On the other side of the notebook

theotokos grA very strange thing happens when journalists write books — they find themselves (hopefully) being interviewed by other journalists, often before speeches and other (hopefully) book-promoting events. Soon thereafter, they often read articles based on these interviews and find themselves exclaiming, “Wait just a (provide colorful descriptive words here) minute, I didn’t say that!”

There’s more to this than the fact that most writers have pretty firm ideas about how we want to express our own beliefs and what we think about our own writings. Truth is, we tend — when being interviewed — to use many of the same words over and over to express what we think. Journalists, in particular, are good at quoting other people, and it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that we are also pretty good at quoting our own best quotes.

This is why it is rather strange to read your own words in print and know that you are being misquoted. This brings us to another episode of an every-now-and-then GetReligion feature that I call “As the Notebook Turns.” This time around, the writer being interviewed was Frederica Mathewes-Green, who is a close friend and the wife of the priest at my family’s parish.

Frederica is best known for her books, Beliefnet columns and NPR commentaries, but she has done more than her share of writing in a more journalistic, magazine style. Recently, she headed down to Lynchburg, Va., for a speaking engagement linked to her latest work, The Lost Gospel of Mary. (Click here for an excerpt.)

This led to an article in the local News & Advance that included all kinds of things. For starters, what does this mean?

A thoughtful, articulate Christian whose pendulum has swung from one philosophical divide to another (once a staunch feminist and spokesperson for Feminists for Life, she is now anti-abortion, albeit non-stridently), Mathewes-Green eventually came to occupy a niche as someone who would speak on religious/social issues that scared other Christians away.

Part of that is accurate, but — last time I checked — Feminists for Life is, as the name suggests, a pro-life group. And then there’s this puzzler:

After leaving Hinduism behind, Mathewes-Green graduated from the Episcopalian-based Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. Later, she and her husband became Anglicans, and now they operate within a denomination with strong ties to Eastern Orthodoxy.

“I’ve never really considered myself a conservative Christian,” Mathewes-Green said, “but gradually, over time, you embrace a classic.”

What, pray tell, is an “Episcopalian-based” seminary? The campus in question is simply an official Episcopal seminary — period. I am also sure that our bishop would be amazed to find out that our congregation has “strong ties to Eastern Orthodoxy,” as opposed to being a real, live, normal Orthodox Christian parish.

Mathewes-Green says the article contained several phrases she has never used while describing her path to Christianity, but she was particularly tickled by that “embrace a classic” phrase. “I have no idea where that quote came from,” she said, in an email about this episode. “As you can see, it was one of the odder interview experiences for me.”

NotebookTurnsBut this wasn’t the most serious misquote, from a doctrinal point of view. Here is the bombshell misquote, from the perspective of an Orthodox believer — especially one who has just written a book about St. Mary, the mother of Jesus. A misquote is one thing. Heresy is another.

“People are hungry to know more about Mary,” she said. “They want a prequel to the Jesus story.”

Among other things, Mathewes-Green’s research led her to believe that Mary did not live out her life as a virgin.

“No one expected that of her,” she said. “She was a normal human being.”

In another sense, however, Mathewes-Green is quite conservative.

What in the world? There is no way that Frederica said that.

So what did she say? Let’s go back to her email:

My point was that the first target audience for evangelism, the Jews, didn’t expect the Messiah to be born of a virgin, nor that his mother would be virgin for the rest of her life. So it isn’t a doctrine the Christians would have invented. The best explanation is, they believed it was true. They stood by this belief consistently, unanimously, and the belief she and Joseph had a regular married life doesn’t arise for over 1500 years.

There are all kinds of things that evangelical, liberal Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic Christians might discuss linked to this issue. That is not the point here (so don’t click the Comments link just to argue about all of that). The key is that an articulate, experienced writer was quoted as saying precisely the opposite of what she believes and what she said. I have been unable to find a correction anywhere on the newpaper’s website. How about you?

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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.

  • Jerry

    This is a classic illustration of how reporters don’t get reporting. Ignorance of the subject matter such as religion is bad enough. But the level of incompetence shown at the basic journalistic skill of reporting what someone said is very sad.

    I’m sure almost everyone who has ever been interviewed was at least somewhat unhappy with the result, but the depth of bad reporting in this example is striking.

  • http://other-side-of-the-sun.blogspot.com/ Vic Chiasson

    What troubles me about this, as a non-journalist, is that perhaps it is only when journalists get interviewed that these kinds of errors are caught. How often are they there without being noticed by people who are less adept at recalling their own exact words? It gives me a yucky, icky tip-of-the-iceberg feeling.

