missionaries

BuzzFeed moves in to fix up all those happy tales about Magnolia folks and their 'new' Waco

BuzzFeed moves in to fix up all those happy tales about Magnolia folks and their 'new' Waco

Once upon a time, I was an expert on life in Waco, Texas. I spent six years there in the 1970s — doing two degrees at Baylor University — and have had family ties to Jerusalem on the Brazos for decades, some of which are as strong than ever.

The Waco I knew didn’t have lots of civic pride. For many people, things went up and down with the state of affairs at Baylor. Even the great Willie Nelson — who frequently played in a Waco salon back then — had Baylor ties. And talking about Baylor means talking about Baptists. We used to joke that there were more Baptists in Waco than there were people. We had normal Baptists, conservative Baptists, “moderate” Baptists and even a few truly liberal Baptists. Welcome to Waco.

This old Waco had a dark side — a tragic, but normal, state of things in light of America’s history with race and poverty. Many of the locals were brutally honest about that. And in recent decades, Waco has had tons of bad luck, media-wise. Say “Waco” and people think — you know what.

As you would imagine, the fact that Waco is now one of the Sunbelt’s hottest tourism zones cracks me up. But that’s the starting point for a long, long BuzzFeed feature that I have been mulling over for some time. Here’s the epic double-decker headline:

”Fiixer Upper” Is Over, But Waco’s Transformation Is Just Beginning.

HGTV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines helped convert a sleepy Texas town into a tourist mecca. But not everyone agrees on what Waco’s “restoration” should look like.

There is an important, newsworthy, piece of news writing buried inside this sprawling, first-person “reader” by BuzzFeed scribe Anne Helen Petersen. It’s kind of hard to find, since the piece keeps getting interrupted by chunks of material that could have been broken out into “sidebars,” distinct wings of the main house.

Here’s the key question: Is this story about Chip and Joanna Gaines and their Magnolia empire — the hook for all that tourism — or is it about Antioch Community Church and how its evangelical, missionary mindset has shaped efforts to “reform,” “reboot” or “restore” distressed corners of Waco?

The answer, of course, is “both.” That creates problems, since there are so many elements of the “good” Waco news that clash with BuzzFeed’s worldview. Thus, the goal here is to portray (a) the shallow, kitschy aspects of Waco’s current happiness before revealing (b) the dark side of this evangelical success story.

This vast, multilayered feature is built, of course, built on Peterson’s outsider status and her contacts with former — “former,” as in alienated — members of the Antioch-Gaines world. There’s no need to engage with the views of key people who are at the heart of these restoration efforts because, well, this is BuzzFeed, a newsroom with this crucial “ethics” clause in its newsroom stylebook:

We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women's rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides. 

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Yet more forecasting on what to expect in religion news and trends during 2019

Yet more forecasting on what to expect in religion news and trends during 2019

Those who read GetReligion on Dec. 20 (thereby postponing their holiday chores) may recall The Religion Guy’s list of the big three religion news themes for the new year:

(1) Ongoing debate over using the CRISPR technique to create human “designer babies” and manipulate genes that will be passed along to future generations. (The Guy – uniquely -- also proclaimed this the #1 religion story of 2018.)

(2) How Catholic leaders cope with multiplying cases of priests molesting minors, both at Pope Francis’ February summit and afterward. And don’t neglect those Protestant sexual abuse scandals.

(3) Reverberations from the United Methodist Church’s special February General Conference that decides whether and how to either hold together or to split over same-sex issues.

On the same theme, Religion News Service posted a longish item New Year’s Eve headlined “What’s coming for religion in 2019? Here’s what the experts predict.” This was a collection of brief articles commissioned from a multi-faith lineup. It turned out to be one of those ideas that seemed better in the story conference than in the resulting copy.

Understandably, no panelist expected an end to the persistent Catholic scandals.

Otherwise, the pieces predicted things like this:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

A don't-miss-it deep dive: New York Times delivers a factual, balanced portrait of John Allen Chau

A don't-miss-it deep dive: New York Times delivers a factual, balanced portrait of John Allen Chau

Here’s the must-read religion story of this past weekend: the New York Times’ front-page treatment Saturday of the tragic death of missionary John Allen Chau.

