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That crucial role Pat Robertson plays for way too many American political journalists

That crucial role Pat Robertson plays for way too many American political journalists

What images leap into your mind when you hear the word “televangelist”?

If you are a certain age, you probably think of the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart weeping and choking out the words, “I … HAVE … SINNED!” For millions of other folks — especially journalists, like me, who once worked at The Charlotte Observer — this term will always be linked to the Rev. Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Bakker.

But what does the word actually mean and is it the best term to describe the Rev. Pat Roberson? That’s one of the topics that came up during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes and sign up. The main topic we discussed this week? That would be Robertson’s headline-grabbing remarks about Alabama’s new abortion law:

"I think Alabama has gone too far," Robertson said Wednesday on "The 700 Club" before the bill was signed into law by Alabama's Republican Gov. Kay Ivey. "It's an extreme law."

The key question: Why did Robertson say what he said? What did readers need to know to understand what he was trying to say, whether they agreed with him or not? Hold that thought.

Meanwhile, back to that mild journalism curse word — “televangelist.” The pros at Merriam-Webster online offer a nice, logical definition:

… an evangelist who conducts regularly televised religious programs.

OK, that assumes that this person’s primary job is doing public, evangelistic events — like, for example, the Rev. Billy Graham.

The definition offered by the Cambridge Dictionary is a bit more candid:

… The activity of preaching (= giving religious speeches) on television in order to persuade people to become Christians and give money to religious organizations.

Ah, yes, raising money is crucial. But note that the primary goal remains winning people to Christian faith. Does that describe most of the work Robertson has done during his long media career?

I think the blunt offering at Dictionary.com — the source favored by Google — is precisely what most reporters are thinking when they use this term:

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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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Theology in headlines: When a terrorist starts quoting Calvinism, journalists should be careful

Theology in headlines: When a terrorist starts quoting Calvinism, journalists should be careful

No doubt about it, when a domestic terrorist starts defending his actions with concepts drawn from the great Protestant reformer John Calvin, it is time for journalists to up their games.

The manifesto published by John Earnest, the accused gunman at Chabad of Poway, is a classic example of a story that all but demands that newsrooms deploy one or two journalists with experience covering the nuts and bolts of religion and, to be specific, church history. Here is one of my earlier posts on this puzzle: “Weaponized Calvinism? Accused shooter said his salvation was assured, no matter what.”

The key is that Earnest was preaching a deadly sermon that — he stated this, in writing — had multiple sources. While he was clearly influenced by the conservative Calvinism of his home congregation, Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church, his words and the testimony of church members indicated that he had, for the most part, rejected much of what he heard during his days in a pew.

In the end, his manifesto took centuries of fierce anti-Semitism from sources online and mixed it with a key theme in Calvinism — that believers who have been chosen (the elect) by God are assured of salvation, no matter what. As Earnest said:

My God understands why I did what I did. … To my brothers in Christ of all races. Be strong. Although the Jew who is inspired by demons and Satan will attempt to corrupt your soul with the sin and perversion he spews — remember that you are secure in Christ.

During this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in) I stressed that reporters would need help navigating the astonishingly complex world of debates inside Calvinism. That was the bad news. The good news is that — because of several years of arguments about the alt-right and the heresy of white supremacy — there are lots of conservative Calvinists around who are ready to fire soundbites at these targets. They are, as I said, the theological equivalent of “lawyered up.”

There are places to head online to get a head start. Check out this giant double-decker headline at Christianity Today:

Who’s to Blame When the Shooter Is One of Our Own?

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Covering 'flyover' America: Did CNN's Brian Stelter say the press just doesn't 'get' religion?

Covering 'flyover' America: Did CNN's Brian Stelter say the press just doesn't 'get' religion?

Every year, I write a mid-April column linked to the anniversary of the creation of my national “On Religion” column, which started out as a weekly feature for the Scripps Howard News Service (while I was working for The Rocky Mountain News) and is now carried by the Universal syndicate).

This annual column always focuses on patterns and trends in religion news. I guess you could say that I use this as an update on why I ventured into religion-news work in the first place. This often turns into a “Crossroads” podcast, as well (click here to tune that in).

I’ve been doing that for 31 years now. That’s getting close to a third of a century and, as you would expect, I have this drill down pretty well. Thus, somewhere around the first of the year, I start looking for an event, a book, a provocative op-ed page piece or something else to serve as a hook for this anniversary piece.

