Photojournalism from Whitney Houston’s Home-going Service

Whitney Houston funeral guest showing program to journalists

Whitney Houston funeral guest showing program to journalists (photo by Christine A. Scheller)

For more photos from Whitney Houston’s Homegoing Service, click here.

Reporting on Whitney Houston funeral

Trying to Get the Money Shot at Whitney Houston's funeral (photo by Christine A. Scheller).

Trying to Get the Money Shot at Whitney Houston’s funeral (photo by Christine A. Scheller).

More from Reporting on Whitney Houston’s funeral here.

What I Wrote This Week @UrbanFaith: February 13 – February 17

Hitchhiker, NYC

  • On Location at Whitney’s Farewell: What reporting on location at Whitney Houston’s semi-private, gospel-filled funeral taught me about spiritual battles, grace, and celebrity.
  • Marriage Is for Black People, TooRalph Richards Banks’ book ‘Is Marriage for White People?’ made him the target of angry critics. Now, the author has his say about interracial dating, the link between fewer marriages and the crisis in black communities, and his take on conservative scholar Charles Murray’s latest book on class and race.
  • Obama Birth Control Compromise Take 2Activist Lisa Sharon Harper and ethicists Cheryl J. Sanders and Charles C. Camosy weigh in on the Obama administration’s contraception mandate accommodation.

Deceit & Hidden Cameras in the Abortion Debate @TheHuffingtonPost

As a Christian, a pro-lifer, and a journalist, I’m ambivalent about the Planned Parenthood hidden camera sting that was perpetrated here in central New Jersey and reported sporadically by news outlets this week. The California based anti-abortion activist group Live Action sent two actors into a clinic posing as sex traffickers and recorded an employee doling out unethical, dangerous, and illegal advice that would keep the duo in business.

As a Christian I’m uncomfortable with both the failure of the office worker to report the couple to authorities and the entrapment of her by the activists. When is it appropriate to lie? The biblical stories of the midwives who refused to kill male infants as commanded by Egypt’s pharaoh and Rahab’s deception that saved Jewish spies in Jericho both seem to affirm lying when it’s done to save lives, but I question whether or not any lives will be saved as a result of this action.

As a pro-lifer, I doubt this kind of activism ultimately advances the goal of reducing abortion. On one hand, undeniable truth is exposed. On the other, the bad will it inspires is a serious blow to the common ground efforts that I believe hold the best hope of actually bringing down the abortion rate in the United States. Also, as pro-lifer Rachael Laramore writes at Slate,

“Planned Parenthood should be responsible for the actions of its employees. It should at least be held to the same standards that the left wants crisis-pregnancy centers held to–no false advertising, no erroneous medical information. But it’s extremely unlikely that there are multitudes of men walking into Planned Parenthood trying to get cheap abortions for their sex workers. And the young women who count on the group’s cheap birth control will be the ones who are harmed if Planned Parenthood loses its federal funding.”

As a journalist, I’m ambivalent about the use of hidden cameras and deception. At the journalism resource, several articles address the ethical problems inherent in using deception to reveal truth. When it comes to using hidden cameras, an article by Bob Steele offers the following factors to consider:

The Importance Threshold

“Since we are in the business of pursuing truth, there is more than a hint of hypocrisy when we use some form of deceit to pursue the truth. We can only justify that inconsistency and the use of deception when we truly serve a greater principle, such as pursuing a highly important and otherwise elusive truth. Therein lies the first standard for deciding when it is appropriate to use hidden cameras. To justify deception we must be pursuing exceptionally important information. It must be of vital public interest, such as preventing profound harm to individuals or revealing great system failure.”

Tools of Last Resort

“This covert method of newsgathering amplifies any accusations we make. We must insure that the tone and emphasis of hidden camera video meet standards for factual accuracy and contextual authenticity.”

Trinagulate & Test Assumptions

“We must devote enough resources, time and attention to gather the right facts and make sure our facts are right. We must supplement the surreptitious video with insightful observations, seeing and retaining important details of a scene that might not be captured by the camera.”

Know and Respect the Law

“We must pay close attention to the legal land mines in hidden camera reporting. Stations must develop sound strategies that recognize matters of defamation and privacy, including false light and intrusion torts. We can be vigorous in our reporting if we are clear on the law regarding fraud, trespass and surreptitious recording of audio. The law appropriately protects citizens. We should honor the law while also responsibly serving the public.”

Live Action’s amateur investigative work meets the Importance Threshold in my opinion, but I’m not sure it meets the other three criteria. A quick search of the bios on its website reveals that no one on the leadership team has journalistic training. Their success causes me to not only question the veracity and ethics of the work, it makes me lament the fact that more professionals aren’t doing excellent, unbiased reporting like this from ProPublica’s Marian Wang.

In the New Jersey case, the first outcome is that one woman lost her job. While she seems incredibly callous in the video, I assume that hers is a tragically misguided attempt to minimize the consequences of sex trafficking on underage girls who are beyond her reach, or as one commenter at GetReligion suggests, perhaps to get them into the clinic away from the pimps so that they can be helped.

Hidden camera video doesn’t reveal what is in a person’s mind and I don’t believe this is a singular story. The woman identified in the video as Amy Woodruff is culpable for her actions, but she has also become a convenient scapegoat. It’s understandable that pro-life activists wouldn’t be interested in what it means for Woodruff’s family for her to lose a job they believe is immoral, but as a Christian I am concerned about the harm that was done to them in the name of the cause.

*Update: Three additional videos have been released from clinics in Virginia.

Update 2/7: This article has now been published at The Huffington Post.

