Reporting on a decision by LifeWay Christian Stores to not promote a magazine whose cover story lauded female pastors, Chicago Tribune religion reporter Manya Brachear stacked the deck against the Christian bookseller, failing to speak to a staffer there for an explanation of a policy decision on a magazine the stores carry on their shelves. Yet if she had done her homework, Brachear may have found ample reason that the book store may have had to suspect the editorial judgment and theological conviction of the magazine in question.
In her September 25 post, "Gospel magazine too risque for rack," Brachear found room to quote the publisher of Gospel Today magazine and a female pastor featured in its September/October 2008 issue. Brachear snarked that the decision by Lifeway to put the magazine behind the counter was much like what convenience stores do to racy magazines:
Rev. Kimberly Ray never thought she'd be on the cover of a magazine considered too risque for the racks. But this month, Ray , the head of Angie Ray Ministries and Church on the Rock in Matteson, joined four other female pastors on the cover of Gospel Today magazine.
Because the article broke Southern Baptist rules about women in the pulpit, Lifeway Christian Bookstores, a chain run by the Southern Baptist Convention, pulled its glossy pages from the shelves and tucked it behind the counter where 7-Elevens normally stash Playboy and Penthouse.
"There weren't naked women on the cover I assure you," said Teresa Hairston, the magazine's founder and publisher. "If it's credible journalism, then why is it being treated like pornography?"
Brachear went on to explain what the magazine is doing to fight back:
Gospel Today has mounted a counter campaign, urging churches and organizations to host Gospel Today Super Sunday to encourage people in their pews to support "holistic, credible, Christian journalism" by subscribing to the magazine at a discount price. They are also reconsidering whether they will distribute to Lifeway in the future.
Ray, whose own mother, Angie, was a pastor and South Shore community activist, was disappointed but not surprised by the bookstore’s response.
"Given the climate of our economic times when we have ... so many people calling us for prayer during this time, it seems a bit unusual that would still be a concern," said Ray, 42, the youngest pastor pictured on the cover. "We receive countless, hundreds of calls from people with real-life problems ... Given this time we’re living in now, it’s a little disappointing that it’s still an issue."
Brachear then closed the article by asking readers to leave in the comments section whether or not they think LifeWay's decision "amounted to censorship."
LifeWay is owned by the Southern Baptist Convention, and Brachear did briefly quote a policy statement by the SBC on the matter of women serving as pastors, so the position of the book seller was not completely left undefended. Even so, Brachear featured two proponents of female pastors against an impersonal policy statement, rather than tracking down the views of the store manager in question, or turning to a Baptist pastor or theologian to explain the SBC's doctrinal concerns with Gospel Today, which may go well beyond the current issue.
Indeed, if Brachear took a brief peek at Gospel Today's back issues , she may have wondered why the conservative Protestant bookstore carries a magazine that has given gauzy treatment to such as controversial figures as:
- Pro-gay marriage, pro-choice liberal activist Rev. Al Sharpton
- The modalistic prosperity gospel advocate T.D. Jakes
- So-called Rev. Run (late of Run DMC), who has described God as a "universal spirit that helps you help yourself."
- Wife beater Bishop Thomas Weeks who, freshly divorced, is running a reality show-like contest to find a new bride
A religion reporter attuned to controversies in the evangelical Christian community may have discerned that there's more than meets the eye with this controversy than a liberal media-friendly "glass ceiling" narrative. Unfortunately it seems Ms. Brachear is not such a reporter.