Journalists expect the Passion to mean something big, one way or another

textWhen I was working as a full-time religion-beat reporter, the phrase I most dreaded hearing my editor say was, “I think we’ve got to do a trend story on that.” Well, that and the dreaded, “There’s a call from a furious (insert denominational name here) minister on line one.”

You know what “trend story” means: That it’s time to get out those words that journalists aren’t supposed to use that much, words like “seems,” “hopes” and (cue: drumroll) “is expected to.” It makes me shudder just thinking about it.

There is a classic formula for these stories. You need a minimum of three local anecdotes, some kind of poll or impressive statistic and, finally, a quote from a respected academic leader. The larger the newspaper, the more likely it is that this quotation will be Dr. Martin Marty of the University of Chicago. If the story describes a progressive trend, you need an outraged quotation from a local fundamentalist leader. (To see this demonstrated perfectly, click here.) If it is a conservative trend, then this slot is filled by an Episcopal bishop, a Jewish community leader or your market’s designated progressive Catholic priest.

If you reside in the United States of America, the odds are good that your local newspaper has published a story of this kind in the past two days. From sea to shining sea, journalists have been commanded by their editors to find out what kind of impact Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” will have on all of those quaint people who are celebrating Easter. This movie was supposed to bring waves of terror to our streets. But it does seem (insert big box-office statistic here) that a few people were in some strange way inspired by it.

Which leads to anecdotal leads such as this one, by Elizabeth Clarke of the Palm Beach Post:

Maida Boynton, a long-lapsed Catholic, began exploring her religious beliefs again last year. She visited churches, read books and watched religious leaders on television — but she was taking just “baby steps” toward the Lord.

Until she saw The Passion of the Christ.

And right there in the Royal Palm Beach Regal Cinemas, Boynton, 55, turned over her life to God with a quiet prayer. She cried a bit during the movie — and even screamed out “No more. Stop it!” during the whipping scene — but what touched her most was Jesus’ prayer on the cross for those who had killed him.

“That shook me to my very bones,” she says. “I then realized, ‘Yes, he did die to save me.’ That day, I just went to the pastor to hug him, and I whispered in his ear: ‘I would like for you to baptize me next Sunday.’ ”

On Feb. 29, at Berean Baptist Church in suburban West Palm Beach, Boynton was baptized.

textThat is the classic Wall Street Journal column-one approach — tell us the story of one person who stands (it is assumed) for thousands of other people. Newspapers can also take a more sweeping approach, such as this lead and summary paragraph from Larry Stammer at the Los Angeles Times:

From Easter sunrise services on hilltops and beaches to joyous observances in packed cathedrals, evangelical mega-churches and humble storefront missions, the 2,000-year-old story of a Jewish holy man rising from the dead after a brutal crucifixion is expected to draw larger-than-usual crowds this year. …

Why all the interest?

A confluence of events, pastors, priests and others say, is fueling interest among seekers. Mel Gibson’s blockbuster motion picture, “The Passion of the Christ,” renewed media interest in Jesus and other Bible personalities, and the publication of the latest book in the “Left Behind” series, in which a triumphant Jesus returns to Earth, seem all but certain to boost attendance at Easter services.

Yes, all kinds of newspapers are doing stories that reference the Passion movie and then figure out what it all means.

* The Washington Times asks
if this means that Easter, the most important Christian season, is somehow catching up with the most commercial season, which is Christmas.

* Many newspapers are trying to exegete the Passion to yield information about subjects that journalists really care about — such as politics and media. The Miami Herald ranged all over the map on such a quest, including a gaggle of professors who predicted the rise of “another Jesus for the new millennium: Jesus the celebrity, whose disciples come to know him through film or other visual media.” That’s really going out on a limb.

* Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today also focused on the visual, probing a solid story linked to this film — the fact that it’s highly charged Catholic images are shaking Protestant viewers, who tend to focus on words while avoiding works of religious art.

“Many evangelicals today are unaware of the debates from the Reformation days and may not recognize the explicitly Catholic elements in Gibson’s movie,” says the Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.

“Evangelicals love to be moved. They are caught up in the imagery and its powerfully sentimental piety.” But after the movie, they go back to churches without any representational art “to hear preaching and sing hymns — the words that declare the resurrection of Christ,” Mohler says.