  • http://www.pseudopolymath.com Mark Olson

    Well, golly if “a denomination with strong ties to Eastern Orthodoxy” isn’t amusing. After all … do y’all or donchya’all follow any dag garn Eastern Pope or what?

    Autocephalic confusion anyone?

  • http://wondersforoyarsa.blogspot.com Wonders for Oyarsa

    Wow, Terry, this is rather amazing. I mean, you point to a lot of weird stuff on this site, and maybe its because it strikes so close to home as a Christian, but this really is inexcusable.

  • Chuck

    It’s journalistic “sin” is what it is. It goes to what is written here so often. That when there is not a real religious editor in the house, religion starts to be trivialized. My opinion is the writer resents being assigned this story when there are so many other stories to be written about stuff that “matters.” No matter what the story, the truth “matters.” If one can’t write the truth in one story, can they be trusted to write the truth at all. As a matter of fact, I think the writer should be talked to by an editor. I’ll bet that won’t happen, though. They’re too busy editing stuff that “matters.”

  • http://www.geocities.com/frgregacca/stfel.html Fr. Greg

    While this is particularly egregious, religion is not the only journalistic victim. Not a day goes by that I do not hear, see, and/or read such errors. A relatively minor example from yesterday: a news report – on NPR of all places – referred to the Israeli Prime Minister as Israel’s “Head of State”. Unlike the US, where the President is both Head of Government and Head of State, in a parliamentary system, the PM is Head of Government, while the Head of State is, in the case of Israel, the President (In the UK, the monarch is Head of State). This is Poli Sci 101 stuff. Heck, it’s high school Civics class material.

  • Jeff

    Gee, maybe we should all chip in and buy the reporter one of them recording devices. Clearly he has some sort of writing disorder.

    This isn’t bad religion reporting, this is just bad reporting period. Can you imagine if a reporter had done this to a political figure (“Hillary Clinton, once a staunch pro-lifer as member of Planned Parenthood, has recently become pro-choice”). Yeah.

  • Tom Schaefer

    If a reporter is that incompetent, her or his editor needs to be called and the record set straight, as much for the benefit of the person interviewed as for the paper itself. If a reporter’s blatant — OK, even not so blatant — errors were told both to the offending jounalist and to higher ups at a newspaper, at the very least an editor might begin to see a pattern of ineptitude that would result in either disciplinary action or dismissal of such a journalist. Other professions encourage reporting of their members/employees’ errors and action is often taken. Journalists are equally bound to adhere to professional standards. In Mathewes-Green’s case, the damange has been done, but a reporter who repeatedly has been called to task will leave an ugly trail that few can miss.

  • Eric W

    This article offers further support for my decision (after being burned twice) to never, ever, ever, ever, ever again speak to a reporter without having the right to proof and approve what they print about our conversation. This reporter sounds like the same ignorant fool I unhappily encountered who even after two hours of conversation and careful explanation still did not “get” what I was about. The excerpts you printed are disgraceful and exhibit either the highest (should that be “lowest”?) level of ignorance, or deliberate misrepresentation.

    This, too, is a stupid statement that further demonstrates the reporter’s ignorance (also note the misspelling of “khouria”):

    Her husband, Gregory Mathewes-Green, is pastor of the Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Baltimore, and Frederica is the “khoria” (a term meaning “mother”).

    “Our church is not user-friendly,” said Frederica Mathewes-Green. “It’s utterly focused on worship and on God. We stand up for most of the two hours. Sometimes, we fast. It’s very attractive to some people, definitely not to others.”

    Bob and Nancy Waggener have started a similar church, Holy Trinity Orthodox, in Lynchburg. Its congregation currently meets at the Quality Inn off Odd Fellows Road on Sundays, but Bob Waggener said they’re looking for their own building.

    The statement reads as if the Waggeners decided to create their own church, and the quote from Kh. Frederica makes it sound like the Orthodox Church is some newfangled strange thing, instead of the 2,000-year-old Church that it is (as well as the second-largest group of Christians in the world).

    Maybe GetReligion or some of us ought to send this column to the paper that published this hack job and vent to them what a dismal and disappointing job of misrepresentation the “reporter” did:

    The News and Advance – Letters to the Editor

    and that they owe their readers and Ms. Mathewes-Green a detailed public correction.

  • Eric W

    I just sent the following to the newspaper via their online Letters to the Editor form, since I didn’t see any Letters to the Editor after April 20 that addressed the article:

    Dear Sirs:

    Your article on Frederica Mathewes-Green (“Author to read from new book,” Darrell Laurant, dlaurant@newsadvance.com, Friday, April 20, 2007) contained many inaccurate statements and distortions of Ms. Mathewes-Green and her beliefs, and displayed surprising ignorance of the (Eastern) Orthodox Church, which is the second-largest group of Christians in the world (if one doesn’t count all Protestants as a single group). You can read some of the trenchant and accurate criticisms of the article and the reporting here:


    As I noted in my comments there, your newspaper and the reporter owe the readers and Ms. Mathewes-Green a detailed public correction.

