Ash Wednesday

Friday Five: SBC abuse, Mabel Grammer's faith, power of nuance, 'fourth-trimester' abortions

Friday Five: SBC abuse, Mabel Grammer's faith, power of nuance, 'fourth-trimester' abortions

You know your big investigative project has made a major splash when other news organizations immediately follow up on your original reporting.

Such is the case with the Houston Chronicle’s bombshell series on sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3).

The Washington Post and Memphis’ Commercial Appeal were among many newspapers that responded to the Houston coverage. I mention those two newspapers because I felt like their stories offered some additional insight into the independent congregational structure of the Southern Baptist Convention that perhaps even the Chronicle didn’t fully grasp.

In any case, let’s dive into the Friday Five (where we’ll see a few more links tied to the SBC):

1. Religion story of the week: Is there any doubt which story will occupy this space?

I wrote GetReligion’s initial post on the Chronicle’s big series on Southern Baptist abuse (“'Guys, you are not my opponent,' Southern Baptist official tells reporters investigating sexual abuse”).

Editor Terry Mattingly delved deeper into the autonomous nature of congregations in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination (“Bottom line: Southern Baptist Convention's legal structure will affect fight against sexual abuse”).

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Massacre on Ash Wednesday? Now, Orthodox believers shot leaving Forgiveness Vespers

Massacre on Ash Wednesday? Now, Orthodox believers shot leaving Forgiveness Vespers

A few days ago, I expressed surprise that more mainstream journalists didn't recognize the poignant ties between the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and the ancient Western Christian traditions linked to Ash Wednesday.

The bottom line: How many of the dead and wounded had, earlier that day, attended rites in which a priest marked their foreheads with ashes in the sign of the cross? This was done, of course, to remind them of their mortality as they began the great spiritual journey through Lent to Easter. Thus, priest say: "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

How many of those caught up in the massacre had planned to go to Ash Wednesday services in the hours after school dismissed? Did reporters attend any of those services that evening?

I was assuming, of course, that an ordinary local South Florida newsroom -- or national-level newsrooms -- would include a few Catholics, Episcopalians or Lutherans who would immediately recognize the timing of this tragedy.

A few did. Many more did not.

Now we have a similar Lent-related story from the other side of the world. Here is the top of a typical report, at FoxNews.com:

Five women were killed and several others were injured after a gunman opened fire with a hunting rifle on people leaving a church service in Russia's Dagestan region on Sunday, Russian media outlets reported.
The shooting took place outside a church in Kizlyar, a town of about 50,000 people on the border with Chechnya. ... The gunman was shot dead by police responding to the scene, a law enforcement source told the Interfax news agency. According to Interfax, the gunman has been identified as a local man in his early 20s.

The timing? Well, the report noted that this was an evening service and:

Parishioners were at the church celebrating the end of the Russian festival of Maslenitsa, a holiday which marks the start of Lent for Russian Orthodox Christians, according to RT.

An Orthodox Christian reader sent me this item, which I read within minutes of walking in the door after services at St. Anne Orthodox Parish here in Oak Ridge, Tenn. For the reader, this story raised an obvious, powerful question: Did these people die immediately after taking part in Forgiveness Vespers?

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Friday Five: Florida school shooting, Ash Wednesday photo project, Pence's 'mental illness' and more

Friday Five: Florida school shooting, Ash Wednesday photo project, Pence's 'mental illness' and more

Sometimes, a single picture really does tell the story in a way that a thousand words — or a million words — cannot.

Such was the case with Associated Press photographer Joel Auerbach's image of one woman consoling another after this week's mass shooting at a Florida high school.

Auerbach's photo was striking. Powerful. Gut-wrenching. And yes, there was a religion angle. More on that in a moment.

First, though, let's dive right into this week's Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Most weeks, we've already introduced you to the story featured here. This week is an exception.

The religion story of the week is an interview that NPR did with photographer Greg Miller, who has spent 20 years documenting "the smudge on people's foreheads" on Ash Wednesday. The piece on "The Penitent Pause for a Portrait" contains a number of the images.

It really is worth a click.

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'Ghost' in South Florida school shootings? 'Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return'

'Ghost' in South Florida school shootings? 'Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return'

You turned on the television.

Within minutes you saw the images, you saw the religion "ghost." Clearly, the journalists behind the cameras knew what they were seeing.

It would be hard to imagine a more powerful image -- in terms of ancient traditions clashing with Life. Right. Now. -- than ashes in the shape of a cross on the foreheads of people caught up in yet another mass shooting of students and teachers.

The images, of course, called up words that would be familiar to any reporter who has worked, or is working, on the religion-news beat. We are talking about words that -- especially in South Florida's large Catholic community -- many people, including students, had heard that morning as a priest marked their foreheads with the sign of the cross, during Ash Wednesday rites.

"Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

The prayer that many worshipers would have whispered during the rite are even more haunting:

Jesus, you place on my forehead the sign of my sister Death:
"Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

So did this symbolic detail make it into many stories about the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School? To my surprise, it did not. To see the context, let's look at the main story in The Washington Post. Did the national desk see the religion ghost?

PARKLAND, Fla. -- A heavily armed 19-year-old who had been expelled from a South Florida high school opened fire on campus shortly before classes let out Wednesday, killing 17 people while terrified students barricaded themselves inside classrooms, police said.

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GetReligion readers! Help with research project linked to one thing about Lenten news

GetReligion readers! Help with research project linked to one thing about Lenten news

Western liturgical Christians (and a few other believers, these days): I hope you are having a blessed Ash Wednesday and not getting into any trouble at work.

