In their own words

TakeThisBreadWe tend to look at mainstream media religion reporters rather than mainstream media religion columnists, but there’s a new religion column in the San Francisco Chronicle that’s worth a look. David Ian Miller writes the column and he came to religion coverage quite recently, after covering city hall, personal finances and technology news. He decided to interview one person each week about their religion.

This week he spoke with Sara Miles, a local writer, lesbian and former restaurant cook. More interestingly, she was a “happy atheist” before converting to Christianity. Now she runs food banks for the hungry. A former editor at Mother Jones, she wrote a book (well designed jacket pictured) about her new life:

In your book you describe your conversion to Christianity as “terribly inconvenient.” How so?

It was inconvenient because I hadn’t been raised as a Christian. I had a lot of disdain for Christians, the sort of litany of complaints that people often make about the bigotry of the church, its narrow-mindedness, its collusion with empire, its willingness to impose its received wisdom on everybody else. This was particularly true for me as a woman and a gay person. And so I stayed away.

Conversion wasn’t what I was planning to have happen. I liked my life just fine. I wasn’t searching for a new one.

He has spoken with tattoo artist Madame Lazonga about her work’s religious implications, Indian untouchable Dharmachari Kumarjeev, who converted to Buddhism to escape the caste system, cemetery owner Tyler Cassity and Sady Hayashida, designer of the Berkeley Jodo Shinsu Center.

Miller’s questions are thought-provoking, resulting in interesting answers from each of his subjects. As the column develops, I hope that we see a wide variety of perspectives. I think a column such as this is one of the best ways to flesh out subtle differences within each religion.

Another thing I’ll be curious to see is how the column treats traditional Christianity. One of the things I’ve enjoyed thus far is the way that Miller seems to have a very sympathetic conversation with each of his subjects. Will that tone be maintained with a subject whose religious views are less acceptable in that community?

Miller shared a bit of the thinking behind his column when it began earlier in the month:

I realize this is a subject not frequently addressed in the mainstream media. Perhaps the old saying about religion not being fit for polite conversation still holds true in the popular consciousness, even as sex and politics have long ago shaken off their taboo status.

Yet, increasingly, it seems clear that spiritual matters form the subtext for much of what’s happening in America today, from your house to the White House.

With that in mind, I will make these conversations as personal and revealing as possible while getting to the heart of what people are thinking and feeling.

I rather think he’s succeeded thus far, and I look forward to future installments.

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  • Chris Bolinger

    “Miller’s questions are thought provoking, resulting in interesting answers from each of his subjects.”

    Does he augment the Q&A with background on the religion? Does he compare the point of view of the interviewee with those of others who practice the same religion? Or does he just do a Q&A?

    “I think a column such as this is one of the best ways to flesh out subtle differences within each religion.”

    I disagree. If I want to learn about tennis from an interview, then I expect to read an interview of a master of the game (such as Roger Federer) or someone who has studied the game and its top players for years (such as Mary Carillo). I wouldn’t give much credence to an interview of someone who picked up the game recently or whose “expertise” has come from watching Wimbledon on TV for the past 15 years.

    I have been a practicing Christian for nearly 40 years (and someday maybe I’ll get it right…ha ha). That doesn’t make me an expert on Christianity. It makes me an expert on my personal Christian experience. Sure, I may have some interesting opinions on Christianity, or maybe my experiences are interesting, and I may be a terrific interview. But it’s an interview of a layman, not an expert.

    If the goal is to “flesh out subtle differences within each religion”, then get ready to interview thousands and thousands of people. I’d rather read something by Barna, who does surveys for a living.

  • Michael

    It makes me an expert on my personal Christian experience. Sure, I may have some interesting opinions on Christianity, or maybe my experiences are interesting, and I may be a terrific interview. But it’s an interview of a layman, not an expert.

    Which is what makes it so interesting and unusual. Anyone can talk to Fr. Neuhaus or Jim Wallis, but it’s another thing to talk to “everyday” people about their religious experiences. After reading the interview, I can’t wait to read Miles’ book. That’s the sign of good journalism.

  • http://watchpost.blogspot.com Tyler Simons

    That doesn’t make me an expert on Christianity. It makes me an expert on my personal Christian experience.

    I’m inclined to believe that Christianity is more the aggregate of the lives of individual practicing Christians than what the experts, be they monumental theologians like Aquinas, Luther or maybe Tillich or social scientists of the faith like Jaroslav Pelikan say it is.

