Attention New York Times editors: Was El Paso priest following the 'spirit' or the Holy Spirit?

Attention New York Times editors: Was El Paso priest following the 'spirit' or the Holy Spirit?

Is it time for The New York Times to hire a liturgist as a copy editor?

Well, maybe the world’s most influential newspaper doesn’t need to hire someone with a degree in liturgical studies. It might be enough to hire a few people who are familiar with (a) traditional Christian language, (b) the contents of the Associated Press Stylebook or (c) both of the previous options.

Faithful news consumers may recall the problem Times editors had following the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral. I am referring to the news report in which Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Department, was quoted — a direct quote — as saying that he rushed into the flames to save a “statue” of Jesus. In a gesture that left Catholic readers bewildered, he was said to have used the statue to bless the cathedral before rushing to safety.

Apparently, someone thought the priest’s reference, in French, to the “Body of Christ” was a reference to a statue. That led to this correction:

An earlier version of this article misidentified one of two objects recovered from Notre-Dame by the Rev. Jean-Marc Fournier. It was the Blessed Sacrament, not a statue of Jesus.

This brings me to a much less serious error — but one I am sure some readers found jarring — in a story following the racist massacre in El Paso. The headline: “In a Suffering City, an El Paso Priest Needed a Message of Hope.”

The content of that message? The Times team — to its credit — noted that the Rev. Fabian Marquez preached from a specific passage in the Gospel of Matthew:

“We need to follow the commandment of love — love God, love your neighbor,” the priest said. “This was a tragedy that came to break us and separate us, but God is inviting us to spread the love that only comes from him, and only with that are we going to be able to overcome this tragedy and this sadness.”

What inspired this sermon? What was the source of this inspiration?

That’s where the Times had trouble, once again, with basic Christian language and doctrine. Read this overture carefully:

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Question for reporters and preachers: Is there a God-shaped hole in the Avengers universe?

Question for reporters and preachers: Is there a God-shaped hole in the Avengers universe?

It was Christmas Eve as Harry Potter and his best friend Hermione Granger arrived in the town of Godric's Hollow, searching through the snowy church graveyard for the graves of the teen wizard’s parents, Lily and James Potter.

Here’s how the scene is depicted in the final novel — “"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" — of J.K. Rowling’s seven-volume set. Christmas carols are drifting out of the church when the duo discovers the tombstone for the family of the late Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore. The inscription is from the Gospel of St. Matthew: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

That’s just the start of the faith content in the Potter-verse rooted in the author’s worldview. Hang in there with me, because this is going to link up with this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in) and the national column that I wrote about the God-shaped hole in “Avengers: Endgame.”

Now, about the Potter family tombstone: In a 2007 “On Religion” column on this topic, I noted:

… The Potter headstone proclaimed: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death."

Harry was mystified. Was this about defeating the evil Death Eaters?

"It doesn't mean defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry," said Hermione, gently. "It means ... you know ... living beyond death. Living after death."

This is another Bible verse — one that Rowling said stated the theme at the heart of her Potter series. It also helps to know that the Harry Potter stories grew out of the author’s grief after the death of her mother. Rowling wanted to make a statement that death is not the end.

It also matters that Rowling has been upfront about the fact that she is active in the Scottish Episcopal Church and, based on her remarks through the years, it’s pretty clear that she is on the left side of Anglicanism. Her academic background in classics (and love of Medieval Catholic symbolism) also shaped the Potter-verse.

So what is the context of the verse on that Potter headstone?

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Is this a news story? A new challenge for pastors: Smartphones that just won't leave them alone

Is this a news story? A new challenge for pastors: Smartphones that just won't leave them alone

If you know anything about the lives of pastors and priests, you know that — when it comes time to help hurting people — they really want to be able to pull aside, slow things down, look into someone’s face and talk things over.

Life does not always allow this, I know.

But my father was a pastor and, at the end of his ministry life, a hospital chaplain who spent most of his time with the parents of children who were fighting cancer.

On the few times I was with him during those hospital shifts, I saw him — over and over — sit in silence with someone, just being there, waiting until they were ready to talk. He was there to help, but mainly he was there to talk, to pray and to wait — for good news or bad news.

It would be hard to imagine a form of human communication that is more different than today’s world of social media apps on smartphones.

