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Ex-Mormons and Facebook: How the Daily Beast spun a good yarn about digital debates

Ex-Mormons and Facebook: How the Daily Beast spun a good yarn about digital debates

The Daily Beast isn’t exactly noted for good religion coverage but they sure scored a good one in this piece about ex-Mormons targeting their devout friends with Facebook bombs.

This piece, “Inside the Secret Facebook War for Mormon Hearts and Minds (with a really cool photo illustration combining a Facebook logo with a flood-lit Mormon temple), did what religion reporting is supposed to do well: Take a religious group you may not know much about or talk about a debate among its members and twin it with a popular trend.

Which is what happened here:

In November 2017, a provocation appeared in the Facebook feeds of 3,000 Mormon parishioners. It was a sponsored post crafted in the gauzy style of one of the Mormon church’s own Facebook ads, but addressing a seldom-discussed truth about the early history of the church and its founding patriarch, Joseph Smith. “Why did Joseph marry a 14 year old girl?” the post asked. “The church has answers. Read them here.” Below the text was a photo of a gold wedding band balanced across the inside spine of an open Book of Mormon.

About 1,000 people who saw the Facebook ad clicked on it and were taken to a page deep within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ website that expounded on the “revelation on plural marriage,” the order from God that was used to sanction polygamy for decades. During that time some male followers of the Latter Day Saint movement took dozens of wives each, disproportionately favoring girls between 14 and 16 years old. Church leaders finally banned polygamy in 1904.

If anyone reading the text thought to wonder why Facebook served them a slice of the most controversial chapter in their religion’s history, they likely chalked it up to the impersonal vagaries of the platform’s profiling algorithms. But they’d be wrong. The ad was very personal. Everyone who saw it was secretly hand-picked by a friend or loved one who had walked away from the LDS church, and now turned to Facebook’s precision ad system in a desperate attempt to explain their spiritual crisis to those they’d left behind.

This isn’t exactly new.

Jews for Jesus used to tell folks — who were scared to approach their Jewish friends or family as to why they’d converted to Christianity — to supply them with their contacts’ snail mail addresses (this was back in the pre-Internet ‘70s) so they could drop them an evangelistic packet that didn’t divulge the source.

The project was called MormonAds, and it was a brief but perhaps unprecedented experiment in targeted religious dissuasion. In four months at the end of 2017, the project targeted more than 5,000 practicing Mormons with messages painstakingly crafted to serve as gentle introductions to the messier elements of LDS history that were glossed over within the church. All the names and email addresses for the campaign came from disillusioned ex-Mormons.

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Want to get beyond culture war stories? Try digging into religion's aspirational building blocks

Want to get beyond culture war stories? Try digging into religion's aspirational building blocks

Religion News Service recently ran the sort of news feature cum-opinion-column that I find a welcome intellectual and emotional respite from the culture wars cum-all-religion-is-political hit pieces that currently crowd my ever-more exasperating news feeds.

The piece ran under the intriguing headline, “Secular saints, folk saints and plain old celebrities.”

If you don’t at least skim the piece chances are it will be difficult to follow my thinking here.

The piece was contributed by novelist, unconventional — by my reckoning — theologian (though she writes that she regularly attends a “traditional” Episcopal church), and new RNS columnist Tara Isabella Burton. Seems to me she has just the right combination of imagination and thick skin to delve into the origins of religious thought in its broadest, and perhaps unconventional, sense.

The thick skin is a requisite because of the inevitable harrumphs I’m sure she endures from some religion traditionalists prone to dismiss her as a frivolous thinker.

That, plus the equally dismissive slights that anti-religion cynics I’m equally sure aim her way for daring to consider in a spiritual light the myriad aspirations that, often unconsciously, underpin so much of human motivation and thought.

However, given the enormous changes currently afoot in Western religious circles — the rise of the so-called “religiously unaffiliated” or “nones,” for example — I think voices such as Burton’s are increasingly important to the Western discourse on the place of religion in public life.

In short, there’s far more to popular and even quirky religious expression than is often immediately evident.

In this particular piece, Burton addresses aspirational thinking and the huge role it can play in shaping personal faith.

Question: Are you familiar with the term “cargo cult”? Yes, no? Either way I’ll return to this extreme example of aspirational faith below. But first, here’s the top of Burton’s piece.

On a recent Sunday in church, the officiating priest invited us (as he does every Sunday) to pray. We prayed for those you might call the “usual suspects”: for the bishop, for those in positions of political authority, for the recently departed.

