Books & Culture

Believe it or not, Newsweek folks still don't know who Dr. James Dobson is and what he does

Believe it or not, Newsweek folks still don't know who Dr. James Dobson is and what he does

Ah, come on! Didn't I just have to write one of these echo chamber, "Here we go again" posts?

Indeed, that would be the case ("Here we go again: When covering campus LGBTQ disputes, always look for doctrinal covenants"), exactly 24 hours ago.

Well, now I have to write another one, because someone at Newsweek just messed up, again, providing a variation on a screwed-up theme, once again, that has haunted copy-desk folks at that news magazine since the earliest days of GetReligion.

Here's the new headline, in that all-caps style that appears to be the current Newsweek norm: "TRUMP IMPEACHMENT MUST BE PREVENTED THROUGH DAY OF FASTING AND PRAYER, EVANGELIST SAYS."

Now, it helps to know that the "evangelist" in this case is the activist, counselor and author whose name is "Dr. James Dobson." Let's flash back to an early, early GetReligion post by Doug LeBlanc, which ran with this headline: "That's Dr. Dobson to you, punks." It noted a 2005 correction at Newsweek that humbly noted:

In our Aug. 1 issue, a sidebar on lobbying groups ("A User's Guide to the Groups") incorrect[ly] identifies James Dobson as a reverend. He in fact has a Ph.D. in child psychology and goes by Dr. Dobson. Newsweek regrets the error.

LeBlanc noted that Newsweek had to turn around and run a similar correction the following year, after the same mistake. Thus, the co-founder of this blog added, wryly:

Newsweek sure seems to have the correction in a macro somewhere. ... The style guardians at Newsweek might consider adding a stylebook entry for Dobson, James, Ph.D.

Now, it's time to slightly expand that correction. Here is the top of the new Trump-related report:

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Are American Christians 'Gnostics' in disguise? Revisiting an odd old theory

Are American Christians 'Gnostics' in disguise? Revisiting an odd old theory


How do you feel about Professor Harold Bloom’s contention (1992 book) that all American religion is more Gnostic than Christian -- that Americans believe in “God and me,” which is not historic Christianity at all?


This question regards the American literary critic’s book “The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation.” When first published, many saw eccentric or crackpot thinking as Bloom contended that most Americans’ belief “masks itself as Protestant Christianity yet has ceased to be Christian,” floating into Gnosticism.

One might  immediately ask, Do Catholics count?

Two of his chief examples of a supposed indigenous “American Religion” were the Southern Baptist Convention and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. Mormonism). The two groups’ theologies are radically different from each other, and from the original “Gnostics” who were cast aside as heretics during Christianity’s early centuries.

Reactions were more favorable toward Bloom’s “The Shadow of a Great Book: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible,” published in 2011 (“a fascinating, intellectually nimble tour de force” -- Washington Post).

To begin, we should sketch what the Gnostics of ancient times actually believed, guided especially by Pheme Perkins of Boston College and the late Dutch expert Gilles Quispel. Gnosis is the Greek word for “knowledge.” There were numerous varieties, but the typical form of the faith was radically dualistic, presenting an obscure or unknown deity sharply different from the familiar and well-defined God of the Bible.

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Time for a Christian Smith flashback: Writing about that whole nailed-to-a-cross thing

Time for a Christian Smith flashback: Writing about that whole nailed-to-a-cross thing

If you were going to select a short list of the most infamous articles ever written about the mainstream press and the religion-beat, surely Christian Smith's "Religiously Ignorant Journalists," which ran in Books & Culture (RIP) back in 2004, would be near the top of the list.

As you would expect, it drew the attention of the newly formed weblog, with an early post under this headline: "Are journalists too ignorant to cover religion news?"

Smith made several interesting points about language on the religion beat, not the least of which was a riff on the many ways that journalists tend to abuse the term "evangelical." His key point: Why don't editors hire more professionals trained to work on the religion beat, the way they do on other highly complicated -- yet respected -- beats?

Yes, the reason I am bringing this up again is that a faithful reader sent us yet another case of a mainstream, national publication offering a unique or shall we say innovative approach to ordinary religious language.

Hold that thought. Here's the famous overture of Smith's piece:

Today I received a phone message from a journalist from a major Dallas newspaper who wanted to talk to me about a story he was writing about "Episcopals," about how the controversy over the 2003 General Convention's approval of the homosexual bishop, Gene Robinson, would affect "Episcopals." What an embarrassment. How do I break the news to him that there are no "Episcopals"? Actually, they are called Episcopalians. Of greater concern, I wonder how this journalist is going to write an informed and informing story in a few days about such an important and complex matter when he doesn't even know enough in starting to call his subjects by their right name.