That’s why an article that I ran into the other day — via the progressive Baptist News Global website — stopped me dead in my tracks. The headline: “Pastors and other church leaders: Give up social media. Not for Lent, but forever.” I posted the article as a think piece here at GetReligion and then decided that I really need to talk to the author, the Rev. John Jay Alvaro, the lead pastor at the First Baptist Church of Pasadena, Calif.

That led to an “On Religion” column this week for the Universal syndicate and, now, to a “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in).

Why did this topic intrigue me so much?

Well, first of all, it would be hard to name a more powerful trend in human communication today than social media and our omnipresent smartphones. That’s news. And Alvaro is convinced that these social-media programs are seriously warping the work of pastors. That’s a claim that would affect thousands of pastors and millions of people. So, yes, I think this topic is a news subject in and of itself.

Here is a large chunk of my column:

His thesis is that the "dumpster fire" of social-media life is making it harder for pastors to love real people.

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Billy Graham as newspaper columnist: His farewell piece answered an obvious question

Billy Graham as newspaper columnist: His farewell piece answered an obvious question

During the years I worked at The Rocky Mountain News, one of my favorite people was the great columnist Gene Amole. Frankly, most people in that newsroom would have said the same thing about him.

Amole was all about simplicity and writing with his own, unique voice. For example, his columns always opened with single-word ledes. One word, like I simple jab.

So when the crusty World War II vet announced that he had cancer, everyone could imagine how his final column about this fight (The Los Angeles Times noted that the 78-year-old Amole kept writing columns every single day -- for 17 weeks) would begin.

Sure enough, Amole started with: "Goodbye." Then he said what he had to say.

Now, when Americans think of the Rev. Billy Graham, they probably think of lots of things, starting with his preaching.

However, lots of his preaching and other commentaries were -- for decades -- filed away or transcribed and then filed by topics. When people wrote him letters with questions, this material was used in Graham's short "My Answer" newspaper features for the Tribune syndicate.

Thus, when Graham died, you knew that there was a syndicated column that had been filed away many years earlier, during his prime, to answer a logical final question, one that I am sure the great evangelist heard many, many times (almost as many times as the "who will be the next Billy Graham?" question).

That question: "Mr. Graham, how would you like to be remembered?"

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CNN on Clinton's pastor: It's Friday! But Sunday's coming! Or familiar words to that effect ...

CNN on Clinton's pastor: It's Friday! But Sunday's coming! Or familiar words to that effect ...

Once again, I feel the need to respond to some emails requesting my take on a sad, but rather interesting, feature story at CNN.

The headline is certainly a grabber, one that wouldn't be surprising at a "conservative" news outlet or two (or more). But it's news, sort of, when CNN is the prime MSM outlet that goes with this: "Hillary Clinton's pastor plagiarized portion of new book."

This is actually a strong feature story, even though -- as readers stressed -- it includes a sort of "this wasn't really all that big a deal" coda. What is looming in the background is a rarely discussed trend, which is that lots of preachers (past and present) have a tendency to quote all kinds of people without getting into the details about sources. Hold that thought, because we'll come back to it.

So back to that CNN report. Here is the overture:

(CNN) Hillary Clinton's longtime pastor plagiarized the writings of another minister in a new book scheduled to be released on Tuesday.
"Strong for a Moment Like This: The Daily Devotions of Hillary Rodham Clinton," is based on emails that the Rev. Bill Shillady, a United Methodist minister, wrote to Clinton from April 2015 through December of last year. Shillady described his emails as a way to minister to a candidate in perpetual motion.
The pastor and politician formed a spiritual bond after meeting in New York in 2002. Shillady co-officiated at Chelsea Clinton's wedding in 2010, presided over Clinton's mother's memorial service and blessed her grandchildren. Clinton is a lifelong Methodist.
Clinton appears on the cover of "Strong for a Moment Like This," and wrote a foreword for the book praising Shillady and his writings. She is scheduled to appear at an event next month in New York promoting the book. A spokesman for Clinton did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

The key, however, is that Shillady failed to credit the source for some material that ended up in what CNN called an "especially emotional devotion." The source was a March 2016 blog post by the Rev. Matthew Deuel of Mission Point Community Church in Indiana.

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A broken nation hears, according to elite press, vague sermons on unity and reconciliation

A broken nation hears, according to elite press, vague sermons on unity and reconciliation

As America wrestled with bitter realities in Dallas, Baton Rouge, La., and the St. Paul, Minn., area, editors of The Washington Post and The New York Times reached the same conclusion -- this was a good time to send reporters to church, as in black and white churches in these troubled communities.