The High Calling of Journalism: A Candid Interview with Philip Yancey @The High Calling

Philip Yancey is the author of 20 books that have sold more than 15 million copies in 35 languages. Thirteen of his books have won Gold Medallion awards from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) and two, The Jesus I Never Knew and What’s So Amazing About Grace? were selected as ECPA Book of the Year. Yancey worked as a journalist for 20 years. He was editor and eventually publisher of Campus Life magazine. For many years, he wrote a monthly column for Christianity Today and still serves the magazine as Editor at Large. Yancey lives with his wife in Colorado, but travels internationally in search of compelling faith stories. The High Calling interviewed him about his vocational calling and his latest book, What Good Is God? Here’s a bit of the interview:

Christine SchellerWhat Good Is God? seems like a different book to me than your previous books.  I don’t recall you ever doing a collection of speeches with commentary before.

Philip Yancey:  I couldn’t find a model of a book that had combined journalism and related speeches in context.  So, it may be a different book, period.

Christine Scheller:  How did you come up with the idea?

Philip Yancey:  It came about after my wife Janet and I were involved in the Mumbai situation that I wrote about in the last chapter.  I was scheduled to speak downtown the night of the terrorist attacks in which 175 people died.  Our meeting was canceled, of course.  Instead, a smaller group of people spontaneously came together in a church and asked me to speak to them.  I looked out over that shocked and grieving audience—what could I say?

It was such a traumatic experience. When we left, I realized that I’ve been in all sorts of interesting situations.  It actually reflects what has happened to my career apart from my desires.  I feel most comfortable as a journalist taking notes, interviewing people and writing. I’ve done it for so long and have had so many books published that people started seeing me as a content person, as someone who could guide them. This was an identity crisis for me about ten years ago.  One way I resolved it was to accept overseas assignments, because I just don’t like the celebrity culture in the United States. Internationally, people are very grateful to have someone come and speak.  Because of the conditions in the places I visit, I generally don’t feel like I’m being pampered. So, it seemed like a healthier way to handle the success I’ve found in writing. …

Read the whole thing here.

Ordained Into Wet Cement: What Does ‘Anglican’ Mean? Not @TheRevealer after all

Way back in August, when Becky Garrison wrote a little article “Ordained Into the Abstract: What Does Anglican Mean?” for The Revealer, which describes itself as “a daily review of religion and media,” I tweeted that I disagreed with her point of view and her description of evangelicals in the piece. An editor at the review direct messaged me asking if I would consider writing a response, which I did. Amidst the busy September religion news cycle, my response was left to grow stale.

Then this weekend, while I was tweeting away at the Religion Newswriters Association annual conference in Denver, I received an email from the editor asking me to revise my response. She said she could intuit from the piece what my political positions are on homosexuality and women’s ordination and she challenged me to come out with them and speak up for injustice where I find it. I replied that people choose their churches for complex reasons and that it would be wrong to assume anything about my positions based on where I go to church, because I’ve never entirely agreed with the values of a church I’ve attended and that remains true now. I also said that as a journalist, I feel no responsibility to be on the record about all any of my personal convictions.

As it happens, on the way home from Denver, I read an article about Anglican-Episcopal splintering over homosexuality in a lofty religion journal. The writer did a good job giving voice to both sides of the issue, but I could easily discern from the sources he quoted in his sidebar and who he gave the last word to in the main article that his sympathies lie with liberal Episcopalians on this issue. It also happens that Facebook recently suggested this writer as a “friend” for me. From his profile picture with another man and the comments that accompanied it, I just as easily discerned that he is gay. I wondered as I was flying through the night if the neutral tone masking his personal stake in the issue isn’t more of a problem than terminology or my own unwillingness to state a bias that I do not possess about an issue in which I have much less personal stake. It all seems so odd to me.

In the end I decided that the revisions the editor requested would be too time consuming, given that I will not be paid for the work. So here is my very stale response to Becky Garrison’s contention that it is wrong to call breakaway priests and churches Anglican.

In her Revealer article, “Ordained Into the Abstract: What does ‘Anglican’ Mean?” my friend and fellow Episcopalian, Becky Garrison, says the term Anglican has been distorted by conservative evangelicals and traditionalists who have left the Episcopal church over the issues of homosexual ordination and the blessing of same sex unions. She views the alternate bodies they’ve created as imposters and wishes media outlets would stop bestowing the purebred label on these rogue priests and provinces.

I do not pretend to know what’s in the minds of others, but I do know that the Episcopal Church’s decisions regarding homosexuality are viewed as symptoms of the denomination’s departure from orthodoxy rather than its cause by many conservatives. Becky knows this. It diminishes discourse, in my opinion, to misconstrue the motives of those with whom one disagrees.

We’re all guilty at times of careless generalizations, but when Becky links to an interview by fellow Episcopalian David Neff in Christianity Today as a kind of circumstantial evidence of media complicity in this crime, I must cry foul on her crying foul. What her assessment sounds like  is less a critical analysis than an ardent fan blaming a biased umpire for deciding a call in the other team’s favor.

I myself was confirmed an Anglican at St. James Church in Newport Beach, CA, when it was affiliated with the Diocese of Luwero, Uganda, after it left the Episcopal Church. When my membership was transferred to an Episcopal church last year, the diocese didn’t question the validity of my confirmation or ask me to be re-confirmed now that St. James has aligned itself with an upstart North American Anglican organization. It’s a good thing too, because I would have refused. However much our presiding bishop disagrees with traditionalists, he still apparently views us all as Anglicans. Why the Rev. Doctor Maggi Dawn (who Becky cites) should hold more sway in regard to who is and who isn’t an Anglican than him or Ugandan Archbishop Henry Luke Orombe under whom I was confirmed, I cannot imagine.

