How far back must journalists dig into the history of a given denomination or congregation, and how might a given founder, dead more than seven decades, be viewed in light of today's mores?
Do we really have to know everything about the earliest leaders of a denomination or movement? Just ask biographers of Martin Luther, the complicated ex-Catholic who sparked the Protestant Reformation but who also has been accused of virulent anti-Semitism.
Or how about Baptist or Presbyterian leaders in pre-Civil War America who supported, or tolerated, slavery? Shall we hold modern-day Lutherans, Baptists or Presbyterians responsible for the sins of their spiritual forefathers?
The New York Times raises the general issue in a rather lengthy profile of the Zarephath Christian Church in New Jersey's rural Somerset County.
We start out in conventional territory. This passage is long, but it's important to sense the tone of this piece right up front.
Hundreds of people each weekend drive up the hill to a newly built $12 million church surrounded by soccer fields in a New Jersey community named Zarephath. They worship by singing along with rock-ballad style prayer songs, following lyrics projected on three overhead screens. They sway and lift their arms high overhead, or say the words quietly with their eyes closed.
Drums, several guitars, keyboards and backup singers accompany the prayers. Spotlights shift from purple to blue to red as the mood builds.
“O come to the altar, the Father’s arms are open wide,” about 300 congregants sang during a recent Sunday service, in a sanctuary that resembles a warehouse-style concert hall, save for two small crosses near the stage. “Forgiveness was bought with the precious blood of Jesus Christ.”