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Podcast thinking: Why do many reporters avoid theological news on religious left?

Podcast thinking: Why do many reporters avoid theological news on religious left?

Back in the fall of 1993, I made — believe it or not — my first-ever trip as an adult to New York City. I had covered many important news stories in American and around the world, but had never hit the Big Apple.

I stayed in a guest room at Union Theological Seminary, since I would be attending what turned out to be, for me, a pivotal religion-beat conference at the nearby Columbia University School of Journalism. But that’s another story for another day.

Here is the story for this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), which is linked this week’s Twitter explosion in which Union Seminary students confessed their environmental sins to some plants and sought forgiveness.

On that beautiful New York Sunday morning, I decided to head to the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I was, at the time, an evangelical Episcopalian (with high-church sympathies) at I was trying to run into my wife’s favorite author — Madeleine L’Engle (click here for my tribute when she died). She was writer in residence at the cathedral, but later told me that she worshipped at an evangelical parish in the city.

Why did she do that? Well, in part because of services like the “Missa Gaia (Earth Mass)” I attended that Sunday. As I wrote later in a piece called “Liturgical Dances With Wolves”:

In the Kyrie, the saxophonist and his ensemble improvised to the taped cry of a timber wolf. A humpback whale led the Sanctus.

Skeptic Carl Sagan preached, covering turf from the joyful “bisexual embraces'' of earthworms to the greedy sins of capitalists. The earth, he stressed, is one body made of creatures who eat and drink each other, inhabit each other's bodies, and form a sacred “web of interaction and interdependence that embraces the planet.'' … The final procession was spectacular and included an elephant, a camel, a vulture, a swarm of bees in a glass frame, a bowl of blue-green algae and an elegantly decorated banana.

The key moment for me?

Before the bread and wine were brought to the altar, the musicians offered a rhythmic chant that soared into the cathedral vault. … “Praises to Obatala, ruler of the Heavens. Praises to Obatala, ruler of the Heavens. Praises to Yemenja, ruler of the waters of life. Praises to Yemenja, ruler of the waters of life. Praises to Ausar, ruler of Amenta, the realm of the ancestors. Praises to Ra and Ausar, rulers of the light and the resurrected soul.” …

Then the congregation joined in and everyone sang “Let all mortal flesh keep silence.' “

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Praying to plants: Twitter explodes when Union Seminary holds one of its interfaith rites

Praying to plants: Twitter explodes when Union Seminary holds one of its interfaith rites

Yes, this was click-bait heaven.

Yes, this was an oh-so-typical Twitter storm.

Yes, this was a perfect example of a “conservative story,” in a niche-news era in which social-media choirs — conservative in this case — send up clouds of laughs, jeers and gasps of alleged shock in response to some online signal.

I am referring, of course, to that climate-change confession service that happened at Union Theological Seminary, which has long been a Manhattan Maypole for the doctrinal dances that incarnate liberal Protestant trends in America.

It’s important to note that the spark for this theological fire was an official tweet from seminary leaders. Here is the top of a Washington Examiner story about the result:

Students at Union Theological Seminary prayed to a display of plants set up in the chapel of the school, prompting the institution to issue a statement explaining the practice as many on social media mocked them.

"Today in chapel, we confessed to plants," the nation's oldest independent seminary declared Tuesday on Twitter. "Together, we held our grief, joy, regret, hope, guilt and sorrow in prayer; offering them to the beings who sustain us but whose gift we too often fail to honor. What do you confess to the plants in your life?"

The ceremony, which is part of professor Claudio Carvalhaes’ class “Extractivism: A Ritual/Liturgical Response,” drew ridicule from many on Twitter, some of whom accused the seminary and students of having lost their minds.

OK, let’s pause for a moment to ask a journalism question: Would there have been a different response if this event have inspired a front page, or Sunday magazine, feature at The New York Times?

What kind of story? A serious news piece could have focused on (a) worship trends on the revived religious left, (b) this seminary’s attempt to find financial stability through interfaith theological education, (c) the history of Neo-pantheistic Gaia liturgies in New York (personal 1993 flashback here) linked to environmental theology and/or (d) all of the above.

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The Atlantic bravely attempts a religion-free (almost) look at New York kids in the culture wars

The Atlantic bravely attempts a religion-free (almost) look at New York kids in the culture wars

One of the most talked about articles in the American news media last week, at least in the Twitter-verse, was not a news piece.

