5Q+1: Julia Duin and her times

Sunday is the much-overlooked Christian feast of Pentecost and we live in an era in which the global rise of Pentecostalism is simply — this cannot be debated — one of the most important religion stories of our time. Ask the experts at the Pew Forum on the Religion & Public Life.

So I thought this would be a good time for a 5Q+1 with a religion-beat veteran who has just written a book that addresses a variety of newsworthy topics linked to this trend — such as the impact of Charismatic renewal in the national and global Anglican scene and ways in which this freewheeling form of faith can be a source of great strength and a door into forms of leadership that can be abused.

The book is “Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community” and the author is Julia Duin, who is best known, for those who have long followed religion-news coverage, for her work at the Houston Chronicle and at the Washington Times. In all, she has worked at five mainstream newspapers, often earning high marks in Religion Newswriters of America contests and written five books, including another recent work that drew media attention — “Quitting Church: Why the Faithful are Fleeing and What to Do About It.”

“Days of Fire and Glory” cuts especially close to the bone, since it focuses on events in the nationally known Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, which Duin attended during her Houston years. The other key word in the title is “community,” since much of the work of that parish revolved around the lives of individuals and families that, literally, lived in common households, communities, communes, etc. This fascinated Duin since she had experience with life in a Christian community in Portland. For more information on this fascinating and frightening book, which is rooted in 20 years of research and interviews, see this review by journalist George Conger of the Church of England Newspaper.

Duin was born in Baltimore and was raised in Hawaii, Maryland, Connecticut and Oregon. She is a graduate of Lewis & Clark College in Portland and has a master’s degree in religion from the Trinity School for Ministry, an Anglican seminary in Ambridge, Pa. For more information on her work and interests, visit her homepage and blog.

So here are her responses to those familiar questions:

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

I check GR and Whispers in the Loggia every morning plus I get literally hundreds of emails from Richard Kim, an Episcopal-turned-Anglican priest who operates an informal wire service of religion news. He scoops up a lot of stuff. When I have time, I check Rod Dreher’s weblog, Titus 1:9 and then the Episcopal Cafe, to see what the left is up to.

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

Overseas religious persecution tops the list. I did a front-page story recently on how the Chinese government is killing off hundreds — no one knows the true number — of Falun Gong prisoners for their organs and I got no pickups. Now that story is not completely new but the MSM is not touching it. It’s Nazi horror stuff: people getting snuffed out for their skin, lungs, corneas, livers and kidneys. The Falun Gong had a press conference recently in the Capitol on this — with secular folks who are not part of their movement testifying — and it was pathetic how few media attended. The slow strangulation of Orthodox Copts by the Egyptian government is another story. Teen-aged girls are getting kidnapped, gang-raped and forced to convert to Islam. Islamic mobs attack Christians with impunity. These stories are not hard to do but I don’t see journalists out there doing them.

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

I just did a series on the interfaith movement and how interesting combos of Jews, Mormons and Muslims are getting together, setting up think tanks and institutes and holding off-the-record meetings on ways they can work together. One New York foundation — led by a rabbi — does nothing but get foreign imams and rabbis together for several days to teach them how to import American-style interfaith networks into their own countries. I’m also watching how Islamic governments (Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kazakhstan) are sponsoring all these interfaith conferences; in fact, Kazakhstan is having yet another one next month. Meanwhile there’s these off-the-record meetings American evangelicals are having with Muslim governments, such as Morocco, about religious freedom.

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

It informs everything we do and religion stories are truly everywhere. When you’ve got 95 percent of the American public believing in God; when religious events are Americans’ biggest leisure activity, when Americans spend millions of dollars on sports, but billions on religion (the late George Cornell of the Associated Press did a story in 1994 that actually proved this); then you have to ask why religion stories rarely make the top of A1 unless it’s about the pope. And why is it that journalists who’ve attended a religious college or seminary find it nearly impossible to get hired at a major newspaper? And why is it that sports gets 20-30 writers and photographers and a whole section to itself while at the same paper one reporter has to cover all the major world religions plus several thousand churches, mosques, temples and synagogues in his or her city?

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

The way Jim Wallis has become a statesman for the Religious Left. I’ve watched Sojourners since 1976 and how it started out as evangelical group that morphed into a mainline Protestant institution. There was a total vacuum of leadership and Jim neatly stepped into it, creating himself a place on the New York Times bestseller list in the process.