If Becky wants to appeal to an individual at all, perhaps it ought to be Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who, in the wake of the Episcopal Church’s consecration of its second gay bishop said her election “raises very serious questions not just for the Episcopal church and its place in the Anglican Communion, but for the Communion as a whole.”Additionally, the Anglican Church issued a statement to the Episcopal News Service saying the consecration “shows that the TEC [the Episcopal Church] has now explicitly decided to walk apart from most of the rest of the Communion.”

Now, I respect the fact that Becky is a cradle Episcopalian while I am a church hopping mixed-breed evangelical, but I honestly don’t get her appeal to Anglican history either. Ours is a branch of Christianity that was founded in dissent and our democratic forbears were given special consideration, not to mention a unique name, because it was impossible for them to swear fealty to the English crown. We North American Anglicans are, for better and worse, acting in accord with our heritage, both political and ecclesial. In attempting to widen her argument to include Newsweek’s use of the term Presbyterian to describe Redeemer Presbyterian pastor Tim Keller, Becky demonstrates nothing so much as that denominational splintering is writ large in Protestant DNA.

Had my friend appealed to the 1930 Lambeth Conference statement as Anglicans Online did instead of maligning evangelicals and appealing to Lambeth generally, I might have given her argument more sway, though I still would have disagreed. Here’s how Anglicans Online describes its decision to label The Anglican Mission in the Americas (AMiA) as “Not in the Communion”:

“When a person or parish leaves a national church, for whatever reasons—doctrinal, personal, spiritual, theological—it does just that: it leaves. The leaving is tantamount to saying: ‘This entity has become something I can no longer be a part of’. That decision prima facie breaks communion.

In these days of easy transport and effortless technology, of course it is possible to virtually affiliate with another part of the Anglican Communion that seems to be more in line with one’s own thinking. But unless one physically moves oneself or one’s parish to that geographically-defined national church, one cannot claim to be in communion through some sort of virtual relationship.

Perhaps the definition of a national church or province will need to be altered, to take into effect the increasing globalisation of the communion through the Internet and what that means to the understanding of ‘diocese’ or ‘episcope’. As yet, that redefinition has not taken place.”

But can redefinition be far off?

A more interesting subject for this type of critique would be The Huffington Post Religion channel headline: “Interview with Toni Tortirilla, Female Catholic Priest.” The accompanying Religion News Service (RNS) article clearly states that Tortirilla was ordained in the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement. It proceeds to say that “within a year of her 2007 ordination, the Vatican said women who attempted to be ordained—and those who tried to ordain them—were automatically excommunicated.” The Pope can do that sort of thing, so it seems to me that The Huffington Post is being intentionally provocative in describing Tortirilla as a Catholic priest. In comparison, describing internationally recognized Anglicans by their preferred name isn’t controversial.

While Becky advocates careful use of terms, she herself is careless. In her conclusion, for example, she writes, “This battle over the blessing of same sex unions and ordination of gay clergy needs to be placed in the larger context of the culture wars being waged by fundamentalist Christians against the rising forces of ‘secular humanism.’ In the eyes of these righteous warriors, their chief enemies are feminists, gay activists and others who advance what they perceive to be the ‘secular humanist’ agenda.” Suddenly she is no longer talking about evangelicals involved in an intra-denominational dispute. Now their actions are a function of fundamentalists fighting secular humanism. As an evangelical Anglican, I must protest.

“Poverty is on the Agenda” at

My first article for Urban Faith is up. It’s a report on the Sojourners/World Vision Mobilization to End Poverty event I attended in Washington D.C. last month. My reporting for Urban Faith focuses primarily on the experiences of other attendees at the event. I was also asked to write a blog post for about my own experience at MEP. After agreeing to do so and then attending the event, I realized I had made a mistake because I couldn’t really do honest journalism for the event host. When an outlet reports on its own event, it is called public relations. I decided to submit an honest account of my experience and let the chips fall where they may. elected not to publish this account. I take the editors at their word that the problem was with the writing and not with my critique. It’s pretty dull, I guess, and perhaps tangential, but I present it here nonetheless. Make of it what you will.

What to make of an anti-poverty event that could easily cost participants $500-$1000 or more, depending on how far they traveled, where they slept and what they ate? I ask the question not as a criticism, but because it influenced my one day experience of the Mobilization to End Poverty gathering, and my early exit from it.

The recommended hotel cost $245 a night, an amount higher than any I have ever paid for a hotel, even when my husband earned a six-figure income. I might have stayed at a hostel for $50 if I had acted early, but instead I camped alone for $16 a night at Greenbelt National Park in nearby Maryland. A late model German station wagon served as my “tent.” For dinner I prepared Trader Joe’s noodles with a cup of hot water that I grubbed at McDonald’s. I covered my interior windows with $9 worth of “made in China” tablecloths I had purchased at a nearby dollar store. They quickly filled my abode with the suffocating smell of formaldehyde. (How toxic must those factories be?) As evening wore on, I tried to read the 100th anniversary edition of Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis, but felt vulnerable, alone and foolish for setting up camp in what passes for a DC suburb.

What little sleep I got was periodically interrupted by the sound of sirens in the distance. Looking put together and professional after such a night is a challenge I don’t care to repeat. It’s a challenge I’m not sure I could endure with grace on a daily basis. By the time I arrived at the convention center, I felt unkempt. Inferior. Apart from attendees I imagined could afford to comfortably lobby and talk about poverty—even though I’ve spent the past six months working hard to gain access to tax-payer funded mental health services for an uninsured and currently uninsurable family member. I rejoice in care of questionable quality because it is something and it’s cheap.

From this vantage point I assessed day one of the Mobilization to End Poverty.

The speakers were inspiring—more consistently inspiring than most on the poverty circuit, according to a couple Sisters of Charity from Leavenworth, Kansas. Biblical mandates flowed freely, and startled when they too closely resembled mandates anointing a different political agenda that had been roundly and rightly criticized from these quarters.