But it could have been a news piece. In fact, I would argue that it should have been a news piece — at least in a world in which New York City metro editors have their ears open and can spot religion-and-culture angles in public and private schools.

I am talking about George Packer’s essay at The Atlantic Monthly that ran with this poignant and news double-decker headline:

When the Culture War Comes for the Kids

Caught between a brutal meritocracy and a radical new progressivism, a parent tries to do right by his children while navigating New York City’s schools.

This is, I think, one of the few times that readers can see the term “culture wars” used in a manner that reflects the definition given that term in the landmark James Davison Hunter book “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.” Here is how I described the University of Virginia sociologist’s main point in a tribute column long ago, on the 10th anniversary of my national “On Religion” column. In that work:

… (He) declared that America now contains two basic worldviews, which he called "orthodox" and "progressive." The orthodox believe it's possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience, even if that requires them to "resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life."

On one level — the most obvious level — Packer’s Atlantic piece is about the role that fiercely woke “identity politics” is playing in elite New York City culture, as demonstrated in public schools. So what does “identity politics” mean, right now?

This whole article wrestles with that issue, from the point of view of a progressive parent who has been shaken awake by the facts on the ground. However, Packer also noted that not all identities are created equal, in this world. This is one of the only places where readers get a glimpse of the religious and moral implications of this fight, in the years after Barack Obama era:

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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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Hurrah for blue pews! New York Times embraces small, doctrine-optional Manhattan flock

Hurrah for blue pews! New York Times embraces small, doctrine-optional Manhattan flock

Reporters who are truly interested in the future of the American faith-scene need to know this number — 100. Or maybe it’s 85 or 90. I’ve heard others say the crucial number is 115 in expensive zip codes.

But the late Lyle Schaller, a legendary church-management guru in oldline Protestant circles, once told me that it took about 100 actively contributors to fund the salary-and-benefits package for a credentialed minister in a mainline church. When Schaller said “mainline,” he was talking about the “Seven Sisters.” In descending order by size, that’s the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

In other words, if a church had more than 100 active members (or households) it could provide for its minister and then do other things — like keep the building from falling down. With fewer than 100 members, a church would be constantly struggling with basic expenses, trying to keep the doors open.

So that’s the statistic that looms over that glowing New York Times feature about a lively Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that represents the future of the religious left. The dramatic main headline states: “The Church Where Believing in God Isn’t Strictly Necessary.”

Yes, I hear what many readers are thinking. This is a church that even the New York Times can love. And how many people are in these pews? Readers will have to read way down into the story to find that information. Meanwhile, the summary lede contains a few details:

Observant Presbyterians are always part of gatherings at Rutgers Presbyterian Church. But much of the time, so are Roman Catholics and Jews, as well as a smattering of people who consider themselves vaguely spiritual. Valerie Oltarsh-McCarthy, who sat among the congregation listening to a Sunday sermon on the perils of genetically modified vegetables, is, in fact, an atheist.

You have to love that detail about the “perils of genetically modified vegetables.” However, the thesis statement comes a few paragraphs later, as the editorial angels sing a song of hope for a future free of nasty stuff like ancient doctrines:

Typically, the connective tissue of any congregation is an embrace of a shared faith.

Yet Rutgers, a relatively small church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has rejected that. Sharing a belief in God — any God at all — isn’t necessary.

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Read it all: Slate reporter goes to Kansas and spends a few minutes with 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick

Read it all: Slate reporter goes to Kansas and spends a few  minutes with 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick

Ponder this please. When you hear that someone has landed an exclusive “interview” with a leader of global importance, how much content do you expect this “interview” to contain?

I am not, of course, talking about one of those two- or three-minute “Entertainment Tonight” reports — “We’ll be back with an exclusive interview with Brad Pitt!” — in which a star answers two dishy questions during a Hollywood junket. I am talking about an “interview” with a newsmaker about a serious subject.

I bring this up because of a fascinating Slate piece that is billed as the first interview with former Washington D.C. cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who has been exiled to the vastness of Western Kansas, a region that journalists from elite zip codes rarely visit, to say the least. I happened to drive past the Cathedral of the Plains the other day and it just as hard to imagine Uncle Ted McCarrick in Victoria, Kansas, as picturing Truman Capote in nearby (relatively speaking) Holcolm, Kansas.