I’ll offer a few quick grades (on a report-card scale of A to F) on the in-depth piece before urging you to read it:

• Readability: A.

Filled with “astounding details,” this is an exceptional read that immediately draws in readers.

The compelling opening anecdote (my apologies for copying and pasting so much text, but it’s crucial information):

Just months before undertaking the most forbidding journey in his life as a young missionary to a remote Indian Ocean island, John Allen Chau was blindfolded and dropped off on a dirt road in a remote part of Kansas.

After a long walk, he found a mock village in the woods inhabited by missionaries dressed in odd thrift-store clothes, pretending not to understand a word he said. His role was to preach the gospel. The others were supposed to be physically aggressive. Some came at him with fake spears, speaking gibberish.

It was part of an intensive and somewhat secretive three-week missionary training camp. Mary Ho, the international executive leader for All Nations, the organization that ran the training, said, “John was one of the best participants in this experience that we have ever had.”

For Mr. Chau, 26, the boot camp was the culmination of years of meticulous planning that involved linguistics training and studying to become an emergency medical technician, as well as forgoing full-time jobs so he could travel and toughen himself up.

He did it all with the single-minded goal of breaking through to the people of North Sentinel Island, a remote outpost of hunters and gatherers in the Andaman Sea who had shown tremendous hostility to outsiders.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Friday Five: Christians + free press, John Allen Chau, exorcisms, dope pastor, foster care crisis

Friday Five: Christians + free press, John Allen Chau, exorcisms, dope pastor, foster care crisis

Is it possible to love Jesus and journalism?

Count me among those who do.

As such, I can’t help but endorse Daniel Darling’s column for Religion News Service this week on “Why Christians should support a free press.”

Darling, vice president of communications for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, writes:

Restoring faith in our media institutions is a shared responsibility. Christians should not only see the value of a free press but should support robust reporting, even journalism that reveals the misdeeds and sins in our own communities. Transparency doesn’t hurt the advance of the gospel. After all, the death and resurrection of Christ lay bare the gritty reality of every human heart.

In other words, a newspaper article cannot reveal anything about us that God doesn’t already know.

Meanwhile, the media could learn from some of the criticism of consumers. Too often, in our day, it seems that an undercurrent of bias exists against Christian ideals, even in subtle ways in which stories are reported or given the weight of breaking news or national importance. Too often journalists, especially on social media, seem to cheerlead rather than report.

Amen and amen.

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: For the second week in a row, the death of American missionary John Allen Chau occupies this space. I’ll echo my GetReligion colleague Julia Duin, who said earlier this week that she “figured the story would be just a blip in the daily news flow.”

Some of the notable mainstream press coverage since Duin’s post includes NPR religion and belief correspondent Tom Gjelten’s piece titled “Killing Of American Missionary Ignites Debate Over How To Evangelize” and RNS’ in-depth report (by national correspondents Emily McFarlan Miller and Jack Jenkins) on the same subject.

But some of the must-read material on Chau’s death has come not in the form of news stories but rather first-person opinion pieces. Look for some insightful analysis of that in a think-piece post coming this weekend from GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

The death of a U.S. missionary: Was John Allen Chau's effort mere imperialism?

The death of a U.S. missionary: Was John Allen Chau's effort mere imperialism?

A few days ago, when news was dribbling out about a hapless American Christian missionary speared to death on an Indian island, I figured the story would be just a blip in the daily news flow.

Since then, a geyser of coverage of enveloped this story; not only about the slain man himself, but on the justifications used for missionaries being there in the first place. For some journalists, this has turned into another opportunity to bash missionaries, especially evangelicals, with one-sided stories that feature major holes, in terms of content.

Being that the John Allen Chau was from the southern half of Washington state, the Seattle Times (my local paper) has been full of coverage from the Associated Press.

SEATTLE (AP) — John Allen Chau spent summers alone in a California cabin as a wilderness emergency responder, led backpacking expeditions in the Northwest’s Cascade Mountains, almost lost his leg to a rattlesnake bite, and coached soccer for poor children in Iraq and South Africa.

