Knoxville

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

Walking in the maze of labyrinth wars? This USA Today Network story sits out that debate

Walking in the maze of labyrinth wars? This USA Today Network story sits out that debate

Here is what I have learned about prayer labyrinths, during my decades on the religion beat.

Progressive Episcopalians love them, big time.

Evangelical Episcopalians hate them or, at the very least, worry about how they can be abused.

Progressive Catholics love them, big time.

Conservative Catholics hate them or, at the very least, worry about how they can be abused.

You may have noticed a pattern.

The arguments about labyrinths center on church history, theology, ancient myths and trends in modern “spirituality,” especially the many innovations that came to be labeled “New Age.” When writing about this topic, I have learned that it helps to focus on the doctrinal contents, and the origins, of the prayers that people are taught to recite while walking inside a labyrinth.

It’s hard to do a basic online search on this topic without hitting waves of information by those who embrace the use of labyrinths (examples here and then here) and those who reject them (examples here and then here).

This brings me to a long recent USA Today Network-Tennessee feature that ran with this headline: “Set in stone or brick, East Tennessee labyrinths are meditative walks for prayer.” This article, literally, could be used in a public-relations release about this particular labyrinth, since it contains ZERO information from critics. Here is the overture (this is long, but essential):

It's dusk on a September Tuesday as two dozen people step, silently and deliberately, around a twisting brick courtyard path at St. John's Episcopal Cathedral.

A few walk barefoot. Some carry candles or glow sticks. Most bow their heads in silent meditation or prayer as they follow the turns of St. John's brick and mortar labyrinth.

Candles and spotlights set among the garden surrounding the labyrinth cast shadows.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

That U.S. Senate race in Bible Belt Tennessee: What matters more, Trump or cultural issues?

That U.S. Senate race in Bible Belt Tennessee: What matters more, Trump or cultural issues?

Let’s see. What was going on in America before public discourse went totally bonkers, once again?

Oh, right. The mid-term elections are coming up, with Democrats hoping to win enough seats in the U.S. Senate to put Mike Pence in the White House.

To the shock of just about everyone here in the three cultures of Tennessee (think Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville), this Bible Belt state has a real, live U.S. Senate race on its hands in 2018. This is what happens when Democrats are willing to nominate an old-guard politico who has a track record as an economic centrist, back in the days before religious, moral and cultural issues took complete control of American politics.

On top of that, megastar Taylor Swift has even jumped into the fight, with a blunt endorsement of an old, white guy, saying he is the best way to defend Tennesseans from a female candidate’s conservative beliefs about gender and sexuality.

In other words, it’s absolutely impossible to talk about the Tennessee U.S. Senate race without talking about religion and culture.

So, how did The Washington Post political desk do in its recent feature — “In deep-red Tennessee, Republicans are anxious about the U.S. Senate race“ — on this topic? Here is the overture, with the lede set right here in my back yard:

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Jeanie Brakebill voted for President Trump. But when a conservative canvasser showed up at the 63-year-old’s door here recently, she confided that she had grown tired of Trump’s confrontational brand of politics and was leaning toward voting Democratic in the upcoming midterm election.

“I would vote for Bredesen, to help out Tennessee — even if it means giving Democrats the majority in the Senate,” said Brakebill, referring to Democratic Senate candidate Phil Bredesen.

The sentiments expressed by Brakebill and voters like her have raised fresh worries for Republicans in this deep red state, which overwhelmingly supported Trump in 2016 but where voters remain divided just weeks before a midterm election that could determine which party controls the Senate.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Why is tmatt depressed? Start here: Do readers want more 'inspiring,' 'spiritual' stories or not?

Why is tmatt depressed? Start here: Do readers want more 'inspiring,' 'spiritual' stories or not?

Before we get to this week’s podcast (click here to tune that in) there’s something else we need to do, if readers want to understand the mild sense of grief they will hear during this edition of “Crossroads.”

First, we need to discuss a few journalism cliches. Let’s start with a short exam, in a true and false format. This all falls under the heading: “What do readers really want to see in the news they consume?”