On the other end of the spectrum, I am amazed at how people who jumped on the Charismatic renewal bandwagon 30 years ago don’t want to be identified with it today, now that it’s no longer fashionable. Instead, they’ve gone Reformed, neo-Calvinist, emergent or whatever the theological flavor of the year is.

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

I still wish the beat was given the respect that politics, entertainment and sports get. There could be a minimum of five-six reporters per media outlet covering religion because believe me, the stories are out there. Not only the predictable stuff but there are some great scandals out there I’d love to go after if I had the time and the staff. What’s been so disheartening over the years is to see how the largest media outlets consistently hire reporters for the religion beat who have little or no experience or background in religion coverage. I watch these reporters and usually they last 2-3 years max. At the same time, these media outlets demand years of expertise when it comes to staffing the beats they really care about, such as the environment, entertainment, health and election coverage.

So to all you recruiters out there: Don’t just pick someone from your existing staff to plug the religion hole. Do a national search for the right person. You’ll be amazed at the wealth of talent out there and the number of people who have honed their skills in small and medium markets, who’ve done graduate work in religion and would love the chance to cover the Godbeat in a way that would make the most impact.

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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.

  • http://peaceandpekoe.blogspot.com Kate

    Thanks for this. I was interviewed while in college by Julia Duin, and even then, not knowing her reputation at all, I was impressed by her background knowledge and her attention to detail. (This was for a story on the closure of the Ave Maria College campus in Michigan). The book sounds fascinating – I know many people who were deeply involved in the Charismatic movement and in communal ecumenical charismatic communities like Word of God and Sword of the Spirit. I’ll keep an eye out for this book!

  • http://rericsawyer.wordpress.com R. Eric Sawyer

    Kate, I would be very interested in hearing your take on the past years with the Charismatic Community. I was a 20 year member of Redeemer, and I think one of “our” difficulties was that we had very insular tendencies. We didn’t receive much from the wider church, because ‘obviously,’ if there was anything profitable to tell, it would be flowing OUT of Redeemer, not INTO it.
    There were a few books I read from folks in England, or Ann Arbor, and they always fascinated me, but that was decades ago. It was especially interesting when these authors referenced Church of the Redeemer. I am thinking particularly of “Living Together in a World Falling Apart” by Dave and Neta Jackson, and their somewhat critical comments on the authoritarian structure they found. I didn’t know at the time that there was any other way to “do Community.”
    The other part of Charismatic life that I got any news about was from those more on the Assemblies side of the street, which neither interested nor attracted me. I think the issue for me was Lifestyle more than Worship-style.
    Anyway, and not to hijack Julia’s blog, I would be interested in a good referral from any of you, including Julia. I would even welcome more on this topic from Julia, except I’m to chicken-hearted to ask her for something that requires actual work on her part, just to satisfy my curiosity.

    “Fire and Glory” has some tastes of that, but those stories were not at the heart of the story she wanted to tell. Have to draw the line somewhere.
    I want more—I want the “Fire and the Glory” on all those other places! I’m not interested in following ind. people, but in the reflective “Big Picture”

    I am very glad Julia wrote “Days of Fire and Glory”
    My review posted on Amazon is here: Review on Amazon.com

    As an aside (Harumph!) There is a lot of sense in the the post above, on Journalism and Religion.

  • http://peaceandpekoe.blogspot.com Kate

    Mr. Sawyer,

    I would love to be able to give you some additional insight, but I’m a latecomer to this game. I married into a family which had once belonged to the Word of God ecumenical community in Ann Arbor and is still very closely involved in the Catholic parish (Christ the King) which in some ways paralleled the community and in some ways branched off from it. I have heard many stories from them and from their friends about both the strengths and weaknesses of ‘the Community’…but I have none of this first hand and would not want to betray anyone’s confidences.

    What I can comment on is the vibrant strength and growth of Christ the King, which I think benefits now from the maturity of its members, and from an interesting attraction to Carmelite spirituality which I think has imbued the charismatic practices of those members with an additional depth of discernment. My friends and inlaws are reluctant to speak ill of the hey-day of the Charismatic Renewal and the Word of God, because they don’t want to appear ungrateful for the relationships that were built there, but I’ve heard stories that suggest that the community in Ann Arbor was also plagued by authoritarian behavior on the part of many leaders and undue interference into personal decisions and family matters. As you say, it seems like these are primarily flaws in Lifestyle – and ‘doing Community’ rather than particular to the style of Worship.