to be religion angles in many of the stories linked to the fires.

A reader sent me this CNN report, which I thought was interesting -- but had a rather important factual hole in it. The grabber headline proclaimed:

"Statue of Jesus only thing left standing in house burned by Tennessee wildfire."

Now, I grew up in tornado alley along the Texas-Oklahoma border and I have seen some rather strange -- some would say miraculous -- things in the wake of storms and other powerful natural disasters. I have seen (with my young eyes, in this case) a whole neighborhood leveled, except for the undamaged church in the middle. Or then there's the house that vanishes, except for the closet containing three children hiding under a mattress.

Well, in this case we are talking about something else:

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Tom Wolfe, foe of pompous elites, targets Darwinian evolution, so where are the religious responses?

Tom Wolfe, foe of pompous elites, targets Darwinian evolution, so where are the religious responses?

Perpetually white-suited Tom Wolfe is a both a novelist and “new journalism” pioneer who applies fictional techniques to non-fiction with trademark florid verbiage. He gladly punctures elitist pomposity, as in the famed “Radical Chic” satire from long-ago 1970 or later take-downs of modern art and architecture.

At age 85, he’s again rousing the rabble with “The Kingdom of Speech” (Little, Brown). The Religion Guy confesses he has not yet read the book so the following relies on media coverage. There’ve been vigorous responses over recent weeks but, oddly,  little from religious commentators.

Whatever the odds that “natural selection” of advantageous physical mutations produced countless new species across eons of time, religious thinkers often contend that Charles Darwin’s evolution theory cannot explain the origins of humanity’s self-consciousness, love, moral sense, creativity, artistry, or even Darwin’s own mind. So, does the origin of species ultimately and logically require a  Creator?  Are humans unique divine creations or mere mammals with special tricks, “trousered apes,” in Duncan Williams’ memorable phrase? Obviously, hot theological stuff.

Wolfe, a professed atheist, takes aim at Darwinism, also a target of many religious conservatives, because it fails to explain the origin of human language. One Wolfe hero is linguistics professor Daniel Everett, who theorized about the origin of language years ago as a Bible translator in the Amazon jungles. The book also champions the oft-forgotten Alfred Russel Wallace, who simultaneously came up with the natural selection concept while the upper-crust Darwin won the celebrity sweepstakes.

Wallace later broke with Darwin, figuring that evolution explains much, but not human attributes like language, which implies some higher power beyond  nature. 

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Abortion shocker! Media aghast concerning new Texas rules on burial of fetal remains

Abortion shocker! Media aghast concerning new Texas rules on burial of fetal remains

To understand just how biased media coverage of abortion can be, check out this lede from Yahoo News:

Texas’ newly adopted amendments requiring the burial or cremation of fetal remains every time a woman has an abortion are set to take effect on Dec. 19.

Let's run that by again. Read this real slow, because we don't want to lose the shock value of what is being said there.

How utterly horrible.

A woman will have to bury or cremate the fetal remains "every time" she has an abortion.

Did Texas' backward officials not even consider a lesser statute -- such as one as allowing a woman to undergo an abortion or two before the burial rules kick in? 

Of course, as one who believes in the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception, I see this from a different perspective than so many journalists -- for whom the ability to end a pregnancy is a sacred right (rite?) that must be protected at all costs.

The journalistic issue, in case it's not clear: The abortion battle is one with at least two sides. The American public remains highly divided on this issue, and there is evidence that young Americans, on this issue, are questioning the current national regime of abortion laws.

Thus, reporters and editors do their readers/viewers -- not to mention their profession itself --  disservice when they give only one side a voice. But that happens all too frequently, as the Texas case illustrates. (Good luck finding a pro-life source in the Yahoo story, for example.) 

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Major anniversary for an American classic: The 'It's a Wonderful Life' arguments roll on

Major anniversary for an American classic: The 'It's a Wonderful Life' arguments roll on

In about a week, Seneca Falls, N.Y., will be hosting a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the release of filmmaker Frank Capra's classic (more to come on that adjective) Christmas classic, "It's a Wonderful Life."

