Burying the lede; editing the creed

nz_God_billboardIf, from the very beginning, your GetReligionistas have been complaining that the press does not “get religion,” we have also been complaining about the fact that the press does not devote enough attention to the religious left.

Now, the press “gets” the religious left when it comes to politics.

In fact, reporters often frame everything that groups on the religious left do in terms of politics. However, it is unfair to portray believers on the liberal side of the sanctuary aisle as mere politicos. It us unfair to portray liberals as people who have beliefs about political issues, but not doctrinal, creedal, biblical and sacramental issues.

So what should reporters do when they are handed a news story that is (a) liberal, (b) not rooted in moral theology about sex, yet (c) clearly rooted in doctrine? The answer should be obvious: They should allow the liberal believers to explain what they believe and how those beliefs have shaped their actions.

Take, for example, that Washington Post story that ran under the boring headline, “Church billboard in increasingly secular New Zealand causes controversy.” I thought this was another church vs. Santa story until a few paragraphs down.

Talk about burying the lede! Here’s how the story begins:

The Christmas season in sun-kissed New Zealand is normally a chilled-out, festive time more likely to involve beaches and barbecues than robust debates on the story of Jesus’s birth.

But this year, many here are caught up in the latter (on the beach and around the barbecue, of course), because of a billboard outside St. Matthew-in-the-City, a towering neo-gothic Anglican church on a bustling street in downtown Auckland.

The poster features Mary and Joseph in bed and apparently naked under the sheets. Joseph looks dejected, while Mary gazes sadly toward the heavens. The caption reads: “Poor Joseph, God was a hard act to follow.”

Oh those naughty Anglican vicars. As you would expect, the billboard caused its share of fury, anger most strongly expressed in physical attacks on the image and the theft of the second attempt to post it.

So the story is angry traditionalists? In secular New Zealand?

Much later in the story, readers find out that the billboard is not just an attempt to create public discussions about Christmas. This parish has a unique doctrinal point of view, one that clashes head on with centuries of Christian doctrine and tradition.

This is where the Post made a major error.

Archdeacon Glynn Cardy said the poster was intended to challenge stereotypes about the virgin birth. His church believes that Jesus had two human parents and was conceived naturally.

“We wanted to say to people who are on the margins: If you want to find out about God and Jesus, you don’t have to hang up your brain, you don’t have to believe in supernatural things. There are Christians who don’t believe God is a being in the sky who directs traffic on Earth,” Cardy said in an interview.

Anglican readers, did you catch it?

800px-St_Matthew_In_The_City_AucklandThe editors at the Post really needed to ask if Cardy was saying that his church (as in his parish) does not believe in the Virgin Birth or if his Church (as in the Anglican Church in New Zealand) no longer teaches this ancient doctrine.

Either way, the story is that a congregation or a national church in the Anglican Communion put up a rather shocking billboard — at Christmas — attacking ancient doctrines about the Virgin Birth. The heart of the story should consist of Cardy and other members of his parish explaining why they believe what they believe and why they did what they did.

In other words, don’t bury the lede.

What does it mean when Cardy says that members of his church “don’t have to believe in supernatural things”?

What does that mean in terms of other credal doctrines, such as the Incarnation and the Resurrection?

Has this doctrinal approach affected worship in this congregation? What happens, for example, when the person in the pulpit and the people in the pews reach this passage in the Book of Common Prayer, as printed in New Zealand?

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God; begotten from the Father before all worlds; God from God; Light from Light; true God from true God; begotten, not made; being of one substance with the Father; through whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man. …

There could be a story in there somewhere. You think?

Photos: The billboard image; St. Matthew-in-the-City Anglican Church, Auckland.

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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.

  • Dave G.

    I’m just as curious about his statement “you don’t have to hang up your brain.”

  • tmatt

    Which, of course, means that people who continue to believe the creeds have “hung up their brains”?

  • http://politicsdaily.com Jeffrey Weiss

    I tripped up in the same place. Wondering if this were actually an Anglican Communion Anglican church or a church using the terms w/o the actual affiliation…As in female “Catholic” priests…

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JEFF:

    That’s a pretty big piece of rock on a major street corner to be a alternative church. But that question should have been asked.

    When you look at the liberalization of the BCP, New Zealand has been a strong force on the left. So, in a way, this isn’t that surprising. Maybe.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Interesting quote from Archdeacon Cardy in this story:

    A

    rchdeacon Cardy said his church was firmly on the progressive side of the Christian continuum and the billboard was about getting people to question what the Christmas conception story was all about.

