Journalism f-word alert: New York Times serves up classic hit piece with Tim LaHaye obit

You may have heard of hit pieces, which is journalism aimed at taking a person down. Here is a hit obituary -- The New York Times’ article on the passing of evangelical superstar Tim LaHaye.

Check out the headline: "Tim LaHaye dies at 90; fundamentalist leader’s grisly novels sold millions." That gives you an idea of where this article is headed.

Now tmatt has, through the years, written time and time again urging journalists to heed the advice of the Associated Press Stylebook and to avoid most uses of that particular f-word, along with Mollie Hemingway and others in the GetReligion pantheon.

Now, it is certainly true that LaHaye went to Bob Jones University, a campus that has long embraced the "fundamentalist" label, but he also led a Southern Baptist church and most members of America’s largest non-Catholic Christian denomination would never call themselves fundamentalists. Also, his audience as a writer and speaker was much larger than the "fundamentalist" niche.

Guess the Times didn't get that memo. Here’s how the piece starts:

The Rev. Tim LaHaye, a leader of the Christian fundamentalist movement and co-author of the best-selling “Left Behind” series of apocalyptic novels prophesying mass slaughters and the end of the world, died on Monday in a San Diego area hospital. He was 90.
His death, days after he had a stroke, was announced on the website for his Tim LaHaye Ministries.
In an age of seemingly endless natural and man-made disasters, the action-packed tales by Dr. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins struck readers as all too realistic, even if they were based on biblical accounts of the Second Coming, the appearance of an Antichrist and multitudes leaving a calamitous dying world for heaven.
Some critics said that the books, with potboiler plots, characters in conflict and plenty of violence, elevated the sermonizing of old-fashioned Christian fiction into the realms of modern page-turning thrillers by John Grisham, Tom Clancy or Stephen King. Others called them tedious, fatuous, preposterous and exploitative.

Now, what if you’d been one of LaHaye’s four kids and had read that last sentence about your dad? My own father died in June at the age of 91 and I can’t imagine how we would have felt had a newspaper ripped him apart like this. Note to the Times: This is not a book review. This is an obituary. Also note the total lack of attribution for any of these critical statements.

It gets worse.

And there were darker interpretations by critics who detected anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism and other religious biases in Scriptural adaptations that focused on questions of death, resurrection, salvation and immortality from a strictly Christian fundamentalist point of view.

Once again, perhaps the the writer could identify a few of these nameless critics? If he does not, it seems unfair to trash LaHaye about something that happened almost 30 years ago. Plus, did he know LaHaye was baptized a Catholic as a child? 

The piece goes on to admit that LaHaye’s end-time novels were “perhaps the most commercially successful Christian fiction in publishing history,” so I guess someone out there kept snapping up this man’s fundamentalist output. Yes, I’ve read all 16 books in the series and no, they were not great literature. Yes, they dealt with the huge number of Christian martyrdoms that could happen during the end times, but LaHaye’s and co-author Jerry Jenkins’ descriptions were pretty tame compared to, say, “Game of Thrones.”

I'm sure that LaHaye would admit that yes, they were escapist and sure, a lot of it was dreck but hey, it got 65 million or so readers out there thinking about the Second Coming whereas before, they could have cared less.

Near the end, the obit sinks into an orgy of scare quotes:

The series revolves around “end times,” when those who have “accepted Christ” are “raptured” and leave behind a world in “Tribulation” -- one that is engulfed in seven years of catastrophes and ruled by an Antichrist, the head of the United Nations, who sets up a global government with one religion and one currency.

One wonders if anyone edited this piece. “Prophecies” is spelled wrong. The way “heaven” is used in the article should not be capitalized. A July 27 correction spelled out two more mistakes. The writer does lots of celebrity obits for the Times but someone should have pulled in a religion specialist on this one. The writer was way out of his depth.

It’s true that LaHaye made a lot of money on his “Left Behind” books but the book he was truly known for in his earlier years was “The Act of Marriage,” a Christian sex manual that he and his wife, Beverly, collaborated on.

When that came out in 1976, it was revolutionary as they were discussing matters that Christian publishers were afraid to take up. It took a couple as well-regarded as the LaHayes were to pave the way. Also, it should be noted that the editors at Time magazine listed the couple among the country’s most powerful evangelicals (not fundamentalists, mind you) in 2005. Too bad the Times didn’t pick up on that.

Again, an obit that tears into someone like this one did should have raised alarms somewhere in the Times' upper echelons before it saw print. Did anyone think to read Christianity Today’s summation of LaHaye’s life and how the “Left Behind” series shaped evangelicalism?

This writer had a chance to yield insights into a man who, whether you liked his books or not, was a towering figure in 20th century evangelical history. Too bad the Times team -- backed by a cloud of anonymous critics -- could only see the sewer.

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