Christianity

Friday Five: Elijah Cummings, Kurdish evangelicals, Tree of Life, viral forgiveness, open marriages/NYT

Friday Five: Elijah Cummings, Kurdish evangelicals, Tree of Life, viral forgiveness, open marriages/NYT

It’s not religion news per se, but for those interested in the future of American journalism: Poynter.org reported this week on signs pointing to USA Today phasing out its print edition.

Amazing.

But come to think of it, I don’t open those free copies that I receive at hotels as often as I once did.

Anything that affects the health of major American newspapers will, ultimately, affect their ability to cover tricky, complicated subjects like religion. So would changes at USA Today affect Gannett newspapers everywhere, including funding for religion news coverage? This is worth watching.

Anyway, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: In case you missed my post Thursday, faith was a major part of the life of powerful Congressman Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, who died this week from complications from longstanding health challenges. He was 68.

Some major news organizations — including Cummings’ hometown Baltimore Sun — nailed the religion angle.

However, at least one major national news organization failed to do so.

Check out my post.

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Nothing scarier than the press ignoring Catholicism in all of those Halloween features

Nothing scarier than the press ignoring Catholicism in all of those Halloween features

It’s Halloween season. You may have noticed that by walking on the streets near your home and encountering those all-too-familiar garish orange-and-black decorations. Then again, maybe you have visited stores with shelves packed with bags and bags of candy and scary kids’ costumes.

This is also a time when some Catholic churches advertise Halloween get-togethers or parties for children and their families. That’s a reminder that Halloween and religion aren’t such strange bedfellows.

It’s also the time when newspapers and websites start rolling out those often predictable Halloween stories. The reason for this is two-fold.

First, journalists need to find a “news hook” when doing a story. As part of the five Ws — who, what, when, where and why — the reason for doing the story is often answered in the why. Timeliness is a major reason for why a story is being done at this moment in time. It’s the reason why this very piece you are reading is being posted at this moment in time.  

Second, the internet has impacted news coverage in all the ways some of you already know. One big way has been in the use of “keywords” and “algorithms.” All news organizations with a website rely on these two for clicks (readers, that is) and the little money from advertising that they can reap from those page views. Halloween is one of the most-searched words during October. It’s a word that trends on Twitter. Therefore, content is created for this very purpose.   

That sets up my point: Halloween stories are popping up this month because or both timeliness and SEO (Search Engine Optimization, the function that helps you find stories when you use a search engine). It’s this process by which keywords appear in headlines that readers can access them on Google News.

It’s the content in these Halloween stories, however, that often lacks a religion angle.

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Chaput-Martin feud a case study in news media misrepresentation of Catholic teachings

Chaput-Martin feud a case study in news media misrepresentation of Catholic teachings

Who is made a cardinal — and who isn’t — can sometimes be loaded with intrigue. It’s why the Vatican (and much of the Catholic church) is covered more like a political institution (akin to the White House and Congress) and less like it’s part of a global religion. It is this dangerous tendency, largely on the part of the secular press, to reduce most theological positions to political ones that has fueled divisions within the Catholic church during the era of Pope Francis.

For everyday Catholics, the ties to the Vatican are religious, not political. Like Mecca for Muslims and Jerusalem for Jews (and Muslims), Rome is a place of pilgrimage and prayer. Everyday Catholics don’t concern themselves with the backroom politics. The consistory of this past Saturday (where Pope Francis “created” 13 new cardinals) wasn’t a part of Mass or discussion among parishioners in my church the past few weeks. The attitude generally seems to be that these cardinals don’t really affect our lives.

Or do they?

They do. Those chosen to take part in the Amazon Synod taking place at the Vatican starting this week are a good example of this. These men not only elect the next pope, they also guide the flock in their particular metropolitan areas. They help set the agenda. They can influence local and national politics. In other words, they are a big deal. And most metropolitan newspapers, large and small, in this country cover them that way. This is big news, no matter how your define that.

