The Knoxville News Sentinel

The crimes stunned Knoxville: But faith brought Channon Christian's father back to life

The crimes stunned Knoxville: But faith brought Channon Christian's father back to life

It’s one of the biggest puzzles on the religion beat, one that readers ask me about all the time. Here’s the question: Why don’t news organizations cover more “spiritual” stories, as in stories about the impact religious faith has in the daily lives of real people?

The short answer is one that readers don’t want to hear: Most editors don’t think that positive stories about changed lives is “news.”

Now, if the person whose life is changed by faith is a politician, a celebrity or the starting quarterback for the local football team, then that might make this a “news” story. Maybe. Well, it also helps if this “spiritual” hook is combined with some issue that’s controversial.

This is what the cynic in me thought the other day when I saw this headline in The Knoxville News Sentinel, my local newspaper: “Gary Christian: From rage to restoration, a murder victim's father finds the faith he left.

If you live in East Tennessee, this headline calls back years of headlines about a horrific crime story that seized this region like few others — the torture, rape and murder of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom. In aftermath, the face of Channon’s father — Gary Christian — became an iconic image of loss, grief, agony and, yes, wrath.

This massive News Sentinel feature dug deep into what has happened since the trials. It’s a story about rough, realistic healing and the spiritual changes that allowed a man to return to faith. To be blunt: You don’t see many stories of this kind in news print.

First, here is the long, but essential, overture.

Gary Christian stood in an East Tennessee church pulpit on a sunny August Sunday, speaking about pain and death and faith and God. It’s not a place — or a point — where the father of murder victim Channon Christian would have been 18 months ago.

For 10 years Christian never talked to the Lord he had loved all his life. He left God behind after his beautiful, compassionate, smart 21-year-old daughter was carjacked, tortured, raped, beaten and murdered in January 2007.

Then, last April, kneeling at his child’s grave and surrounded by friends, Christian asked for God’s help.

God had been waiting. He'd never left.

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Evangelical church angers a gay couple: In Knoxville, this is still a news story

Evangelical church angers a gay couple: In Knoxville, this is still a news story

The Knoxville News-Sentinel hasn't had a religion writer, at least in my memory, for some time. But it did manage to produce a church-dumps-gay-couple story in pretty short order after said couple started making the rounds of newspapers and TV stations. 

The setting is bucolic Blount County, a rural area south of Knoxville that sits in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. I vacationed there in 2014 and found it refreshingly distant from an interstate highway.

Now, this is an area that's very conservative and it's full of churches, which is how our story begins.

MARYVILLE -- A Blount County gay couple say their hearts were broken but their Christian faith remains strong after they were denied full membership in a nondenominational church.
Now Courtney and Jessica Wright are cautious, even scared, about stepping in any church.
The Wrights were told in late January they couldn’t become full-fledged “core” members of Faith Promise Church because they're homosexual. One of the church's core beliefs is that marriage is between a man and a woman.
The couple, married in August 2016, knew Faith Promise listed heterosexual-only marriage as a belief. But they say their homosexuality and marriage were never secret, and church members made them feel accepted and included for months.

Part of me wonders: Is this really a news story?

Maybe, because the newspaper had previously reported that Faith Promise is one of the country’s fastest-growing churches. But if an attendee had complained to the newspaper about being shut out of full membership for any other reason, would the newspaper have run it?

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Football and religion: Two subjects that are hard to pry apart in East Tennessee

Football and religion: Two subjects that are hard to pry apart in East Tennessee

Speaking of religion.

A long, sad and even tortured football season has come to an end here in the land of the University of Tennessee Volunteers, a season that began with the head coach already sitting on the hot seat of imminent disaster. Within a matter of weeks, #FireButchJones signs were popping up from sea to shining sea (Vols fans get around).

Eventually, Jones got fired -- despite the fact that his recruiting classes were consistently good to great.

This brings me to a story that ran this past week in The Knoxville News Sentinel, the newspaper that shows up in my driveway each morning. The headline: "UT Vols: Email links Butch Jones to tight end Daniel Helm's departure from Tennessee."

Now, if you only read the headline, you'd never sense the presence of an important religion ghost. But that's the thing about religion ghosts, especially here in this intensely religious corner of the Bible Belt -- they have a way just showing up.