I agree with that decision, in part because I reached the same conclusion during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, when I was teaching at Denver Seminary. Let me pause, for a second, to explain what that was all about.

The seminary had created a unique seminar -- it was planned long before the riots. Half of the students were black and half were white and our goal was to combine a class on the Old Testament prophets and my mass-media-framed class, "The Contemporary World and the Christian Task."

When the riots broke out, I decided the syllabus outline needed an update. I told the white students to contact black churches and find out (a) what the pastors had preached about on Sunday (days after the riots) and (b) what biblical texts they used. I asked the black students to call white churches, talk to the ministers, and ask the same questions.

So what did our students learn? Before I tell you, let's find out what happened when -- under very similar circumstances -- reporters at these two elite newspapers took on, sort of, the same assignment. Let's start with the Times story, "On a Somber Sunday, ‘One Nation Under God Examines Its Soul.' "

First things first: Times reporters covered several services focusing on justice and racial reconciliation. However, it appears that none of the services included spoken prayers or references to scripture, even when white pastors preached on the sins of white racism and the deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile on Minnesota. Here is a typical anecdote:

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That'll preach: GQ nails down the sins of Alabama's governor, but only in political terms

That'll preach: GQ nails down the sins of Alabama's governor, but only in political terms

Long ago, when I taught media and culture classes at Denver Seminary, I had a large bulletin board in the lobby outside the auditorium on which I pinned all kinds of items from the mainstream press.

This wasn't a current events board. Instead, my goal was to show the seminary community that all kinds of things were happening in the world around them that raised questions that were essentially moral and theological in nature.

There was, for example, a newsweekly cover about female anger and the movie "Thelma and Louise." I wasn't suggesting that pastors show video clips from this R-rated drama. My point was that the controversy swirling around it was important -- especially for people whose churches were involved in divorce-recovery ministry.

Mostly, I was trying to get seminary people to tune in, whenever the culture talks about ultimate questions. Hang on with me for a minute, because this is taking us into the pages of GQ and that feature story called, "The Love Song of Robert Bentley, Alabama's Horndog Governor."

Here is a piece of a book chapter from that time, explaining this "signal" concept:

I believe that our media are constantly sending out "signals" that can help the church go about its ministry and mission work in this post-Christian culture. Sadly, the church and our seminaries are ignoring both the content and social role of popular culture mass media, which are among the most powerful cultural forces in the modern world.
So what is a "signal?" I have defined this as a single piece of media or popular culture focusing on a subject that is of interest to the church. It can be a newspaper article, a single episode of a television show, a compact disc, a movie, a new video, a best-selling book or some other specific item.

Thus, a prime "signal" is when the mass media raise crucial questions, even if their proposed answers are less than adequate, from the church's point of view.

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Sunday at 'Mother Emanuel': What happened to the 'J-word' in many news reports?

Sunday at 'Mother Emanuel': What happened to the 'J-word' in many news reports?

Talk to African-American pastors for any time at all -- as a journalist -- and you will almost certainly hear a common theme emerge.

Many of these preachers and civic leaders are tired of having their work and ministry reduced to political language. In particular, they are fascinated that reporters seem so afraid of specific words that are repeated over and over in worship in their churches, words such as "Jesus," "Lord," "Redeemer" and "Savior."

So if you want to understand where these preachers are coming from, watch the sermon at the top of this post -- start about 9 minutes in -- and then dig into some of the national news coverage. In particular, look for the phrase "in the name of Jesus." Cue up the key passages at 15 minutes and, again, near the end at the 25-minute mark.

So I was worried when I opened up the New York Times report this morning on the first service at Emanuel African American Episcopal Church and read this passage:

In the front pews of Emanuel, Nikki R. Haley, the Indian-American Republican governor of this state, sat among Democrats -- Representative Maxine Waters of California, who is black, and Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. of Charleston, who is white -- and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is black and a fellow Republican. In the back of the church, an unlikely pairing sat next to each other -- Rick Santorum, the conservative Catholic and Republican presidential hopeful, and DeRay McKesson, a liberal activist who is black and gay.
The service beneath Emanuel’s vaulted barrel roof opened with an emotional hymn as nearly the entire congregation stood and sang, “You are the source of my strength, you are the strength of my life,” rounded out with a big “Amen” that was followed by a standing ovation.

You see, the name of that Gospel song in the second paragraph -- after the inevitable (and necessary) litany of political names -- is "Total Praise" and the key lyrics, as commonly used in worship, go like this:

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