But among those we also prayed for was “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – and for all the other saints … ”

Technically speaking, King is not a saint in any mainstream established Christian tradition.

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Happy birthday to ... Oh nevermind. Back to critics and supporters of drag-queen story hours

Happy birthday to ... Oh nevermind. Back to critics and supporters of drag-queen story hours

It was on the first day of February in 2004 that GetReligion co-founder Doug LeBlanc clicked a mouse and put the first version of this website online. That post — “What we do, why we do it” — is still up, for those who have never seen it.

That was the day after my birthday, the last day of January. That was a coincidence, back in 2004, and that fact has never been all that relevant.

But now it is, because today is my 65th birthday and, as old folks know who read GetReligion, for many people that starts all kinds of clocks ticking. In my case, that means I am one year away from retirement as editor of GetReligion.

That doesn’t mean that I will vanish. After all, for a decade GetReligion was my part-time work, while I was a full-time professor in West Palm Beach, Fla., and then Washington, D.C., while also writing my “On Religion” column for Scripps Howard and then the Universal syndicate.

But Jan. 31, 2020 will mean changes at GetReligion, of one kind or another. That’s fine with me, since the realities shaping news and commentary work about religion have radically changed, over the past decade and a half. Still, I hope to keep doing some GetReligion-esque work at this site or whatever evolves out of it. I’d like to do more writing, for example, about the religious content of popular culture — one of the topics that pulled me into teaching back in 1991, at Denver Seminary.

But back to the our digital world and the American Model of the Press. Consider, for example, the current mini-wave of coverage of drag queen story hours.

Yes, Julia Duin just wrote a post on this topic: “Drag queens: Reporters can't comprehend why many parents don't want them in kid libraries.” I would urge you to read it. Here’s a key quote:

Just what is the religious case against drag queens, as it would be articulated by people who hold that point of view? Is there one?

Think like an old-school journalist. Wouldn’t it have been nice if we could have heard more about what that is, like there was an actual debate taking place?

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Forget Tim Tebow for a moment: Why not chase a religion ghost or two linked to his fiancée?

Forget Tim Tebow for a moment: Why not chase a religion ghost or two linked to his fiancée?

Yes, we saw the snarky Deadspin headline about You Know Who getting engaged.

You know, the headline that proclaimed: “Tim Tebow To Have Sex Soon.”

The only shock there was that The New York Post didn’t have something wild to compete with it. However, the tabloid’s short story about the engagement of Tebow and Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters, a South Africa native who was Miss Universe in 2017, did feature the following essential information at the very end.

Tebow confirmed his relationship with Nel-Peters in July.

“She is a really special girl and I am very lucky and blessed for her coming into my life,” he told ESPN over the summer. “I am usually very private with these things but I am very thankful.”

Tebow, a devout Christian, has long planned to remain a virgin until marriage.

I do remember reading a thing or two about that in the past.

However, let’s pause for a moment. I want you to try to forget Tebow. Just push that musclebound ESPN commentator, baseball player and evangelical philanthropist off to the side, for a minute.

I’m trying to find out some additional information about Nel-Peters. I think it’s safe to assume that Christian faith may have had something to do with their relationship, but I am having trouble finding out any information about that angle of this story.

For example: See this hollow USA Today mini-feature. Or this faith-free offering from ESPN, Tebow’s own home in the world of sports broadcasting.

Now, our own Bobby Ross, Jr., noted that the People magazine exclusive on the engagement did contain a bite of information about religious faith. Describing his future wife, Tebow said:

“They have to really love God,” he continued. “My faith is important to me — it’s the most important thing — and I need to be with someone who also shares that faith.”

Tebow tells PEOPLE, now, that Nel-Peters is exactly what he has been looking for.

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America magazine flashback: Yes, 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' is really, really strange

America magazine flashback: Yes, 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' is really, really strange

One of the ways that I celebrate the arrival of the real 12 days of Christmas — trigger alert: which start on Dec. 25th — is by calling up the absolutely fabulous Vince Guaraldi soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

As I type these words we are in the middle of the acoustic bass solo on “Christmastime Is Here,” the instrumental take on that wonderful melody.

I wish I could write a column every year or so about that 1965 Peanuts special. There are so many angles and subplots in the twisted story of how this now legendary show was a long shot to reach America’s TV screens — especially with Linus reciting the Nativity story from the Gospel of Luke. Oh, and the principalities and powers also thought the jazz soundtrack would flop with Middle America.

Anyway, the editors at America magazine have re-upped an amazing 2016 essay by Jim McDermott that I somehow missed the first time around. The headline: “How ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ continues to defy common sense.”

