Really, you shouldn’t have

When Roger Ebert was watching The Charlie Rose Show and saw director Tony Scott describe The Reader as another Holocaust movie, it set off a blog reverie on truth-telling. Ebert, who lost his voice after a protracted and heroic struggle with thyroid cancer and related complications, writes of keeping silent too often in past years. Now his words pour through the keyboard with startling ease:

I have devoted years to learning about the Theory of Evolution. I think Creationism is superstitious poppycock. I believe the problem with the literal interpretation of the Bible is that anyone can easily discover its support for the opinions they already hold. I believe Conservatism has proven itself disastrous every time it has been implemented in this country. I believe George W. Bush was not only the worst president we have ever had, but the first, as far as I know, guilty of being an accessory to murder and subverting the Constitution.

You see that I could be a problem at certain dinner parties. When I could speak, I was often invited to speaking engagements. Not so much now. The deal usually involved dinner with the Committee. Its members invariably included local luminaries who provided financial support but held grave reservations about the Sorts of People They’ve Been Inviting to Speak. These members make it a point to attack the points of view they fear you are about to express. For example, “They just don’t make good movies anymore,” or, “Ronald Reagan was the greatest president we’ve ever had.” As a donor, that is their privilege. They get to scare me and get my autograph for their daughter who is my biggest fan.

Having to endure the opinions of philanthropists who admired President Reagan? Oh, the indignity. Ebert objects to people who believe they know the Truth, you see, and “Since my lifelong occupation has been learning the Truth for myself, I find this insulting.”

But the Truth to which Ebert has devoted a lifetime of discovery reads as little more than a list of caricatures:

You may believe, as I do, that you know more actual facts that anybody else at the table. But what if “facts” are just one of the devil’s tools to defeat faith? What if they’re a smokescreen used by atheists, Satanists, liberals, intellectuals and the Elite to lead our young people, astray? Would it help to point out that one can believe in Evolution and God at the same time? No, because such people, like Catholics, Jews, mainstream Protestants, Hindus and Buddhists, have no religion at all if they have not been Born Again.

Ebert can even detect people’s true motives when they are so boorish as to pray in public — and he detects troubling authoritarian tendencies:

We have two kinds of prayer in this country, vertical and horizontal. I approve vertical prayer, which originates with the praying person and is directed straight up to heaven. It is private, as all privileged conversations should be. Horizontal prayer, on the other hand, radiates out from the praying person to all those within earshot. It translates as: I’m going through the motions of praying to God, but actually I’m praying for your benefit. I am expressing solidarity with those who believe as I do, and issuing an implied rebuke to those who don’t. I am an example of how everyone should believe and behave. I believe that Freedom of Speech covers religious expression. But it also covers dissent. Public prayer tends to discourage any differing opinions.

Ebert confesses to cheating a blind man at chess 40 years ago, and he expresses clear remorse about what he describes as the worst thing he has ever done. The rest of his reflection, however, reads like one of those faux confessions that emerge when members of small groups are supposed to talk about their sources of shame.

I’ve been in situations like that twice in the past decade. Both times, group members were told to describe times when they were guilty of racism. Both times, I confessed to being frightened by the sudden approach of two men who wanted nothing more from me than directions. Both times, others in the group began one-upping each other with confessions that said, in essence, “If I am guilty of anything, it’s of being too angry about the sins of racists.”

“I have been a coward, a liar, a hypocrite, because I have been unwilling to act as I believe,” Ebert writes. Here’s a different point: When you believe unkind and ill-founded things about your neighbors, it’s not hypocrisy to refrain from saying those things.

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  • C. Cordes

    Personally, I always preferred Gene Siskel. Lately, with all of Ebert’s ravings, I find myself missing him even more. Ebert is bitterness personified. His picture ought to appear beside the word in the dictionary.

  • Stoo

    Ok I’ll bite, this guy lashes out against some of the religious so he must not get religion?

  • Chris Bolinger

    Ebert: Well, here’s what I think

    And, Roger, I care because…? Because you review movies? Because you write for a newspaper?

    Sadly, Roger has been afflicted by the same disease that afflicts far too many in the media: the disease of self-importance. His opinions are no more important than those of any other person, but he believes them to be far more important because he writes for a newspaper. Therefore, he knows everything. He is an expert on every subject, including the ultimate two, politics and religion.

    No, Roger, you review movies. And, especially lately, not so well.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    Stoo, I don’t write in code and my posts are not intended as riddles. Roger Ebert’s opinions are clear. I feel no need to put a finer point on my criticism of what he has written.

  • FW Ken

    The difficulty arises when other people in the group are so full of their convictions that they assume (a) all sane people must agree, or (b) they possess the Truth, and you must learn it for your own good.

    And that is different from Ebert’s blog rant how? I suppose it’s true enough that we rail most against that of which we are most guilty, in this case, self-righteous condemnation of those with whom we disagree.

    I usually react to movies differently than Ebert, which made his commentary interesting. He should stick to what he knows, however. In matter of faith and politics, he’s just another loudmouth with an opinion.