Activists were enthused. A couple expectant Presbyterian fathers from Bradenton, Florida, were there looking for inspiration. They had flown into town, but were staying with friends in the suburbs. One is a church youth group leader; the other a board member of his local chapter of Habitat for Humanity. At the close of day one, both had gained renewed enthusiam for themselves and their ministries. The investment was clearly worth it to them.

 A Lutheran attendee from Pennsylvania said he was excited to be there talking about something other than abortion and gay marriage. Yes, but why must we denounce? The rigor of the abortion debate was appropriate to its time and is evolving in ways appropriate to our time. The gay marriage debate is one worth having. We should applaud it, and add to it, not shirk from it. Ambivalence on this issue dare not speak its name and that’s not good. What does it require of me to oppose hunger or affirm health care reform?  Certainly nothing as gauche as meddling in other people’s sex lives. Unless of course one deigns to get their hands dirty with real people—people like my grandfather, who produced six children and then abandoned them.

It’s easier to meddle in people’s money, especially with an economic crisis and an unpopular war that create convenient platforms upon which to build our case. On Monday afternoon, no less than former CEO and current World Vision president Richard Stearns compared the 2009 economic collapse to the 1989 fall of communism, saying unrestrained capitalism had been found “bankrupt” and “inadequate” in the same way unrestrained communism had twenty years ago. He spoke truth to the choir.

So let me meddle. In addition to denouncing corporate greed, how about, as longtime urban minister Rudy Carrasco suggested to me, we lobby business for its support in the same way we lobby elected officials? Doing it already? Fine. Then don’t dismiss the interests of business.

Instead of comparing and contrasting one pro-life cause with another, as Monday night’s preacher did, how about we make Obama accountable for his promises to support responsible fatherhood, adoption and abortion reduction?

In my husband’s work as case worker and pastor to homeless men at Double R Ranch in Warner Springs, CA, one of his responsibilities was to help men re-enter the lives of their children. Often this meant getting them to see beyond themselves and their own histories of failure to the welfare of others. The process began with caring for the ranch’s 40+ horses and other animals. It also included requiring them to contribute a portion of their minuscule incomes to the support of their children and facing the women who were busy cleaning up their messes.

Last year, I emailed my elected representatives to ask them to vote for the Paul Wellstone-Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, a bill that requires insurers that offer mental health coverage to do so equitably. A bill that President Obama sponsored as a senator and that President Bush signed into law. It’s a pro-life issue I heartily supported as the mother of a child who died by suicide and whose birth was ensured by the advocacy of notorious pro-lifers like the late Jerry Falwell.

I realized this week that I cannot afford face time with my legislators in Washington right now, but I can make a difference. First by caring for my own family members and others within my sphere of influence, second by contributing tax revenue to fund sources of support upon which my loved ones currently depend, third by advocating for a wide variety of pro-life causes and, finally, by challenging my peers.

So let me close with this reflection: It’s great to rally the troops and celebrate our victories, as long as we don’t become the thing we despise. Don’t become the thing you despised Sojourners. You have friends of all political and theological persuasions.

Update: Sojourners included my UrbanFaith article in their media accounts of MEP.

Poetry with Pinsky

First a confession: I’m in the meet and greet line after poet extraordinaire Robert Pinsky  read and described his work to a crowd from his (and my children’s) hometown of Long Branch, New Jersey, when the woman who had been behind me is suddenly in front of me. My hobbling husband is waiting at the front and, being both a little wound up and vaguely concerned about how long he would have to stand there leaning on his cane, I say to her, "You cut in line." To which she replies, "No, I didn’t." "Yes, you did," I insist. Then, with electric poodle hair and glowering eyes, she turns fully in my face and roars, "Shut up! Lady." Whoaoaoaoa.

I’m not sure I said anything after that. I think I grumbled under my breath a bit, then waved my spouse over and whispered in his ear. Not shy of anything or anyone, he reprimands her. We enter the Twilight Zone . Woman, to me, seething: "I’m the chair of the English department, retired. I’m going to write a short story about you!" Hah! Lady. What? Are you kidding? "Journalist," I retort. "I’ll write about you," and here I am, hesitant to embarrass an elder statesman of the field, but how can I resist sharing such an absurdity as dueling exposure threats? It is the one sour note from a delightful afternoon. Obviously, I should have just let her pass. Normally, I would have. What’s the harm after all?

I fell a little bit in love with the poet, I think, and was, probably like her, eager to get to him and, yes, to my own sweet spouse. On the way to the car after we have our brief interlude with Pinsky, I say to Jeff, "This is classic. I confront someone for being out of turn. They threaten me with ‘Do you know who I am?’ which never, ever, ever elicits the desired response, and our experience is sullied while she goes on to schmooze with the luminaries." When will I learn?

Robert Pinsky grew up the son of an optician, on Rockwell Avenue, which bisects the street where life was happiest for me and mine . It was happy there for Pinsky too. He called Long Branch  a town of "strong character" and "significance" in American history. Seven presidents vacationed there, lounging on or near the beach at the end of my street, which is now a part of Seven Presidents Park . James Garfield died in Long Branch . Ailing after the assassination attempt that eventually killed him, he insisted on traveling to his summer home to recover. Railroad tracks were laid to get him to the Elberon section of town. (Elberon is now the providence of Orthodox Jews who reside under the multi-town Eruv that extends the boundaries of "home" on the sabbath.) Garfield expired upon arrival. A bronze statue of the unimpressive president graces the beachfront promenade in front of the Ocean Place Resort. A worker from the sanitation department painted it gold one year, if I recall correctly. Not a great career move. About as wise as a public duel.

