The Tao of Western journalists understanding Eastern traditions via The New York Times

The Tao of Western journalists understanding Eastern traditions via The New York Times

It's not often a news story or feature geared toward the general public mentions the indigenous Chinese religion known in the West as Taoism (also spelled Daoism), but The New York Times managed to produce one last week. So how’d America’s newspaper of record do?

Let’s call it a less than “A” effort. But it did expose the difficulties that Western news media tend to encounter when trying to explain Eastern traditions that view religious beliefs through an entirely different lens — which is why it merits a GetReligion post.

I'll say more about that later. But first let’s deal with the merits of this particular Times story. Please read it in full to better follow my reasoning.

The focus was the impact that organized religion -- China’s traditional faith movements, in particular -- are contributing to the nation’s newfound emphasis on environmental awareness. Taoism, in the form of a $17.7-million “eco-friendly” temple located on a “sacred site” named Mao Mountain, provided the anecdotal lede.

The piece itself only superficially sought to explain Taoist beliefs and their role in contemporary Chinese society. It utterly failed to address questions such as, what’s the justification for a $17.7-million temple when Taoist philosophy has a clear emphasis on the virtue of simple living?

(One thing Eastern and Western religions apparently share is the human affliction we’ll refer to as the edifice complex — also known in some American Buddhist circles as “spiritual materialism.” Ah, but that’s a post for another time.)

Nor does the Times story break new ground -- but how many news features actually do?

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Race and Southern Baptists: This is why it's so hard to tell difference between opinion, news these days

Race and Southern Baptists: This is why it's so hard to tell difference between opinion, news these days

It started with an opinion column in the New York Times.

A little-known black pastor from Oklahoma wrote in Monday's Times that he's leaving the Southern Baptist Convention.

Lawrence Ware described "being called a nigger to my face" by a fellow Southern Baptist camper when he was 13.

More than two decades later, Ware explained that he "can no longer be part of an organization that is complicit in the disturbing rise of the so-called alt-right, whose members support the abhorrent policies of Donald Trump and whose troubling racial history and current actions reveal a deep commitment to white supremacy."

The pastor ended the piece by saying that he loves all people, but he loves black people "more."

In response to the column, Rod "Friend of this Blog" Dreher suggested at the American Conservative:

It sounds like he has apostatized to the Church of Identity Politics. It’s a false religion, but an increasingly popular one, alas.

So why am I highlighting a progressive column and a conservative response here at GetReligion? This journalism blog, after all, steers clear of analyzing op-eds and editorials. That's not our mission.

Rather, we focus — as regular readers know — on critiquing mainstream news coverage of religion.

Well, here is another instance of the lines being blurred. Just this week, my GetReligion colleague Julia Duin delved into the interesting case study of the Eugene Peterson story. Now, once again, we have an opinion column making news.

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Telegraph hits some sour notes in a simple story about a footballer becoming a priest

Telegraph hits some sour notes in a simple story about a footballer becoming a priest

In the decades that I have studied attempts by news media to cover religion events and trends, I have heard this question many times: Why don't they GET IT?

"It," of course, is religion. "They" are editors and reporters in mainstream newsrooms.

Of course, there are journalists -- some religious, some secular -- who totally get the role that religious faith plays in the lives of millions and millions of people. They see the ways that religious questions and beliefs are woven into the fabric of private lives, as well as public life. There are professionals who do a great job on this beat. We need editors to hire more of them.

Yet, I am reminded, from time to time, of that statement the liberal commentator Bill Moyers -- of CBS, PBS, etc. -- made years ago. He told me that far too many journalists are "tone deaf" to the "music of religion." It's more than an intellectual thing, more than a lack of knowledge. They know that something is going on in many news stories, but they don't hear the music. It's just a bunch of sounds to them. It isn't real.

I'm thinking about this today as I prepare to give another lecture at a conference for young journalists in Prague, in the Czech Republic. Most of the participants are from Eastern Europe. Reporting about religion, especially in conflict situations, is a major theme in the conference.

But let's look at a smaller example of these problems. Here is a nice, simple human interest story, in which a footballer from one of the world's most famous squads has been ordained as a Catholic priest. At the very least, the reporter and editors working on this story for the Telegraph need to understand a few simple things about the priesthood and how Catholics talk about it.

Prepare for some sour notes in this song.

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God and gulag: Several Irina Ratushinskaya obits fell short, all but ignoring her strong faith

God and gulag: Several Irina Ratushinskaya obits fell short, all but ignoring her strong faith

Irina Ratushinskaya was one of the political prisoners released from the Russian gulag just before the Ronald Reagan-Mikhail Gorbachev summit in Reykjavik in October 1986. She was a poet; a latter-day Aleksandr Solvhenitsyn whose philosophy of overcoming evil with good made her famous worldwide.

She spent four years in the gulag in her late 20s and early 30s. She died on July 5 at the age of 63.

