What Berger said

This isn’t exactly hard news, but I thought that GetReligion readers would want to know about (I mean, readers other than those who have sent us notes requesting a post on the topic).

Suffice it to say that one of America’s most consistently important voices on things religious has decided to leap into the blogosphere — that would be the noted sociologist Peter L. Berger, who is also progressive Lutheran, when it comes to matters theological. Here is how he recently introduced his “Religion and Other Curiosities” blog at the American Interest Online:

A Chinese sage wrote to an elderly scholar retired from official duties with two suggestions — to acquire a young concubine, or to learn how to paint dragons on red silk. I am an elderly scholar and I have now retired from most of my official duties. I have given serious thought to the two suggestions and have concluded that they are impractical in my case. Just then the nice people at The American Interest came with a very different suggestion — that I should write a blog under their auspices (if that is the right term in cyberspace language), dealing mainly with current developments in religion, but allowing for occasional excursions into other areas. My relationship to computers is roughly comparable to that of a caveman trying to fly a jet airliner. Still, the prospect of writing a blog with this description intrigued me. It definitely seemed more practical than the two Chinese suggestions.

It will not surprise readers to know that Berger thinks that the details of religion are very important, whether one is studying them through the lens of sociology or that of — GetReligion readers will instantly note — journalism. For example, it is important to understand the role that actual theology plays in the shaping of culture.

When beliefs are taken seriously, all kinds of interesting parallels can be seen in public life. One example will suffice from this opening Berger blog post:

Even if one is only interested in one country, one will understand that country better if one can compare it with other countries. Take the so-called “culture war” in America. Much of it revolving around church-state issues. I think it is helpful in understanding these if one sees the parallels with what goes on in other countries — for example, in Turkey. In both countries a secularist elite relies on non-elected institutions to counter the democratic pressures from a vocal religious populace — on the federal courts in America, on the military in Turkey. (It is more than a joke if one says that the American Civil Liberties Union, in its view of the proper relation between church and state, has a Kemalist ideology.)

This brings us to the passage that will draw the most attention from religion-beat reporters and those who care about their work. This would include academics who study either journalism or religion or both.

I would argue that Berger’s words will also be of interest to those of us who are deeply concerned about the survival of the mainstream press in our culture and, especially, of a press that focuses on accurate, balanced and fair coverage of controversial issues (especially those linked to religion and culture). Here we go:

The treatment of religion in academia and the media leaves something to be desired. … The problem comes at least in part from the fact that these are two institutions which, in their elite echelons, are staffed by what is the most secularized group in American society. Unlike many of their colleagues in Europe, these people are not particularly hostile to religion. But they don’t know too much about it, and its more passionate expressions make them uncomfortable. As a result they are tempted to explain religious phenomena as being “really” about something else — ethnicity, class, politics. Sometimes, of course, this is indeed the case. Thus there are processes of “religionization”, in which a conflict about political power (as in Northern Ireland) or about territory (as between Israelis and Palestinians) morphs into a religiously defined conflict (though even then many people may sincerely believe in and be motivated by the religious definitions of the situation). In any case, it is important to realize that religion is a phenomenon sui generis, which must be understood in its own terms and not right away be interpreted as being “really” something else.

Secularist bias can produce blinders. Evangelical Protestantism is the most explosively growing religion worldwide. Media coverage is generally very poor, subsuming it under a vague category of “fundamentalism”, with peaceful missionaries being put in the same box with suicide bombers. Much academic treatment is equally prejudiced. The media coverage of the sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic church very often has an undertone of gleeful Schadenfreude, with little skepticism about events going back thirty years, alleged by individuals with hard vested interests in their version of the events. Academics and journalists have every right to be secularists, but they should bracket their personal beliefs when they try to understand reality — as should “Godders” like me.

Well, now. Feel free to discuss the implications of this famous scholar’s thoughts for the work of the mainstream press.

As for me, I will simply add: What he said.

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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.

  • Jerry

    It’s too bad his article Between Relativism and Fundamentalism is behind a pay wall because his introduction was intriguing.

    For reasons that may not be immediately obvious, relativism and fundamentalism as cultural forces are closely interlinked. This is not only because one can morph and, more often than may be appreciated, does morph into the other: In every relativist there is a fundamentalist about to be born, and in every fundamentalist there is a relativist waiting to be liberated. More basically, it is because both relativism and fundamentalism are products of the same process of modernization; indeed, both are intrinsically modern phenomena of going to extremes.

  • Ira Rifkin

    It’s too bad his article Between Relativism and Fundamentalism is behind a pay wall because his introduction was intriguing.

    A prime reason journalism is in the dismal state it is may be traced to decisions not to publish behind pay walls from the Web’s get-go.

    Journalism: Living proof there’s no free lunch!

  • Jerry

    Ira, maybe it’s not so much a pay wall but a better mechanism. I would have absolutely paid $1 to read that article but not $10. But limiting articles to subscribers only strikes me as not sustainable over the long term.

  • Norman

    “Journalism: Living proof there’s no free lunch!”

    I wish a paper would try podcasting their articles and slapping an ad at the front, in a nod to Old Time Radio-style journalism.

    People think of OTR journalism as incredibly primitive, as just “reading the newspaper on the air. Well sure, it is that, but it works.

    I even prefer the fully scripted, single voice style over the current method with sound-bites mixed in. Every time another voice crops up it takes awhile to process, for me at least. A single voice threads you through a story better and makes it easier to focus.

    And that voice doesn’t need to be the cliched baritone voice to swing it. Radio, and now podcasting/audio, is really a writers game. If the writing is good, it will hold your attention. The old broadcasters were great writers, and surprisingly few of them had that classic radio voice. Don’t get me wrong, they were comfortable around a microphone, but that shouldn’t be too hard for modern journalists. You can sit at your computer and tape a voice file. There’s no need to step into an intimidating studio.

    Check the samples here, there’s lots more out there: http://tennesseebillsotr.com/otr/CBS%20World%20News%20Today/


    Yeah, okay, maybe it is crazy, but nothing else has worked, and it wouldn’t be expensive to try.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    We’re discussing a different article than the one tmatt linked to, but… is the smoking ‘devil’ on the left supposed to be Christopher Hitchens?

  • http://www.michaelleejoshua.com/imagesofjesus.htm images of Jesus

    I agree, there is no such thing as a free lunch – especially in journalism. Most of my articles and flash fiction is posted free on some sites – then stolen by others without giving me a byline. It’s a shame. and it’s copyright infringement. This may be why so many informative articles are behind pay walls.

  • Dave

    I used to subscribe to the Washington Post national newsweekly, until it ceased publication for the usual reasons. I then went on line and arranged to download roughly the same content from the WaPo website free when I used to willingly pay $78/year for it in print. The free lunch is eating the lunch of journalism.

    Ray, I wouldn’t call Hitchins a relativist. He’s an absolutist with his own ideas of the absolute.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Dave –

    Ray, I wouldn’t call Hitchins a relativist. He’s an absolutist with his own ideas of the absolute.

    Precisely why I was confused by the illustration. Of course, maybe Hitchens is supposed to represent ‘fundamentalism’…

    If so, what’s the identity of the Middle-Easternish ‘devil’ on the other shoulder?