Anyway, Pinsky wrote a poem about Rockwell Avenue called "The Street." The woman sitting behind me at the reading was first with her hand up during the Q&A. She too had grown up on Rockwell Ave. and wanted to know why he’d written such a poem, about the seedier side of life there. She had been embarrassed by their street way back when. He said he had too … until he realized what rich material the experience had provided for his poetry. Everything is clay for writers.

The first poem Pinsky read was an entirely American one that basically said to Long Branch, to his ancestors, to all who would claim him, "I don’t belong to you or need you. I belong to myself alone." He then explained that once one stands up to stereotypes that threaten to define, one can wrap one’s arms around their own heritage.  His theme was lifted from a Zulu ethic he had heard on a trip to Africa. "We do not worship our ancestors; we consult them" … and/or argue with them … be they Jersey, Jewish or literary. Then he read a couple love poems to his home town.

Clearly Pinsky’s ancestors in the university auditorium on Friday afternoon were proud of him. He, the son of a "nominally Orthodox" Jewish family, was allowed to bring pizza home from Nunzio’s on Westwood Avenue, but only if he and his father confined themselves to the piano bench while they ate. Pinsky went to synagogue across the street from one of the town’s Catholic churches. On Saturdays, he watched lovely, forbidden Catholic girls going to and fro, and later was inspired to write "From the Childhood of Jesus ," a poem he said was about the two things he hated most as a child: Judaism and Christianity, because they tried to tell him who he was and who he wasn’t. (Read it and you’ll understand.) Later he would embrace both religions as ancestors. Judaism in obvious ways; Christianity as the keeper of his language.

Someone asked him why, as a Jew, he would write a translation of Dante’s Inferno . He scoffed and rebuked the woman. The language that he loves was carried along by the Christian faith. He said he isn’t even a translator, but a poet who redeemed the work from the literalists by giving it back its beauty … to great effect, I assume. The work has repaid him handsomely.

What I most appreciated from the Q&A was when Pinsky said it is no tragedy for artists to earn their bread through menial labor. He’d always assumed that would be his lot. He is a teacher by trade. Growing up at the Jersey Shore as the grandson of a bootlegger and bar owner, he had known many gifted musicians who spent their days cutting hair, etc., and, one presumes, their summer nights entertaining tourists. It is no tragedy.

Someone asked for a definition of poetry. Pinsky didn’t blink: "Poetry," he said,  "is making works of art from the sound of language."

The hometown boy served three unprecedented terms as U.S. Poet Laureate . Predictably, he claimed not to care about such things. He is very proud, however, of his Favorite Poem Project , through which thousands of ordinary Americans have shared their passion for poetry.

Pinsky won my heart because he spoke my native tongue in my native place. He is not just a writer; he is a thinker with a Jersey Shore sensibility. A sensibility that is no nonsense; fierce; honest; a little bit raucous and irreverent; beauty loving. Beautiful.

Losing Religion; Finding Art and More


Yesterday, my husband and I attended a book signing by former L.A. Times  journalist William Lobdel . The signing took place at a book store in historic Clinton, New Jersey .  The book (Lobdell’s first) is Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America—and Found Unexpected Peace . We were late for the noon event because we love Sunday worship so much, we were unwilling to skip it or tear ourselves away before communion as we’d planned. I note this because it illustrates how good people who go through similar crisis of faith often come out of them with very different conclusions. 

Lobdell’s book is dedicated to both his family (a wife and four sons) and those wounded by "the church." He and I lost our [investigative] religion journalism virginity simultaneously, though not collaboratively. We both thought we’d do God’s work by reporting on (or informing on) the seamier underbelly of American Christianity … only to find that corrupt subjects and their supporters often seemed empowered by the exposes’ written about them while we and their victims were accused of being tools of the devil.  

I read with interest his article on Trinity Broadcasting Network when I literally lived around the corner from the media giant’s world headquarters. I had visited the glittery venue myself for an essay on television indecency , and was consequently excoriated for inferior faith by Joni Lamb , one of TBN’s competitors. I noted Lobdell’s disillusionment with evangelists Greg Laurie and Franklin Graham when he wrote the L.A. Times  essay about his loss of faith  that led to Losing My Religion . Lobdell wondered how these and other reputable evangelicals regularly appeared on TBN despite the blatant charlatanism and allegations of sexual misconduct by its founder. I wonder about such things too. I wonder also what these evangelists and their Catholic counterparts think their role is in the deconversion of the Lobdells of this world.

During the Q&A, I asked about his wife, whom he followed from evangelicalism into Catholicism. He said that as he began to come home with increasingly egregious stories about her denomination, she too abandoned faith. As to their four children, I don’t know. One assumes their parents’ deconversion means something to them.

"Crunchy Con" Rod Dreher  also reported on the Catholic pedophilia scandals (as a Catholic) and later converted to Orthodoxy . Recently he opined that it may indeed be better for some scandals to remain hidden because exposure is so destructive to the faith of ordinary believers. I disagree with him for reasons Lobdell mentioned yesterday. Complicit silence breaks faith with victims, both those who speak up and those who don’t. As Christians, we are especially called to care for "widows and orphans"—in other words, those most vulnerable to abuse (James 1:27 ). We are also called to walk in the light (1 John 1:7 ); I take this to mean a commitment to truth, not lies.

Lobdell said that he’d inevitably be contacted by other alleged victims after his stories would run. They’d be particularly incensed if a perpetrator publicly downplayed his guilt. Dreher writes that he’s been tempted to report on Orthodox corruption, but has decided that his own and his family’s faith can’t handle it. This is a luxury many are not afforded: police officers, pastors, teachers, nurses, parents, other idealistic religion reporters. I trust that God will make right in the end that which is not made right in this world. I eagerly await the day when mercy and justice will visibly kiss. I know they did so on the Cross, but I long for faith to be made sight.

