People

Facing the heart of Jean Vianney: Reporters should be careful when covering saints and prayer

Facing the heart of Jean Vianney: Reporters should be careful when covering saints and prayer

This post is brought to you by the letter “V” — as in “veneration.”

Trust me, as someone who has made the journey from being a Southern Baptist preacher’s son to ancient Eastern Orthodox Christianity, I am well aware that talking about prayer and the saints is a theological minefield. Part of the problem is that some Catholics do, from time to time, use language that is a bit, well, sloppy or sentimental when talking about the saints. This then lights fuses for many Protestants who are quick to attack centuries of tradition seen in ancient churches.

Now, mix in a news hook that involves “relics” and you have the potential for mistakes that can cause waves of angry emails to the newsroom.

So here is the Gannett Tennessee wire story that I want to praise. The headline in the Knoxville News-Sentinel version: “Why the (literal) heart of Saint Jean Vianney is coming to Knoxville.”

NASHVILLE — Catholics in Tennessee are lining up to see a relic of a nineteenth century French priest.

The heart of Saint Jean Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, is traveling the country and making a one-day stop at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville. … On Wednesday, the heart relic was at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville.

After the morning Mass wrapped up, churchgoers stood single file in the center aisle waiting to take in the small, dark object nestled in an ornate, gold case. The relic is considered to be the physical, incorrupted heart of Vianney, who died Aug. 4, 1859.

The faithful took turns quietly kneeling before the relic under the watchful eye of a member of the Knights of Columbus. The fraternal Catholic organization is not only sponsoring the relic's seven-month tour of the U.S., but guarding it while on public display.

Right. The big word is “kneeling.” Here in the Bible Belt that kind of language, and action, can make lots of people sweat.

But the story quickly turns to the Rev. Edward Steiner, pastor of the Nashville cathedral, for an explanation of what is happening and what is NOT happening:

The Catholics who approached the relic are not worshiping it, Steiner said, but venerating it.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Looking for a religion ghost in Jimmy Carter's current clout with Democrats and journalists

Looking for a religion ghost in Jimmy Carter's current clout with Democrats and journalists

This is really a great time — in terms of mainstream media coverage — to be a liberal or “progressive” evangelical.

If you needed proof of this thesis — other than the contents of op-ed pages and wire features — then look no further than the latest political/media comeback by former President Jimmy Carter.

I have followed Carter for decades (I was a Carter volunteer at Baylor University in 1975-76), which is understandable since it’s impossible to report on the role of “born again” Christians in American political life without paying close attention to what Carter believes and when he believed it. He inspired many, many “moderate” Baptists and other evangelicals to take politics seriously.

Here’s a question I have asked for several decades now: Name another American politician — Republican or Democrat — who was willing to cost himself support within his own party by taking a critical stance, of any kind, on abortion. To this day, Carter’s language on abortion makes his party’s leadership nervous (see his remarks last year at Liberty University).

But the former president has certainly evolved on other crucial doctrinal issues. What role has this played in his current popularity with Democrats and, thus, with the press?

Consider this recent feature from the Associated Press: “Jimmy Carter finds a renaissance in 2020 Democratic scramble.” Here is the totally political overture:

ATLANTA (AP) — Jimmy Carter carved an unlikely path to the White House in 1976 and endured humbling defeat after one term. Now, six administrations later, the longest-living chief executive in American history is re-emerging from political obscurity at age 94 to win over his fellow Democrats once again.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Might Doris Day's Christian Science background explain her desire for no funeral or grave marker?

Might Doris Day's Christian Science background explain her desire for no funeral or grave marker?

Many news articles on the recent death of actress Doris Day at age 97 mentioned her desire that no memorial service be held or grave marker erected.

Fewer cited her background in Christian Science.

In that lack of mention, the Rev. Canon Dr. Kendall Harmon of the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina alerted GetReligion to a potential holy ghost.

A bit more on that in a moment. First, some relevant background from People, which quotes manager and close friend Bob Bashara:

In addition to saying Day didn’t “like to talk about” a prospective funeral or memorial, Bashara explains, “She didn’t like death, and she couldn’t be with her animals if they had to be put down. She had difficulty accepting death.”

