Whenever my Washington Journalism Center students start covering speeches and major public events, always I tell them that they face three major journalistic challenges. They have to:
(1) Get the words down, whether in professional quality notes, on a recording or, ideally, both.
(2) Understand the words, by which I mean that a reporter has to figure out what people are actually saying. This is not always easy because experts in various fields — from national politics to football, from science to theology — tend to speak in their own professional codes. (Example: You know, when my quarterback saw that their back zone was flooded, he knew I’d be able to take my man on a skinny post and beat him to the flag.)
(3) Translate the words, out of the specialty language and imagery of the event into sidewalk-level language that readers will understand.
Here’s an example: Long ago, I went to a movie theater to see an advance screening, for liberal mainline Protestant clergy, of Martin Scorsese’s controversial “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Right up front, I knew that I needed to find someone who knew the subject material behind the movie and could help me evaluate it. As it turned out, the studio had used a National Council of Churches mailing list when preparing the invitations and, thus, the dean of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral was there. I quickly learned that he had read the original Nikos Kazantzakis novel in the original Greek and he was glad to offer his insights into this rather shallow movie (which left him both amused and furious at the same time).
So what, pray tell, does all of this have to do with the Washington Post coverage of the funeral of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher?
Well, I am glad that the Post team attempted to capture some of the religious content of the service. Honest.
However, I do wish the professionals who produced the story had found themselves an authoritative voice, or two, to help them understand key moments in this very deep and defining religious rite. There was no reason for the reporter to go it alone when attempting to discern the meaning of some of the language used in these event.
There was no need, quite frankly, to guess at motives, to guess at the deeper meanings of some of the language. Why not find an expert or two and let them help with translation? In particular, it was important — in light of the deep divisions in Great Britain about Thatcher and her legacy — not to slap political templates over the content of this religious service.
Like what? Read on, carefully:
In accordance with Thatcher’s wishes, the service was quintessentially British, including pieces by English composers Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, delivered a blessing. Cameron and Thatcher’s American-born granddaughter, Amanda, offered readings.
Amanda Thatcher, 19, drew particular accolades for her composure as she read a New Testament verse that spoke to her grandmother’s strength: “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
The Rev. Richard Chartres, a family friend and the bishop of London, told the mourners that Thatcher had requested not a typical eulogy, laced with her political accomplishments, but a more simple and personal address. He delivered just that, reflecting on a young boy who had once written Thatcher asking whether prime ministers, like Jesus Christ, never made mistakes. Thatcher’s life, Chartres acknowledged, had been stormy. But as her remains rested in the church, he said, now “there is a great calm.”
“At such a time, the parson should not aspire to the judgments which are proper to the politician,” he said. “Instead, this is a place for ordinary human compassion of the kind that is reconciling.”
So what is the problem there?
Well, I do not know who chose that particular reading from the Book of Ephesians, chapter six. Thatcher was raised as a Methodist and this service was taking place in a setting at the highest levels of symbolism in the Church of England (St. Paul’s Cathedral). It is possible that this text was listed among the optional readings for a funeral rite. Needless to say, the press team for that event could have pointed a reporter toward experts sure to have an answer.
However, I do know this: The Post team quoted one snippet from a very complex and powerful piece of scripture and, suffice it to say, the content of that text had nothing to do with the “strength” of Thatcher, especially if the strength implied is linked to politics.
Yes, this is a passage about spiritual struggle, but it is about a struggle in the heart of the believer as well as her or his struggles in the complex reality that is life in the real world. It is about finding strength OUTSIDE the self, in the power of the Holy Trinity, once one has learned that no one is strong enough to carry on spiritual battles alone.
In other words, for believers who know scripture, the ultimate meaning of the passage read by Amanda Thatcher is pretty much the opposite of the interpretation — note the lack of attribution behind the “that spoke to” language — offered by the Post team.
The bottom line: The interpretation appears to be political, not liturgical or scriptural. Surprised?
Seeing the full Ephesians text read by the young Thatcher (offered in the classic King James Version language) certainly helps:
10 Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.
11 Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
12 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
13 Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.
14 Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness;
15 And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace;
16 Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked.
17 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God:
18 Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints;
So what are we left with here?
Get the words. Check.
Understand the words. Fail.
Translate the words. Fail.
Be careful out there. It helps, when in a foreign land, to have a translator.