On the jacket of Lobdell’s book is an endorsement by John Huffman, chairman of the board of Christianity Today  and a hero of Lobdell’s. Huffman writes,

William Lobdell has written a heart/mind/soul-wrenching spiritual autobiography. He has been inspired by followers of Jesus who have served their Lord with integrity. But he has also been devastated by observing, up close, the ugly, sinful underbelly of a critical, self-serving, institutional and individual religion. This is a must-read filled with warnings and wake-up calls to those of us in leadership positions. I respect Bill for his honest reporting of his odyssey to this point and pray that someday there may be a future book, just as honest, with a grace-filled conclusion.

Lobdell said that before he lost his faith, he requested a change of assignment at the L.A. Times . He "couldn’t take another story." When he publicly confessed his deconversion, he expected criticism. Instead he received 3000 emails, the most his newspaper had ever received. Many of them expressed empathy and support. Mine was among them.

I’m glad to finally possess a copy of Losing My Religion . I think I’ll find it oddly comforting. Along with it, I’ve just begun reading Becky Garrison’s 2007 offering, The New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail: The Misguided Quest to Destroy Your Faith . Garrison is another journalist who shines her spotlight on holy dirt. In this book she turned it outward. Lobdell doesn’t fit within her field of vision though. He is more a Materialist than an anti-Theist and, despite the blazing A  logo on his blog, he sounds more pink agnostic than bright red atheist. Could there yet be a reconversion sequel in his future? Believing supporters are praying so. If our prayers evaporate unanswered, no harm done, right Bill?

In addition to these atheist tomes that coordinate nicely with A Secular Age , I’m reading a book Christianity Today editor-at-large Rob Moll sent me some months back. Rob and I became friends after he wrote an expose’ on my former church group  and was excoriated for it in the blogosphere. We lost our Christian [investigative] journalistic virginity together on that one. Although he’s much too young for such a heavy topic, Rob is now writing a book about Christian dying that will no doubt be excellent. His research led him to send Jeff and me Walter Wangerin Jr.’s Mourning into Dancing . I find most grief books beside the point, but I do pick this one up sporadically and glean some comfort from this pastor’s experience with those who’ve suffered devastating loss. Anger and disillusionment are common features of grief. People of faith cannot thrive there though. Nor can they thrive in a religious gutter. It’s good for them us to climb out and breathe air that’s fresh and clean.

I felt on the verge of tears through much of Lobdell’s talk. His story tapped into a place of deep pain for me. The betrayal. The lost idealism. The impact on my family (with loss of hope and life rather than collective loss of faith). He described the molestation victims he had gotten to know through his work as having "hollowed out souls." I resonate with that description. My mother and I were talking recently about that part of us that died with Gabe. How, in some measure, we’re just biding our time now until this life is over. Lobdell believes that when it’s over, it’s over. There will be no reunions. No justice. No mercy. I find those thoughts both unbearable and untenable. Unbearable for obvious reasons, untenable because there is too much mystery and beauty in the world to believe it has no ultimate meaning.

After the book signing and a simple, satisfying lunch of lentil soup and egg white/asparagus/Swiss cheese omelet, Jeff and I happened upon the Hunterdon Art Museum , which is housed in an old stone mill. The building itself is a work of art and the "Cutters" exhibit was literally inspiring. When we came home and showed our son photos of the various cut paper and steel art objects, he got out the previously neglected daily origami calendar I had bought him for Christmas and produced a collection of his own. I was thus prompted to thank God not only for art, but for honesty, comraderie and faith. These are gifts that science may describe, but which it cannot explain. Sorry Bill.


Update: The Library Journal description of Mourning into Dancing as found on :

Wangerin, a Christian minister and imaginative theological writer, provides a splendid description of death, grief, and the feelings of those who mourn the separation. Wangerin includes four types of death: the primal fall or original sin over which human relationship with God was broken; the numerous "deaths" we each suffer on earth, as typified by the biblical story of the prodigal son; individual bodily death; and "dying absolute," or spiritual death. His primary focus, however, is the small deaths in daily life as typified by one family’s grief. Wangerin depicts human feeling convincingly; his theology that all death is related to the first (primal fall and original sin) supports his hopeful and confident faith in the purpose of grief as leading to renewal, healing, and resurrection. For public and seminary libraries.

Update 4/8/09: My review of Losing My Religion is here, at Her.meneutics .

Gralla ’08

From Jewish medical ethics to the mikveh: 14 journalists complete ’08 Gralla Fellows Program at Brandeis

WALTHAM, Mass. – Fourteen journalists from eight states and Canada participated in the 2008 Gralla Fellows Program for Religion Journalists at Brandeis University.
The Gralla Fellows Program, the premier advanced journalism seminar in the nation on the American Jewish community, is designed to enhance journalists’ knowledge of Judaism, American Jewish life and trends relevant to religion reporting. The program was held July 13-18 on the Brandeis campus. Fellows, including religion reporters from media outlets including The Washington Post, Houston Chronicle, and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, were selected from a competitive pool of candidates in print, broadcast and digital media.


During this year’s program fellows had the opportunity to meet with leading scholars, communal leaders, and reporters to explore topics ranging from politics and the coming election, to American Jews and Islam, to how the economy impacts religion. In addition to the seminars and workshops, fellows visited the Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center in Newton, Mass., two synagogues in the Boston area, and other Jewish sites to become better acquainted with Judaism and to learn more about issues in Jewish life they can report about.
Jonathan D. Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, and the director of Hornstein: The Jewish Professional Leadership Program @ Brandeis, directs the Gralla Program along with associate director Ellen Smith.
Founded in 1998, the Gralla Program is open to journalists in the early and middle stages of their careers.  In odd-numbered years the program focuses on journalists in the Jewish press.  In even-numbered years, the program is offered to religion journalists.
The program is made possible by a grant from Milton Gralla, co-founder of Gralla Publications and creator and editor of outstanding trade publications for more than 30 years.  Fellows receive funding for tuition, room and board, and a travel stipend.
Since 1998, the Gralla Program has trained more than 200 fellows.