This year, I ran into a CNN podcast — the Feb. 20 episode of Reliable Sources with Brian Stelter — featuring Timothy P. Carney of The Washington Examiner, discussing his new book “Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse.” This discussion set off all kinds of alarms in my head — so many that it was hard for me to pick one hook for the 31st anniversary column.

Well, then Notre Dame Cathedral caught on fire and, well, lots of journalists started writing pieces that sounded like they were covering a disaster in a museum or some kind of government building — as opposed to a holy place. I simply had to write about that. One thing led to another, and the Notre Dame fire turned into my anniversary column for this year. Here’s a sample:

… American television networks solemnly told viewers that "art," "artifacts" and "works of art" had been retrieved from this iconic structure at the heart of Paris. In a major story about the fire, The New York Times noted that Notre Dame Cathedral had "for centuries … enshrined an evolving notion of Frenchness."

That's an interesting way to describe the world's second most famous Catholic cathedral, after St. Peter's in Rome. Then again, is a container of what Catholics believe is bread consecrated to be the Body of Christ best described as a "cultural artifact"? Is "in shock" the best way to describe Parisians praying the Rosary and singing "Ave Maria"?

For several decades, I have been asking these kinds of questions while covering religion news and studying how our mass media struggle with religion. This past week marked my 31st anniversary writing this national "On Religion" column.

Was the Notre Dame catastrophe a "religion" story or a drama linked to cultural changes in post-Christian France? I think the answer is "yes" — to both.

OK, so what happened to the piece I had planned about the chat between Carney and Stelter?

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That mass-media firestorm surrounding 'Unplanned': Is 'censorship' the right word here?

That mass-media firestorm surrounding 'Unplanned': Is 'censorship' the right word here?

So, there’s another one of those “Christian” niche-market movies that’s about to come to a theater near you. Maybe you’re heard about it? Or maybe you have even seen the trailer for “Breakthrough” before one of those family friendly movies at your local multiplex?

There’s a good chance that you have been able to see the trailer, as explained in this Religion News Service piece. That fact alone turns this into a somewhat different “Christian movie in the marketplace” story than the one that “Crossroads” host Todd Wilken and I discussed during this week’s podcast (click here to tune that in).

Why? Hang in there with me, because this will take some explaining.

Producer DeVon Franklin was “blown away” by the Smiths’ story several years ago when he met Joyce and John Smith and their pastor, Jason Noble, while promoting his film “Miracles From Heaven.” …

The producer said “Breakthrough” builds on the success of the other films he has produced with explicitly Christian messages: “Miracles From Heaven,” which also is based on the true story of a mother holding on to faith as her child faces a health crisis, and “The Star,” an animated film telling the story of Jesus’ birth from the viewpoint of the animals.

And it’s well positioned to reach even more people, he said. Franklin said he was surprised how many movies the trailer has accompanied in theaters since then and by the positive response they have received. He’s seen “unprecedented interest in this type of content,” he said.

Now, if the trailer for this movie is showing in front of lots of mainstream films — like the superheat “Mary Poppins Returns” — and reaching family friendly audiences, then that would mean that “Breakthrough” is rated PG — which it is. The film has also been welcomed, without rancor, into the world of social media.

So how is this different from that other Christian-market movie that is in the news right now? What have you read about “Unplanned” and its attempts to reach the emerging marketplace for faith-driven films?

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Peter Boyer in Esquire: Thinking about Trump, advocacy journalism, religion and stick-on labels

Peter Boyer in Esquire: Thinking about Trump, advocacy journalism, religion and stick-on labels

The news media vs. Donald Trump.

Donald Trump vs. the mainstream news media.

Who will win in this epic life and death steel-cage wrestling match?

Well, you can argue that the media has already lost this battle, in that Trump now resides in the White House.

One could also argue that Trump has successfully rewritten the rules of public discourse in a way that has forced journalists to abandon many of their most important standards linked to fairness, objectivity and even accuracy. The more journalists veer into a Trump-style screaming match, the more they fit into the stereotypes that The Donald has created for them.

This brings us to an important Esquire piece written by magazine-pro Peter Boyer. If you know this work — including his years at The New Yorker — you know that he has a reputation as a reporter with an uncanny knack for covering both sides of tense, angry arguments. (See this classic New Yorker piece on Mel Gibson and The Passion of the Christ.)

So what does this Esquire piece have to do with religion-beat reporting? Read the following and think of former New York Times editor Bill Keller and his statement that the Times was attempting to do balanced, accuracy coverage of the news, “other than” many topics linked to culture, morality and religion.