Obviously, I could go on and on. And what, you ask, is my personal take? Ask me in a few years. But this much I know. Americans on the cultural left have all kinds of superstars to cheer for and embrace. Cultural conservatives have almost none, when it comes to A-list Hollywood. Mel Gibson has given them a big hug and they are hugging him back. You can take that to the bank.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Mary S

    Someone, perhaps on a Catholic blog I read, complained that these treatments never identify the liberals and radicals they interview as such. I was surprised and pleased to see that TIME’s “Why did Jesus have to die?” story identified John Dominic Crossan as a “liberal Catholic” – though “radical” might fit better. The story never mentioned Eastern Orthodox theology on the atonement, but in general was well-researched and respectful, covering the ground.

    So was the last half-hour or so of CNN’s “Mystey of Jesus,” surprising me. It was so respectful of what Christians believe that I was mildly surprised when Aaron Brown ended with a bit of a downer, quoting Schweitzer about (approx quote) “people make Jesus into whatever they want and need, because we know so little about him.” Particularly since the story we had just seen showed how much is known, and is being discovered, about Him.

    If Mel Gibson is responsible for any of this trend, then more power to him.

  • http://www.therevealer.org Jeff Sharlet @ The Revealer

    Superior post, TMatt, and you bring it all together with a concise, killer observation at the end. Which — am I getting this right? — acknowledges that at least some of the mainstream press is excited about a conservative cultural icon?

    Though, that said, are we really lacking conservative cultural icons? Dale Earnhardt (now practically sainted), any number of country stars, Joey Ramone (also approaching sainthood), and, historically, Hollywood has been a conservative cultural icon factory — Heston, Reagan, Wayne, Eastwood, Massey, etc.

    But conservative-conshmervative — to Mary S.’ post, I say that such labels are generally pretty useless. As she herself points out, liberal is not an accurate description of Crossan. Nor, for that matter is radical, though he might embrace the idea that he is going back to the roots. Better to describe where someone is coming from. Conservative and liberal do not apply to religion.

  • http://www.therevealer.org Jeff Sharlet @ The Revealer

    Superior post, TMatt, and you bring it all together with a concise, killer observation at the end. Which — am I getting this right? — acknowledges that at least some of the mainstream press is excited about a conservative cultural icon?

    Though, that said, are we really lacking conservative cultural icons? Dale Earnhardt (now practically sainted), any number of country stars, Joey Ramone (also approaching sainthood), and, historically, Hollywood has been a conservative cultural icon factory — Heston, Reagan, Wayne, Eastwood, Massey, etc.

    But conservative-conshmervative — to Mary S.’ post, I say that such labels are generally pretty useless. As she herself points out, liberal is not an accurate description of Crossan. Nor, for that matter is radical, though he might embrace the idea that he is going back to the roots. Better to describe where someone is coming from. Conservative and liberal do not apply to religion.

  • http://conciliarpress.bizhosting.com/seasons_of_grace.html Mat. Donna Farley

    Christ is Risen, Terry! Great blog entry today (as usual)

    You wrote: “There’s a call from a furious (insert denominational name here) minister on line one.”

    one hopes Christianity Today’s Christian History Corner will be getting some of those for the gaffes in this story:

    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/114/42.0.html

    “And why do most Eastern Orthodox Christian Churches observe Easter 13 days

    after the rest of Christendom?”

    “And to this day, Christians in the Eastern Orthodox Church, except for the

    Finnish, retain the Julian calendar that is now 13 days behind the Gregorian

    calendar.”

  • Mary S

    Jeff Sharlet objects (twice!) to the terms “liberal” and “conservative” in a religious context. Well, o.k., but surely some kind of descriptive terms are needed. “Orthodox,” “heterodox,” or “heretical” are terms from Christian history but would be interpreted differently by different people, and would mean little if anything to the public at large.

    Would “modernist” vs “traditionalist” be acceptable? With “revolutionary” or “extreme modernist” for the Crossan types?

  • John C

    One thing Mel Gibson is responsible for is the number 8 domestic (US & Canada) blockbuster of all time and rising. It will at least hit number 7 and could pass Return of the King for number 6.

    http://www.boxofficeguru.com/blockbusters.htm

    Also see International Numbers:

    http://www.boxofficeguru.com/intl.htm

  • http://www.therevealer.org Jeff Sharlet @ The Revealer

    Mary, I recognize the problem of labels, and the need for them. But we’re a long ways off. “Traditionalist” is as absurd a claim by most self-proclaimed traditionalists as “fundamentalist” is a label. Why not describe beliefs? If bringing Crossan into the story, what good does it do to call him a liberal (summoning up incorrect associations with William Sloane Coffin), a modernist (huh? Virginia Woolf? You know what I mean.), or a revolutionary (what, like Che?)