This town was the model, in many ways, for Capra's vision of the fictional Bedford Falls, home of the angry, but blessed, dreamer named George Bailey, portrayed in the film by the great Jimmy Stewart. Some of the events will be held, I am sure, at the town's It's a Wonderful Life Museum

I wrote about the ongoing interest in this film this week in my On Religion column for the Universal syndicate, after interviewing Catholic film critic Steven D. Greydanus and digging through my old copies of "The It's a Wonderful Life Book" and "The Name Above the Title," Capra's chatty, but at times philosophical autobiography.

That led to this week's Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in), in which host Todd Wilken and focused on a two-part question: (1) Is there any real news in the anniversary of this film and (2), while we are at it, what are journalists to make of the fact that "It's a Wonderful Life" remains so popular AND controversial?

Well, I think it's likely that some feature writers will cover the Seneca Falls events as a hook for coverage of the anniversary -- period. However, the real question is whether anyone will probe deeper, exploring the debates that have raged about this film since it was first released (and flopped at the box office).

What kind of debates? That's where you get into the details of Capra's whole worldview -- which is both Catholic and fiercely American -- and the film's unique blend of stark darkness, even anger, and light. The key is that you really need to watch the whole movie, not just the joyful end of the famous final act.

As a clue to the contents of the podcast, let's compare two different views of this movie. First, there is this material from the values section of the Vatican's Best Films List:

This well-known film directed by Frank Capra is made great by the acting of Jimmy Stewart as a genuinely good man who resigns himself to having all of his life plans thwarted by his duty to his community and family. Sometimes vocation is more about doing one’s duty than fulfilling one’s desires. It is only when Stewart’s character submits entirely to his calling, and sees what good he has done for others in his life, that he realizes that his life has been worth living.

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Silent sanctuaries full of stories: The Post Gazette chronicles Pittsburgh's golden era

Silent sanctuaries full of stories: The Post Gazette chronicles Pittsburgh's golden era

Recently I stumbled upon a collection of photos and prose about my old stomping grounds in western Pennsylvania.

Few places shone with the lights of a thousand churches like Pittsburgh did when steel workers arrived by the boatload from Eastern Europe, bringing their beliefs and clergy with them. Today, many of these buildings are empty and forsaken.

Thus, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has put together a series of beautifully written stories and photos about an era whose “silent sanctuaries” still haunt us today. There are all kinds of fascinating trends stories hiding in these empty buildings and there is no way to talk about them all in this one post. Readers really need to click around and explore all of this.

In the early 1990s, I lived just north of Pittsburgh; a place where churches were named after saints I’d never heard of (St. Canice, anyone?) and there were churches founded by people groups (think Carpatho-Russians) I’d never heard of.

But even then it was clear that the tiny city I lived in could not support five Catholic parishes. Starting around 1993, the Diocese of Pittsburgh began closing churches, much to the dismay of many Catholics who didn’t want to see their beautiful, historic buildings shuttered. I remember attending one candlelight vigil for a closing church on the city’s South Side. My reporting on the closings nettled then-Bishop Donald Wuerl (now ensconced in Washington, D.C. as Cardinal Wuerl) to the point where he summoned me to his office to ask why I was so troublesome.

The parishioners left out in the cold deserved a voice, I told him; a voice he didn’t seem to be hearing. Nevertheless, churches continued to close and this fall, the Post-Gazette chronicled how these empty places symbolize a glory this part of the country once knew. The lead article begins thus:

As they gathered over a banquet of roast chicken and rissole potatoes on May 30, 1948, members of Our Lady Help of Christians Catholic Church had every reason to think the future of their Larimer parish would be as golden as the 50th anniversary they were celebrating that night.
In its first half century, the parish had been a spiritual and cultural hub for the Italian immigrant community, officially witnessing some 2,918 marriages and 1,3125 baptisms. And the landmark sanctuary -- with its deep, round-arched windows and its trio of golden-colored domes -- stood as a point of pride for the neighborhood. ...

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