The worst religion story of the year

While struggling to find words to adequately describe the worst religion article of the year, I was reminded of a brilliant exchange in an otherwise atrocious movie, Billy Madison.

Principal: Mr. Madison, what you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

Billy Madison: Okay, a simple "wrong" would've done just fine.

While I’m sure I’m now dumber for having read the Daily News article, “Southern Baptists about to ‘plant’ a church in the fertile soil of Brooklyn,” I won't say that it's insanely idiotic or that it contains no rational thought. Instead, I'll follow the lead of Billy Madison and simply say it's wrong – wrong on almost every conceivable level. From the captions to the quotes, this article sets a new low in local religion reporting.

Like Alex Haley, I try to find the good and praise it. However, for this feature I had to settle for finding the least worst thing to praise: The headline is not as bad as it could have been. Yes, they put unnecessary scare quotes around “plant.” But they could have also put them around “Southern” or “fertile soil” too. So there’s that.

Then there is the photo caption placed below an image of a young family smiling and standing in front of the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center:

Southern Baptist proselytizers Jon and Bonnie Carr, and their two kids, Kayla and Emily love Jesus, but they also love New York, enjoying our parks and our pizza.

Carter’s Law of Religious Labels states, “Use a religious label a person would use to describe themselves and avoid using ones they would not.” Although it has not been written into the federal code or added to the AP stylebook (at least not yet), I think it is a rule that most journalists intuitively understand and apply. I’m not a betting man (I too am Southern Baptist and we’re not allowed to gamble) but if I were, I’d bet the Carrs have never in their life described themselves as “proselytizers.” In fact, I would double-down and bet that the three times the article uses that term (seriously, three times) is probably the first time the word has been applied to the Carr’s evangelistic efforts.

And that is only the second worst photo caption in the article.

The first is under an odd image of a man pressing his hands together:

Baptists are praying for us.

Wait, who is the “us” referring to? New Yorkers? Residents of Brooklyn? The people of “Gomorrah on the Hudson”? (Yes, the article actually uses that phrase in reference to New York City.)

By this point you may wish not to continue. I completely understand. So before we get to the actual text -- the part with the actual reporting -- I should warn you of what to expect. Imagine a parody article like you’d find in the The Onion, only without the wit, humor, satire, or intelligence. But also a straight-news story and not a parody. In a (sorta) real newspaper. That makes you feel dumber for having read it.

Okay, you’ve been warned. Here goes:

God’s paratroopers are about to land in Kensington.

Metro City Church — a new Southern Baptist group that originally hails from Georgia — has identified the neighborhood of rowhouses as perfect soil in which to “plant” a new tree of the Lord.

And these holy rollers aren’t thinking small.

Holy rolling paratrooper gardeners for Jesus. And that’s just in the first three sentences.

To put that first line in context – assuming it was intended to have some actual context – I should note that some people in church planting circles do use the mixed metaphor of “parachute drop" church planting model. But a paratrooper, a term for a military parachutist, and a parachute drop are not the same thing at all. Why make a mangled metaphor even worse by making it unnecessarily militaristic?

Also, as Ed Stetzer explains, “Church planting is about planting the gospel.” It is not, as the Daily News seems to think, about planting a “new tree of the Lord.” (If the Lord wants a new tree to grow in Brooklyn, he'll probably plant it himself.)

And finally, “holy roller” is a pejorative term for Pentecostal denominations and is not really applicable to Southern Baptists. The Daily News doesn’t even seem to know enough about Christianity to use disparaging terminology that is denominationally appropriate.

“As we meet people who are interested in the church, we’ll start gathering new members and holding regular worship services,” Carr, who is in his mid-30s, said in a slight southern drawl. “It’s a great community with lots of young families.”

A great community? Brooklyn? The most-populous part of supposedly godless New York? Believe it or not, this fish out of holy water loves it here.

Keep in mind that the incredulous tone at hearing Brooklyn described as a “great community” is by a reporter whose job it is to cover local news for Brooklyn, and the article appears in the section of the paper devoted to coverage of Brooklyn. The insults about the South (those are coming) would be more offensive if the article didn’t go out of its way to offend just about everyone, including its core audience.

There are parts of the article, though, where it’s hard to discern who should be most offended. Take, for instance, the part about “fish out of holy water.” Who should be offended by that turn of phrase? Baptists, since they don’t actually use “holy water”, Catholics, because they do, or English majors who break out in hives after reading that mash-up of trite idiom and Tom Friedman-style mixed metaphor?

“We fell in love with New York,” Carr said. “My heart broke for a city that is so vibrant and diverse, but lacks an evangelical presence.”

Mostly, he loves the challenge of proselytizing in the big city — in an age when most churches have fled urban environments for more suburban settings.

In other words, Brooklyn, they come in peace.

Yes, Brooklyn, like aliens from Mars, the holy rolling paratrooper gardeners for Jesus “come in peace.”

In between all its missionary work, the family has had plenty of time to get to know Gomorrah on the Hudson. The blog has pictures of them checking out the tree in Rockefeller Center and celebrating the diversity of pizza options that are a far cry from Dixie.

See? And you thought I was kidding about that “Gomorrah on the Hudson” comment.

But the article saves the best for last:

In religiously diverse Kensington, reactions were mixed.

"He should go back down south," said Rose Ann Lozinski, a Catholic. "We believe in everybody getting along here. I've been down south and seen how they treat certain groups of people. I have no great love for the south. I don't think they've ever come together after the Civil War."

Another resident, Peter Hallsworth, 36, said he has no patience for proselytizers. If someone tried to convert him, he said, “I’d say I have something on the stove,” and walk away.

Out of the 2.5 million people living in Brooklyn, one of the most diverse areas of the country, the Daily News decided that these were the two people who could provide the most representative quotes for their community?

Whether or not they are representative of Brooklynites, they are certainly intriguing. Indeed, I’d much rather just read an entire article where Ms. Lozinski and Mr. Hallsworth answer questions. Who wouldn’t love to hear what Ms. Lozinski thinks about her former U.S. senator and reverse carpetbagger from Arkanas, Hillary Clinton? And I’d love to ask Mr. Hallsworth why he’s out walking around, potentially bumping into proselytizers, when he has something cooking on the stove. Also, I’d be curious to hear why Lozinski is identified by religion and Hallsworth by age. (Or maybe “36” is some sort of obscure minority religion found only in “religiously diverse Kensington.”)

Someone should also let those folks know that the Carrs are not the first Southern Baptists to venture into the godless wilds of Brooklyn, nor are they the first church plant in New York City. There are already at least 30 Southern Baptist churches in the bourough, an average of one for every three square miles. And GetReligion’s own Bobby Ross, Jr. was reporting on the church planting in New York trend back in 2006.

This is such bad reporting the paper ought to have to return one of their ten Pulitzer Prizes as penance. The stale topic, clichéd writing, condescending editorializing, and insulting caricatures combine to make this the worst religion reporting of the year. That’s quite an ignominious feat. So congratulations, Daily News. You may only be the fourth most widely circulated daily newspaper in America, but when it comes to horrendous religion reporting, you’re number one.

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