East Tennessee

The crimes stunned Knoxville: But faith brought Channon Christian's father back to life

The crimes stunned Knoxville: But faith brought Channon Christian's father back to life

It’s one of the biggest puzzles on the religion beat, one that readers ask me about all the time. Here’s the question: Why don’t news organizations cover more “spiritual” stories, as in stories about the impact religious faith has in the daily lives of real people?

The short answer is one that readers don’t want to hear: Most editors don’t think that positive stories about changed lives is “news.”

Now, if the person whose life is changed by faith is a politician, a celebrity or the starting quarterback for the local football team, then that might make this a “news” story. Maybe. Well, it also helps if this “spiritual” hook is combined with some issue that’s controversial.

This is what the cynic in me thought the other day when I saw this headline in The Knoxville News Sentinel, my local newspaper: “Gary Christian: From rage to restoration, a murder victim's father finds the faith he left.

If you live in East Tennessee, this headline calls back years of headlines about a horrific crime story that seized this region like few others — the torture, rape and murder of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom. In aftermath, the face of Channon’s father — Gary Christian — became an iconic image of loss, grief, agony and, yes, wrath.

This massive News Sentinel feature dug deep into what has happened since the trials. It’s a story about rough, realistic healing and the spiritual changes that allowed a man to return to faith. To be blunt: You don’t see many stories of this kind in news print.

First, here is the long, but essential, overture.

Gary Christian stood in an East Tennessee church pulpit on a sunny August Sunday, speaking about pain and death and faith and God. It’s not a place — or a point — where the father of murder victim Channon Christian would have been 18 months ago.

For 10 years Christian never talked to the Lord he had loved all his life. He left God behind after his beautiful, compassionate, smart 21-year-old daughter was carjacked, tortured, raped, beaten and murdered in January 2007.

Then, last April, kneeling at his child’s grave and surrounded by friends, Christian asked for God’s help.

God had been waiting. He'd never left.

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Fine Washington Post story about Dolly Parton (but try to guess what part got left out)

Fine Washington Post story about Dolly Parton (but try to guess what part got left out)

Quite some time ago, the world-weary team of journalists at Entertainment Weekly produced a surprisingly serious and well thought out list of the most important women in the history of the American entertainment business.

I wish I could give you a URL for that article, but I have never been able to figure out that magazine's approach to digital content. 

Anyway, my memory is that Lucille Ball was No. 1, in large part because of her revolutionary role in managing her own career options. Oh, and she was a brilliant comic actress.

Dolly Parton was No. 2 for pretty much the same reason. Bluntly stated, she was and is a brilliant businesswoman who has opened all kinds of doors for other women in Nashville and the entertainment biz, period. She is also one of the most underrated songwriters, and stage performers, of all time.

I bring this up for a simple reason. Dolly is always news here in East Tennessee, where she is to our culture sort of what the Queen is to England -- only Parton has tons of business clout to go with all of her earth mama of the Smokes symbolism.

Now Dolly has gone and done something really important linked to the wildfires that ravaged our region a few weeks ago. You may have seen one or two short items about that on the national news. Maybe. For elite media, this was kind of like the Louisiana floods 2.0, as in something going on in red-state land that really didn't matter that much. Maybe if Donald Trump had paid a visit?

Parton has pledged, through her foundation, to give every family that lost a home -- 700 homes and businesses were destroyed -- $1000 a month for six months to help get them back on their feet. Her do-it-yourself TV telethon raised about $9 million to help out, too.

You can imagine the local coverage here in East Tennessee. However, Dolly's crusade also caught the eye of editors at The Washington Post, which printed nice, long, highly detailed feature on her. However, anyone want to guess what part of Parton's story the Post pretty much ignored?

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Fires in the mountains: About that haunting Bible passage that was blowing in the wind

Fires in the mountains: About that haunting Bible passage that was blowing in the wind

First, a word of thanks to those who sent messages about the wildfires here in East Tennessee, asking if all was well here in the tmatt.net corner of the hills.

It helps to understand that the Tennessee Valley is about 40 miles wide here near Knoxville (click for map) and the worst fires have been in the East, in the Great Smoky Mountains. I live in Oak Ridge, which is up against the face of the Cumberland Mountains in the West. There is quite a bit of land, and often water, between the two ranges.

Still, everyone here knows people, or lots of people, who have been caught up in this story. I have been wondering -- given the culture in these parts -- when some kind of faith-centered story (other than people of faith jumping into the action at the level of volunteers, aid, etc.) would emerge from the flames.

