Too much barbecue, too little soul

The big headline on the front page of Sunday's Charlotte Observer made me want to bite into the story immediately. "Food for the Soul," it declared in 72-point letters (I'm guessing on the type size). The deck head confirmed the apparently strong religion angle:

Charlotte restaurateur Jim Noble's new uptown spot is part of his ministry, serving up salvation with a side of preservation.

The writer pulled me into the 2,100-word profile with a strong opening scene. The faith angle appears in the fifth paragraph:

The chefs in the back -- Joe Kindred and Ben Philpott of Rooster's -- will tell you that their boss is always driven, always doing. Away from the restaurants, he is an ordained minister with a weekly radio show. The restaurants are part of the ministry, and King's Kitchen, when it opens, will staff troubled youth, recovering addicts and others who are struggling.

"That," says Noble, "is what we're called to do."

Food for the soul.

Now, at this point, I was licking my lips -- not for the sauce (I prefer Texas-style BBQ) but for the soul. Alas, the writer takes an abrupt detour at that point. But I kept reading, anticipating the big payoff when the story returned to the main character's faith journey. However, it quickly became apparent that the writer was much more interested in barbecue -- despite the headline and deck head to the contrary -- than a meaty exploration of the restaurateur's faith.

So, deep in the story (after we learn that "North Carolina barbecue might have been born at the turn of the century when a few itinerant preachers began cooking pork shoulders at local gatherings") comes this quote:

"We went to church," Noble says, "but it was really more going through the motions. We were punching the time clock."

Where did they go to church? What did they believe? Sorry, in a story that goes to great lengths to explain that 18- to 20-pound pork shoulders at one restaurant cook about eight hours at 220 degrees, before the meat is sauced and chopped, such details are unimportant.

What happened to change Noble's view of church? He and his wife welcomed a daughter with special needs into their lives. The story explains:

Olivia is now 17, nonverbal and in a wheelchair -- "She's doing great," says Karen. But in her journey, the Nobles began one of their own. "A lot of people, when they get to that crossroads, they can either blame God or ask him for help," says Karen. "We kept digging deeper."

The Nobles began to read their Bibles. Neighbors anonymously put tapes and messages about faith in their mailbox. They found not only peace with Olivia's struggles, but purpose. In 1998, they started Restoration Word Ministries, which has grown into a nonprofit with weekly radio and podcasts.

"We kept digging deeper." How? What steps did they take? What did their digging discover?

The Nobles began to read their Bibles. What specific passages spoke to them? What did they learn? How did they find God in what they read, and how did they apply it to their lives?

In 1998, they started Restoration Word Ministries, which has grown into a nonprofit with weekly radio and podcasts. What does this nonprofit do? Is it affiliated with a specific denomination? Are the Nobles evangelicals or mainline Christians or Catholics? I'm assuming they are some form of evangelicals, but the story never says. Nor does it offer any explanation of the earlier reference to Noble as an "ordained minister."

Then there's this:

The restaurants are partners, both in spirit and in deeds. There is no profanity allowed -- "I was probably the worst one," Noble says -- and staff members regularly deliver food to agencies that feed the struggling.

King's Kitchen is the next step. The restaurant will employ the needy for eight to 12 months, at which point they will get the stamp of an elite restaurateur as they look for their next job. Along with the training will come ministering -- King's Kitchen employees will have to study the Bible each day and pray -- because Noble believes he should provide them with the tools, spiritual and otherwise, for them to lift themselves.

Food for the soul.

"Sometimes, people say, 'It's a nice thing you do -- you feed the poor,'" he says. "It's our marching orders. It's what we're supposed to do."

Um, in a 2,100-word profile, we can't delve any deeper into this man's faith than the fact he no longer curses? The news that employees at the restaurant will be required to study the Bible and pray as a condition of employment merits no more than that single parenthetical statement? And, "marching orders" doesn't call for a bit of explanation -- perhaps even a specific biblical reference to help understand Noble's mindset?

This story absolutely drips with religion ghosts. While the headline advertised religion as a main course, the story relegates faith to extra-napkin status.

Interested in the whole hog? Look elsewhere. You won't find much soul food here -- just a few detail-starved slivers.

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