What I have learned, however, over the years, is that this journalist is not alone in his ignorance.

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Is this news? Evangelicalism’s weakness extends well beyond turmoil of 2016

Is this news? Evangelicalism’s weakness extends well beyond turmoil of 2016

Starting Nov. 9, the media will be clogged with political pontifications. Here are a pair of major themes for those on the religion beat.

(1) What happened with white Catholics, the perennial religious swing voters? How about blue-collar white Catholics?

(2)  What’s ahead for demoralized evangelical Protestants after a campaign that divided them and undermined their clout?

Journalists should also ponder whether evangelicalism’s major weakness extends well beyond politics. So said the Rev. Russell D. Moore in the annual First Things magazine Erasmus lectureship on Oct. 24. He’s the chief socio-political spokesman for the huge Southern Baptist Convention and a fierce moral critic of Donald Trump, especially on racial and ethnic issues. His speech critiqued the candidate -- without ever uttering his name.

However, Moore’s major theme was that many evangelicals’ Trumpism is merely a sign of weakness that at root is intellectual. He said to influence America’s “post-Christianity culture,” religious conservatives must develop stronger “public arguments” on moral questions and on “why and how Christianity matters.” That, in turn, will require much more “theologically rigorous” thinking. (The video of this important address is at the top of this post.)

Many observers over the years have said that for all its innovations and energy, U.S. evangelicalism is all too weak intellectually, thus limiting cultural influence.

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Bookish reporting ahead: J-preps for Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary in 2017

Bookish reporting ahead: J-preps for Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary in 2017

When the Religion Guy worked at Time magazine and The Associated Press, he made every effort to read a book per week. He also vowed to give important books as much publicity as conditions allowed because “mainstream” print media increasingly neglected religion titles. 

That neglect underscores the importance of reporters keeping up with book reviews in religious periodicals, especially the sophisticated, content-rich Books & Culture: A Christian Review. Otherwise, how can busy newswriters sift through those looming piles of review copies and decide which to cover?

Quick tip: No index, no review.

For astute religion writers, the book scene comes to the fore right now due to a huge upcoming story, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017. This epochal event deserves careful advance thought about special story packages or series. And that means journalists need some historical reading under the belt to develop the themes to ponder with scholars.

As Thomas Albert Howard of Gordon College wrote four years ago in Books & Culture, the Reformation “has been credited (or blamed) for the rise of the modern nation state, liberalism, capitalism, religious wars, tolerance, America, democracy, individualism, subjectivism, pluralism, freedom of conscience, modern science, secularism, Nazism, and so much else.” He could have added the expansion of literacy, worship in common languages, and the assault on mandatory celibacy.

The agenda includes the title of a 2005 book by Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom: “Is The Reformation Over?” Does the old Protestant-Catholic divide still make sense in the secularizing West? What crucial differences remain today?

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#OMG! Mother Teresa and the revenge of the religious evangelicalists! Or whatever...

#OMG! Mother Teresa and the revenge of the religious evangelicalists! Or whatever...

Oh my. How time flies when there is lots of work to do.

Has it really been a decade plus since sociologist Christian Smith published his infamous Books & Culture essay that ran under this grabber headline?

Religiously Ignorant Journalists
In search of Episcopals and evangelists.

As you would imagine, that piece received quick attention from the new-born and we have pointed readers to it several times, including this 2010 post by GetReligion emeritus M.Z. Hemingway which noted an interesting, and sadly not that unusual, grammatical innovation in the following NPR passage:

Some 3,000 evangelical Christian Cubans attend an open-air service in Havana to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their public service in 1999. Evangelism is among the fastest-growing religions in communist -- and formerly atheist -- Cuba.

Now, that first reference to "evangelical" is fine. But the second one? Clearly, that was supposed to say "evangelicalism." Thus, as MZ noted:

... It's clear that this is a copy editor or copy-editing problem. And certainly the industry struggles to hire editors who are both technologically savvy and literate. But, as the reader who submitted this notes, this is embarrassing. Evangelism is not a religion. Evangelicalism is a movement within Christianity and evangelism is the preaching of the Gospel of Christ.

What do you know? Four years later and NPR still hasn't fixed the vague headline: "Cubans Flock To Evangelism To Fill Spiritual Vacuum." Uh, that is still "evangelicalism."

Now, I have a new reason to bring this issue up, yet again. We will get to that in a moment. First, here is a flashback to the original Smith essay, which opened like this:

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