Time for religious and secular ghosts

vanbiemaIt’s Time.

Anyone who knows the history of religion writing in the American press knows that Time played a major role in proving that religion is, in fact, news and, come to think of it, that cover stories about religion can move large numbers of copies off the store shelves. Cover stories about religion have often fueled debate about American religion (like the old yet still famous “Is God Dead?” story) as well as reflected the news.

These days, the magazine’s senior writer for religion news is David Van Biema, who has written numerous cover stories in his 14 years there — reaching the religion beat about 10 years ago. He is a graduate of Wesleyan University in Connecticut and the Columbia School of Journalism and won awards from the Religious Communicators Foundation, the the Religion Newswriters Association, the American Academy of Religion and the Amy Foundation. His previous journalistic stops included People, Life and The Washington Post Magazine.

I had a chance to talk shop with Van Biema last spring, when I was speaking at a journalism conference in New York City (where Van Biema lives with his wife and son). He promised to take part in our 5Q+1 feature when he had a chance, so here goes. His answers are on the concise side, which makes me now wish I had recorded our conversation that day! It was a delight to spend some coffee and tea time with him.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

AP, RNS, CNS, other wires, assorted blogs, book publishers, my morning paper plus Nexis alerts, magazines and let us not forget colleagues who care.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

It’s not a story, really, but the difference between outsiders’ definition of “evangelical” and insiders’. I’m inclining toward your point that it’s becoming meaningless, but what does one substitute?

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

The two-way globalization of American religion.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

I would emend that to the “roles” of religion; but have you looked at the world lately?

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

Not funny, but the Juanita Bynum situation is certainly replete with ironies.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

I think that just as there are religious ghosts in “secular” stories, there may also be secular ghosts in many religion stories.

TimeMagBibleCover 723686Now that last item really interested me, because I totally agree. There are all kinds of secular or realities that, at first glance, appear to be faith-free that affect religion news. Consider the role of pensions and property costs in shaping much of the Anglican Communion warfare.

So I wrote Van Biema back to ask for him to elaborate a bit. He replied:

I’m actually not sure how many stories it applies to, but in a recent piece I did about Mother Teresa’s long dark night of the soul, the book on which it was based and considerable commentary after the story discussed her condition on strictly faith terms. (Given that the book was edited by her postulator, of course, one would expect nothing else.) I tried to do justice to the faith understanding, but it seemed to me that her case would be seen very differently by a secular psychologist and yet again differently by an atheist. Those views are represented in the story at a graf or two apiece, not as quick brushoffs nor as negating the religious view, but as having a different logic.

I am not trying to get out of my gig by imposing the word “alleged” before every use of the word Resurrection, the way Calvin Trillin’s protaganist did in his classic book, Floater. But part of me wants to suggest that there is a bifurcation: we either talk about religion stories in overly secular terms or unquestioningly remain within the religious frame. At a time where the intertwining of the two is one of the biggest stories we cover, perhaps there is some obligation to open our pieces out in whichever direction seems in danger of being scanted, without effacing either.

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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.

  • liberty

    So let me get this straight.

    When writing one story about a revered Catholic figure (Mother Theresa) Time felt obliged to include a few grafs of atheists and secular psychologists.

    However, when doing a story about a different revered Catholic figure (John Paul II) There was evidently no obligation to include a few grafs of actual (not misrepresented) Catholic teachings.

    Forgive me if I continue to think that much of the journalistic balance at Time regarding religion leans in one direction (atheist/secular) and not the other.

  • http://www.arbitrarymarks.com/wordpress ck

    So when are you guys going to talk about the lousy MSM coverage of Myanmar and the Theravadan monks? Talk about ghosts in a breaking story…

  • Melissa

    This post reminds me of Alex Webster and The Gods Although many could find something offensive in this novel, which pokes fun at the commercialization of religion, they will find it impossible not to laugh.