It wasn’t lost on The New York Times, who was giddy in this news story about Pope Francis’ legacy that ran on the eve of the consistory. Add to that this fawning opinion piece posted to the website on the same day under the headline “Pope Francis Is Fearless.” The subhead, on the newspaper’s website, read like this: “His papacy has been a consistent rebuke to American culture-war Christianity in politics.”

This takes us to Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia and why who will replace him matters. It’s the best example of the fight currently going on between those on the doctrinal left and right.

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Friday Five: Forgiveness and justice, Scouting and faith, Tree of Life anniversary, Eric Metaxas

Friday Five: Forgiveness and justice, Scouting and faith, Tree of Life anniversary, Eric Metaxas

I’m back home in Oklahoma after a two-week trip that took me from Las Vegas (for the Religion News Association annual meeting) to Searcy, Ark. (for the 96th Bible lectureship at Harding University, the alma mater of Botham Jean).

Other stops along the way included Los Angeles, a Rust Belt town in Ohio and Chick-fil-A drive-thru lines in at least three states.

I’m looking forward to resting up a bit this weekend.

First, though, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: I highlighted the viral story of “The hug seen around the world: Botham Jean's brother forgives ex-officer who killed his brother” in a post Thursday.

I focused on a splendid front-page story in the Dallas Morning News. Among the plethora of coverage by major media, another good piece was this one in the Washington Post looking at the debate over forgiveness that the hug ignited.

My post noted that the brother wasn’t the only person to hug convicted murder Amber Guyger. The judge did, too, and gave her a Bible.

I wrote:

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Hug seen around the world: Botham Jean's brother forgives ex-officer who killed his brother

Hug seen around the world: Botham Jean's brother forgives ex-officer who killed his brother

Stunning.

Absolutely stunning.

That’s the only way to describe what happened in a Dallas courtroom Wednesday.

If you pay attention at all to the news, you know what I’m talking about, of course: the hug seen around the world.

The hug, as you know, followed an amazing gesture of forgiveness that nobody — absolutely nobody — saw coming.

Here’s how it played out on the front page of today’s Dallas Morning News, the local newspaper that has covered this story so well from start to finish.

I was driving home from Harding University — the Searcy, Ark., college where Botham Jean earned his accounting degree — when I stopped for gas and briefly checked Twitter.

That’s when I learned that Amber Guyger, the former Dallas police officer convicted of murder in Jean’s 2018 shooting death, had been sentenced to 10 years in prison. She had faced five to 99 years in prison.

I learned, too — and this part was more surprising — that Jean’s younger brother, Brandt, had made an incredible victim impact statement in which he forgave Guyger, urged her to follow Jesus Christ and then asked to hug her.

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God's judgement in Times Square, and soon Richmond: Does 'Rumors of War' mean anything?

God's judgement in Times Square, and soon Richmond: Does 'Rumors of War' mean anything?

Under normal circumstances, it’s important to pay attention to the name that an artist carves into a giant work of public art.

In this case, we are talking about a statue — both majestic and ironic — by the African-American artist Kehinde Wiley of New York City. I will let The Washington Post describe that statue in a moment, in this lengthy feature: “With a brass band blaring, artist Kehinde Wiley goes off to war with Confederate statues.”

The key, in this case, is that an African-American artist has made a statement judging the long history of art in the American South that pays tribute to the region’s Civil War heroes and, in the eyes of critics, supports the “Lost Cause ideology” that tries to justify their actions.

I chose that word “judging” carefully, because the artist is making a moral statement on a grand scale. And the name he chose for this statue? He called the statue “Rumors of War.”

My question: Did journalists who covered the unveiling of this statue realize that, with this title, Wiley was adding a very specific note of BIBLICAL judgement with a direct reference to Matthew, chapter 24? I am referring to these famous words of Jesus:

… Ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows. Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name's sake.

It would be hard to find a piece of scripture with greater relevance to discussions of a civil war.

