I was toiling as a reporter in the God-forsaken bowels of Southern California when my managing editor sent out an email in response to the 2004 presidential election. The other editors hadn’t realized it, he explained, but religion was really important to a lot of Americans. The newspaper wanted to dedicate a reporter to the religion beat.
I was in his office within 30 seconds.
As I mentioned in my 5Q+1, and spelled out in my pitch to my editors four years ago, religion is no trivial matter reserved for the Saturday faith page. It overlaps and undercuts and overwhelms an immense number of stories — maybe the majority — that appear on the front page of metro newspapers every day. Religion molds and shapes just about every other aspect of an adherent’s life and even has a profound impact on the lives of the godless. As I’ve said before, “Think of the God beat as the Jerusalem of journalism.”
My motivations were personal and professional. Sure, I wanted out of Rialto, and I knew that I’d have a chance to write more meaningful stories covering an issues beat. But I also felt an obligation to see that religion was covered correctly at The Sun and it’s sister paper, the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin.
Too much of what I had seen at newspapers across the country and on television made me cringe — not because I didn’t agree with the beliefs of someone else, but because I thought the reporter, most often someone daytripping on the religion beat, treated those beliefs too trivially or condescendingly or simply. Too many religion stories, particularly on television, were built around outrageously polar voices. Forget looking for Truth; many of these stories didn’t even attempt to find truth.
“Religion writers, on the other hand, could care less about the facts — or at least about the basic facts,” Don Lattin, the former religion reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote in a review of NPR religion reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s new book, Fingerprints of God. “They write about faith, not facts.”
But Lattin is wrong. We write about facts built on faith: how religion changes someone’s understanding of science or effects American politics or shapes culture. Just because we are dealing with the unseen and with thousands of unique beliefs doesn’t mean accuracy and understanding are any less important.
I’m not Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or atheist or even Jewish, but I strive to write stories that members of that community could read and say, “Yes, that’s me. This reporter gets it.”
Now you may be wondering what I mean when I say that I’m not Jewish. Personally, I consider myself Jew-ish or, as I used to say in my blog bio, I’m a “God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.”
It’s a complicated story, but I guess most are. Here’s how I summarized my identity in a review I wrote for Christianity Today about My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith.
I had anticipated reading Cohen’s memoir since learning of it in the spring. I saw in its premise, and in Cohen’s portrait, a mirror image of myself. Bizarro Brad, if you will.
Borrowing a characteristically short phrase that Cohen repeats throughout his book: Let me explain.
Both my grandmothers were Jewish. So too was my paternal grandfather, from whom the name Greenberg comes. But my mom was confirmed Catholic and my dad never became bar mitzvahed. When I was young, my parents met at Protestantism, and I continue today to be a God-fearing, church-going Christian.
Two years ago, though, I joined The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, making the move from the Los Angeles Daily News with an impetus as personal as it was professional.
I had been fascinated since becoming a religion reporter a few years before with understanding my split identity: To the outside world, I was Jewish, but to anybody who knew me, I was Christian. I thought working in the Jewish community would help me sort myself out.
“Be careful, man,” a Daily News colleague told me. “That community will change you more than you’ll change them.”
I considered that an unfair warning. For one thing, I wasn’t looking to change anyone but myself. I‘m not with Jews for Jesus; I‘ve never felt called to evangelize Jacob’s children in particular. As a Christian, I would like to see the whole world come to a saving knowledge of Jesus, but evangelism wasn’t the job for which I was hired, and I considered using my employment to do so as professionally indefensible.
Instead, I saw the new gig as an opportunity to grow culturally as a Jew while strengthening my understanding of what it meant to be a Christian. I did this mostly in subtle ways: reporting on Christian Zionists and their close relationship with Jews, immersing myself in Jewish culture and history and learning to see the world through that lens, walking the Holy Land, watching Jon Stewart.
After reading this, you can imagine where I stand is a old debate among religion reporters as to whether you should share your own religious beliefs or be willing to answer the question sources so often ask: “Where do you go to church?” Or, in my case, “Where do you go to shul?”
I’ve always felt that if we reporters were going to ask such personal and private questions we should be willing to open windows into our own souls. For me, this has meant being willing to explain something that for most people doesn’t compute; I can still hear the security guard for El Al Airlines saying “but your name is Greenberg” when I said, during passenger screening en route to Israel, that I never became bar mitzvah and that my family celebrated that other December holiday.
It was also humorous when, covering a church-state issue in the city of Redlands, Christians who were opposed to removing a cross from the city seal assumed I was in bed with the ACLU because of my byline. Or when, as a reporter for the LA Daily News, sources would say, “Well, you understand. You’re Jewish.” Short answer sure; long answer no, with a but …
The truth is I grew up in a conservative Christian church and still attend Bel Air Presbyterian most Sundays. At the same time, I’ve never been able to walk past a Chabadnik without getting invited to put teffilin on. My name, my facial hair, my poor eyesight — each scream Jewish. So, too, do my cultural inclinations, which is why I like to tell people that I‘m Jewish in every way except for that whole Jesus thing — and he’s a kind of a dealbreaker.
Most members of L.A.’s Jewish community welcomed me warmly — a few even thought I was there to convert — and once I’d settled in, the question turned to the value of my reportage, not whether I was still waiting for Moshiach. At the same time, writing about others’ beliefs has helped me sort out my own.
There have, however, been objections and a few letters I’ve saved for the quote board.
In fact, whether a Christian could adequately report on the world of Jewish journalism was a questioned raised on this blog in the wake of the Bernard Madoff investment scandal. (See: “No greater shanda.”) I was pleased in that situation to see not only Mollie come to my defense but also two well-respected voices in Jewish journalism, one of whom happens to be Orthodox and the other, too, depending on the week. EstherK wrote:
Jews in any area of public life often get it the worst. Either they’re too Jewish or not Jewish enough, or not Jewish the way the reader would like them to be.
As I’m not Brad’s wife or supervisor, I can’t speak to every moment of his investigative journalistic process. But I have to say he’s remarkably well-versed considering his background, and not all reporters have the Jewish background of, say, Amy Klein or myself.
And even we occasionally make mistakes, but even if we don’t, as long as there’s a byline, there’s someone for detractors to point to and say, “what a hack.”
I, of course, spotted this debate, and contributed my own comments, because I’ve been a regular GetReligion reader since I joined this niche journalism community four years ago. GetReligion has been an essential source for meaningful fodder for The God Blog, the religion blog I’ve written for the last two years, and I couldn’t agree more with its mission to improve the state of the Godbeat.
In a way, I feel a bit now like a young pitcher must when the ball club he grew up rooting for calls him up to the majors and drops him into their starting rotation.
Maybe that’s why tmatt has me on a pitch count.