The dramatic double-decker headline proclaims:

Theodore McCarrick Still Won’t Confess

Banished in the dead of night to a mistrustful Kansas town after sexual abuse allegations, the defrocked archbishop of D.C. speaks publicly for the first time since his fall from grace.

Please understand: I think that reporter Ruth Graham’s brief encounter with McCarrick showed moxie and yields interesting and, some will say, predictable answers from the fallen prince of the church. I also enjoyed (I kid you not) her 2,500-word introduction to the interview, which is both a quick summary of the McCarrick disaster story and a touching look at the lives of the intensely Catholic Volga German culture of West Kansas. If this second subject does not intrigue you, reading this intro is going to seem like a long, long drive across the Kansas plains.

The interview itself is short — but important. This is true even though it reinforces many themes that have been woven through this tragedy from the start. McCarrick, for example, does believe that he was the victim of a conservative-Catholic plot.

When the reader finally reaches the encounter with the fallen cardinal, Graham stresses that she had been told he was not doing interviews. Still, she rang the doorway at the friary he now calls home:

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This is all about politics, of course: 'A deep and boiling anger' soaks into American life

This is all about politics, of course: 'A deep and boiling anger' soaks into American life

All together now. It’s time to recite one of the semi-official GetReligion mantras: “Politics is real. Religion is, well, not all that real (or words to that effect).”

At the heart of the whole “The press … just doesn’t get religion” syndrome is fact (I’m wonder if anyone would dispute this) that politics the most important subject in the world of news, according to the people who run our culture’s most powerful newsrooms.

More often than not, religion news gets major coverage — on television especially — when (a) religion affects politics or (b) religion-news facts and trends are debated in ways that, to many journalists, resemble politics (lots of Catholic hierarchy coverage fits into this mold).

With this in mind, let’s look at a recent NBC News story that ran under this sprawling double-decker headline:

'A deep and boiling anger': NBC/WSJ poll finds a pessimistic America despite current economic satisfaction

A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that 70 percent of Americans say they're angry at the political establishment

Here is the overture, which centers on the horrors at the heart of the Donald Trump era:

WASHINGTON — The political and cultural upheaval of the last four years has divided the country on ever-hardening partisan and generational lines, but one feeling unites Americans as much as it did before the 2016 election.

They’re still angry. And still unsettled about the future.

The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that — despite Americans’ overall satisfaction with the state of the U.S. economy and their own personal finances — a majority say they are angry at the nation’s political and financial establishment, anxious about its economic future, and pessimistic about the country they’re leaving for the next generation.

So what is the most newsworthy angle in this poll-driven story? What is the most shocking information in this package of poll numbers?

It would appear that the biggest news here is -- #Surprise — politics and the political implications of the latest numbers about the state of the U.S. economy.

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More news about old churches being sold and flipped: Does it matter why this is happening?

More news about old churches being sold and flipped: Does it matter why this is happening?

Trigger alert: News readers are going to be seeing more and more stories about churches closing down and going up for sale.

There’s a good reason for this: Lots of churches, in lots of zip codes (but some zip codes more than others) are closing and being put up for sale. This is an obvious local story hook and often comes with colorful art, as these sanctuaries are turned into pubs, condos, art galleries, mansions, etc., etc.

However, these local stories also have valid national angles, because some flocks (think Seven Sisters of oldline Protestantism) are closing more churches than others. Also (think Catholic parishes in New York City), some of these churches are sitting on ultra-prime real estate in older downtown neighborhoods.

So here is my question: Is the fate of the church bodies that formerly occupied these holy spaces an essential element in all of these stories? In the old journalism formula “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why” and “how,” does the “WHY” element remain important?

It would appear not, based on many of the stories that I am seeing.

Consider this new NPR report that does with a very broad headline: “Houses Of Worship Find New Life After Congregations Downsize.” See the implied question there? Why are so many congregations downsizing or even closing?

So what facts made it into the story? Here is the overture:

When Lisa and Dan Macheca bought a century-old Methodist church in St. Louis back in 2004, they didn't think much about the cost of heating the place.

Then the first heating bill arrived: $5,000 for a single month.

"I felt like crying," Lisa Macheca said. "Like, 'Oh my gosh, what have I gotten myself into?' "

Over the course of a decade, the Machecas, who both have hospitality backgrounds, renovated the 115-year-old church into a bed and breakfast. Repurposing these buildings — known as adaptive reuse — is becoming increasingly common as the religious preferences of Americans shift.

So what is going on here?

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