In 2,500 words on abusive psycho-spiritual group, New York Times buries crucial four-letter word

In 2,500 words on abusive psycho-spiritual group, New York Times buries crucial four-letter word

Anyone who has followed the history of new religious movements in the United States and elsewhere knows that, since the 1970s, the word "cult" is one four-letter word newspapers have often been loath to apply to controversial groups.

That wasn't the case before and after the 1978 Jonestown massacre, when newspapers saw cults under almost every rock.

But now, there's a great reticence at using this particular four-letter word in many news organizations. What, however, can a newspaper do when a group really and truly has the markings of a, well, cult, at the level of sociology and human behavior? Do you use the word or bury it?

For an answer, consider this front-page story from The New York Times, which reports on what can easily be considered a psycho-spiritual group, called NXIVM (pronounced neks-ee-um). In some cases, this organization literally leaves its mark on adherents, according to the story, headlined "Inside a Secretive Group Where Women Are Branded."

Read this longish excerpt to understand the scene being set:

ALBANY -- Last March, five women gathered in a home near here to enter a secret sisterhood they were told was created to empower women.
To gain admission, they were required to give their recruiter -- or “master,” as she was called -- naked photographs or other compromising material and were warned that such “collateral” might be publicly released if the group’s existence were disclosed.
The women, in their 30s and 40s, belonged to a self-help organization called Nxivm, which is based in Albany and has chapters across the country, Canada and Mexico.
Sarah Edmondson, one of the participants, said she had been told she would get a small tattoo as part of the initiation. But she was not prepared for what came next.
Each woman was told to undress and lie on a massage table, while three others restrained her legs and shoulders. According to one of them, their “master,” a top Nxivm official named Lauren Salzman, instructed them to say: “Master, please brand me, it would be an honor.”

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The most famous Mormons you've never heard of — or maybe I'm the only one not familiar with Studio C

The most famous Mormons you've never heard of — or maybe I'm the only one not familiar with Studio C

Besides its world-class financial reporting, the Wall Street Journal does some fantastic pieces on the most quirky of subjects.

Today's Exhibit A: the WSJ's feature this week on a popular sketch comedy troupe out of Mormon-affiliated Brigham Young University. 

I mean, this story is just lovely from top to bottom — with plenty of relevant details tied to the troupe's religion.

The lede — wow! — sets the scene in a remarkable way:

Conan O’Brien and his family were out to dinner in Santa Monica last year when his daughter began to screech, “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!”
“I thought a Cessna had just plowed into the sidewalk and burst into flames,” the late-night TV host recalls. “Then my son started to freak out and he was like, ‘They’re crossing the street! They’re crossing the street!’”
The source of the pandemonium was the arrival of what Mr. O’Brien’s children deemed some bigger celebrities: a few mild-mannered Mormons. The late-night TV host, who soon took a picture with them, recognized them as the stars of Studio C, a sketch comedy show out of Brigham Young University.
Studio C has achieved sizable popularity on the internet, despite—or perhaps because of—its super-scrubbed brand of clean humor, such as a skit about a soccer goalie named Scott Sterling who accidentally, and agonizingly, blocks shots with his face.

The writer's mastery can be seen in the juxtaposing of the unlikely fan who exclaims "Oh my God!" in the lede with this later note:

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Set the WABAC machine for when? Time for another trip into United Methodist polity!

Set the WABAC machine for when? Time for another trip into United Methodist polity!

As veteran journalists know, sometimes there are stories that seem really, really big when you read the press releases, but they turn out to be business as usual when you dig into the details.

That appears to be what happened with the Cincinnati Enquirer story (part of the USA Today network) offering on update on one of the many legal battles unfolding in the United Methodist Church about the status of LGBTQ ministers. The headline: "Gay Methodist minister David Meredith, church claim victory."

It's a very familiar story, part of a familiar ecclesiastical puzzle that has been in place since (wait for it) 1980. How many years ago was that? Let's put it this way: I wasn't even working full-time on the religion beat at that point.

We will return to the WABAC machine angle of this story in a moment. First, let's look at the story that the Enquirer thought it had, as opposed to what appears to have happened. The key question: Is this a local story, a regional story or a national/global story? Here is the public-relations release overture:

Claiming victory for LGBTQ members of the United Methodist Church nationwide, officials told The Enquirer on Wednesday that two of three charges against a Clifton congregation's openly gay pastor, David Meredith, were not certified
The Rev. Meredith appeared Sunday before the Methodist Committee on Investigation in Columbus, Ohio. Several complaints were filed against Meredith after his May 2016 marriage to his significant other of 29 years. Meredith and Jim Schlachter were married in a Methodist church by a Methodist minister.
Meredith was not charged with being a self-avowed practicing homosexual or with immorality.
Clifton United Methodist Church, whose membership overwhelmingly supports its pastor, said the case may be the first time in denominational history that a charge relating to homosexuality reached the investigative body and was dismissed. A charge of disobedience was certified. 

OK, readers, here is my question. Based on what you just read, at what level of United Methodist polity was this decision made?