The 2008 Gralla Fellows include:
Kay Campbell, faith and values editor, The Huntsville Times, Huntsville, Ala.
Deena Guzder, freelance journalist, New York City, N.Y.
Barbara Karkabi, religion writer, Houston Chronicle, Houston, Texas
Alana Elias Kornfeld, assistant editor and Judaism editor,, New York City, N.Y.
Frank Lockwood, religion editor, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Little Rock, Ark.
Christine Morente, faith editor/staff writer, San Mateo County Times, San Mateo, Calif.
Max Pearlstein, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass.
Mirko Petricevic, religion reporter, Waterloo Region Record, Kitchener, Ontario, Canada
Jacqueline Salmon, religion reporter, Washington Post, Fairfax, Va.
Christine Scheller, freelance journalist, Irvine, Calif.
Lois Solomon, religion reporter, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Boca Raton, Fla.
Tamar Snyder, staff writer, The Jewish Week, New York City, N.Y.
Sharon Udasin, staff writer, The Jewish Week, New York City, N.Y.
Steven Vegh, religion staff writer, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.








Max Pearlstein ’01

University and Media Relations Specialist
Office of Communications
Brandeis University
Fax: 781-736-4209

 Images from Gralla ’08



A History    










photos ©cas 2008, all rights reserved.] 

No Vanilla for Me, Thanks

Diane Winston is the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. She is also would have been my primary advisor for the Specialized Journalism program I’ll be I would have been attended. Last month on her blog, The Scoop (which I’ll be writing for come fall), she introduced Jeff Sharlet’s book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.  (Sharlet is creator of The Revealer.) I look forward to reading Sharlet’s book for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is Diane’s review of it. Here’s the part I cut and pasted into a Word document on my desktop:

This book deserves to be read by every and any journalist. It’s a primer for what reporting can and should be. Sharlet weaves first hand reportage with historical research and archival work. He connects dots, sees the big picture, and finds the telling detail. He is neither balanced nor objective, but a mainstream media whose guiding principle is not to offend can overrate those qualities. Hewing to an older journalistic tradition of speaking truth to power, Sharlet is not afraid to be offensive. His compelling story seeks to upset and unsettle in the best tradition of muckraking reporters.

Love it. Down with vanilla journalism!

Update: I withdrew from the program before the first semester because of my son’s death.

Editorial or Christian Bashing? by Gabriel G. Scheller

In Gabriel’s only semester at Corona del Mar High School in Newport Beach, CA, he quickly made his prescence known. When his response to an offensive and irresponsible editorial in the school newspaper was rejected for publication, Gabe printed 100 or so flyers and handed them out to students … until he was stopped by school administrators and, if I recall correctly, instructed to collect the ones he had already distributed. His reasoning matured with age and experience, but the incubation of an activist with high ideals and the ability to articulate them is evident here. I proudly introduce Editorial or Christian Bashing? by Gabriel G. Scheller

 Birth of an Activist

I opened the paper this morning in first period. I flipped through the pages looking for something that would grab my interest. There was a headline in bold block lettering that stated simply “Evangelical Christians.” This interested me so I decided to read on. I would first off like to say that if I was to write something that put down any religion other than Christianity the way Ms. Y did, it would never make it to the final issue. R seems to have an utter resentment and hostility towards a whole group of people that she is not afraid to hide. Now, on the mistakes she made in her effort to turn our campus against my faith.

Finally I come to the part that angered me the most. Ms. Y refers to one man’s ridiculous view that “it has always been Christians and Jews on one side and Muslims on the other” and places that idea on the entire “crazy Christian group” to which I belong. This is by far one of the most unfair statements that R made. It is the equivalent of me saying that all Muslims are crazy and “absurd” because a select few flew some planes into the WTC. I would never make such a statement. I have known many Muslims and they have all proven to be extremely kind and accepting. I would not dare do anything so ignorant as to discount a whole group of people because of one man’s bad choice.

We will start with the first sentence of the first paragraph. R states that “the evangelicals are hard-core Christians who interpret the Bible word for word.” She also states towards the end that “the Bible should not be interpreted literally. If it were, where would all other religions fit in?” To start off, I think that if you live your life by a certain book, or law, why wouldn’t you take it literally? If you belong to a religion, you don’t pick and choose which parts sound nice to you. You take it for all it is, the whole thing. Imagine if we ignored certain laws and only obeyed the ones that we agreed with. “Well, I’m sorry officer. I know it is illegal to speed in a school zone with pot in my car, but I don’t really like that law. The one that prohibits murder is nice, but I shouldn’t have to follow that MIP one because I don’t like it.” If you agree to be part of a country or a religion, you also take on the responsibility of the laws laid out.

In reaction to her second statement, no one said religion had to be “PC.” I can believe what I want without worrying if it is going to offend someone. This skewed logic reminds me of a certain book written by Ray Bradbury. In this story, the government gets rid of all the books, religious or not, because anything that is written will upset at least some people. So the government burns all books so no one will be upset. I wonder if in R’s quest for people to compromise their religious convictions to make other people happy, she considered what such a mindset could lead to. It seems that Ms. Y believes that we should have tolerance for all religions, give them all equal consideration. I do not dispute that point. But R seems to have no tolerance for Christianity as she unwittingly tears it apart.

