Yes, that headline is written with tongue somewhat in cheek: The New York Times‘ “On Religion” column, authored in alternate weeks by Samuel G. Freedman and Mark Oppenheimer, both academics, is at turns fascinating and frustrating. Fascinating when it finds, as will be discussed here, good, solid faith-based stories. Frustrating — to this more traditional believer, at least — when the column appears to delight (in column fashion) at those sticking a finger (or a fist) in the eye of, well, traditional believers.
Just when I’m about to lament this or that fawning column about someone rather far removed from the religious mainstream — let alone evangelicalism — “On Religion” comes along and reminds me that they can get this right. In fact, there are columns that are more news-focused than some New York Times news stories that approach religious matters.
Witness Freedman’s Nov. 29 spiritual profile of the late Oscar Hijuelos (shown here in a 1993 photo) the famed Cuban-American novelist who died in October at age 62 following a sudden collapse on a tennis court:
Nearly 20 years ago, when he was three books into an acclaimed literary career, Oscar Hijuelos delivered the manuscript of his new novel to his editor. It was a Christmas tale filled with the joy Mr. Hijuelos had always taken in with the trappings of yuletide, from manger scenes to oratorios to evergreens strung with lights.
From a lesser writer, perhaps, the new novel would have been perfectly fine. From one who had already won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,” who had received fellowships and honorary doctorates and a dinner invitation to the White House, it felt lacking.
At least it did to Mr. Hijuelos’s editor at HarperCollins, Robert S. Jones. He rejected the book, telling its author something cryptically critical along the lines of, “This is not what I had in mind for you to write.”
The evening after receiving the verdict, Mr. Hijuelos and his girlfriend at the time, Lori Carlson, sat together in their living room in Upper Manhattan, depression suffusing the air. Finally, Mr. Hijuelos told Ms. Carlson, “O.K., I’m really going to the heart of Christmas then.”
That exploration, Freedman noted, wasn’t a walk in the park, yielding the now-classic “Mr. Ives’ Christmas”:
It is, in distillate, the Book of Job transposed to Morningside Heights in the late 20th century. The title character, Edward Ives, is a commercial artist possessed of what he calls “a small, if imperfect, spiritual gift.” That gift finds expression in part through Mr. Ives’s son, Robert, who aspires to enter the priesthood.
So when Robert is shot dead outside his parish church a few days before Christmas 1967, the victim of a teenage thug without any particular motive, Mr. Ives is plunged into an abyss of suffering and doubt. For decades afterward, he mourns without cessation, withdraws from his beloved wife, scratches his skin bloody at night. Until, by forgiving his son’s murderer, he receives grace and redemption.
That believer’s sensibility struck Ms. Carlson, who married Mr. Hijuelos in 1998, from their very first encounters.
“People didn’t understand the depth to which Oscar went to that place he believed was the place of faith,” she said in an interview last week. “He was not just spiritual but religious. On our first date, we talked about faith — what we believed about God, about afterlife.”
“Mr. Ives’ Christmas,” though, was not merely a celebration of faith. It was a parable of faith tested by tragedy. When Mr. Hijuelos finished the manuscript, which Ms. Carlson had been reading and editing as it progressed, he told her one of its wellsprings.
“The root of that novel was a real story,” she said. “When Oscar was growing up in his neighborhood, one of the families that was very close to his family lost their boy. He was shot. And it was a senseless, tragic, horrific murder, and Oscar never forgot it. And the dignity of the family and the way they dealt with it stayed with him.”
It’s refreshing to see this sort of thing presented, without snark or sarcasm, as a straight-up news story. Even when the article veers into territory that might be unfamiliar to most Times readers, Freedman plays it down the middle:
Another essential moment in the novel takes place when Edward Ives, strolling through Midtown Manhattan on an ordinary day, experiences a rapture: “the very sky filled with four rushing, swirling winds, each defined by a different-colored powder like strange Asian spices.”
It is the image that Mr. Ives comes to doubt yet also depend upon in the aftermath of his son’s murder. And it is an image that Mr. Hijuelos himself saw, according to his longtime friend and fellow writer Philip Graham.
“I remember having a number of conversations with him about the vision,” Mr. Graham said last week. “He said this event had happened, it had in his adult life, and he didn’t know what to do with it. And this book is an answer to the question, ‘What do you do when you’ve been given a vision?’”
In discussing this piece, the journalistic and academic tmatt noted of Freedman that he is “a columnist, but that [article] sure doesn’t read like one. It reads like something by a journalism professor — and that’s a compliment.”
What’s more, I’d suggest that Freedman is paying his readers the compliment of viewing them as thoughtful, and thinking, people who can handle serious subjects without getting the vapors. Would that more scribes kept that idea in mind.