  • Martha

    I have to say, I especially liked the bit about having graduated as Episcopalians (or Episcopalian-based), it was only later that they became Anglicans.

    Yeah – the bit about Our Lady struck me as well, I had to go back and unscramble it and say “Probably what she said was that in the normal way of things Mary would not have been expected to be a virgin, so that is why it is so unusual and it is evidence that it isn’t just a pretty tradition spun out of thin air”; it’s a classic example of someone who knows the background thinking to themselves “Okay, no way this person said what they’re supposed to have said”, whereas someone who – God forbid! – is looking for information because they know nothing of the topic would pick up all kinds of weird and wonderful notions.

    And the moral of the story: don’t believe all you read in the papers :-)

  • James Freeman

    It gets worse. Much worse.

    I took the liberty of doing a Google search for the reporter in question, Darrell Laurant. Came up with a website for “The Writers’ Bridge,” some enterprise he and his wife have founded.

    Here are their bios:

    Darrell Laurant, the founder of The Writers’ Bridge, is a veteran journalist currently living and working in Lynchburg, VA. Besides producing a three-times-weekly column and serving as the writing coach for The News & Advance, a 40,000 daily, he has also been a freelance writer for more than two decades. His credits range from Vietnam Magazine to The Sporting News to Quilting Today. He was the editor and co-founder of South Carolina Sport magazine. He has written for Doll Reader and Tennis, Notre Dame and Presbyterians Today. There is almost nothing that does not intrigue him. He has also taught journalism at three Virginia colleges, published five books (more than 15,000 total copies sold) and earned 27 writing awards from the Virginia Press Association. You can see his work at http://www.newsadvance.com, or by searching the Internet under his name.

    Gail B. Laurant is a studio artist and art teacher who graduated from Lynchburg College with a degree in psychology. She has also worked as a Consumer Credit counselor, which gives her the expertise needed to track the finances of The Writers’ Bridge. In addition, Gail practices Reikki, a form of energy healing (helpful when her husband/partner feels overwhelmed).

    “Besides producing a three-times-weekly column and serving as the writing coach for The News & Advance, a 40,000 daily . . .” these are words that scared the holy Hades out of me.

    Also frightening me: “He has also taught journalism at three Virginia colleges . . . .”

    I can only hope — out of charity and rank denial — that the article on Frederica was a simple case of one of Gail’s Reikki (sic) massages going haywire and temporarily frying Darrell’s brain.

    But I imagine the safest course just would be to avoid the Lynchburg News & Advance like the plague.

  • Martha

    He wrote for “Quilting Today”? No wonder I could never get the patterns to come out right! ;-)

    Er, so he has also written for “Notre Dame” and “Presbyterians Today”? Unless Presbyterians today are very, very different from what they used to be, he should surely be able to get the gist of the Christian tradition regarding the Blessed Virgin.

    What James said – this bloke is out there teaching eager young folks how to be journalists? Ai caramba!

  • http://www.livejournal.com Andrew S.

    I think a lot of journalists file “virgin birth” in the category of “crazy thing that normal, intelligent folks don’t really believe”. So when they meet a normal, intelligent Christian, they’re inclined to accidentally, innocently misunderstand or misread that Christian–when the Christian says anything about how odd or unexpected the virgin birth was, the journalist will think he or she is saying the virgin birth didn’t really happen.

    Nicholas Kristoff did a similar thing a few years back in the New York Times (a copy is here: http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/08/15/nyt.kristof/ ). He wrote a column about how many people believe wacky religious things, and was particularly startled by the 83% of Americans who say they believe in the Virgin Birth. He quoted Jaroslav Pelikan’s Mary Through The Centuries, in which Pelikan says how few places the virgin birth is mentioned in the New Testament. Kristoff clearly thought Pelikan was saying that there is no basis for a belief in the Virgin Birth. Of course, Pelikan (who was chrismated Eastern Orthodox shortly after the book was published, and was solidly small-o-orthodox all his life) was saying nothing of the kind. But Kristoff simply took for granted that “brilliant respected historian of religion” must surely not believe in such nonsense.

  • http://www.livejournal.com Andrew S.

    Addendum: And, of course, if a traditional Christian ever questions the “Immaculate Conception”, journalists will think he’s talking about the Virgin Birth. I’ll bet that misunderstanding happens a lot.

  • BJohnD

    As a former boss once said to me, when you read an article in the paper about something you know and find it full of mistakes, it really makes you wonder about all those other articles you read on subjects you don’t know much about.