  • danr

    He clearly doesn’t get religion, but I do question why this is GR-worthy. Not to be disrespectful, as he clearly was … but why are we supposed to care what a man named Roger Ebert, who reviews movies for a living, writes in a blog (albeit one hosted by his newspaper) ranting against conservatives and/or born-again Christians?

    I can and will remain one of those he (and many others in MSM) apparently disdains for my beliefs, yet I’ll still sleep at night. It becomes disconcerting only when those views somehow find their way into the body of the “news”paper, as tragically they too often do.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    Despite the remark by William Schneider in our blog’s subtitle, I do not see my work here as gradually building, day after day, a rock-solid case about the failings of mainstream media. In the ideal month, I’m writing at least as much in praise of reporters who understand faith than in criticism of those who do not understand it.

    I see Ebert’s outburst as a cultural artifact that falls within the scope of GetReligion’s media criticism. If Roger Ebert were 30 years old and writing an obscure blog from his parents’ basement, nobody would care. I criticize Ebert’s comments, but they deprive me of no sleep. Ebert’s remarks disappoint more than they anger me, as I have long enjoyed his movie reviews.

    GetReligion is where I do some of my writing. It is not my all-encompassing worldview.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I actually think film criticism is an important part of the mainstream media and I think the import of collective criticism is a horribly undercovered aspect of GR.

    I mean, there are film critics who don’t think Christian conservatives are evil, or that a Christian conservative approach to truth is dangerous, but they are horribly outnumbered.

    I think sometimes we view film criticism as too silly to discuss here at GR. I disagree and hope to cover more.

    Anyway, as for Ebert’s scoldy little screed, I for one hope I never have to endure a dinner with him. Disagreement is what makes dinner conversation awesome. But it works two ways, you know?

    His comments in this piece wouldn’t have been so bad if he’d seen how he might take them to heart, too.

  • Molly

    What’s the point of this post?

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    Molly, I try to make it a habit not to explain posts that I’ve written with a clear point. If you get the point, great. If you don’t, I can’t help you.

  • Jerry

    Clearly Ebert’s statements offended you but after reading the original review, I’m left with a different impression than I had after reading the excerpts here and your comments.

    First we have his liberal response to dittoheads who repeat Rush as if he were a latter-day prophet. That’s a political issue and beyond the scope of this blog so I’ll leave it as that.

    Then there is the issue of those who choose to espouse a contradiction between faith and science and say that scientific facts must be wrong because they believe them to be wrong. This issue is not new (Galileo, Darwin, et al).

    Then there’s this section which illustrates a certain kind of bias on the MSM:

    Reporter: “Do you feel any spiritual events or, you know, supernatural happenings, anything like that, helped your recovery?”

    Myself: “No, I can’t really say that I do.”

    I believe this: If we really mean it when we say Thy will be done, then isn’t it cheating to pray for a reversal? Que, sera, sera.

    The TV reporter told me off-camera: “I’m so glad you said that. It’s the same way I think. But they always use the answer to something like that as the close of a piece.”

    “What are the chances they’ll use my answer?”

    “Zero.”

    It’s also true that there seems to be an unofficial newspaper policy of mentioning the deceased was a “lifelong member” of a church, synagogue or temple, but never, ever, that the departed was an atheist, agnostic, or simply a non-believer.

    As far as I know, that’s an accurate statement.

    His statement about public versus private prayer could have been taken from a sermon using Matt 6:6 as inspiration so I wondered a bit about his motive for making that statement.

    That left me with a question: what religious beliefs does he have? http://www.adherents.com/people/pe/Roger_Ebert.html does not offer a definitive statement. Looking a bit further, I found http://atheism.about.com/b/2005/04/06/roger-ebert-on-faith-based-intolerance.htm from 2005 which shows that some of his reactions are not at all new and not the result of the consequences of his illness as your discussion implied.

    So I’m left with the conclusion that Ebert is a political liberal who might or might not have religious beliefs, thinks there is a pro-religious media bias in some situations and does not agree with those who claim exclusivity for their personal beliefs.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    Jerry, I am with radio talker Dennis Prager on the question of being offended: It is irrelevant. I’m far more concerned with whether remarks are true or credible than with whether I find a person’s manner offensive.

    I too read Ebert’s other remarks that you quote. I left them out because I believed they added nothing helpful to the discussion.

    The wording of paid obituaries, for instance, is entirely up to a person’s surviving family. I cannot join Ebert in seeing their wording as some sort of perverse bigotry against non-believers. If he’s unable to see the difference between “Smith was a longtime member of First Baptist Church” and “Smith was a longtime agnostic,” that’s pathetic.

    Further, one need not look far to find major newspapers praising skeptics as brave contrarians, charming characters, etc.

    Chicago magazine published a well-written and sympathetic profile of Ebert in 2005. That profile identifies Ebert as growing up in Catholicism, now identifying himself as agnostic, but also pointing out when films distort Catholic life.

  • http://goannatree.blogspot.com Goannatree

    Roger, I think i understand the point you are trying to make with this post, but can i politely and gently suggest that if more than one person writes a comment asking what the point of the post is, then it may not be as clear as you think. Is your aim to be heard, or to stimulate and take part in a discussion?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    This is not my post but . . .

