Oxford University Press

Evangelical colleges have much to say about the Billy Graham epoch and its aftermath

Evangelical colleges have much to say about the Billy Graham epoch and its aftermath

Pundits say evangelical Protestantism, so long led by the late Billy Graham, is faltering in the United States (though not overseas) and split over Donald Trump-ism in politics and morals as well as certain religious differences.

Upon Graham’s passing, by handy coincidence, journalists can obtain fresh insight from the new “Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education” (Oxford University Press) by Adam Laats, professor of educational history at Binghamton University. Unlike many scholars not personally part of  this subculture, Laats takes these believers seriously on their own terms, minus scholarly condescension.

Laats thinks dozens of Christian colleges undergird the movement’s cultural impact and political conservatism in the U.S. They also demonstrate the interrelations between militant “fundamentalists” and the somewhat more open “evangelicals.” His book and its very title apply those two tricky terms confusingly and interchangeably, but the details provide writers valuable context on the historical definitions.

He spent endless hours in archives at six non-denominational campuses to document their achievements and conflicts. (Laats largely bypasses theologically similar denominational colleges, seminaries, and ministries on secular campuses.) The findings would enrich a journalistic visit to profile one of these six. Fresh reporting will be essential because the book’s narrative largely trails off  before recent developments.

Here are the campuses, listed in order of founding.

* Wheaton College (of Illinois, not the Massachusetts Wheaton):  Graham’s alma mater has been a liberal-arts college throughout history that traces to 1853 with re-founding by slavery foes in Lincoln’s 1860. Selective and often dubbed the movement’s equivalent of Harvard, it leads evangelicalism’s elite vs. fundamentalism. But it remains staunchly conservative, recently forcing out a tenured professor over affinity with Islam, and winning federal court exemption from Obamacare’s contraception mandate.

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Crane’s world: Atheistic thinker’s tolerant theory of religion counters those 'new atheists'

Crane’s world: Atheistic thinker’s tolerant theory of religion counters those 'new atheists'

Fellow journalists, have no fear. Publishers Weekly assures us that an intriguing and newsworthy new book about religion is “enjoyable” and The New York Times finds it “lucid.”

This despite being written by a heavyweight philosopher and published by the intellectually elite Harvard University Press.  

The title, “The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View,” announces that author Tim Crane, raised Catholic in Britain, is, yes, a convinced atheist. But instead of preaching to his choir he seeks tolerance and disputes the contempt for belief from “new atheists” in media-beloved books like “Breaking the Spell,” “The End of Faith,” The God Delusion” and “God Is Not Great.”    

To Crane, atheists of that sort do not grasp the immensity and sheer humanity of religion, why the world’s 6 billion assorted believers are neither fools nor knaves, and why faith cannot be liquidated in our scientific age though many have tried -- whether through education, propaganda, prison, or executions.  

The Religion Guy has not (yet) read this book but alerts fellow journalists to the news potential signaled in coverage to date. Note especially the Times treatment by James Ryerson, whose Book Review columns cover university press offerings. 

Crane -- reachable via timcrane@ceu.edu --  is no slouch among philosophy professors. He just moved to Hungary’s Central European University after holding the Knightbridge chair at the University of Cambridge, and previously headed the philosophy faculty at University College London.  

He laments atheistic portrayals of religion as some unfortunate carryover from primitive civilization that tries to explain the cosmos in the way science does, as a result appearing “irrational” and “superstitious.” Instead, he figures, two natural factors underlie faith.

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Mythology? History? Biographies? Why are there differences in the four Gospels?

Mythology? History? Biographies? Why are there differences in the four Gospels?

The Religion Guy observes that the wording of the perennial question above is the title of an important new book by Michael Licona of Houston Baptist University and published by the prestigious Oxford University Press.

Variations among the four New Testament Gospels in parallel accounts of the same events and sayings are fascinating for scholars. And they can perplex believers, though most involve details that don’t affect the main teaching or are easily explained in Bible commentaries.

Meanwhile, those who seek to deride the scriptures and thus the Christian tradition emphasize these differences, calling them “contradictions” and “mistakes.”

In reality, there are fewer such puzzlers than skeptics imply, yet more of them than many believers might admit.

Licona’s research on this is deemed “significant” by Dale Allison of Princeton Theological Seminary, “illuminating” by Richard Bauckham of the University of St. Andrews, and “exemplary” by Christopher Pelling of Oxford University.

In his scenario, the Gospel writers or editors followed a flexible process that was commonplace in ancient times but doesn’t always fit present-day historiography (history-writing): “Ancient biographical conventions provided authors a license to depart from the degree of precision in reporting that many of us moderns prefer.”

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New York Times seeks another Godbeat scribe: How would Yogi Berra parse the job listing?

New York Times seeks another Godbeat scribe: How would Yogi Berra parse the job listing?

I have some good news and some bad news.

The good news is that one of the buzz topics in religion-news circles this week was that job posting at The New York Times, the one with this headline: "Change Is Coming to the New York Times National Desk."

It appears the Times is thinking about doing something new on the religion beat, 12-plus years after the 2005 report on its newsroom culture and weaknesses, "Preserving Our Readers Trust." That was the amazing document that urged editors, when hiring staff, to seek more intellectual and cultural diversity -- to help the Gray Lady do a better job covering religion, non-New York America and other common subjects. Yes, I've written about that report a whole lot on this site.

