Theology lite: New York Times offers a positive but shallow view of Christians serving refugees

So the New York Times reports today on "conservative people of faith" (read: evangelicals) caring for Syrian refugees.

This is the headline:

Resettled Syrians Find Solace With U.S. Christians

It's a positive treatment of Christians living out how they believe the Bible teaches them to act.

Perhaps I should stop there and simply say: Thank you, Times, for showing readers a different (and in my opinion, truer) picture of Jesus followers than typically dominates mainstream news headlines. 

But since they pay me the big bucks to do so, I'll go ahead and play media critic. That means I must voice my honest opinion: This story feels rather shallow to me.

What do I mean by that? I'll explain in a moment.

First, though, let's set the scene with the Times' opening paragraphs:

MARIETTA, Ga. — William Stocks, a white, Alabama-born, Republican-leaning member of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, arrived at the tiny apartment of a Syrian refugee family on a Wednesday night after work. He was wearing a green-striped golf shirt and a gentle smile, and he was eager to teach yet another improvised session of English 101.
Mr. Stocks, 23, had recently moved to Georgia from Alabama, states where the governors are, like him, Southern Baptists. They are also among the more than 30 Republican governors who have publicly resisted the federal government’s plan to resettle refugees from war-ravaged Syria, fearing that the refugees might bring terrorism to their states.
To Mr. Stocks, such questions belonged in the realm of politics — and he had not come that evening for political reasons. Rather, he said, he had come as a follower of Christ. “My job is to serve these people,” he said, “because they need to be served.”
But politics and faith have always had the potential to conflict in the questions about resettling Syrian refugees in the United States.
And at a time when conservative politicians, many with ties to Christian religious groups, have aggressively sought to keep the Syrian newcomers out of their states, it is conservative people of faith who, in many cases, are serving as their indispensable support system.

Here at GetReligion, we have, course, repeatedly highlighted the question of politics and faith related to the Syrian refugee issue:

So why can't I offer a more enthusiastic endorsement of today's Times piece? Actually, I'm grappling with that question myself.

As I said, the story feels shallow to me. But exactly why does it strike me that way? That's harder to explain.

Part of the problem, I believe, is that the Times attempts to cover so much broad ground (in a 1,300-word report) that it ends up scrimping on the specific details and nuance of the Georgia church and members who are helping. For example, these two long paragraphs on Mormon involvement in refugee resettlement seem forced and out of place in this particular story:

Officials at the nongovernment organizations that resettle refugees say members of the Mormon Church have been particularly helpful in resettling Syrian refugees in states like Utah, Texas and Arizona. Mormons historically tend to favor Republicans, but some polls in the spring showed Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, tied with Mr. Trump in heavily Mormon Utah, a state Democrats have not won since 1964.
Mr. Trump’s position on Muslims may be a factor. In December, soon after Mr. Trump announced his idea for a Muslim ban, the Mormon Church issued a statement reasserting its commitment to religious liberty. On Monday, the church, responding to what it called “the global refugee crisis,” donated $2 million to two groups that help resettle refugees: the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and theInternational Rescue Committee.

Those paragraphs illustrate, too, the Times' insistence on fitting the Georgia church's effort within a political context. 

That's not to say that the story doesn't offer bits and pieces of religious context, such as quoting the Rev. Russell Moore as saying "the church is called to see the image of God in all people and to minister Christ’s presence to all people."

But the Times doesn't explore the specific question of whether the Bible offers guidance on how to treat refugees. 

Meanwhile, the newspaper quotes the Rev. Franklin Graham, who voices concerns about bringing Syrian refugees to the U.S., as saying, "We’re not just leaving them on the side of the road." However, the Times doesn't connect that statement to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which often emerges as Christians discuss the refugee question.

The Times — surprise, surprise — seems much more concerned about the political angle than providing any deep religious insight.

Maybe I'm taking the media critic stuff too far. Maybe this story is perfectly fine as it is, and I really should have stopped with the "Thank you" way up high. But maybe you agree with my assessment that it feels rather shallow.

By all means, read the whole story and weigh in with your thoughts and questions. Please leave a comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion.

Remember, though, that GetReligion is concerned about journalism and media coverage. This is not the place to voice your opinion the right — or wrong — approach to Syrian refugees.

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