As for her statement about most of our senators and presidents being Christian, why is that even an issue? Is it even relative? I’m not positive R knows this, but almost all our founding fathers had religious beliefs. It seems that R wants our political leaders to have no religion at all. But would that be a true representation of our country? I don’t think so. Most Americans claim to be Christian. Just ask your history teacher. I am sure he would not dispute that fact. Furthermore it would be nearly impossible to find men for every political position who believed in nothing. R says it is sad that religion will always play a part in politics. I disagree. How do you think our first moral laws were established? Can you tell me why it is bad to cheat on your girlfriend? Can you tell me why it isn’t legal to have more than one wife? These things had to come from somewhere.

R seems to focus her article on Christians disliking Jews. She says that we believe Jews are going to be destroyed when the Armageddon comes. I looked in my Bible and I couldn’t find a spot where it said that. In the book of Revelation in chapter 14, John writes that 144,000 Jews will be sent to heaven during the end times. If we flip back a little to the book of Romans, it talks about how the Jews will see that the Antichrist is terrorizing the earth and they will realize that Jesus was the Messiah they have been waiting for. The Bible also states in Genesis 12:3 that God will bless those who bless the Jews and curse those who curse them. As a Christian, I worship a JEW! Jesus Christ was a Jew! I don’t know, maybe that episode of 60 Minutes slanted the truth in some way, but I think if a journalist is going to state someone else’s beliefs, she should at least do it knowing all the facts.

[© GGS 2002, all rights reserved.]

Cheers to hESCs@CHOC

It’s been many, many years since I’ve sipped a cocktail like the one above, but this was the celebratory drink ordered for us by I don’t know whom on the last night of the NIH hESC training course. The tray of drinks reminded me of a plate of cell cultures so I snapped a photo. It was a fun evening and by the time it arrived, the scientists were generally at ease with this “religious woman.” I really liked them, as was the case last time I attended.

Two interesting conversations stuck with me from the final evening. First, a Brazilian woman asked me if I’m able to separate my personal beliefs about hESC research from my reporting. It’s a fair question, but one nobody asked of Gary Robbins … and he wasn’t shy about sharing his beliefs, religious or otherwise.

Every day of the week, journalists must set aside their personal convictions and report the news. Non-journalists sometimes think this doesn’t happen; they see bias everywhere. In fact, my first introduction to the notion of postmodernism came not from any discussion of pop-philosophy, but from the Walter Lippman classic Public Opinion. In it, one of the founding editors of The New Republic argued that we all see life through the limiting lens of culture and language. The best we can strive for is fairness. Read Lippman’s Wikipedia bio; it provides a compelling look at the interplay of democracy, philosophy and the news.

Gary reports differently about hESC research than I would, but not only because we have different beliefs about the ethics of this work. He is under daily news deadline pressure and I’m an occasional, long form writer with a bent for investigation. I look for what’s not being said or reported. In this case, what’s not being reported with any regularity or conviction in major news outlets is that hESCs are not likely to be the great therapeutic hope they have been pumped up to be.

This is not my opinion, but the somewhat reluctant opinion elicited from 10 prominent scientists who were asked some challenging questions at yesterday’s concluding symposium. The first question was: What are the long-term cancer risks of hESC therapies? Jeanne Loring, whose extensive credentials include work on the Human Genome Project and collaboration on the WARF patent challenge, did not let any of her peers off the hook as moderator of the Q&A. One by one the Oxford guy, the Stem Cell Inc. guy, the Stanford guy et. al. admitted that they have no idea and no answer for this concern.

That’s big news in and of itself, but not for this venue. …

The other significant conversation I had on our final evening together was with the scientist who asked me about The Secret. She did foundational work in the hESC field … as a born-again Christian. The work kept her out of church for ten years, until one day she was looking at hESCs differentiating into various cell types under her microscope. They reminded her of the human race in all its diverse beauty. She imagined God looking down upon humanity through his lens and desiring us to sing hymns and praise songs to him in unison (hESCs have a biological imperative to congregate). She decided it was time to go back to church.

This gracious Christian who was admired by everyone shared her story freely. However … however. She is still not entirely comfortable with her hESC work … and she won’t be telling her story on the record any time soon.

There is much, much more that can be said about the past ten days, but I came away from them with three strong convictions:

  1. Nearly as important as the ethics of hESC research is the lack of regulation in the IVF industry. The United States is far behind many European nations in its concern for 1) the well-being of women receiving IVF therapies, 2) children born of egg/sperm donation and multiple births, and 3) both the exploitation of egg donors and the fate of their eggs.
  2. The best hope for therapeutic uses of stem cells lies in iPSCs that originate in one’s own body. Not only do potential hESC therapies pose significant risks, but adult stem cell therapies from donor sources do as well. Arlene Chiu asked the representative from Stem Cell Inc. if the stem cells in their inaugural FDA-approved human trial had been tested for diseases like neurofibromatosis (NF). Chiu had heard a talk by an NF1 researcher who found that neural stem cells transplanted into a mouse brain resulted in a proliferation of NF tumors in the brain. The Stem Cell Inc. representative said that some screening had taken place, but it was not comprehensive. Chiu was incredulous.
  3. The hype over hESCs has done considerable harm. During the panel discussion, the eminent panelists were confronted by an Autism advocate who wanted to know what can be done about desperate parents taking their sick children outside the United States for non-FDA approved stem cell treatments. One MD commiserated with the woman’s experience, saying it mirrored his own; another panelist noted that a scientist who had investigated charges against a Chinese clinic had been subjected to an “investigative review” of his own by the scientist whose advertised results he found spurious. No suggestions were offered … nor was any responsibility taken for pumping hESC research up and selling it as THE great hope for all manner of human suffering.

UPDATE 3/19: Clarification on this post.