Her autobiography “Grey is the Color of Hope” tells of her refusing to remove the cross from around her neck despite threats from her guards; how she and other inmates went on a hunger strike when their Bibles were confiscated; how she and a fellow prisoner would comfort each other with verses from Ecclesiastes that say “two are better than one … for if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow.”

So one would think that any mainstream news obituary would have to highlight her faith -- correct?

Not so fast.

I’ll start with the good stuff, such as the Times of London’s obit

She had been beaten, given virtually no medical treatment for her worsening blood pressure, heart problems and kidney disease, and endured rotten cabbage and bitter cold in a labour camp 300 miles east of Moscow. “Hair starts falling out, your skin gets loose,” recalled Irina Ratushinskaya. “There are days and weeks when you can’t stand up because of hunger. I was quite close to death.”
Yet she and her fellow prisoners still challenged the camp authorities with what she called her “holy disobedience” -- sticking to an idea of lawfulness and human decency when the authorities seemed full of lies and spite. With her spirit undaunted, she was put into solitary confinement for several months -- a final attempt to intimidate a poet whose work had circulated in samizdat (clandestine literary) circles and who had been sentenced in 1983 to seven years’ hard labour for, among other things, “producing materials that damaged communist ideas”.

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No God, no worries: This is why a group with no belief in supernatural deities gathers on Sunday

No God, no worries: This is why a group with no belief in supernatural deities gathers on Sunday

Journalists seem to love stories about atheist churches.

That's not exactly breaking news.

In recent years, we at GetReligion have critiqued media coverage of "Atheist churches on the rise deep in the heart of Texas" and "Godless congregations copying Christian churches." In one post, we asked, "How many atheists does it take to form a 'megachurch?'"

Just today, the Buffalo News published a piece on "'a church for atheists' — and everyone else."

In general, the stories I've read on atheist churches have left me underwhelmed. Could it be that I — as a Christian who believes in God — am biased on the subject matter? That's certainly a fair question.

But here's another possible explanation: These stories tend to fall flat because they lack any real edge. Typically, there's no timely news angle. There's no digging below the surface. 

A recent in-depth Denver Post story is the latest example:

By 10:30 a.m., the assembly room has filled with people. They’re four dozen strong, swirling about the long rectangular hall like in a hive, standing and laughing in small clusters, shaking hands and hugging latecomers, finishing coffee and doughnuts in the kitchen, leaning in close to hear a week’s worth of gossip whispered too low for lurking passers-by.
The congregation’s Sunday morning gathering is a cherished communal ritual that brings together newly joined 20-somethings, still groggy from a night on the town, with chatty retirees who have been members since the institution’s founding. They come from across metro Denver to hang out and talk about whatever’s on their mind: Donald Trump, National Public Radio, last night’s Rockies game, the hiking trail du jour.
Inevitably, though, their conversation returns to the supernatural power that unites them: God.
This isn’t church, though.
“It’s atheist church,” jokes Ruth McLeod, who moved to Denver from Louisiana in 2012. “Church doesn’t have a monopoly on community.”

Keep reading, and the Post mentions "contradictions in the Bible" (without giving a Bible defender an opportunity to respond). And there's a reference to the "pervasive contempt" faced by atheists (does that mean religious groups are, on the other hand, beloved?):

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Not all evangelicals are white (true). What about Democrats who don't like religious groups?

Not all evangelicals are white (true). What about Democrats who don't like religious groups?

News consumers, I want you to flash back to the early stages of the 2016 White House race, near the start of the Donald Trump earthquake.

Remember how we had lots of headlines headlines that kept saying, "Evangelicals love Trump! Evangelicals LOVE Trump!"

Yes, that was sort of true. There were many old-guard Religious Right leaders who bonded with The Donald really early. Eventually, the vast majority of cultural and moral conservatives would vote for the sort-of-GOP standard bearer, with about half of them reluctantly doing so as a way of voting against Hillary Clinton. The mainstream press (with a few exceptions) still has not grasped the significance of that fact.

However, here is something that more reporters figured out early on, since it involved race. They discovered the crucial fact that there are black, Latino and Asian evangelicals. They realized that it was mainly WHITE evangelicals who were supporting Trump. Look at evangelicals as a whole and the picture was quite different.

This brings us to a recent Religion News Service headline about another fascinating blast of numbers from the Pew Research Center team. That headline proclaimed: "Republicans, Democrats divided on impact of religion." And here is some key information near the top:

Overall, a majority of Americans (59 percent) see religion as a positive, compared to 26 percent who say it has a negative impact on the way things are going in the U.S., according to Pew. ...
Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Republicans or those who lean Republican said churches and religious organizations have a positive impact, with 14 percent saying that impact is negative, according to Pew.
Meanwhile, Democrats are split: Half of those who are or lean Democrat believe religious institutions have a positive impact, according to the survey, while 36 percent said they have a negative impact.