Have you ever made the following statement(s) — or variations on these themes — about the journalism business, and not in jest?

(1) “Well, you know, if it bleeds, it leads.”

(2) “I really wish they would report more good news, instead of just telling us the same bad news over and over.”

(3) “Pay no attention to that story: They just print that kind of bad-news stuff to sell newspapers.”

(4) “There’s so much good that happens in the world of religion. Why do journalists spend so much time covering scandals? If journalists covered more inspiring, ‘spiritual’ stories, they might win me.”

(5) All of the above. And many people end every one of those statements with this refrain: “Journalists are so biased, you know.”

If you answered “All of the above,” then I may have run into you at one time or another during my decades of work defending the vocation of journalism inside religious institutions, including college and seminary classrooms.

How many stars are there in the heavens? I think I’ve heard just about that many religious believers offer one or more of those “I’m tired of journalists doing this” statements, followed by a claim that “If they only ran more positive stuff” then things would be better in America, etc.

So that brings us to this week’s podcast. It was grew out of paying close attention to some statistics about GetReligion traffic — focusing on what kinds of stories people read and forward, and what kinds of stories people, it appears, most readers just don’t want to read.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Fine Washington Post story about Dolly Parton (but try to guess what part got left out)

Fine Washington Post story about Dolly Parton (but try to guess what part got left out)

Quite some time ago, the world-weary team of journalists at Entertainment Weekly produced a surprisingly serious and well thought out list of the most important women in the history of the American entertainment business.

I wish I could give you a URL for that article, but I have never been able to figure out that magazine's approach to digital content. 

Anyway, my memory is that Lucille Ball was No. 1, in large part because of her revolutionary role in managing her own career options. Oh, and she was a brilliant comic actress.

Dolly Parton was No. 2 for pretty much the same reason. Bluntly stated, she was and is a brilliant businesswoman who has opened all kinds of doors for other women in Nashville and the entertainment biz, period. She is also one of the most underrated songwriters, and stage performers, of all time.

I bring this up for a simple reason. Dolly is always news here in East Tennessee, where she is to our culture sort of what the Queen is to England -- only Parton has tons of business clout to go with all of her earth mama of the Smokes symbolism.

Now Dolly has gone and done something really important linked to the wildfires that ravaged our region a few weeks ago. You may have seen one or two short items about that on the national news. Maybe. For elite media, this was kind of like the Louisiana floods 2.0, as in something going on in red-state land that really didn't matter that much. Maybe if Donald Trump had paid a visit?

Parton has pledged, through her foundation, to give every family that lost a home -- 700 homes and businesses were destroyed -- $1000 a month for six months to help get them back on their feet. Her do-it-yourself TV telethon raised about $9 million to help out, too.

You can imagine the local coverage here in East Tennessee. However, Dolly's crusade also caught the eye of editors at The Washington Post, which printed nice, long, highly detailed feature on her. However, anyone want to guess what part of Parton's story the Post pretty much ignored?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

About that church girl on The Voice: Might faith have something to do with her music?

About that church girl on The Voice: Might faith have something to do with her music?

Anyone who follows GetReligion knows that I am really into music of just about every kind (basically everything except opera and pop-country). I have never, however, been a fan of the whole world of reality TV.

So you put the two together -- pop music and reality TV -- and I would much rather cue up something from my massive Doctor Who library.

However, I do live in East Tennessee and was pretty hard not to notice, in the newspapers at least, when a show like The Voice got down to the final two singers and both of them were from here in the Hills. The winner of season nine was Jordan Smith, from down the valley at Lee University, and the runner-up was a young woman from Knoxville named Emily Ann Roberts.

Now, if you follow those polls to determine America's most religious or "Bible-minded" cities, then you know that Knoxville is not exactly Portland, either Maine or Oregon. Thus, it didn't take a doctorate in sociology to figure out that, here in Dolly Parton territory, young Roberts has spent some time singing in church.

This showed up -- in the vaguest possible terms -- in a recent Knoxville News-Sentinel update on her life and work after the finale of The Voice.

This was not a hard puzzle to figure out, folks. Let's start right at the opening:

Please respect our Commenting Policy