    “Is it about a spiritual male God sending down sperm so a child would be born, or is it about the power of love in our midst as seen in Jesus?” he said.

  • Jerry

    Which, of course, means that people who continue to believe the creeds have “hung up their brains”?

    Asking what kind of people hang up their brains would have been a great question to ask rather than assuming the answer as you did. You might be right but there’s no confirmation that I could find.

    Another version of that story provides them a voice:

    “What we’re trying to do is to get people to think more about what Christmas is all about,” he told the New Zealand Press Association (NZPA).

    “Is it about a spiritual male God sending down sperm so a child would be born, or is it about the power of love in our midst as seen in Jesus?”

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8417963.stm

    That said, I would like to have seen more about his theological background. Does he agree with the idea that the stories of Jesus’ birth are parables such as

    I believe that the virgin birth stories were not history but parables, told to put across the tremendous truths that all Christians hold dear: that Jesus was unique; that there is something so amazing and wonderful about him, his teachings, his relationship with God, his death and resurrection, that we know him and kneel before him as Son of God and Saviour.

    http://www.simcoe.com/article/152915

  • http://www.integrallygay.com/ Joe Perez

    tmatt:

    “Which, of course, means that people who continue to believe the creeds have ‘hung up their brains’?”

    There you go again. Only fundamentalists and traditionalists “believe the creeds”, and everyone who accepts modern theologies is an unbeliever. Sigh.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JOE:

    OK, those who believe the doctrinal content of the creeds. That better? Is there no point at which people who deny the doctrines in the creed can be said to have rejected those doctrines?

    I also said nothing about religious liberals being “unbelievers.” They simply believe a different theology, a different set of doctrines. Thus, please note that I was faulting the story for not asking for more content from Cardy & Co. to articulate and define their beliefs. That is at the heart of their motivations for creating the billboard, which is at the heart of the story.

    We need more info. More info, more journalism, more content from those voices on the left.

  • Brian Walden

    The creeds, whether they’re right or wrong, were created through centuries of debating: what does it mean that Jesus is the Son of God yet born of a woman, what does it mean that Christians worship one God but at the same time worship a man as God, etc. As a result it’s difficult to take away one beam without causing the whole house to collapse. I think questions concerning the creeds don’t easily fit into news articles, the explanation required to explain how their denial of one point fits into the rest of the creed may be too long. Or the person making the claims may have not fully thought out the effects of his statement on other points of doctrine; there’s a group of people, regardless of their religion, who take doctrine very seriously and are constantly analyzing what they believe to make sure it’s cohesive, but I don’t think the majority of people in our day treat their faith in this fashion.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Spiking away.

    Please discuss the content of the post and the press coverage, in this case. And don’t get personal, people.

  • http://www.southern-orthodoxy.blogspot.com Fr Joseph Huneycutt

    Good Lord. Anyone who believes God directs traffic has never driven in Houston. Wait. If you don’t believe in the supernatural, do you still have to pray? Or is cursing good enough?

    That little Baptist boy who lives deep within me saw that billboard a week or so ago … and I quickly averted my eyes feeling shame at what I’d seen. Obviously, I hung up my brain long ago.

    Tmatt’s right, there’s a news story here somewhere. Though, as it is currently written, there’s just old news: “Anglican cleric says Church doctrine ain’t sexy enough”.

  • http://www.integrallygay.com/ Joe Perez

    tmatt:

    Well, I wouldn’t say “those who believe the doctrinal content of the creeds” either, but “those who believe in traditionalist interpretations of the content of the creeds vs. those who believe in modern interpretations of the creeds”, but in any event we agree about your basic premise that the article could have been improved by exploring the theological angle more deeply. Personally, I find the whole Virgin Birth debate tame and contrived compared to the real scandal of the poster, which is really about asking believers in the virgin birth to take seriously the idea of Mary taking on God the Father as a sexual partner, which is a theme common to quite a number of Christian mystics over the centuries but which seldom finds contemporary expression among Christians.

  • Elaine T.

    What bugs me is that the poster, the hook for the article, says one thing, and the fellow as quoted doesn’t really make the connection: Archdeacon Glynn Cardy said the poster was intended to challenge stereotypes about the virgin birth. His church believes that Jesus had two human parents and was conceived naturally.

    The poster implies both what #12 says, and that Joseph and Mary had sexual relations after the birth. I assume it is post-birth-of-Jesus, anyway, I guess it neededn’t be. And the question of Mary & Joseph’s physical relations, if any, isn’t really related to the conceiving miraculously and remaining virgin through the birth of the miraculous child issue.

    Wish the reporter had pinned the fellow down on that. Or even on what it means to be a believer if you take on the supernatural stuff out.