If you've seen images from the Gatlinburg and Dollywood area fires, you know that hotels, lodges and rental cabins were hit hard. Can you imagine how many Bibles there were stashed in bedside drawers in all of those rooms, not to mention in the possession of the local residents?

That leads me to this interesting, and rather haunting, story that ran in The Knoxville News Sentinel and then was picked up by Religion News Service. To be blunt, the local headline doesn't do much to hint at what's really going on here: "Dollywood employee finds burned Bible page after wildfires."

The main difference between the News Sentinel and RNS versions of this story is that the team that worked on the original made the unconventional, but wise in my opinion, decision to put the Bible passage on that charred page right at the top of the text. Thus, the overture looks like this:

"O Lord to thee will I cry: for the fire hath devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and the flame hath burned all the trees of the field. The beasts of the field cry also unto thee: for the rivers of waters are dried up, and the fire hath devoured the pastures of the wilderness." -- Joel 1:19-20, King James Version

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The Tennessean surveys a deep-red state: Might religion play big role in its political divides?

The Tennessean surveys a deep-red state: Might religion play big role in its political divides?

So here I am in New York City on Election Day, typing away at my desk at The King's College near the corner of Broadway and Wall Street -- which means I'm about two blocks from a Trump tower in Lower Manhattan.

I imagine that things will get pretty wild in some corners of New York City tonight. However, my mind is very much on the past, present and future in the hills of East Tennessee. In other words, I'm thinking about politics and religious folks.

You see, East Tennessee is about as old-school Republican as you can get. Forget Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. East Tennessee's Republican roots go all the way back to the Civil War era (see this New York Times piece on "The Switzerland of America").

But there are at least two other Tennessees, symbolized by the other two stars on the flag. The hills are one thing, while Nashville and Memphis are radically different cultures.

Once upon a time, Tennessee voted for Bill Clinton. Soon after that, it turned its back on native son Al Gore. While the mountains are historically Republican, the political story in the rest of the state centers on the decline of old-guard Southern Democrats and the now dead Democratic Party coalition that included Bible Belt farmers and laborers, as well as urban elites.

Donald Trump will carry Tennessee with ease tonight, I imagine, but I have met very few old-school Republicans in the hills who are happy about that. I have, however, wondered about the deep-red tint of the rest of the state, other than blue patches in the big urban zones.

Thus, I read with great interest the Tennessean piece that ran with this headline: "Tennessee politics: State increasingly split along urban-rural lines." That headline tells you what editors in Nashville think.

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Listen to the silence: It does appear that most evangelicals will reluctantly vote Trump

Listen to the silence: It does appear that most evangelicals will reluctantly vote Trump

In the beginning, when there was a massive GOP field of candidates for the White House, about 30 percent of America's white evangelical Protestants backed Citizen Donald Trump. There was evidence -- primarily the ongoing World magazine coverage of evangelical leaders and thinkers -- that Trump's supporters were "cultural" evangelicals, as opposed to folks at the heart of evangelical institutions and churches.

The headlines proclaimed: Evangelicals flocking to Trump.

As Trump rode waves of free press coverage, other candidates dropped out of the race. Slowly, the percentage of Trump evangelicals rose, backed in part by the endorsement of several old-guard evangelical leaders with strong, but old, Religious Right credentials. Trump support among white evangelicals passed 50 percent. See this April release from the Pew Forum team.

The headlines proclaimed: Evangelicals flocking to Trump.

Now, Trump stands alone and the world of mainstream conservatism, especially cultural conservatism, has not produced a ballot-box alternative. The Pew Forum has produced poll research that shows a solid majority of white evangelicals are now planning to vote for Trump.

The headline at Christianity Today, one of the voices of mainstream evangelicalism, states the trend like this:

Pew: Most Evangelicals Will Vote Trump, But Not For Trump
With half of voters dissatisfied with both presidential candidates, white evangelicals primarily plan to oppose Clinton.

Meanwhile, headlines in the mainstream press continue to proclaim: Evangelicals flocking to Trump. Here is what that looks like at Religion News Service. What is crucial, of course, is the framing language at the top of the report:

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Knoxville News Sentinel studies evangelicals in Tennessee: Where are the Trump fans?

Knoxville News Sentinel studies evangelicals in Tennessee: Where are the Trump fans?

Greetings from East Tennessee.