Oh, and Times editor Dean Baquet's recent journalism confession on NPR -- that the "New York-based and Washington-based ... media powerhouses don't quite get religion" -- may have had something to do with this, as well.

The bad news? There is one chunk of language in this job posting that, for veteran Godbeat observers, could cause a kind of bad acid flashback to another religion-beat job notice in another newsroom, at another time. Hold that thought. 

So here is the Times job notice for a "Faith and values correspondent."

We’re seeking a skilled reporter and writer to tap into the beliefs and moral questions that guide Americans and affect how they live their lives, whom they vote for and how they reflect on the state of the country. You won’t need to be an expert in religious doctrine. The position is based outside of New York, and you will work alongside Laurie Goodstein and a team of other journalists who are digging deep into the nation.

Did you see the key sentence? Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher sure did:

Two cheers for them! I’m glad they’re adding this position, and I’m really glad they’re not basing this reporter in New York (I hope they don’t base him or her in any coastal city, or in Chicago, but rather someplace like Dallas or Atlanta). Why not three cheers? That line about how “you won’t need to be an expert in religious doctrine” bothers me. ... 

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This just in from Oxford Press: Turning the intellectual tables on 'New Atheists'

This just in from Oxford Press: Turning the intellectual tables on 'New Atheists'

The atheist liberation movement of recent years has featured efforts to explain away the global prevalence of religion as totally the result of social forces that perhaps got imprinted into humanity’s evolutionary biology.

The tables are turned in a new book, “The Evolution of Atheism: The Politics of a Modern Movement” (Oxford University Press). Journalists: It’s heady stuff to be a hook for news treatment, but worth the effort.

The book analyzes atheistic causes in North America over the past century, including its internal schisms and contradictions. The work is based on Canadian author Stephen LeDrew’s doctoral dissertation at York University in Ontario and post-doctoral study in Sweden at Uppsala University’s Center for the Study of Religion and Society.

Religion newswriters are well aware that those aggressive “New Atheists” sometimes suggest faith is not just stupid but morally evil or a sort of mental illness, such that parents should be forbidden to infect their own children with it. Journalists may be surprised to learn that for LeDrew and others, this sort of anti-religion thinking is outdated and “utterly out of sync with contemporary social science.”

Social scientists long embraced the “secularization thesis,” according to which religion will inevitably decline as modern science advances. But now, says LeDrew, many acknowledge that scenario was “a product of ideology” rather than empirical fact. Thus, the New Atheism could be seen as a promotional effort to defend against “a perceived failure of secularism in practice in late modern society.”

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One more time: So many ways in which polls can be appalling as well as appealing

One more time: So many ways in which polls can be appalling as well as appealing

Is the Religion Guy the only American who’s already sick of the constant news reports on political polls, and yet can’t help following them because this  may be the most aberrant campaign since 1860?

Polls can be interesting but also problematic, as discussed in the  Sept. 8 Memo “Are polls about people and pews appealing or appalling? Warnings for journalists.” That item scanned complaints from Princeton’s Robert Wuthnow, one of the leading U.S. sociologists of religion, in a new book:  “Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation’s Faith” (Oxford University Press, published October 1).

Wuthnow asserts that polling in general is increasingly slippery, largely because response rates are so low that it’s impossible to know whether results are representative. He also thinks religion is an especially tricky field for opinion surveying and that media reports about results can distort public perceptions.

 Following up, the sort of material reporters can pursue is seen in an interview with Wuthnow by Andrew Aghapour, a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, for religiondispatches.org. (This online magazine is well worth monitoring if you’re not familiar with it. Editor Diane Winston, Ph.D., associate professor at U.S.C.’s Annenberg School, was a well-regarded Godbeat toiler in Raleigh, Baltimore, and Dallas.)

Wuthnow cites Jimmy Carter’s presidential win in 1976, which media dubbed the “year of the evangelical.” Actually it was the year some media suddenly discovered evangelicalism. 

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An important new Jewish resource, with something important missing

An important new Jewish resource, with something important missing

In a poignant New York Times Book Review piece, Leon Wieseltier said our hyper-networked culture creates journalism "in which words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability." And yet the Religion Guy insists that those covering our complex field must write on reflective, bookish themes, and thus passes along three tips that helped his career: obtaining a master's degree in religion (slogging through night classes while working full-time), trying to read a book per week, and investing in key reference works not available in newsrooms.
 
On the third point, note the valuable second edition of "The Jewish Study Bible" from Oxford University Press, which is about all you need to know given that publisher's reputation.

Why did a rewrite seem necessary a mere 10 years after the acclaimed first edition? The preface explains that Bible scholarship is "ever-changing." All 24 essays on Bible interpretation are new or revised, as are many annotations printed alongside the Jewish Publication Society's 1999 Bible text.
 
Chief editors Adele Berlin (University of Maryland) and Marc Zvi Brettler (Brandeis University) report that "Jewish participation in mainstream biblical scholarship" with its "critical approaches" only really took off in the 1960s. They say even during this past decade Jews have become more sophisticated about "how the Bible came to be," the "many voices reflected (or suppressed)" in Scripture, and what later editors "imposed on" prior biblical materials.

The new edition shows journalists the ways liberal Protestant and secular thought is reshaping Judaism.

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