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Son of 'Da Vinci Code'? 'Symbols' in Vatican-linked political blast cry out for translation

Son of 'Da Vinci Code'? 'Symbols' in Vatican-linked political blast cry out for translation

Actor Tom Hanks brought to life (on screen) the fictional Harvard University "symbologist" Robert Langdon, the hero of Dan Brown's fanciful novels "The Da Vinci Code" and "Angels and Demons."

If there actually were a "symbologist" floating around, it might be useful to page them -- or Tom Hanks -- to help interpret a Vatican-linked bit of commentary about, of all things, American politics, the late Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and President Donald Trump's chief White House strategist Steve Bannon.

Put all THAT in your word processor, Dan Brown! Can't you almost see the trailer for that movie, releasing perhaps in time for Campaign 2020? 

Instead, we are, fortunately. in the capable hands of Rachel Zoll, religion writer for the Associated Press, and Rod "Friend of this Blog" Dreher. Each approaches the subject in a professional manner. Dreher, of course, has his opinions, which we'll get to in a moment.

Let's start with the AP, via Maine's Portland Press Herald. Take a gander at this longish excerpt, published under the headline "Pope confidant sees unholy U.S. alliance," to see what's causing all the fuss:

A close confidant of Pope Francis, writing Thursday in a Vatican-approved magazine, condemned the way some American evangelicals and their Roman Catholic supporters mix religion and politics, saying their worldview promotes division and hatred.
The Rev. Antonio Spadaro, editor of the influential Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica, said a shared desire for political influence between “evangelical fundamentalists” and some Catholics has inspired an “ecumenism of conflict” that demonizes opponents and promotes a “theocratic type of state.” ...

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The second storytelling rule: Get the name of the church (click the link to learn the first)

The second storytelling rule: Get the name of the church (click the link to learn the first)

"The first storytelling rule: Get the name of the dog."

That terrific advice for journalists comes courtesy of Roy Peter Clark, the longtime writing coach best known for his work with the Poynter Institute.

The gist of Clark's idea: If the reporter remembers to ask the dog's name, then "he or she will be curious enough and attentive enough to gather all the relevant details in their epiphanic particularity."

To move that thought into the GetReligion realm, let's consider a second rule: Get the name of the church.

Adherence to that rule would have improved The Associated Press' recent coverage of an Iraqi man who helped the U.S. military but is now facing deportation:

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — An Iraqi man who fled to the U.S. during the Gulf War and trained tens of thousands of American soldiers is facing deportation orders that could lead to his death in his homeland, his supporters say.
Kadhim Al-bumohammed, 64, decided to seek refuge Thursday inside a New Mexico church. He announced through his attorney that he would defy a federal immigration order to appear for a hearing where he was expected to be detained for deportation over a domestic-violence conviction in California.
"After consulting with his family, and with other members of the faith community, (Al-bumohammed) has chosen to seek sanctuary with the faith community," Rebecca Kitson, his lawyer, said to a cheering crowd outside Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices in Albuquerque.
Immigration officials typically don't make deportation arrests in churches and other "sensitive areas" such as schools and churches.

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Thinking about the past: CNN reporter follows his own roots into SBC's Russell Moore wars

Thinking about the past: CNN reporter follows his own roots into SBC's Russell Moore wars

Let's flash back about a month to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Phoenix. You may recall that the hot story turned out to be the mishandling of a stirring resolution on politics and race that, for America's largest Protestant flock, attempted to drive a stake into the heart of the alt-right.

In terms of the religion beat, it was interesting to watch major news operations scramble to cover the story, since -- in this age when few Godbeat reporters are granted even minimum travel budgets -- hardly anyone had boots on the ground in Arizona.

However, to the surprise of your GetReligionistas, CNN was there -- in the person of multimedia specialist Chris Moody of the network's political team.

Now, let me stress right here that I have long ties to Moody and to his family. For starters, he was one of my best students at Palm Beach Atlantic University and then in the first, very experimental semester of the Washington Journalism Center. Decades earlier, Moody's grandfather -- a legendary Southern Baptist preacher, the Rev. Jess Moody -- was a good friend of my late father.

Chris Moody headed to Phoenix while reporting a background feature on what everyone expected to be the hot story at the 2017 SBC meetings -- the battle over the future of the Rev. Russell Moore, the outspoken (and very #NeverTrump #NeverHillary) leader of the convention's Washington, D.C., office.

Apparently, Moore to more than survive in Arizona. He also played a high-profile role in the alt-right drama, contributing a 5-star soundbite on that front. That quote made it into a new Moody feature about Moore, that is now online. Moore said this, concerning the revised SBC resolution. The opening image sounds like something from a Johnny Cash song.

“This resolution has a number on it. It’s Resolution Number 10. The white supremacy it opposes also has a number on it. It’s 666,” [Moore] said, referring to the biblical number representing the devil.

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