Spiritual leaders we lost in 2015: Comparing the coverage at RNS and NPR

Want a sense of time passing?

Read some of the many lists of "famous dead" cranked out this week. The Religion News Service does its part with a brisk list of 23 spiritual leaders who departed this year. Let's see how well they did.

RNS opens with a nice, measured lede:

They preached and inspired. They wrote and taught. Some lobbied in the halls of government. Others toiled to protect the environment and educate the young. Several died at the hands of persecutors.
Here is a list of notable faith leaders — and a champion of secularism — who left us in 2015.

From there, the list goes by date of death, rather than alphabetical order. First is Andrae Crouch, who merged several musical genres -- gospel, rock, country, even Hawaiian -- to electrify crowds and get even secular people to listen. As RNS reports, Crouch's songs not only found a home in hymnals, but won Grammys.

RNS seems to have taken care for broad religious representation. I count four Catholics, two Muslims and two United Methodists. I also see one each of several others -- Jewish, Baptist, Buddhist, Hindu, Episcopalian, Church of Christ, African Methodist Episcopal.

The list includes a brief rundown on each person, which is a service even for readers like myself, who are more than casually interested in religion. Some of the names make you go "Oh, yeah, I remember him!" People like:

* Malcolm Boyd, the former Freedom Rider of the civil rights era, who helped launch the gay spirituality movement.

* Robert Schuller of Crystal Cathedral fame, who popularized "Possibility Thinking."

* Marcus Borg, a leader in the Jesus Seminar, which questioned most basics of the biblical Gospels.

* Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who upheld the traditional view of the faith to Americans.

* Ed Dobson, a cofounder of the Moral Majority -- last on the list, who died on Saturday.

I liked the subtle contrast drawn between two luminaries from Notre Dame University: Theodore Hesburgh, its longtime president, and Richard McBrien, a historian and theologian there. Subtle, because although both men were on the liberal end of the scale, Hesburgh was tight with Washington, while McBrien pushed against Catholic rules about celibacy, birth control and the male-only priesthood.

The report has a few names that we probably should have known better. Those would include Phyllis Tickle, who started the religion division at Publishers Weekly; Ahmad Sakr, a founder of the Muslim Students' Association; Lyle Schaller, a respected church consultant who often lent his wisdom for news reports; Gardner Taylor, called the "dean of the nation's black preachers"; and Boyd Packer, one of the top 12 leaders of the Mormon church.

The article follows through on its hint of those who have died for the faith -- like the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator who was among the nine who were killed at a Charleston church in June. It also suggests that Buddhist monk Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, may have died because his heart condition was untreated in a Chinese prison.

RNS even includes an atheist martyr: Avijit Roy of Bangladesh, who was hacked to death for denouncing Islamic extremism.

The list, like others, is often selective and subjective. It seems to lean toward those who worked for change against a conservative status quo -- such as Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein of Israel, who campaigned for the right of Orthodox Jewish women to study sacred texts. RNS even makes a point of noting that Andrae Crouch ordained his sister co-pastor of their church in Los Angeles, against the tradition of the parent Church of God in Christ.

And while including Crouch, RNS omits other Christians in popular culture like Dean Jones, best known for his Disney comedy movies, then conversion to Christianity; and Meadowlark Lemon, the former Harlem Globetrotter who became a minister. Still, as a special list, it has a lot of religious leaders that NPR ignored on its "Tribute To The Legends We Lost In 2015."  

Then again, NPR has a couple that RNS missed. One is King Abdullah, who drafted a plan for peace with Israel and "cracked down on al-Qaida inside his country." And how did RNS forget Leonard Nimoy -- who brought a Jewish sensibility not only to his Spock character on Star Trek, but also to his book of photos titled Shekhina?

NPR didn’t put Meadowlark Lemon on that list, but it did on its longer "Rememberances" compilation page.  Also on that page are Jones, Schuller, Pinckney, Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, and Islamic feminist Fatema Mernissi.

Some of NPR's choices, though, need a grain o' salt. Among its departed "legends" are Cecil the Lion, wrestlers Dusty Rhodes and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, and Donald Featherstone, the creator of the plastic pink lawn flamingo.

Photo: Leonard Nimoy at the premiere of "Star Trek: Into Darkness" in Hollywood, 2013. Via Shutterstock.com.

Please respect our Commenting Policy