    I’ve got to say, though, that just speaking of what we have in the Gospels, if I were in Joseph’s shoes, I’d’ve been wary of torquing off God by doing something wrong to or with Mary. Just think of what he knows and has seen, hmmm? God’s clearly watching.

  • SteveP

    A question the interviewer missed: If the bedroom activities between two consenting adults are private and unassailable, by what authority is it that an intimate moment between Mary and Joseph may be publicly displayed?

  • Johannes U. Oesch

    Thanks to the “Mavens’ Word of the Day” I learned something about journalism, not just about Christmas in NZ. The lede sentence of Ms Sheifer describes what happened to me as well as I wondered about the title of your post. Since not all of your interested readers are journalists, I offer the following quote. I appreciate your site very much, since I don’t know a German site doing the same job!

    “lede”

    Susanne Sheifer wrote:
    I keep coming across a word that doesn’t make it into the dictionary. It is very specific to the journalism world and dates back to earlier days of newspaper publishing. The word is lede, and it refers to the opening lines of a newspaper article, also called the “lead.” It is used in alerting the printer to them but distinguishes them from the word “lead” (Pb), since that metal was used in the printing of the ink. The two homophones needed to be distinguished, and hence the variant spelling lede was invented. I’m a little hazy on all of this, but it seems that the word has survived into the computer age and is still used by some journalists. Do you have any info on this?
    Answer:
    Your explanation is good as far as it goes (thanks for doing part of my work), but to fill in the gaps I contacted Evan Jenkins, editor-in-residence at the Columbia University School of Journalism. (I highly recommend his Web site, Language Corner.) What he told me was that your explanation of lede as it’s used in modern journalism is correct–it’s “lead” (rhymes with greed)–the first, or leading, paragraph–spelled phonetically to avoid confusion with “lead” (rhymes with led), which is more or less what type was made of once it replaced wooden type in the 19th century. A “lead” (hear led) was also a thin strip of metal used to put space between lines of type, an act referred to as “leading” (sometimes spelled “ledding”). That last word persists today even though metal type is long gone in most places. In modern times, “leading” refers to the spacing between lines of type in phototypeset or computer-generated typeset material. “Leading out” refers to the insertion of extra spacing between lines.

    In journalistic use, the “lead” is the first sentence or the first paragraph of a magazine or newspaper article. It can summarize the article, set the scene, or establish the mood of the story. The term is also used in broadcasting. For example, a “segue lead” is a transition to a related story, and a “quote lead” is a quotation.

    The “lead” can also be the main or “lead(ing) article,” usually appearing on the first page of a magazine, though letters to the editor and other features can precede it. In a newspaper, the “lead(ing) article” is often at the far right of page one, but each separate section can have its own main article. The “off-lead” is the second most prominent article, usually on the far left side. “Leader” (or “leder”) is another term for the main article, a term used especially by The Wall Street Journal. In England, “leader” or “lead(ing) article” has a different meaning–it’s a newspaper editorial.

    The use of the word “lead” to mean ‘the main article’ is first recorded in 1927, though “lead-off” in the same sense dates from the end of the 19th century. The term “leading article” in the British sense of ‘a newspaper editorial’ dates from about 1807, and “leader” in this sense is first recorded in 1837. “Leader” in the sense ‘the main article’ is an entry in Berrey and Van Den Bark’s American Thesaurus of Slang (1942).

    The spelling “lede” was not invented by journalists. This spelling (and several other variants) was used for all meanings of the noun and verb up through the 1500s; the spelling “leade” or “lead” starts appearing at this time.

    Carol

  • Dave

    Tmatt, this kind of botched structure in coverage of the religious left is why I became a follower of GetReligion.

    Brian may be right that the whole structure of Christian theology is threatened by doubt of the virgin birth. Doesn’t that make it all the more important to dig further into the theology of this NZ church? I can guess — I know UU Christians whose theology is based more on the Beatitudes than the Annunciation — but I shouldn’t have to guess.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    That is exactly the point. We could have used some questions such as: “If you do not believe in ‘supernatural things’, then exactly how do you differ from the Ethical Culturists down the street?”

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I am continuing to spike comments that focus on doctrine, along, as opposed to issues linked to journalism coverage of this story (which I admit is rooted in doctrine).

    Think journalism, folks. Don’t just bash or praise the Anglicans who created this billboard.

  • Julia

    Thanks for the info on lede. I had never seen that spelling before I found “Get Religion”.

  • David

    Has anyone brought up the Catholic doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary in this context? Were any of the protesters Catholic?


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