    I think, Chris, this is the assumption with which Mollie is working.

    Of course, this leads to the problem(?) that pro-choice Episcopalians like me, who support gay marriage and bishops and whose christologies involve certain hermeneutic gymnastics, are Christians.

    In our own lives of faith it may be impossible to, at the end of the day, avoid the conviction that Aquinas’ or Luther’s or one’s charismatic preacher’s or your own interpretation of scripture is the pure form of Christianity, with all others being, to a greater or lesser degree, not-Christian. However, one of the important lessons to take from this blog seems to be that this is an inappropriate assumption to work with in journalism of religion, no matter who’s doing the assumin’.

    Mollie, what’s the difference between religion reporters and religion columnists? Do the former necessarily march with the beat towards whatever presents itself as the story of the day, while columnists’ work appears regularly and predictably on topics of the author’s choosing? I usually think of columnists and pundits as synonymous. Publishing mostly verbatim interviews seems more like a reporterly thing to me.

  • Jerry

    The thing I really like about this format is that statements can be made that cause me to stop and think. For example, I was particularly struck by the following:

    The conversation between God and the church is not finished.

    There are people who believe the conversation is over and that what is needed is to apply that conversation or perhaps interpret it for a new situation.

    Believing that the conversation is still going on allows for a different approach to various questions.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com Mattk

    Chris,

    I don’t think the point of the interview series is to make us all understand the whole religion of each interviewee. Nor do I think it is per mollie “to flesh out the subtle differeces”. Miller already said in the introduction to the series is that the goal was to tell personal stories.

    Now having said that, I do think that the interview (and her book) of Sara Miles is a good introduction to St. Gregory of Nyssa Church. Is it a good explanation of Christianity? No. (SGN, to my thinking, is only Christian in the way the LDS or Montanists or Bogomils or Arians are Christian.) But the interview doesn’t claim to be that.

    As for laymen explaining a faith, well I’d like to direct you to St. Justin Martyr’s defense of Christianity to the Roman emperor. It is a classic explanatino of Christianity, and it was written by a layman.

  • Chris Bolinger

    I’m all for articles and interviews on people’s personal stories of faith. The Akron Beacon Journal gives award-winning sports reporter Terry Pluto the latitude to tell such stories every Saturday. I consider it very important, however, to put each such story in context and to make it clear that it is one person’s story and not repesentative of a particular religion, denomination, or even local church.

  • Stephen A.

    I think a column like this can be enlightening and even educational, so I see no problem with it. But you hit the nail on the head with your comment:

    Another thing I’ll be curious to see is how the column treats traditional Christianity. One of the things I’ve enjoyed thus far is the way that Miller seems to have a very sympathetic conversation with each of his subjects. Will that tone be maintained with a subject whose religious views are less acceptable in that community?

    EXACTLY. Before I even got to that point in this blog post, I went and read the interview, and scanned the others she’s done. Here are the “money quotes” from this one:

    “… her vision of Christianity as a religion that’s inclusive, activist and ever evolving.”

    “You walk inside and you are struck by this huge mural of dancing saints, only the saints are people like Malcolm X and Cesar Chavez. It’s very surprising.”

    “I believe the story of Christianity is true. It is true beyond facts and literalism, and it’s true beyond logic. As a journalist, it was surprising for me to use a different set of tools — the eyes of faith — to understand the world. Belief turned out to be the least important part of faith. For me, the most interesting part of faith has been doubt, not knowing, being willing to look at the universe with a different perspective.”

    Clearly not a “conservative” viewpoint by any means.

    The others interviewed have all been Eastern religious believers or the cemetery owner who says, “I got warped pretty badly through adolescence and Southern Baptist doctrine that basically said, ‘It’s not good to be gay.’” Umm, O-kay. I’m seeing a pattern here, are you?

    In a San Fransisco paper, how does this kind of pandering to the liberal (for lack of a better world) theologies and social outlooks of its readers EDUCATE and ENLIGHTEN those readers? If this was an Iowa paper, or a paper in rural Georgia, exposure to these belief systems would be valuable and unique. In San Fransisco, balanced, fair and honest talks with theologically and socially conservative Christians (and Jews and Muslims) would be more of a challenge to readers, and frankly, maybe even interesting.