Texas Faith: Which religion stories merited more and better coverage?

Perkins School Dean William Lawrence and Political Science Professor Matthew Wilson talk about the most overlooked religion stories in 2010.

Each December, the Religion Newswriters Association asks members to choose the top 10 religion stories of the year. We decided to flip that around and ask you, our esteemed Texas Faith panelists, which religion stories, trends, or developments did NOT get the media attention they deserved in 2010.

Here's what they said:

WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

Among the religion stories that did not receive the media attention that they deserved in 2010, the following are significant in my view.

  1. There are active ministries, ecumenical and interfaith, along the border between Mexico and the United States. I am personally aware of one very active program that links church groups in McAllen with others across the border. I am also aware of religious groups who actively provide services including food and water for persons who have crossed the border into Arizona. These religious devotees respond to human need out of faithful love. And many of them, as angels of mercy, are subject to arrest.
  2. There are many ongoing interfaith programs in communities across the country, including in particular numerous efforts to link Christians and Muslims. In North Texas alone, there is an impressive range of connections with theological diverse Christian groups and culturally diverse Muslim groups. But coverage of those activities was quantitatively overwhelmed by reports on the offensive nonsense perpetrated by an apparently self-anointed religious figure from Florida named Terry Jones. He was egregiously ill-informed about Islam and about Christian theology. But the news reports focusing upon his ignorant and potentially dangerous bombast displaced stories about serious interfaith dialogues.
  3. Media have not yet found ways to report stories that accurately define and use important religious terms. Too many print and electronic stories use such words as "evangelical" in imprecise and, therefore, meaningless ways. Too often the theological term "evangelical" is helplessly confused with the political term "conservative." Further, the generic use of the term "televangelist" to refer to any figure who appears on screen and offers opinions that are seasoned with religious references is seriously problematic. For instance, Joel Osteen draws a big audience, but to describe him with any cognate of the word "evangelism" is a misnomer.
  4. Occasionally, as in the Congressional debates during 2010 on such major topics as healthcare reform and climate change, elected political officials and media-financed political commentators make misleading or utterly false pronouncements regarding Biblical teachings, Christian doctrines, and faith perspectives on major social issues. For example, one member of Congress declared on the floor of the House of Representatives that global warming was a false alarm because Genesis promises that God will never again destroy the earth. No media outlets, to my knowledge, checked with informed Biblical scholars or with religious leaders about the merits of the Congressman's assertion.

MATTHEW WILSON, Associate Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University

One trend that has received scant attention in western media outlets is the dramatic racial, cultural, and geographic diversification taking place in global Christianity. We have been accustomed for centuries to thinking of Christianity as a "Western religion," emanating outward from Europe, but this is less and less the case. Europe, as is well known, has become increasingly secular over the last fifty years, and while the pace of this trend may be slowing, it does not (yet?) show any signs of reversing itself. At the same time, European populations (in a not unrelated development) have begun to stagnate or even decline. Both of these trends have also been felt, to lesser degrees, in North America. As a result, the center of gravity within the Christian churches, both Catholic and Protestant, is increasingly shifting to the vibrant, growing communities of faithful in Africa and Asia.

Many Christians in the West have not yet come to grips with the implications of these changes, because these demographic shifts within the Church have not received much discussion in Western media.

To be sure, changes at the mass level do not immediately percolate up to the elite level. While the proportion of self-identified Christians residing in the developing world may be increasing, the non-Western countries still provide only a small fraction of the churches' material resources and intellectual leadership. Both tithing and formal theology remain overwhelmingly Western enterprises, even if actual church-going does not. But eventually, the energy on the ground is likely to manifest itself in more church leaders and influential theologians coming from what was, in living memory, "mission territory." What will be the implications of these changes? In some ways, they are likely to create a more "conservative" global Christianity, as believers in the developing world are often more orthodox on questions of personal morality than their Western counterparts.

It is worth remembering that American Episcopalians upset with their denomination's increasing acceptance of homosexuality sought to be placed under the jurisdiction of bishops in Africa and Latin America, who they believed to be much more faithful to historic Christianity than church leaders in Europe or North America. At the same time, however, a church with an increasingly assertive developing-world voice might also take more "radical" stances on issues like global inequality, resource allocation, and debt--issues where the view from Ghana or the Philippines looks a lot different than that from Germany or the United States. In any event, whether the effects of these demographic shifts push global Christianity in a more "conservative" or a more "radical" direction (or, more likely, some combination of both), they deserve more attention than they have received in Western media.

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