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Crux reports from Lebanon-Syria border, where Western ideals clash with deadly local realities

Crux reports from Lebanon-Syria border, where Western ideals clash with deadly local realities

One of the greatest gifts I’ve derived from being a journalist has been to repeatedly face situations in which what seemed obvious to me made no sense to someone else. This helped me understand that's it's an enormously complicated world that requires empathy toward others to comprehend it at any depth.

This can happen when you're fortunate enough to mix with people who have a world view that’s quite different than you're own. You learn that preconceived notions about “the facts” of a story can be a barrier to grokking the heart of the story.

Crux, the online Roman Catholic journal, reminded me of this last week via a series of stories it published about besieged Christian villages in the Lebanese-Syrian border region.

That's a pretty tough neighborhood. In such places, simple survival -- particularly for religious and ethnic minorities -- can mean assuming positions that seem morally unthinkable for those of us fortunate enough to live in far gentler environs.

Take the case of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, for example. Who of us thinks him to be anything less than a brutal murderer with little -- “none” might be the better word -- regard for anything but his own survival? Who of us would be willing to live under his leadership?

As part of the series, Crux editor John L. Allen, Jr., in a piece labeled analysis, wrote that what seems apparent about Assad to most of us in the West holds little sway for Christians living in Lebanon and Syrian. His piece ran under the following headline: “Meeting Middle East Christians is where Western stereotypes go to die.”

 

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Grab a tissue before reading this: A young Astros fan got a home run ball, and this is why it's so special

Grab a tissue before reading this: A young Astros fan got a home run ball, and this is why it's so special

I love baseball, even though my beloved Texas Rangers didn't make the playoffs this season.

As a Texas fan, I'm finding it especially difficult to root for either team in the American League Championship Series. That best-of-seven series, tied 2-2 heading into today's Game 5, pits the Evil Empire (the New York Yankees) vs. the Rangers' in-state rival (the Houston Astros). I don't suppose there's any way that both teams could lose, is there?

But seriously, folks ...

My friend David, a minister in Houston, alerted me to a tear-jerking feature story about a young Astros fan who ended up with a home run ball. This story almost makes me want to root for Houston. Almost.

The piece ran at the top of the Houston Chronicle's front page today. And yes, there's a religion angle. More on that in a moment.

"I don't know if you saw this, but it brought me to tears in public when I read it," David said. "Great writing."

Although I subscribe to the Chronicle, I hadn't read it yet today, so I appreciated my friend calling my attention to this story.

The lede:

When Amanda Riley arrived at Minute Maid Park for Game 1 of the Astros-Yankees American League Championship Series, she couldn't contain her tears.
"We walk in, and all I'm seeing are families and dads holding their sons up," Riley said. "The whole time all I could think about was that we're there as a family, too, but we're missing one."
Four weeks earlier, 15-year-old Cade Riley — Amanda and Mike Riley's oldest son — died in an all-terrain vehicle accident on a trail near the family's home in Liberty Hill.
Since then, Amanda, Mike and their son Carson had trouble finding the motivation to leave the house as a family.
Mike knew it was time, and he made a decision that put his family directly in the path of a crucial Carlos Correa home run and made their youngest son the center of media attention and the object of Astros players' affection. 

Keep reading, and the Chronicle offers relevant details on how the family ended up at two ALCS games in Houston last week — and on the providential circumstances that seemed to surround their time at Minute Maid Park. No, the newspaper never uses the phrase "providential circumstances," but the family's quotes make no doubt that they see them as such.

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This just in! Lutheran left tests theory that progressive doctrine is key to church growth

This just in! Lutheran left tests theory that progressive doctrine is key to church growth

From the first days of this blog, I have argued that religion-beat professionals need to dedicate more coverage to theological, doctrinal and cultural issues on the religious left (hardly anyone uses capital letters).

Why? Consider this equation: One of the biggest news stories of the late 20th Century was the rise -- in terms of public-square clout in America -- of what became known as the Religious Right (almost everyone uses capital letters).

There were, no doubt about it, big stories there to cover -- especially among evangelical Protestants shaken by the Roe vs. Wade ruling. But consider this question: Were religious conservatives, to some degree, stepping into a cultural void created by decades of numerical decline among liberal Protestants? I would argue that both halves of this equation needed lots of coverage.

There have been attempts by liberal churches to fight back against the demographics that have been pulling them down, by which I mean declining numbers of converts and the cumulative impact of decades of low birthrates.

There are valid stories to cover, in all of this. Thus, I was glad to see Religion News Service dedicate nearly 1,800 words to a feature about church-growth efforts at a Bible Belt (but college-town) congregation in the liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

As things turned out, 1,800 words were not enough. Here is the overture:

CARY, N.C. (RNS) -- At a Bible study on a weekday evening, Lutheran minister Daniel Pugh paced before a group of 50 church members in cargo shorts and a plaid button-down shirt talking about Adam and Eve.
Clutching a hand-held remote he clicked through a PowerPoint presentation, telling members of Christ the King Lutheran Church that one way to interpret the story of Adam and Eve is as a coming-of-age allegory about a pair of carefree teens caught red-handed having sex.
In this, alternative reading of The Fall, the “forbidden fruit” offered to Eve in Chapter 3 may be a metaphor for sex, he said, and the “serpent” may be a metaphor for a penis.