So the scene opens with Boyer interviewing Trump:

… Amid those passing controversies was one story that Trump himself remembers clearly still. “Yep, very famous story,” he remarked to me in a recent interview. “It was a very important story...” Trump was referring to a front-page New York Times article published on August 8, 2016, under the headline "The Challenge Trump Poses to Objectivity." The opening paragraph posed a provocative question:

“If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?”

There is more, of course:

Reporters who considered Trump “potentially dangerous,” [Jim] Rutenberg wrote, would inevitably move closer “to being oppositional” to him in their reporting — “by normal standards, untenable.” Normal standards, the column made clear, no longer applied.

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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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When it comes to press coverage, why do some persecuted believers get more ink than others?

When it comes to press coverage, why do some persecuted believers get more ink than others?

When it comes to life inside the D.C. Beltway, veteran scribe Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard (RIP) has seen a thing or two — to say the least.

So when Barnes describes a political scene as one of his favorite Washington vignettes, that’s saying something. In this case, a classic Barnes anecdote is a great way to introduce readers to this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, which focuses on media coverage — or the lack of coverage — of the persecution of religious believers.

Click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes and sign up to follow our podcasts.

It’s pretty clear that many journalists, perhaps following the lead of government officials, consider some stories about religious persecution to be more important than others. So why do some stories leap into A1 headlines or the top of evening newscasts, while others receive little or no digital ink at all (other than coverage by the religious press)?

So our symbolic mini-drama takes place in 1994, when President Bill Clinton and his political team was working to improve trade, and thus political ties, with the People’s Republic of China. The strategy was to focus less attention on human rights issues and more attention on communication and, well, bartering. I like the wording in this Slate article, noting that the “Clinton administration made a sudden about-face, declaring it would ‘delink’ Chinese trade policy from human rights.”

One would expect political liberals to protest this heresy. Correct? And one would expect that Republicans would welcome anything that improved the lives of American corporate leaders. Correct?

There was, however, a subject that changed the dynamics in this story — religion.

Many conservatives — that’s the Religious Right, in pressthink — opposed these Clinton moves because of rising concerns about the persecution of China’s growing underground churches (Catholic and Protestant). At the same time, many mainstream liberals were not comfortable clashing with a Democrat in the White House, especially if that meant standing next to religious fanatics.

However, there were still idealists on the cultural far left — think Hollywood, in particular — who stood their ground, due to their fury over China’s treatment of Tibetan Buddhists.

So the setting for this Barnes anecdote was a protest rally near the Clinton White House. On the rally stage, activist Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council approached another speaker — actor Richard “Pretty Woman” Gere.

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Journalists may want to ask: When will United Methodist left decide that enough is enough?

Journalists may want to ask: When will United Methodist left decide that enough is enough?

Way back in the 1980s, as the sex wars in the Episcopal Church really began to heat up, I heard a conservative priest tell a joke that gently mocked many of his Anglo-Catholic colleagues on the doctrinal right.

The whole point of the joke is that it is really hard to cut the ties that bind, when people have invested decades of their lives in religious institutions and traditions. And then there are the all-too human, practical details that come into play. In the end, it may be easier to edit the Apostles Creed and modernize the prayer book than it is to split the clergy pension play or divide a denomination’s trust funds.

Which brings us back to that joke that I have shared once or twice in the past. I have left the time-element in the first line intact. Like I said, it’s an old joke.

The year is 2012 … and two Anglo-Catholic priests in the back of National Cathedral are watching the Episcopal presiding bishop and her incense-bearing lover process down the aisle behind a statue of the Buddha, while the faithful sing a hymn to Mother Earth.

"You know," one traditionalist whispers, "ONE more thing and I'm out the door."

Right now, in the multi-decade United Methodist Church civil war, things may be close to reaching that point for LGBTQ clergy and their supporters on the denomination’s doctrinal left. What will it take for these believers — who are sincerely convinced that 2,000 years of Christian doctrines on marriage and sex should be changed — to decide that enough is enough?

That’s the key question that I asked during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. (Click here to tune that in, or head over the iTunes.) What would this old “ONE more thing” joke look like today, if you turned it around — doctrinally speaking — and looked at it from the point of view of United Methodists on the left?

Maybe you would have two United Methodist pastors from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver — long a safe haven for the left — standing at the back of a global General Conference that is being held in a United Methodist stronghold in Africa. They are watching an African bishop walk down the aisle with his wife with his hands in the air singing an evangelical praise song. The service ends with the Rev. Franklin Graham giving an altar call.

One more thing and I’m out the door?

Then what? That was the other half of the equation in this podcast. Follow me through a few “ifs” here.

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