But did journalists the Post, and The New York Times, get the point? Remember: We are talking about the NAME of the statue. Here is a quote from the overture in the Post arts-beat feature, describing the event last Friday in Times Square:

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Mainstream press should look at McCarrick (not conservative Catholics) if there's a schism

Mainstream press should look at McCarrick (not conservative Catholics) if there's a schism

Political polarization is nothing new. What about religious polarization? When it comes to matters of faith, specifically the Catholic church and its doctrines, there’s plenty of it these days.

You wouldn’t think there would be much divergence here since adherence to what the church teaches — through the Catechism and centuries of tradition on an array of issues — is the basis for being a member of the Church of Rome. Instead, there is divergence and not just among those sitting in the pews. It’s become all too evident among members of the hierarchy.

To say that the church is at a crossroads isn’t an exaggeration. But fierce arguments between the doctrinal left and right on a host of issues — from Pope Francis’ recent choice of cardinals to how clergy address social issues — are as intense as ever.

But here is the headline right now: Pope Francis has even dared to use a ecclesiastical s-word.”

Yes, that would be schism. That was prompted by a question from The New York Times' Jason Horowitz following the pope’s recent Africa trip. In reporting the Sept. 10 story, Horowitz includes this bit of background :

Critics of Francis, must notably Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American who has been repeatedly demoted by Francis, have argued that Francis’ emphasis on inclusiveness, and his loose approach to church law have confused the faithful on a range of doctrinal issues, from divorce to homosexuality. That critique is frequently aired, in sometimes furious language, on conservative American Catholic television channels and websites.

A former Vatican ambassador to the United States, Carlo Maria Viganò, who demanded the pope’s resignation last year, has been hailed as a hero in some of those circles. Bishop Viganò has in part blamed the child sex abuse crisis on Francis’ tolerance for homosexuals in the priesthood, despite the scandal having first festered and exploded under his conservative predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II.

Some of Francis’ closest allies have in recent months publicly said that he is the target of a conspiracy by conservative enemies who are threatened by the more pastoral direction that he has taken the church. One close adviser, Antonio Spadaro, a prominent Jesuit who edits the Vatican-vetted magazine, Civiltà Cattolica, has accused American Catholic ultraconservatives of making an unholy alliance of “hate” with evangelical Christians to help President Trump.

Yes, politics has crept into this divide. But why focus on Catholic media as the source of the discord?

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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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BBC asks: What is the future of religion? Does organized religion have a future?

BBC asks: What is the future of religion? Does organized religion have a future?

THE QUESTION:

This cosmic theme is raised by a British Broadcasting Corporation article under the headline, “Tomorrow’s Gods: What is the Future of Religion?”

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

In its early history the BBC (born in 1927, the year of the U.S. Radio Act) was nicknamed “Auntie” for its comforting, old-style tone. But The Beeb goes futuristic in a current online series that takes “the long view of humanity.” An August article offered the forecast about  religion (click here).

Writer Sumit Paul-Choudhury, former editor-in-chief of the New Scientist magazine, notes that religions ebb and flow across eons.

The Parsees’ religion originated with Zarathustra (a.k.a. Zoroaster) in roughly the era of the ancient Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. The faith  had millions of followers in the Persian Empire’s heyday but today counts only 60,000. Christians began as a tiny Jewish sect, spread through the Roman Empire, and today are found  most everywhere and practice the world’s largest religion.

Rather than seeing religions as providing spiritual truths and essential morality, Paul-Choudhury leans toward the “functionalist” theory by which creeds evolved to provide social cohesion. Think Karl Marx, who deemed religion the “opium of the masses.” As clans and tribes gave way to large and diverse nations, people were able to coexist through devotion to “Big Gods,” and so forth.

Importantly, this BBC writer foresees a bleak future. Growing numbers “say they have no religion at all. We obey laws made and enforced by governments, not by God. Secularism is on the rise, with science providing tools to understand and shape the world. Given all that, there’s a growing consensus that the future of religion is that it has no future.”

Thinkers have been promoting that same consensus since the 17th and 18th Century “Enlightenment.”

A special problem hampered religions during the past century, he briefly acknowledges. Nations like Soviet Russia and China “adopted atheism as state policy and frowned on even private religious expression.”

Frowned”?

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