Speaking in tongues

From Azusa Street to Memphis: Sometimes reporters have to tell old stories to new readers

From Azusa Street to Memphis: Sometimes reporters have to tell old stories to new readers

I do not go out of my way, as a rule, to praise the religion-beat work of one of my former students in the old Washington Journalism Center (which has now evolved into the New York City Journalism semester at The King’s College).

But it’s time to break that rule.

I say that because of a feature story by Katherine Burgess — a name to watch on the religion beat — that ran at The Memphis Commercial Appeal. The headline: “Bishop Mason built COGIC out of revival, the faith of former slaves.

In roughly 40 years of religion-beat work, I know of no organization that is harder to cover than the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). As a result, this massive Pentecostal flock receives way less coverage than it deserves. I don’t think the denomination’s leaders are hostile to the press (although I have encountered one or two who were), but they certainly do not seek out the attention.

How many news-consumers in West Tennessee, white and black, know the history of this important institution or even know that it is based in their region? Thus, Burgess needed to start at the beginning, with the story of one man:

He preached in living rooms, in the woods and in a cotton gin.

When he returned from the Azusa Street Revival speaking in unknown tongues, Bishop Charles Harrison Mason was followed by just 10 churches out of more than 100 in the split over the theological disagreement.

Today, the denomination founded by Mason, the son of former slaves, is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States, with more than 6.5 million members.

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Journalism question: If your child was attacked by a cougar, would you 'speak in tongues'?

Journalism question: If your child was attacked by a cougar, would you 'speak in tongues'?

Now here’s a story you don’t see every day, care of USA Today.

The headline on this one is totally faith-free, but it certainly is a grabber: “Woman fights off cougar attacking her son, prying its jaws open. 'Mom instinct,' she says.”

So what is the religion angle here? A reader spotted something really interesting in this story and raised a totally logical question.

First, let’s look at this journalism mystery in context. Here’s the whole overture:

A Canadian woman rushed to save her son after a cougar attacked him last week, prying the animal's jaws off her child, according to local news reports.

How did she do it? "Mom instinct" and prayer, she told CTV News.

Chelsea Lockhart's son was playing outside the family's Vancouver Island home Friday when she heard a fence rattle in the backyard. Then came sounds of a struggle. The mother bolted outside to see her son, Zachery, 7, on the ground with a young cougar attached to his arm, the network reported. She had no time to lose.

"I had a mom instinct, right?" Lockhart said. "I just leaped on it and tried to pry its mouth open."

With her fingers fish-hooked inside the cougar's mouth, Lockhart began "praying in tongues" and "crying out to the Lord," she told CTV News. "Three sentences into me praying, it released and it ran away," she told the network.

Sounds pretty basic, right?

Well, it does if you attend a Pentecostal Protestant congregation or a mainline church — Catholic, even — that has been touched by the charismatic renewal movement during the past three or four decades.

The reader’s question: How many readers would know the meaning of the phrase “praying in tongues” without a single word of background material?

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Yo, Gray Lady! Where is Tua Tagovailoa going after leading Alabama to national title? To church ...

Yo, Gray Lady! Where is Tua Tagovailoa going after leading Alabama to national title? To church ...

If you are a sports fan and live in the United States of America (or you live overseas and care about American-style football), then you have probably heard this name during the past few days -- Tua Tagovailoa.

It's an unusual name, but this freshman quarterback at the University of Alabama came off the bench the other night to throw several touchdown passes, including a go-for-broke bomb that won his team a national championship.

What else do we need to know about him? Well, his post-game comments made it very, very clear what Tua wants people to know about his life and, yes, his faith. One of his comments even raises this interesting question: Is it possible for a Pentecostal Christian to shout "Roll Tide!" in an unknown, celestial tongue?

Hold that thought, because it's interesting to note how elite media -- think The New York Times, of course -- handled this young man's story, as opposed to how he described things when offered a chance to do so. Let's start with the Times profile of Tagovailoa, which ran with this headline: "How Tua Tagovailoa Stepped Up, Dropped Back, and Saved Alabama."

ATLANTA -- While some of the Alabama players were gasping for oxygen on the sideline, others were committing unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and at least a couple were trying to prevent a teammate from punching an assistant coach, a teenager was saving the Crimson Tide from the brink of a public collapse.
The freshman, Tua Tagovailoa, a 19-year-old backup quarterback from Honolulu, had stepped into a dire situation Monday night. Alabama trailed by 13 points at halftime of the national title game when Tagovailoa took over the offense and calmly engineered one of the more improbable comebacks in college football championship history.

So let's move down in the story, were readers are offered this information about this remarkably calm young player:

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Megan Fox, glossolalia and AP Style (you read that right)

The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law is a lot of things and it fills a lot of roles. With good cause, thousands of media professionals call it the bible of mainstream journalism. However, this omnipresent spiral volume doesn’t answer a whole lot of complex questions that scribes will encounter trying to cover life on the modern religion beat.

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