    Molly, et. al.,

    Roger Ebert is a “journalist” who is pontificating about “religion.”

    The intersection of “journalism” and “religion” is what we discuss here.

    Always.

    Also, the EDITORS of GetReligion define what content is GetReligion-worthy. If an editor of GetReligion such as Doug writes something (something that happens to fit perfectly within his beat, I’ll add), it belongs here.

    Goannatree,

    When people write demanding comments that do not in any way demonstrate any effort to understand the post or writer, their chances for a thoughtful response decline.

    If it were me, I’d probably just have deleted Molly’s comment.

    And since the purpose of GetReligion (discussion of media coverage of religion) has been iterated and reiterated a gazillion times, the gazillion+1 time can be annoying.

    Bonus hint to the overly concrete: the purpose of GetReligion is not defined solely by Bill Schneider’s quote up there. It’s a big part of it, but it’s not the only part.

    Mollie

  • Jerry

    Jerry, I am with radio talker Dennis Prager on the question of being offended: It is irrelevant.

    It was relevant to me because the title of this posting indicated your feelings. If you would have entitled the post “Thumbs down on Ebert’s religious comments” or some such that would have been different to me.

    Until recently obituaries were free in many cases. I assume Ebert was talking about these non-paid obits. And I assume he was thinking of obits that would say something like “a life member of the American Atheists.

    And I know you read the entire article. I disagree with you about the importance of the section I quoted. I found it offered significant insight into his opinions as well as indicating a MSM bias about reporting medical recovery stories.

    But I do appreciate the pointer to the story that Ebert identifies himself as agnostic. It fits with the opinions he’s expressed.

    Ebert describes himself as an agnostic, but Father Andrew Greeley, the novelist and columnist, recalls Ebert once saying that “his AA meeting was his Mass.”

    I’ve found the spirituality that is part of the Anonymous groups interesting but, of course, given their nature there is not much media coverage of them.

  • FW Ken

    Who writes obituaries? When my dad died, I think the mortician took the information from us, composed the text, and sent it to the relevant papers. Is that the usual way? Some I’ve sound very personal.

  • Dave

    If he’s unable to see the difference between “Smith was a longtime member of First Baptist Church” and “Smith was a longtime agnostic,” that’s pathetic.

    The difference is that one describes devotion to a community. Both of them indicate the beliefs of the deceased.

    • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

      Exactly, Dave. You said it better than I did.

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

    I’ve always thought Ebert was full of himself, but I do like the breadth and depth of knowledge he brings to film criticism.

  • MarkAA

    FWKen,
    Different papers have handled the obituaries differently. I worked at two midsize papers where a staff reporter took the information from the fax machine and over the phone (and emails) and wrote the obits — strictly the short obituaries that run in smaller-than-normal type.

    I’ve worked one place where the obituaries were paid and ran exactly word-for-word as supplied by the funeral home or family. No reporter necessary, just a clerk.

  • danr

    Sorry Doug, never for a moment intended to question either your autonomy (you’re the editors) or your integrity (I value this blog and its POV highly).

    On first reading, Ebert’s slanted, incendiary comments reminded me why I don’t usually read blogs like his. And I thought if you guys covered all editorial/blogosphere content that simlilarly didn’t get religion, your blog’s scope would be vastly greater than it is.

    But reconsidered, I see how someone in Ebert’s position posting what he did is still germaine to GR. Mea culpa.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    Oh, Dan, not to worry at all. I’ve grown weary of William Schneider’s aphorism, and my response to you reflected that.

  • Dave2

    Also, the EDITORS of GetReligion define what content is GetReligion-worthy. If an editor of GetReligion such as Doug writes something (something that happens to fit perfectly within his beat, I’ll add), it belongs here.

    From this it necessarily follows that, were Doug to begin posting his personal collection of funny cat images, those images would belong on GetReligion.

    In general, to paraphrase Cudworth, nothing can be imagined so grossly irrelevant, or so foully unrelated and beside the point, but if it were supposed to be posted by these editors, must needs upon that hypothesis forthwith become appropriate, pertinent, and germane. Anything goes.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2 Douglas LeBlanc

    Dave2, I’m touched that you remembered my fondness for cats, but you needn’t worry about my having a personal collection of funny cat images, much less about my posting them here. I tend to favor gravely serious cat images.

    The contributors to GetReligion — including our founder Terry Mattingly, who defined this blog’s mission at its outset — communicate with each other throughout each day. Terry graciously allows for some flexibility in our editorial vision, so long as we don’t stray into permanent editorial quirkiness.

    I do not consider it odd to think that the contributors have a keen grasp of this mission’s blog — or, more precisely, a keener grasp than those who ask a flat and arbitrary “Why is this a GetReligion post?”

    I owe readers interesting, emotionally engaged and well-crafted posts. I do not owe readers an explanation of why I chose to write about something. I presume that most of my readers, as educated adults, will either grasp the point of a post or move along if it does not interest them.

    If you like the work of GetReligion’s contributors, I trust you’ll come back for more. If you dislike our work — or find it does not adequately answer the question of “Why?” — I trust that you’ll find a more agreeable source of reading material.