At the heart of this sad story is Daniel Helm, a young man who -- as America's top-rated high-school tight end -- was one of Jones' star recruits in 2014. But Helm quickly left the Vols, landing at Duke University. Why did he leave? Here is the overture:

Daniel Helm had been gone from Tennessee for almost a year when his father sent an email to then-UT chancellor Jimmy Cheek.
The last paragraph of Steve Helm’s message read: “I made sure we got Daniel out of there before (Butch) Jones put him in a place where Daniel might have knocked him out. Then, my great straight A kid would have an assault charge. If a member of that football team does finally lose it with Jones and an assault charge is filed, we will provide authorities with everything we know as we will not let that man ruin a young kid’s life.”
Helm said Cheek never responded.

What does religion have to do with this story?

That's the big question. Let's walk through this step by step, since the religious themes only emerge at the end. My question: Why bury the Bible angle?

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'On Religion' meets GetReligion -- tmatt's national column turns 29, with nod to Dean Baquet

'On Religion' meets GetReligion -- tmatt's national column turns 29, with nod to Dean Baquet

A long, long time ago -- 29-plus years to be precise -- several editors at the old Scripps Howard News Service noticed something.

At the time, I was the religion-beat reporter and columnist at The Rocky Mountain News in Denver (memory eternal). The national wire desk in Washington, D.C., noticed that, when they put my national-angle columns on the wire -- as opposed to something completely Colorado-centric -- they would get picked up by quite a few smaller and mid-sized papers.

Plus, there was a pending request from the editor of The Knoxville News Sentinel -- Harry Moskos at the time -- for a weekly Scripps Howard wire piece on religion to serve as one anchor for his newspaper's planned Saturday section on issues of family and faith. Those two subjects, you see, kept showing up near the top of lists about subjects that interested his local readers.

So the national editors worked out a deal with my bosses in Denver to free me up to do a weekly column for the national wire.

Thus, my national column was born 29 years ago last week. An editor asked me what I wanted to call it and I proposed "Get Religion."

That name struck one of the editors as a bit aggressive. You see, he didn't get that I was (wink, wink) linking the old Southern saying that someone "got religion" -- as in got saved, in a revival tent sort of way -- with the modern idea that some people just "don't get it," as in feminist lingo. So they changed "Get Religion" to "On Religion."

Anyway, I rarely run anything from "On Religion" (the column is now carried by the Universal syndicate) here at GetReligion, but I thought I would let readers here see this past week's piece -- as I open my third decade doing that column.

Yes, 29 years is a long time. This particular column is also about -- well, do you remember that turn of phrase used by New York Times editor Dean Baquet?

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What fuels fake news? Major Tennessee newspapers pledge to oppose 'anti-LGBT' bills

What fuels fake news? Major Tennessee newspapers pledge to oppose 'anti-LGBT' bills

As you would expect, I have been asked more than my share of questions -- in face-to-face encounters and in cyberspace -- about the tsunami of post-Election Day arguments about "fake news."

What do I think of this phenomenon? As it turns out, my answer to this question is directly linked to the work we do here at GetReligion and to my "Journalism Foundations" class that I teach in New York City at The King's College (a class that was also a cornerstone of the old Washington Journalism Center program).

Let me be as brief, because we need to get to a highly relevant case study from The Tennessean in Nashville.

Fake news is real and it's a very dangerous trend in our public discourse. There is fake news on the right, of course, but it also exists on the left (think Rolling Stone). Many Americans are being tempted to consume fake news because they have completely lost trust in the ability of the mainstream press to do accurate, balanced, fair coverage of many of the issues that matter most to people from coast to coast, but especially in the more conservative heartland.

Some of this is political, but we are also talking about "Kellerism" (click here for information on this GetReligion term) and the fact that some elite newsrooms struggle when covering moral, cultural and social issues. Some journalists (thank you Dean Baquet of The New York Times) just don't "get religion."

This brings me to a business story in The Tennessean with this oh-so-typical headline: "Tennessee firms fire warning shot against LGBT laws." Let's see if we can find the key passage that, for many Volunteer State readers, will link directly to their willingness to turn to news sources that mainstream journalists, often with good cause, would call "fake."

The overture, of course, establishes the framing of this 1,300-word report:

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In ruins of the East Tennessee fires, CNN & Co. spot a kind of miracle (maybe)

In ruins of the East Tennessee fires, CNN & Co. spot a kind of miracle (maybe)

Here's the news from East Tennessee, for those who are still following the story of the worst in a century wildfires that threatened to take all of Gatlinburg, a resort town east of Knoxville.

First things first: the death toll remains at 13, as workers carefully pick their way through the 1,000 businesses, homes, etc., that burned or were damaged. One of those lost was the Rev. Ed Taylor, the man who pretty much put this lovely corner of East Tennessee on the map as a site for weddings.