“I’d say we need to provide for her dogs [after she died], and she’d say, ‘I don’t want to think about it’ and she said, ‘Well, you just take care of them,'” recalls Bashara. “She had several when her will was written, and she wanted to be sure they were taken care of. She didn’t like to talk about the dogs dying.”

An avid animal lover and animal welfare advocate, Day was brought up Catholic and was a practicing Christian Scientist after marrying producer Martin Melcher.

Day “drifted away” from organized religion after Melcher died in 1968, Bashara says, but remained “a spiritual person.”

“She believed in God, and she thought her voice was God-given,” he says. “She would say, ‘God gave me a voice, and I just used it.'”

Bashara says he remains unsure as to why Day was reticent about having a funeral, but explains, “I think it was because she was a very shy person.”

Was it because she was shy? Or did her Christian Science experience perhaps play into her view of death?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Tim Conway was a kind soul, with a gentle sense of humor. Maybe his faith played a role in that?

Tim Conway was a kind soul, with a gentle sense of humor. Maybe his faith played a role in that?

If you are of a certain age, then you know that there was a decade or two in which Tim Conway was the funniest man alive. If you looked into the details of his life and personality, then you knew that he was more than that.

Watching The Carol Burnett Show was one of the few pop-culture rituals in the Southern Baptist preacher’s home in which I grew up. Conway was the star of the show, as far as I was concerned. It was interesting, last week, to read the mainstream media obituaries and tributes that followed his death.

The key? It was all about the adjectives — “kind,” “gentle,” “loving,” “impish,” “humble,” etc. — as today’s reporters tried to hint at the style and content of the work done by this master of the semi-improvised variety show skit.

I kept looking for one more crucial word — “Catholic.” Check out the EWTN interview at the top of this post.

As you would expect, scribes made that connection in the Catholic press, but nowhere else that I could find. Here’s the faith-free opening of the tribute at The Hollywood Reporter. Maybe the angel reference in the lede is supposed to be a hint?

Tim Conway, the cherub-faced comedian who became a TV star for playing the bumbling Ensign Parker on McHale's Navy and for cracking up his helpless colleagues on camera on The Carol Burnett Show, has died. He was 85. 

A five-time Emmy Award winner, Conway died Tuesday at 8:45 a.m. at a health care facility in Los Angeles, his rep told The Hollywood Reporter. According to recent reports, he was suffering from dementia and unable to speak after undergoing brain surgery in September.

For four seasons beginning in October 1962, the impish actor provided the heart and a lion's share of the laughs on ABC's McHale's Navy as the sweet, befuddled second-in-command on a PT boat full of connivers and con men led by the show's title character, played by Ernest Borgnine.

When dealing with Hollywood royalty, what really matters is the obituary in The Los Angeles Times.

Of course, Burnett was featured right up top:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Is Howard Stern, the man who gave us Butt Bongo Fiesta, evolving into a prophet for our time?

Is Howard Stern, the man who gave us Butt Bongo Fiesta, evolving into a prophet for our time?

Howard Stern gave a remarkable two-part interview last week on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. In terms of cultural encounters, that’s interesting in and of itself.

A good many social conservatives — OK, I’ll own this — have usually found it easier to think of Stern as one of the harbingers of the apocalypse. If he was not one of the four horsemen, he was the nearly naked drunken guy dancing with abandon somewhere in the end times parade, much to the delight of those citizens who think of Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street as the cultural high point of the year.

Writing in “Prophet of All Media” for Tablet, Liel Leibovitz makes an argument that, like Stern, is provocative. Leibovitz repeatedly compares Stern to Judaism’s prophets, and he begins with an earthy tale straight out of the Talmud about a prostitute who breaks wind and delivers a related prophetic word to her client, a rabbi.