Let’s consider this a think piece for today, even though this isn’t a weekend.

It’s Christmas. Sue me. So here is the overture:

When “A Charlie Brown Christmas” debuted on Dec. 9, 1965, CBS executives were so sure it would fail they informed its executive producer, Lee Mendelson, they were showing it only because they had already announced it in TV Guide. “Maybe it’s better suited to the comic page,” they told him after an advance showing.

Despite six months working on the show, the animation director, Bill Melendez, felt much the same. “By golly, we’ve killed it,” he recalls telling Mendelson after a screening.

The American public disagreed. In fact, 45 percent of Americans with a television set watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” that night, making it the second highest rated show of the week (behind “Bonanza”). The program would go on to win an Emmy and a Peabody, and it has been broadcast every Christmas season since.

Now, here is the special part. I think that this next passage is absolutely magical in summing up just how STRANGE the Peanuts special was when it came out and, of course, it’s just as strange today. That’s the point.

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Gray Lady visits buckle of Bible Belt: Ignores historic Christian roots in booming Nashville

Gray Lady visits buckle of Bible Belt: Ignores historic Christian roots in booming Nashville

I have been in and out of Nashville since the mid-1980s and I have heard that great city called many things.

Of course, it is the “Music City,” but I am more fond of the nickname “Guitar Town.”

Southern Baptists used to refer to the national convention’s large, strategically located headquarters as the “Baptist Vatican.” Then again, the United Methodist corporate presence in Nashville is also important.

This points to another reality: The historic synergy between the country music industry and the world of gospel music, in a wide variety of forms (including Contemporary Christian Music). Nashville is also home to a hub of Christian publishing companies that has global clout. All of that contributes to another well-known Nashville label: “Buckle of the Bible Belt.”

It’s an amazing town, with a stunning mix of churches and honky-tonks. As country legend Naomi Judd once told me, in Nashville artists can sing about Saturday night and Sunday morning in the same show and no one will blink.

This brings me to a massive New York Times feature that ran with this sprawling double-decker headline:

Nashville’s Star Rises as Midsize Cities Break Into Winners and Losers

Nashville and others are thriving thanks to a mix of luck, astute political choices and well-timed investments, while cities like Birmingham, Ala., fall behind.

That tells you the basic thrust of the story. What interested me is that the Times covered the rapidly changing face of Nashville — many Tennesseans moan that it’s the new Atlanta — without making a single reference to the role that religious institutions have played in the city’s past and, yes, its present.

That’s really, really hard to do. But the Times team managed to pull that off.

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Beyond the War on Christmas: AP serves up an advent story that fails to mention Advent

Beyond the War on Christmas: AP serves up an advent story that fails to mention Advent

It’s time for a major-league GetReligion flashback.

It has been a decade since M.Z. “GetReligionista emerita” Hemingway wrote a post — a low-key nod to the whole “War on Christmas” school of media coverage — in which she talked about the overlooked religious traditions that, once upon a time, millions of Christians followed in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

The name of her post back in 2008: “The War on Advent.” Here is MZ’s overture:

Of all the seasons of the church year, the first — Advent — is definitely the one that leaves me feeling most out of touch with my fellow Americans. While everyone else is frantically shopping, decorating, partying, those Christians who mark Advent are in a period of preparation and prayerful contemplation. The disciplines of Advent include confession and repentance, prayer, immersion in Scripture, fasting and the singing of the Great O Antiphons and other seasonal hymns. …

The season is marked by millions of Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians and many other Christians, but not only do you rarely see any media coverage of it, the media actively promotes the secular version. 

Advent ends on Christmas Eve with the beginning of the Christmas season. In America, the end of Advent coincides with the end of the secular Christmas season/shoppingpalooza. Just as my family is putting up Christmas trees and lights and buying gifts for friends and family, much of the rest of America is experiencing the post-Christmas hangover.

This is all true. I thought that back when I was an evangelical Anglican and I feel that way today as an Eastern Orthodox Christian — only we observe Nativity Lent. Yes, I have written about this topic here, here and here (in which I asked Siri for some seasonal info). You get the point.

So what is Advent? Here’s a piece of yet another column I wrote on that. The voice here is the Rev. Timothy Paul Jones, a Baptist who is the author of “Church History Made Easy.

… Jones noted that "Advent ... comes to us from a Latin term that means 'toward the coming.' The purpose of this season was to look toward the coming of Christ to earth; it was a season that focused on waiting. As early as the 4th century A.D., Christians fasted during this season. ... By the late Middle Ages, Advent preceded Christmas by 40 days in the Eastern Orthodox Church and by four weeks in western congregations." Advent was then followed by the 12-day Christmas season.