The other news is that we are in having a long, stead, soaking rain here and there is more rain in the forecast. The winds remain rather high, however, and the local authorities stress that the fires in the Great Smoky Mountains burned deep down into the ground cover and roots of these old forests. (For those who missed my earlier post on this topic, my family lives in Oak Ridge, which is up against the face of the Cumberland Mountains to the west of the fires.)

As you would expect, here in Bible Belt territory, there continue to be religion angles in many of the stories linked to the fires.

A reader sent me this CNN report, which I thought was interesting -- but had a rather important factual hole in it. The grabber headline proclaimed:

"Statue of Jesus only thing left standing in house burned by Tennessee wildfire."

Now, I grew up in tornado alley along the Texas-Oklahoma border and I have seen some rather strange -- some would say miraculous -- things in the wake of storms and other powerful natural disasters. I have seen (with my young eyes, in this case) a whole neighborhood leveled, except for the undamaged church in the middle. Or then there's the house that vanishes, except for the closet containing three children hiding under a mattress.

Well, in this case we are talking about something else:

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Fires in the mountains: About that haunting Bible passage that was blowing in the wind

Fires in the mountains: About that haunting Bible passage that was blowing in the wind

First, a word of thanks to those who sent messages about the wildfires here in East Tennessee, asking if all was well here in the tmatt.net corner of the hills.

It helps to understand that the Tennessee Valley is about 40 miles wide here near Knoxville (click for map) and the worst fires have been in the East, in the Great Smoky Mountains. I live in Oak Ridge, which is up against the face of the Cumberland Mountains in the West. There is quite a bit of land, and often water, between the two ranges.

Still, everyone here knows people, or lots of people, who have been caught up in this story. I have been wondering -- given the culture in these parts -- when some kind of faith-centered story (other than people of faith jumping into the action at the level of volunteers, aid, etc.) would emerge from the flames.

If you've seen images from the Gatlinburg and Dollywood area fires, you know that hotels, lodges and rental cabins were hit hard. Can you imagine how many Bibles there were stashed in bedside drawers in all of those rooms, not to mention in the possession of the local residents?

That leads me to this interesting, and rather haunting, story that ran in The Knoxville News Sentinel and then was picked up by Religion News Service. To be blunt, the local headline doesn't do much to hint at what's really going on here: "Dollywood employee finds burned Bible page after wildfires."

The main difference between the News Sentinel and RNS versions of this story is that the team that worked on the original made the unconventional, but wise in my opinion, decision to put the Bible passage on that charred page right at the top of the text. Thus, the overture looks like this:

"O Lord to thee will I cry: for the fire hath devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and the flame hath burned all the trees of the field. The beasts of the field cry also unto thee: for the rivers of waters are dried up, and the fire hath devoured the pastures of the wilderness." -- Joel 1:19-20, King James Version

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Thanksgiving gloom 2016: Have we beat this Election Year story to death at this point?

Thanksgiving gloom 2016: Have we beat this Election Year story to death at this point?

Greetings from the Bible Belt, where the arrival of your Thanksgiving Day newspaper means -- in addition to five pounds of Black Friday advertising inserts -- seeing headlines like "Local Tennessee players open their homes to teammates on Thanksgiving" and "Making Them Feel At Home: Knox Area cares for firefighters battling blazes in Tennessee."

I'd link to that second headline, the A1 banner, but The Knoxville News Sentinel team, for some reason, didn't put that story on the newspaper's website. Anyway, there is enough information there for you get the point, as everyone in this region prays for rain.

The big picture down there: Thanksgiving stories are about families getting together, helping people who are in need and, yes, lots and lots of food.

I get the impression that the basic mood is a little bit different today in Washington, D.C., where a quick survey of the Washington Post headlines yields:

"America: Be thankful you have something to complain about."

"How to prevent Thanksgiving Armageddon."

"How to survive Thanksgiving 2016."

Ah, the chattering classes. How would we know what to think and feel without them? But, hey, not everything is political in that newsroom. There are these offerings as well:

"What the label on your Thanksgiving turkey won’t tell you."

"11 strategies for getting through the holidays without weight gain."

"When you cook your worst at Thanksgiving, here’s how to recover with grace."

Finally, there is one actual feature to read, an "Inspired Life" feature with this headline: Can family trump Trump? How to survive political disagreements with relatives this Thanksgiving. This story is exactly what you think it would be, in keeping with the post-Election Day meltdown in elite Acela zone newsrooms:

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