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Why did British journalists throw a PR pity party for an offended transgender activist?

Why did British journalists throw a PR pity party for an offended transgender activist?

Remember the news stories about the bakery in Gresham, Ore., that got sued out of existence by two lesbians? I wrote about the jaundiced press coverage of Sweet Cakes by Melissa here.

Nearly the exact same story is now playing out in British media. Sometimes when I feel depressed about the state of American media, I take a look at what’s available overseas and realize how enlightened, accurate and occasionally balanced things here are in comparison. Sometimes that is not saying much.

However, the Times of London’s take on the matter more resembled classic Fleet Street work than fair and balanced coverage. It began:

A Christian printer has refused to produce the business cards of a transgender diversity consultant because he did not want to promote a cause that he felt might harm fellow believers.
Nigel Williams, a married father of three based in Southampton, turned down the chance of working for Joanne Lockwood’s consultancy, SEE Change Happen, which offers advice on equality, diversity and inclusion.

So far, so good. That's just basic news. Then:

He wrote to her: “The new model of diversity is used (or misused) to margin­alise (or indeed discriminate against) Christians in their workplaces and other parts of society if they do not subscribe to it. Although I’m quite sure you have no intention of marginalising Christians it would weigh heavily upon me if through my own work I was to make pressure worse for fellow Christians.”

Am I right that the printer isn’t so much objecting to her being transgender as he is objecting to her use of “diversity” tactics as a cudgel?

Lockwood, 52, who has been living as a trans woman since January and changed her name in July, said she was “gobsmacked”, adding: “I was not expecting a lecture. I disbelieved this could happen in 2017. I have been distraught and cried and my wife consoled me.”

Now where have we heard this before?

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The Amish population is booming: Could their religion have something to do with it?

The Amish population is booming: Could their religion have something to do with it?

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch had a fascinating story recently about the booming Amish population.

The trend piece — much to its credit — contained a fair amount of religion-related details that gave insight into what the Amish believe.

At various points as I read the feature, I found myself both (1) appreciative that the Post-Dispatch delved into the faith of the Amish and (2) wishing that the newspaper had unraveled the yarn just a little more. 

The lede set the scene:

LICKING, Mo. — The story of abrupt change in this small south-central Missouri town starts with the water tower. A giant baseball is painted on top as a fading reminder of when Rawlings was king.
As sporting goods manufacturing dried up, a $60 million maximum-security prison opened in 2000. The South Central Regional Correctional Center doubled the local population to more than 3,000 people.
“We just try to go with the times,” said Licking Mayor Keith Cantrell. “Whatever happens, we try to deal with it and go on.”
Unlike Rawlings, the prison hunkers out of sight, just west of downtown. Now, another group has settled that also appreciates privacy, only its members arrived under the shade of straw hats and black bonnets.
The Amish, who are undergoing exponential growth, have chosen Licking as one of many new settlements. Facing overcrowding and increased government pressure in more traditional areas, they broke new ground here in 2009, after buying an 800-acre ranch. They bought another large property a few years later.

Big question: Why is the Amish population growing? Hang on to that thought.

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Religion ghost? Ethiopian refugee thrives with strong values, family and maybe something else

Religion ghost? Ethiopian refugee thrives with strong values, family and maybe something else

Every now and then, I get a letter from a reader that is rather poignant. It's like this person is reading a good story in the local newspaper and then there is a passage that produces a kind of melancholy feeling, a sense of curiosity and loss.

Was there a religion ghost hiding somewhere in the story? Would anyone else read this news report and feel the same way? Would other readers have the same suspicion that there was crucial religious material missing?

So the reader sends me the URL to the story, often with a note that reads something like this:

Numerous media outlets have published stories about Oromo Ethiopian refugee Tashitaa Tufaa's success in the US. ... As a Greek Orthodox when I read the article I was curious as to whether his religion -- Christian or Islam -- had any effect on him. I reviewed many of similar articles. Religion was never mentioned.

In this case we are dealing with a story from the Star Tribune in Minneapolis-St. Paul. The double-decker headline proclaims, success-story style:

Minneapolis/St. Paul transit entrepreneur Tashitaa Tufaa is Entrepreneur of the Year
Tashitaa Tufaa, who built a $12 million school bus service in just a decade, is the Metropolitan Economic Development Association's 2012 Entrepreneur of the Year

Simply stated, this is a business story about -- from all accounts -- a remarkable man:

Tashitaa Tufaa, whose walk to school in his native Ethiopia was a 10-mile round trip in bare feet, now sees to the safe transit of thousands of schoolchildren daily as president and CEO of Fridley-based Metropolitan Transportation Network Inc.

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