“And it’s just the sort of story that makes the seminal text of Jewish life — often introduced to young yeshiva students as an account of God’s own mind — so transcendent,” he writes. “To imbue humans with wisdom, the ancient rabbis who compiled the Talmud realized, you need more than just a commandment; if you want humans to listen and learn, you have to embrace all the appetites and the oddities that make them human. Try to talk to us about the labors of redemption, and we might scoff at such haughty moralizing or slink away from the effort it demands. Deliver it in a good yarn about a farting prostitute, and we’re bound to laugh, think, and empathize.”

Much of Leibovitz’s argument continues in this vein, leaving the impression that apart from the occasionally unkind or crude remark, Stern surely joins the farting prostitute in having a heart of gold.

In time, however, Leibovitz reaches the mother lode of his case, with a comparison for all Americans who have set NPR as the first station on the audio devices built into their automobile dashboards. Leibovitz goes so far as to compare Stern to Terry Gross — not by mentioning their most recent interview, but by comparing the cultural effects of their respective style of interviews.

This is very long, but essential. Media professionals, let us attend:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

That crucial role Pat Robertson plays for way too many American political journalists

That crucial role Pat Robertson plays for way too many American political journalists

What images leap into your mind when you hear the word “televangelist”?

If you are a certain age, you probably think of the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart weeping and choking out the words, “I … HAVE … SINNED!” For millions of other folks — especially journalists, like me, who once worked at The Charlotte Observer — this term will always be linked to the Rev. Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Bakker.

But what does the word actually mean and is it the best term to describe the Rev. Pat Roberson? That’s one of the topics that came up during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes and sign up. The main topic we discussed this week? That would be Robertson’s headline-grabbing remarks about Alabama’s new abortion law:

"I think Alabama has gone too far," Robertson said Wednesday on "The 700 Club" before the bill was signed into law by Alabama's Republican Gov. Kay Ivey. "It's an extreme law."

The key question: Why did Robertson say what he said? What did readers need to know to understand what he was trying to say, whether they agreed with him or not? Hold that thought.

Meanwhile, back to that mild journalism curse word — “televangelist.” The pros at Merriam-Webster online offer a nice, logical definition:

… an evangelist who conducts regularly televised religious programs.

OK, that assumes that this person’s primary job is doing public, evangelistic events — like, for example, the Rev. Billy Graham.

The definition offered by the Cambridge Dictionary is a bit more candid:

… The activity of preaching (= giving religious speeches) on television in order to persuade people to become Christians and give money to religious organizations.

Ah, yes, raising money is crucial. But note that the primary goal remains winning people to Christian faith. Does that describe most of the work Robertson has done during his long media career?

I think the blunt offering at Dictionary.com — the source favored by Google — is precisely what most reporters are thinking when they use this term:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

That latest Pat Robertson juridical quote: Journalists may want to note these interesting facts

That latest Pat Robertson juridical quote: Journalists may want to note these interesting facts

It’s really hard for the mainstream press to consider someone crazy and wise at the same time. Then again, the Rev. Pat Robertson is not your normal public figure, is he?

This aging patriarch of the old Religious Right frequently provides one-liners that shoot straight into the headlines, as well as the monologues of late-night political humorists. He is gifted at that, and journalists have long welcomed opportunities to quote him as a defining voice in conservative American Christianity, even as his clout has declined and evangelicalism has become much more complex.

So now we have headlines about Robertson opposing an abortion law. Is that crazy, or what?

It’s a laugh to keep from crying equation. For more background on that, see this piece — “Excommunicating Pat Robertson” — that I wrote long ago for the ethics team at Poynter.org.

I’m not a Robertson fan, obviously. However, I do think that journalists may — from time to time — want to note one or two interesting facts in his background, other than pinning the “televangelist” label on him and then moving on. (Anyway, he’s more of a “religious broadcaster,” as opposed to being an “evangelist” in the traditional meaning of that word.)

We will come back to that topic — overlooked facts in the Robertson biography — in a moment. First things first: Why is he back in the news?

Well, there is this USA Today headline to consider, among many: “Televangelist Pat Robertson: Alabama abortion law 'has gone too far,' is 'ill-considered'.” Here’s the top of that report:

Longtime televangelist Pat Robertson, who opposes abortion, criticized Alabama's near-total abortion ban that on Wednesday became the nation's most restrictive and one expected to face legal challenge.