If you know anything about the real East Tennessee, other than movie stereotypes about Hill people without shoes, then you probably know that this is a very distinct land that should have been its own state (as in the lost state of Franklin). This is also a region loaded with liberal arts colleges. Did you know that?

Now, at this moment in American politics, there are two other things you need to know about my part of the world.

First of all, this is one of the most intensely Republican regions that there is, anywhere. If you walk out your front door and throw a rock, you'll probably hit a Republican, a Republican's car or a Republican's house.

Second, religion is a very big deal in our neck of the woods and this fact shows up in research all of the time. This is the kind of place where, when your moving truck is still in the driveway of your new house, lots of people are going to show up and ask where you're planning on going to church.

This brings me, of course, to the battle for "evangelical" voters in the current race for the White House. The other day, The Knoxville News-Sentinel ran a piece on this issue with this headline: "Cruz and Rubio battle for evangelical vote in Tennessee."

Now, did you notice a word, a name actually, missing from that headline?

The first time that I glanced at this piece I thought that it was crazy that Citizen Donald Trump's name was not in that headline.

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Crucial religion info still missing in updates on holiday wars at University of Tennessee

Crucial religion info still missing in updates on holiday wars at University of Tennessee

We have some interesting news here in East Tennessee about the University of Tennessee holiday wars. I call them "holiday wars," as opposed to "Christmas wars," because it appears to be very hard to fight Christmas here in the valley framed by the Cumberland and Great Smoky Mountains.

As I mentioned the other day, UT's Office for Diversity and Inclusion posted very specific guidelines on how to make sure that official "holiday" party held on campus did not turn into, as the memo put it, a "Christmas party in disguise." The memo also instructed UT folks to use "non-denominational" holiday cards and said those attending holiday parties "should not play games with religious and cultural themes -- for example, 'Dreidel' or 'Secret Santa.' "

The news is that the memo that ticked off Tennessee Republicans -- the dominant party here in the hills -- is gone. Also, the diversity office's leader, Vice Chancellor Rickey Hall, now has a UT communications officer screening his website. The new memo -- text here -- contains zero instructions about how to edit Christmas out of campus parties. Here is a large chunk of the "new" memo, which apparently is a memo that was used in the past:

Recognizing a wide variety of cultures and beliefs, we should note that people choose to celebrate in different ways and on varying days of the year.
While there are many joyous occasions and special opportunities to gather, employee participation in any celebration should always be voluntary. While it is inevitable that differences will appear in how people celebrate, everyone is encouraged to have an open mind and to approach every situation with sensitivity.

Alas, there are all kinds of facts we still don't know about this drama, almost all of them linked to religion.

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Listening to Chattanooga voices, in the mosque and public square (but not in churches)

Listening to Chattanooga voices, in the mosque and public square (but not in churches)

From the beginning, the New York Times reporters probing the shootings in Chattanooga have shown a willingness to dig into the religious questions linked to the troubled life and mind of Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez. They have not blown questions about the role of Islam out of proportion, but they have certainly not ignored them, either.

The journalistic task at hand was simplified by the faith-related blog materials that Abdulazeez left behind that, to some degree, described his state of mind. Meanwhile, the young man's personal struggles were right there in the public record. There was no need for speculation, other than covering the actions of authorities who were trying to find out if Abdulazeez had any online ties to violent forms of Islam.

As it should, this research led to the local mosque to see how this Muslim community -- deep in Bible Belt territory -- was reacting. The Times did an fine job with that story, as well. And the reactions of believers in the faith community on the other side of this drama? Hold that thought.

With the mosque story, the regional context (just down the road from my Oak Ridge home) was crucial:

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- Just beyond a massive strip mall, with its Best Buy and Hobby Lobby, Abdul Baasit, the imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga, found himself preaching on Friday about a nightmare.
It was Eid al-Fitr, at the end of Ramadan, normally a time of gift-giving and carnival celebration. But the party that had been planned was canceled: A man who had attended prayer services at the center’s mosque killed four Marines on Thursday. And Mr. Baasit, 48, was trying to help Chattanooga’s Muslim faithful cope with their grief over the deaths, and their fear of reprisal. ...

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NYTimes frames snake handler issue -- correctly!

Even though The New York Times is the newspaper I sometimes “love to hate” for its often-casual approach to religion news, there are occasions when the “Gray Lady,” as the paper is historically known, gets it right. Too much of this and I might just get the vapors.

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