In newsrooms, the days just before Ash Wednesday officially open the season in which lots of editors and non-religion-beat reporters scramble to try to find photo-ops and maybe even easy stories linked to something that is going on called "Lent" and, eventually, "Easter."

This year, the calendar yielded a perfectly valid news hook, as captured in this headline from Religion News Service: "When Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day, what’s a clergyperson to do?" What happens when the waves of advertisements for jewels and chocolate collide with centuries of Catholic -- large "C" or small "c" -- tradition?

(RNS) -- For many this year, Feb. 14 is a day of mixed messages. It’s Valentine’s Day, a time for chocolate, roses and perhaps a dinner date. But it’s also Ash Wednesday, which for many Christians is the start of Lent, a period of penitence that precedes Easter Sunday.
How do clergy reconcile this calendar clash, the first of its kind since 1945? 

Eventually, attention will return to Lent itself, the penitential season (in the West) between Ash Wednesday and Easter. In the ancient traditions of Eastern Christianity, Great Lent begins this year -- on the older Julian calendar -- this coming Sunday, Feb. 18, with a service called Forgiveness Vespers, a beautiful rite that would be worthy of coverage. This year, Easter is on April 1 and, for the Orthodox, Pascha is on April 8.

Now, journalists -- on or off the religion-news beat -- what is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Lent? There are lots of facts and traditions linked to this season (the Orthodox go vegan for the whole thing), but I would assume that most people think, well, of one thing.

Right, what is the one thing you will give up for Lent? Chocolate? Colas? Facebook? While thinking that through, check out the top of this new Rick Hamlin commentary at The New York Times: "What Will You Give Up for Lent?"

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Glitter and ashes, bikinis and other adventures in news about 'American Lent'

Glitter and ashes, bikinis and other adventures in news about 'American Lent'

So let's say that you are a religion-beat reporter and your editor assigns you to do a news feature about Lent, beginning with the Ash Wednesday rites found in Western Christian traditions.

What are the questions that you need to ask at that point?

That's where this week's "Crossroads" podcast starts, spinning out of my recent post with this headline: "Live coverage of Ash Wednesday stories? Be on alert for ironic theological twists out there." Click here to tune that in.

A savvy religion-beat reporter would -- first thing -- try to find out what the editor means when she or he says the word "Lent."

Are we talking about Roman Catholic Lent? Pre- or post-Vatican II? Fasting or no fasting?

Are we talking about Anglican Lent? Lutheran Lent? Yes, there is such a thing in some congregations, on the doctrinal left and right. How about Eastern Orthodox Lent, in which many believers -- on the fasting side of things -- basically go vegan for the whole season? (By the way, who can name the rite that opens Lent among the Orthodox?)

Here is the key: Is the editor talking about what I call "American Lent," which basically allows a person to create their own version of the season. That's the whole "give up one thing for Lent" thing. The problem is that the ancient rites and traditions of Lent are not -- to say the least -- an exercise in American individualism. Just the opposite.

You see, there is a good chance that the editor may actually want a story that is FUNNY, not solemn. The editor may want "10 hip things for Millennials to give up for Lent in 2017" (I suggest kale or skinny jeans). Somehow, Lent has turned into a novelty story. Here's the tone at The New York Daily News:

If you notice people walking around with smudges on their forehead today, don't be alarmed: It's Ash Wednesday. (It's definitely not schmutz, so please don't try to rub it off of anyone.)

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Live coverage of Ash Wednesday stories? Be on alert for ironic theological twists out there

Live coverage of Ash Wednesday stories? Be on alert for ironic theological twists out there

Ah, yes. Another year, another trip around the liturgical calendar. That means another request from an editor for an Ash Wednesday feature or two.

Based on my own experiences in newsrooms, I have always wondered if the tradition of news organizations doing Ash Wednesday stories has something to do with the high number of ex-Catholics or cultural Catholics (as well as Episcopalians) in newsrooms. Who will show up for work in the afternoon with ashes on her or his forehead? What will people say (in a post-Ted Turner world)?

Then again, maybe Ash Wednesday is a story year after year because it's an assignment that comes with easy, automatic art. 

Finally, there is the fact that Ash Wednesday and Lent are highly serious religious traditions (think meditations on death and repentance) for the people that take faith seriously. However, for some reason, it also seems easy for people to tweak and/or laugh at these traditions. What editor doesn't want to smile in an ironic sort of way at an "ashes to go" lede? And there is an endless possibility of trendy (and stupid) variations on the "What are you going to give up for Lent" non-traditional tradition. 

Then again, it is possible (#Gasp) to do stories on the actual meaning of Lent and it's relevance to issues in our day and age.

Yes, ponder the spiritual implications of Ash Wednesday selfies. This very interesting advance story -- "#Ashtags: When posting Ash Wednesday photos, use your head" -- comes from Catholic News Service, via an online boost from Religion News Service. Here is the overture:

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Ash Wednesday seems to offer contradictory messages. The Gospel reading for the day is about not doing public acts of piety but the very act of getting ashes -- and walking around with them -- is pretty public.
This becomes even less of a private moment when people post pictures of themselves online with their ashes following the #ashtag trend of recent years.

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Are ashes to go a Protestant no-no?

This week’s celebration of Ash Wednesday has prompted several stories built around the theme of “ashes to go” — a recent phenomena of liturgical Protestant church ministers — (I’ve seen reports of Methodist, Episcopal and Lutheran clergy involved) imposing ashes on the foreheads of individuals in public places outside of the confines of worship.

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