But kayaking to a remote Indian island, home to a tribe known for attacking outsiders with bows and arrows, proved an adventure too far for the avid outdoorsman and Christian missionary. Police said Wednesday that he had been killed, and authorities were working with anthropologists to try to recover his body from North Sentinel, in the Andaman Islands.

“Words cannot express the sadness we have experienced about this report,” his family said in a statement posted on his Instagram account. “He loved God, life, helping those in need, and had nothing but love for the Sentinelese people.”

Since his Nov. 16 death, everyone has gotten in on this story either to editorialize on what those stupid missionaries are doing in parts of the world that clearly don’t want them or to puzzle out what drove a healthy 26-year-old to face certain death.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Journalists exploring U.S. evangelicals’ political impact also need to look overseas

Journalists exploring U.S. evangelicals’ political impact also need to look overseas

The Religion Guy has previously complained that the media fixation on socio-political agitation by U.S. evangelical Protestants tends to overlook “mainline” and African-American Protestants, Catholics and Jews, whose congregations over-all may actually be more politicized.

Also neglected is evangelicals’ important political impact on like-minded churches overseas --  and vice versa.

Background on a half-century of activism comes from Melani McAlister, a U.S. foreign policy specialist at The George Washington University who belongs on your sources list. Her “The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals” is great for background or a story theme and the release in August, allowing  relaxed summertime reading. Reporters seeking galleys can contact Oxford University Press: emily.tobin@oup.com or 212-726-6057. 

There’s perennial debate over how to define the term “evangelical.” For starters, they uphold  standard Christian doctrines such as the divinity of Jesus Christ, but McAlister finds three distinct emphases:

(1) An “authoritative” Bible as “central, foundational, believable -- and true.”

(2) Personal faith in Jesus’ death for one’s sin as “the only path to salvation.”

(3) Passion for “evangelizing the world.”

Please note: McAlister includes U.S. Protestant “people of color,” who are heavily evangelical in faith, though analysts usually treat them separately.

Looked at internationally, she says, “evangelical politics are not just about abortion and same-sex marriage but colonialism and neocolonialism, war and global poverty, religious freedom and Islam.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Generic evangelicals working hard to build bridges between Israel and Syrians

Generic evangelicals working hard to build bridges between Israel and Syrians

As I have mentioned before, it was 20 years ago -- last weekend was Pascha, the anniversary -- that my family converted to Eastern Orthodoxy.

In terms of the complex map of Orthodoxy, we became part of the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church, with its historic ties to Damascus. It's still based on the street called Straight (as in Acts 9:11). From 2001-2004 we were members of a West Palm Beach, Fla., congregation in which most of the families came -- one or two generations ago -- from Syria, Lebanon or Palestine. I pray every day for the protection of the church of Damascus.

Suffice it to say, the wider Mattingly family includes other people who know a whole lot about life in the modern Middle East. We will leave it at that.

If I have learned anything about that region it is this: When it comes to the Middle East, religious ties are very specific. It matters what kind of "Christians" you are talking about. It matters what branch or movement within Islam you're talking about. Secular or religious or Orthodox Jews? That matters. There's very little generic religion in the Middle East.

I bring this up because of an interesting, but in the end frustrating, USA Today report about American evangelicals -- they are not called missionaries -- who are doing some tricky work in Israel, while cooperating fully with the Israelis. The headline: "These evangelicals in Israel are on a mission to win the hearts and minds of Syrians." The overture says:

ALONG THE GOLAN HEIGHTS -- In the no-man’s land between Israel and Syria, an unlikely group of Americans toil at a makeshift clinic to care for ill and injured Syrians trapped in their country’s seven-year civil war.
For Don Tipton of Beverly Hills and his group of evangelical Christian do-gooders, their border perch is a divine mission. For the Israelis, Tipton and his group are part of a deliberate defense mission to win the hearts and minds of Syrian civilians.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Pew 'state religion' survey: Putting data in context is crucial, something The Guardian forgot

Pew 'state religion' survey: Putting data in context is crucial, something The Guardian forgot

While I'm not an expert on Transcendental Meditation, it's my understanding that having a personal mantra assigned to you by an instructor is essential to the practice of TM. Thus, if I were to select a mantra for meditating on the press and religion, it'd be "Con-text, con-text, con-text." (You know, I'm feeling better already.)

