I feel a bit like a sandbagger when I critique religion stories reported by network and cable news. Fish in a barrel. It's just one step above criticizing the editorial strength of a college newspaper -- and a rung below the college paper I worked for.
But I just couldn't resist this story from ABC News about Craig Gross, one of the founders of the XXXChurch, an evangelical ministry to the porn industry.
Conservative Christians were horrified when Gross moved there last year and declared, "Jesus Loves Sin City," establishing The Strip Church, attending porn conventions and handing out mini-Bibles.
But today, Gross is expanding his message of Christian love to the glutton, the disconnected, the crook, the outcast -- and even the ultra religious who disagree with him.
Gross has joined forces with fellow activist pastor Jason Harper to promote their new book, Jesus Loves You, This I Know."
The authors have launched a six-stop tour across the country, including a gay rally and a maximum security prison, to reach out to those cast away by many conventional churches.
"The church looks at the rest of the world with a score card and chalk board, marking people off," said Gross. "Jesus is ready to sit down and dine with the sinner and the forgotten with no strings."
The hip, young pastors are as comfortable with pop culture as they are with the latest Internet technology.
Anyone else feeling nauseated? I don't even know where to start, but here are a few lowlights of those first few paragraphs. Let's just take this line by line:
Conservative Christians were horrified ... that's something I've never seen. Not even on Halloween. In Vegas. I think the reporter meant angered or incensed or flabbergasted. But I highly doubt the were scared in the "Friday the 13th" sense.
expanding his message of Christian love ... right, because that somehow makes Gross unique. I mean, Jesus didn't talk about loving the glutton and the crook and the disconnected and the, God forbid, ultra religious.
"Jesus Loves You" ... OK. That sounds familiar.
six-stop tour ... wow, not exactly a big push. And what about where they're going? The article makes it sound like "conventional churches" don't except gays -- are mainline churches conventional? -- or inmates of maximum security prisons. The latter is difficult because, you know, these folks are in prison. But I do think many conservative Christians have prison fellowship programs. I wrote about one for Christianity Today not long ago. And I think Charles Colson has a small outfit.
"Jesus is ready to sit down and dine with the sinner and the forgotten with no strings." That's a sentence I can get down with, but I'm not sure why the reporter thinks Gross is the rare Christian who believes it.
And what about the last line I quoted? The hip, young pastors ... because most pastors are old, boring and ugly. (I added that last point of comparison.)
Now, I know a few things about Gross. In fact, in 2007 I spent two days at the Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas with him. (The two most mentally and spiritually exhausting days of my journalism career.) I've blogged about them a few times since -- Operation Save the Kittens -- and for the Daily News' porn series I wrote:
"We are the world. We are the children," Ron Jeremy sings as he and Gross draw a circus crowd at the Adult Entertainment Expo here.
During the past few years, the two -- a conservative Christian who considers masturbation a sin and a secular Jew who has performed in 1,900 porn flicks -- have grown close and, despite diametric career choices, have come to respect and appreciate each other.
"I have nothing against Ron Jeremy," says Gross, an ordained minister who leads the anti-porn crusade XXXChurch.com "I love this guy. I love hanging out with him."
Oh, how the war on porn has changed. The days of Christian groups prominently lobbying against obscenity are over. Enter the era of extending love and consolation to the adult industry and those touched by it.
Members of a Chatsworth church pray for the end of pornography and the healing of those it has harmed. Christian men gather to confess their Internet-fueled addiction. Rehab centers in Colorado and Kentucky provide short-term and months-long escapes more commonly used to treat drug abuse.
In the adult industry, it seems every dark corner has a ministry. The former strippers of JC's Girls. Hookers For Jesus. And XXXChurch, the Web's "#1 Christian porn site."
XXXChurch, which runs a Web site where people confess their struggles and offers free anti-porn software, has made the biggest splash, using gimmicks at adult conventions -- like Wally the Wiener, a 25-foot inflatable penis -- to lure eyes, and hopefully minds, away from depictions of depravity.
The story goes on for another 50 column inches or so, exploring the history of Christian political and social opposition to obscenity and pornography, evaluating why Christians fear porn's pull on its men -- and women -- and talking to the different individuals on the frontlines of this fight.
I never like to pat myself on the back. And this story had plenty of deficiencies. But the important thing to notice is the difference in tone and approach.
Craig Gross and the XXXChurch aren't some novelty, though they are a bit anomalous. And the Christians who disagree with their method of evangelism aren't crazy fundamentalists.
Heroes and Villains. Prophets and Pharisees. These are the imprecise -- in this case, incredibly inaccurate -- distinctions created by tongue-in-cheek reporting.