How to Get Religion

It's the hiring, stupid.

With that line, Julia Duin set off a lively debate over Poynter.org on how to improve religion coverage.

Here's my two cents.

  • Avoid Either/Or thinking. "There are at least 11 sides to every issue," Michael Gartner told Poytner's Scott M. Libin of the Poyter. Here's a bit more:

    These (either/or) are red flags of the false dichotomy, the logical fallacy of implying that only two mutually exclusive possibilities exist, and denying the existence of other alternatives. It's a popular persuasive device: Either you're part of the solution or part of the problem. Either you're lying now or you were lying then. Either you're with us or you're against us. Poynter Vice President and Senior Scholar Roy Peter Clark wrote about the false dichotomy for Nieman Reports in the fall of 2000: "It diminishes our conversations, limits our options and divides us into camps, setting one orthodoxy against another; all of this violates the interest of those we serve."

  • Immerse yourself in someone else's world/ Spend a lot of time with people who are different. You just might find, as Mark Pinsky did, that evangelicals (or Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, Atheists, Jews--take your pick) are people too. Once he moved to South Florida, "a sea of believing, faithful Christians," his writing and reporting were transformed.

    ...the most intense part of my education came from outside the job, apart from the mediation of a reporter’s notebook. At PTA meetings, at Scouts, in the supermarket checkout line, and in my neighborhood I encountered evangelicals simply as people, rather than as subjects or sources of quotes for my stories. Our children went to the same birthday parties. We sat next to each other in the bleachers while the kids played recreational sports. Our family doctor went on frequent mission trips and kept a New Testament in each examining room

    You might even find that Blue Staters, and Red Staters have a lot in common, as
    Elaine McArdle did when she traveled South for the Boston Globe's Magazine .

    Here's her wrap up, based on a conversation with Michael Johnson, 32, "a lawyer for the Shreveport office of the Alliance Defense Fund, a national conservative legal group."

    Johnson, too, has some thoughts on Massachusetts. "Well, you know in our minds, it's kind of the land of Ted Kennedy and John Kerry. Obviously, it's more liberal in its leanings. I don't have a negative view of all the people in Massachusetts. I know there are a lot of good God-fearing people up there, good Christians . . . ' He pauses, and then, with a kidding tone, he adds, "outnumbered though they might be."

    He jokes that perhaps we should arrange field trips: "If some of our good neighbors in Massachusetts just came down here and spent some time here, they'd realize there are many, many intelligent, articulate, educated people who just happen to believe differently than they do."

    I think about Johnson's words as I fly back to Boston, out of the 60-degree December days and into a city covered in snow. I reflect on this irony: that I love Boston because it is so open-minded and tolerant, and yet it shows little interest in trying to understand the South, a beautiful part of our country, where, as you walk down a sidewalk, a stranger will smile and say, "Hey, how you doin' today?" I think of how these cultural differences have enormous political implications. We ignore them at our peril.

    We ignore them at our peril.


Discomfort Us with Easy Answers

A Prayer of St. Francis. (Thanks to Ian,M and BeneD )

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, to that you may work for freedom, justice and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain to joy.

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.


Sinister Missionaries

Maybe it's because I'm working on a story about a missionary who has spent the last few weeks setting up water purification systems for tsunami victims and helping clean out a Muslim religion education building that had been used as a morgue, or maybe it was just see a picture of Bob and Thormbloom (whose daughters are friends) at the gravesite of Bob's sister Bev, who died in Congo at age six while her dad was a missionary doctor. Or maybe it's most of the missionaries I know are doctors and development workers who have spent their lives serving people, at considerable personal cost and risk, because that's what they feel God wanted them to do.

But something about the "sinister missionary" stories who mix faith and relief efforts really bugs me. There's been a slew of them since the tsunami, and most are like the one in yesterday's New York Times .

I'm not expert on the Aceh province of Indonesia and maybe Sri Lanka is a "religious tinderbox" as the Times described it. And whether the group from Antioch Community Church is a "plain vanilla NGO" or not is up for debate.

But here's a couple of things I do know.

Presence Matters in Tragedy.

Gordon Atkinson, better known as the Real Live Preacher put it this way in his essay "Everett Thomas Taylor Was a Real Boy written after he visited a family whose baby son was born prematurely.

“I am keeper of a most sacred truth. It is the incarnation truth that enables ministers to go into the grief storm unafraid. If you come in the name of Christ and stand with people in their grief, you have done the single most important thing you can do and the only thing they will remember. You might bring words with you, and they might even be good and helpful ones, but your presence is what matters. “If you know this truth, whatever you have will be sufficient. If you do not know this, all that you have."

Whether it's a group from Texas that organized activities in a refugee camp or two t-shirt vendors from Fenway Park going to Bagdhad (see "My Big BreaK" in this week's This American Life , there is power in just being with people in tragedy. You see a glimpse of that in the Times story--after hearing from relief groups and local leaders who think the Antioch folks are acting unethically, we read that the people in the refugee camp they visited want them to stay.

Residents of the camp here reported no healings as a result of the group's prayers. But they said they appreciated the aid and activities for children that the group provided and did not want to see them end.

(On a related note, a headline in today's Times read "After Treating Victims' Bodies, Indonesia and Sri Lanka Turn to Hearts and Minds" --isn't there a place for religion in helping heal people's minds and hearts, not just in saving their souls)

Humanitarian relief is often a religious act

Rev. Jimmy Seibert's assertion that missionary work and aid work "is one thing, not two separate things" is not that far removed from Jim Wallis "19th Century Evangelicalism" or John Kerry's assertion that "Faith without works is death."

There’s a reason that Catholic Relief Services, Lutheran World Relief, World Vision, and a host of other religious charities are Sri Lanka and Indonesia and will be long after the Red Cross and the US military are gone.

God told them to go there.

Evangelicals get a lot of things wrong. But they aren't monsters. They don't trade bread or medicine or food for souls.


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