"I think Alabama has gone too far," Robertson said Wednesday on "The 700 Club" before the bill was signed into law by Alabama's Republican Gov. Kay Ivey. "It's an extreme law."

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Yes, the WPost Mayor Pete visits the Bible Belt story ran several weeks ago: But it's still important

Yes, the WPost Mayor Pete visits the Bible Belt story ran several weeks ago: But it's still important

It’s time to venture into my “guilt file” — where I stash news stories that I know deserve attention, but breaking news keeps getting in the way.

Several weeks ago — Easter season, basically — the Washington Post ran an important story about the rise of Pete Buttigieg as a real contender among the 100 or so people currently seeking (a) the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination or (b) the VP slot with Joe Biden (the second after Barack Obama winks and hints at an endorsement).

In this case, the religion angle was right there in the headline: “Questions on race, faith and tradition confront Buttigieg in South Carolina.”

In other words, Mayor Pete visits the Bible Belt to see if his mainstream Episcopal Church vibe — brainy white married gay male — will fly in a region in which black Christians are a political force. This is a culturally conservative corner of the Democratic Party tent that tends to get little or no attention from journalists in deep-blue zip codes (that Acela-zone thing). So let’s pull this story out of my “guilt file.”

The headline is solid, pointing to questions about “race, faith and tradition.” Want to guess what part of that equation gets the short end of the stick, in terms of serious content?

This is an important story, in terms of cultural diversity among Democrats. At some point, candidates will need to talk about religious liberty, third-trimester abortion, gender-neutral locker rooms and a host of other powerful cultural issues linked to religion.

The bottom line: Mayor Pete wants to be pro-faith, while attacking conservative Protestants whose views of the Bible are radically different than his own. How will that strategy play in the Bible Belt? Can he appeal to Democrats other those in what the Post calls a “liberal, wealthy and white” niche?

Here is what we are looking for in this story: Will anyone address religious questions to African-American Democrats from Pentecostal, conservative Baptist or Catholic pews? Or will the story only feature the voices of experts talking about these strange people? Here’s the overture:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Meet Planned Parenthood's Leana Wen, a mind-reading 'major voice' in fight for bodily autonomy®

Meet Planned Parenthood's Leana Wen, a mind-reading 'major voice' in fight for bodily autonomy®

You may have heard of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. It ranked at No. 27 on Forbes magazine’s 100 largest charities in 2018, with a total revenue of $1.46 billion.

Understanding Planned Parenthood primarily as another business — simply another trusted American brand, giving customers what they want, just like a restaurant chain, a bookstore, or a fitness center—might help explain why Dr. Leana Wen appeared in a Corner Office column, in which New York Times business writer David Gelles engages executives in Q&A discussions about their lives and careers.

Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo, Gwyneth Paltrow of Goop and inventor James Dyson are among other executives popping up at Corner Office in recent months. Such interviews are most engaging for those of us readers whose eyes glaze over at the first mention of a spreadsheet.

The key difference between these executives and Wen? Only Planned Parenthood will sell you a legal abortion.

Is it unreasonable to expect any mainstream news profile of Planned Parenthood’s chief executive to engage this point directly and to acknowledge major cultural and religious disputes about abortion law? Has abortion now become simply another part of culture’s Muzak, something we all know is a daily reality not discussed among the polite? There are no ethical or moral questions here that divide Americans?

Worse, has it joined the ever-growing list of Settled Topics among journalists, in which there are establishment heroes (abortion-rights advocates), villains (abortion-rights opponents) and color commentators (journalists)?

Wen was the focus of Corner Office on May 2, in conjunction with Planned Parenthood’s announcement that she would be the first physician to lead the organization. Gelles devotes roughly 1,700 to the edited transcript of his interview with Wen. How many times might you see a direct reference to abortion?

The winning answer: two, both from the spoken words of this former president of the American Medical Student Association.

When Wen has stirred herself to this remarkable flash of candor, it is within the context of casting those who oppose unlimited abortion rights in the worst possible light:

Please respect our Commenting Policy