    I wrote about a battle between Crossan and Philip Jenkins a few years back. It took more space, but here’s how I tried to suggest (in a brief article) who they are and why it matters:

    “Philip Jenkins, a historian at Pennsylvania State University at University Park, is the latest scholar to fire off a round. He insists that his new book, The Hidden Gospels (Oxford University Press), has no hidden agenda, and although his blanket condemnation of feminist “abuses of history” suggests a bias, his subtitle, How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way, certainly can’t be accused of concealing his views.

    “In particular, he hopes that his book will reveal the alliance of “radical “feminist” scholars and a popular press that has “no sense of the process of peer review.” Together they are responsible for the belief, which he argues is widely held, that the four Gospels are wrong and that the noncanonical texts show the way to a true Christianity characterized by its feminist, egalitarian structure.

    ….

    “I’m not a liberal, I’m just accurate,” responds John Dominic Crossan, an emeritus historian of religion at DePauw University and a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars investigating the historical Jesus. Mr. Jenkins paints them as deliberately purveying a liberal Christ. Mr. Crossan, Irish by birth and a former Roman Catholic priest, charges that Mr. Jenkins has confused discussion with advocacy.

    “Scholarship is not a question of whether I like a thing or not. I don’t like the gospel of Thomas’s theology, as a matter of fact. But it’s there.”

    Prove it, says Mr. Jenkins. He charges that advocates of the new orthodoxy systematically date noncanonical texts to their earliest possible origins in an attempt to establish their legitimacy. If Thomas and the other noncanonical texts come much later than the canonical ones, he argues, then, in a sense, they aren’t really “there. ”

    But arguments on both sides depend on a lot of “ifs,” and Mr. Jenkins’s targets say that too often he reads their statements of what could have been as declarations of what should be. Karen L. King, for instance, a historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, rejects Mr. Jenkins’s allegations that in the name of feminism, she has sought to displace the canonical Gospels with the gospel of Mary, which gives Mary Magdalene a far more prominent role as a leader of Jesus’s early followers.

    “Mary,” writes Mr. Jenkins, preceding a discussion of Ms. King’s work, “has been so popular because it so exactly fits feminist perspectives of what an early gospel should have said about the events of the time.”

    Ms. King responds that she would never propose that gospel as a feminist text. In fact, “it’s antifeminist,” she says, even by the terms Mr. Jenkins uses to describe it.

    Much of Mr. Jenkins’s argument rests on an equation of Gnosticism with feminist readings of early Christianity. Gnosticism was a variant of early post-Jesus belief that “saw the material world as the product of evil forces,” Mr. Jenkins writes. “According to the Gnostic myth, the personified power known as Sophia, Wisdom, had fallen into the world of matter and error, from which she could only be freed by the gracious Redeemer, Jesus.”

    But with their rejection of the flesh, such Gnostic beliefs actually run counter to feminism, Ms. King points out. “This guy quotes me as saying we might find a theology about women here. He doesn’t quote me where I say, ‘Do we really want this? Is this just one more argument for giving up the woman’s body?’”

    Ms. King does not deny that she considers early Christian texts legitimate sources for theology-making. But it’s Mr. Jenkins, she charges, who’s purveying a hidden agenda. His insistence that the four canonical Gospels are the best sources of knowledge about early Christianity is an ahistorical argument, she says.

    Mr. Crossan agrees. “A historian,” he says, “needs to use all the data available.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I am in greater LA right now with not much time to write.

    In short form writing, Jeff, some labels are a must. You just cannot avoid it. I will use traditional and progressive in the context of individual churches, movements, etc. — clearly defined. I also talk alot about those who want to defend existing doctrine vs. those who want to change it. That’s at least factual.

    And on the Gibson remark at the end, I was not really saying that the PRESS was embracing a conservative icon. I was saying that cultural conservative finally have an A-list HOLLYWOOD celebrity to embrace and they are sure doing so.

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