This brings us to an Associated Press story with this rather non-liturgical headline: “Forget the chocolate: Advent calendars go for booze, cheese.

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What explains the durable popularity of Handel’s 'Messiah' (especially at Christmas)?

What explains the durable popularity of Handel’s 'Messiah' (especially at Christmas)?

THE QUESTION: Handel’s oratorio “Messiah” — the Easter cantata that is so frequently heard at Christmastime — is probably the most-performed and most-beloved piece of great music ever written. What explains this long-running appeal?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Underlying this theme is the poignant reality that our culture and many of its churches are gradually losing historical moorings that include the excellent fine arts created in former times. So how and why does “Messiah,” which exemplifies the “classical” musical style and faith of 276 years ago, so hold its own today?

By most estimates, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) does not quite equal a peerless fellow German composer and a contemporary he never met, J.S. Bach (1685-1750). But in terms of popularity and number of performances, not to mention seasonal sing-alongs, this one among Handel’s 30 oratorios overshadows Bach’s monumental Christian works such as the “Christmas Oratorio,” “Mass in B Minor,” “St. John Passion” and “St. Matthew “Passion.”

Handel biographer Jonathan Keates tells the remarkable story of the famed oratorio in his 2017 book “Messiah: The Composition and Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece” — a good gift suggestion.

In a fit of inspiration, Handel dashed off all of his oratorio’s 53 sections in just three weeks. (Of course tunesmith Bach was expected to turn out a new choral number almost every week.) The first performance in the Easter season of 1742 — in Dublin, Ireland, instead of England — was a triumph.

The London premiere the following March is remembered because King George II stood during the “Hallelujah Chorus” and was imitated by the audience. Listeners have done the same ever since, a tribute normally limited to patriotic anthems. George never officially explained his deed. But it has always been assumed he believed a Christian king should express obeisance to the eternal “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” per the text sung from the Book of Revelation.

There was some trouble with the London gig.

Bluenoses thought it faintly blasphemous that a Christian oratorio was being performed in the secular Covent Garden theater instead of a church.

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Tale of two New York Times stories: Seeking links in ultimate anti-Pope Francis conspiracy

Tale of two New York Times stories: Seeking links in ultimate anti-Pope Francis conspiracy

What we have here are two interesting stories, which appear to be connected by a bridge of New York Times paranoia. It’s that latest addition to a growing canon of work attempting to connect Donald Trump to a vast right-wing Catholic conspiracy to bring down the compassionate, progressive Pope Francis.

The first story is a legitimate profile of Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, whose life has taken her from the heights of glitterati fame to where she is now — a Catholic philanthropist with very conservative Catholic beliefs and a willingness to work with the rich and the poor.

The second story is — brace yourself — about Stephen K. Bannon and his ongoing efforts to promote his own power and prestige, primarily by spinning conspiracy theories that make cultural progressives go nuts. (Click here for a GetReligion post about a previous chapter in this drama and here for another.)

That leads us to the New York Times opus with this headline: “The ‘It’ ’80s Party Girl Is Now a Defender of the Catholic Faith.”

This is a story that I would think made Bannon very, very happy.

At the same time, it is a story in which Princess Gloria makes one or two comments about Bannon, but then basically shows herself to be a conservative Catholic who greatly admires the now retired Pope Benedict XVI. Yes, the does have questions about some of the actions of Pope Francis and, yes, she admires Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano. You know what that means in mainstream press circles.

Let’s tiptoe into this, looking at the key summary statement and, then, the statement of Gray Lady theology that frames this whole two-stories-in-one train wreck.

Princess Gloria — once christened “Princess TNT” for her explosive years as a hard partying, art-collecting, punk-haired aristocrat — has grown into the sun queen around which many traditionalist Roman Catholics opposed to Pope Francis orbit. Her Regensburg castle is a potential “Gladiator School” for conservative Catholics on a crusade to preserve church traditions.

Her Roman palace overlooking the ancient forum is a preferred salon for opposition cardinals, bitter bishops and populists like Stephen K. Bannon. Many of them are hoping to use the sex abuse crisis that amounts to the greatest existential threat to the church in centuries to topple the 81-year-old pontiff, who they are convinced is destroying the faith.

Now, for that blast of Times theology. The key is that the following shows, once again, that the journalism issue here is NOT an anti-religious bias. No, the key to this piece of advocacy journalism is that there are good Catholics and bad Catholics and that the Times team gets to decide who is who.

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