Bad meditation jokes aside, careful readers of this blog might sense that calling for context is, in fact, my mantra, or pretty close to it. A good example of why it's important -- as well as what's missing when journalism omits this -- comes courtesy of the Pew Research Center, the Washington, D.C.-based group which this week released a study on life in nations which have an official state religion.

In this country, such a choice is prohibited by the Constitution of the United States, specifically by the Bill of Rights ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, etc."). However, that sanction doesn't exist in other nations, such as the United Kingdom.

Let's begin with Britain's The Guardian, which sticks to the bare facts in its report:

More than one in five countries has an official state religion, with the majority being Muslim states, and a further 20% of countries have a preferred or favoured religion. A slim majority (53%) of counties has no official or preferred religion, and 10 (5%) are hostile to religion, according to a report by the Washington-based Pew Research Center.
Most of the 43 countries with state religions are in the Middle East and North Africa, with a cluster in northern Europe. Islam is the official religion in 27 countries in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa as well North Africa and the Middle East.
Thirteen countries -- including nine in Europe -- are officially Christian, two (Bhutan and Cambodia) have Buddhism as their state religion, and one (Israel) is officially a Jewish state. No country has Hinduism as its state religion.

Now, as you can see from the 2013 RT television clip atop this page, having a state religion doesn't always guarantee prosperous times for the faith in question. If anything, the Church of England's fortunes are less secure now than they were four years ago, but that's a story for another time.

What is germane to the Guardian report -- but also is absent there -- is any information providing context about how having a state-sanctioned religion affects the people who live in these states.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Manipur, India, horses, polo and societal change: So what's missing in this picture?

Manipur, India, horses, polo and societal change: So what's missing in this picture?

In the beginning, it appeared to be merely a story about quasi-abandoned horses in northeastern India and for the most part, that’s what “In the Kingdom of Dying Ponies” was a recent offering of Foreign Policy Review.

Until I began realizing the scene was set in Manipur, that neglected corner of India that tourists rarely get to. Northeastern India is the one part of the country that is either majority Christian or has equal parts Hindu and Christian, which is the case with Manipur.

A bit of history: It was mainly the Baptists who swept through the area converting folks in the late 19th century, plus establishing schools, hospitals and translating the Bible into their language. That area of India has seen its Muslim population grow due to immigration from nearby Muslim-majority Bangladesh.

So … in a piece about society in Manipur, would you expect to see at least a little bit about the religious demographics happening there?

Two paragraphs into the piece:

Polo is the archetypal sport of snobs. But in Manipur, where the British learned of the game before introducing it to the world -- or at least the aristocracy -- polo is still a commoner’s game. And the exalted status of the Manipuri pony, the only breed used at the Manipur tournament, is one reason why. The indigenous semi-feral pony is a sacred figure for residents of Manipur, featuring prominently in the ritual life of the Meitei people, the area’s majority ethnic group. The ponies are treated as regal mounts, never put to labor, and trace their origin in local lore to the Pegasus-like Samadon Ayangba, the “swift first among beasts.

The Meitei, by the way, are Hindu.

But the ponies’ regal status has not stymied their slow demise. For decades, the ponies’ numbers have gradually dropped and now there are thought to be only around 500 left. In Imphal, one spots them on the streets, huddled together in pitiful herds, red-eyed, skinny, and surrounded by honking traffic. At night, they forage through garbage piles alongside cows and mongrels. Many of them seem hardly in a condition to be used in sport, which is just as well, because there are far fewer places in Manipur to play polo than there once were. “People in Manipur have forgotten the legacy of the pony,” lamented one local musician.
The ponies’ sorry state is a symbol, and result, of Manipur’s own downward trajectory. For centuries a prosperous, independent kingdom, it is today a pariah on India’s fringes. If it is ever in the national conversation, it is over its separatist unrest, heavy militarization, endemic corruption and overall dysfunction. But for residents of the New Jersey-sized state, the biggest shift isn’t just the violence and disorder -- it’s the area’s marginalization, and the way it has sapped the city’s pride, autonomy, and political will.

The author only sees political reasons behind the region’s poverty of spirit. Something is missing.

Please respect our Commenting Policy