Sing a new song

Journalists have trouble covering “normality” and everyday events in religious life, Terry noted yesterday. While news organizations tend to cover religious perspectives on contentious issues, denominational infighting, and the latest clerical scandals, the real action for the average devotee is in worship, prayer, personal piety and, if we’re being honest, coffee hours.

David Crumm, a prolific and longtime religion writer and columnist at the Detroit Free Press, breaks this mold with a substantive look at how faith inspires art. Using an unlikely subject, he manages to get a newsworthy story out of the ordinary life of the church:

One evening as his mom was fixing supper in their Bloomfield Hills home, 11-year-old Harrison Kenum laid aside his Lego construction sets and Star Wars games and launched an unusual new mission.

In the next 30 minutes, he wrote a remarkable hymn that will be sung at a 9 a.m. Dec. 11 service at Kirk in the Hills Presbyterian Church in Bloomfield Hills.

It would be easy to write this as a novelty story. The elements are all there: precocious kid, seasonal schmaltz, feel-good religiosity. But Crumm does not condescend to his pre-teen subject — or his audience — and permits Kenum to explain the creative process and religious influences that fueled his hymnwriting:

At the core of this effort is his vivid Christian faith in which he says he clearly senses God sitting in the heavens and ruling with a compassionate hand.

To capture that lofty image in verse, Harrison found himself calling upon a host of traditional religious words that have swirled around in his head during the seven years he has performed in boys’ choirs.

“To make it sound like it should, I knew that I had to put in ‘doth’ and ‘ne’er’ and some other words like that,” he said. “To sound right, hymns like this always need a ‘thy’ or two.”

Also commendable is how many resources Crumm and his colleagues devoted to the piece; it’s more of a news package than a story. On the website, at least, the article is accompanied by the lyrics and audio to the hymn, pictures, and a video interview of Kenum explaining his vision. The 11-year-old definitely has a theology he used to write the hymn and Crumm highlights it and puts it in the context of congregational life. The writer even understands that the liturgical season most Christians are in right now is Advent, not the High Holy Days of Commercialized Christmas. Crumm explains how the Magnificat — the song Mary sings upon hearing she will bear the Savior — will be one of the appointed readings for the congregation’s upcoming Advent service:

“This is the season of Advent for us and that’s the theme on Sunday in the service where we’ll sing Harrison’s hymn: Everyone’s got a song to sing,” [assistant pastor Rev. Lana] Russell told me.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone took time like he did to think about these things? I want people to ask: What’s the song that I’ve been waiting to sing?”

Eleven-year old hymnwriters might not exist in every area, but editors and religion writers would do well to look at how faith and religious devotion affect every vocation, from mothers and barkeepers to janitors and soldiers. Real life, real news, and all that.

About Mollie Ziegler

MolliePictGR.jpgGreetings, fellow religion nerds. Today marks my debut on GetReligion. Since we’ll be discussing many stories in coming months, I’d like to share a bit about myself.

I’m a reporter in beautiful Washington, D.C., where I cover the management of government programs for Gannett’s Federal Times. I got into the journalism game a bit late, beginning with a stint at Radio & Records, the trade publication for the radio and recording industries. My education and previous professional background are in the dismal science of economics.

Most of my stories are straight news, but I have done some commentary and feature writing on religion, baseball, music, film, books and monkeys. Though my professional experience with the latter does not extend much further than a very exclusive Monkey News list-serv that I run, editors should feel free to contact me on all primate issues (despite a predilection against lemurs that I’d rather not discuss here).

In 2004 I won the Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellowship. This wonderfully generous program permitted me to spend a year researching and writing Losing Our Religion, a book on the changing shape of civil religion in America. Using original reporting, analysis of Supreme Court cases, and general historical review, I argue that the country has an official syncretistic religion.

This interfaith religion preaches that the public square is a great place for religious expression, so long as multiple religions are present; sacred scriptures are excellent for inclusion in political speeches, so long as multiple texts are cited; and state funerals and remembrances of national tragedy or pride can only be marked with religious services led by clergy from multiple religions. Most people think this is fine and good, but I argue that the arrangement trivializes religious differences and disenfranchises those folks who oppose syncretism. No matter where you stand on the issue, the book should make a great Chrismahanukwanzakah gift for everyone on your list next year.

Of course, my interest in these issues is informed by my background. My father is a Lutheran pastor and my mother teaches fourth grade at a government school. Sometimes my parents like to remind me what a difficult child I was. But the bottom line is that I’m Lutheran. Our perspective is unique — focused on the Sacraments, creeds and confessions of faith, and the eternal and otherworldly aspects of the faith. It’s in strong contrast to the American idea of religion, which focuses on personal morality and politics. As a result Lutheranism is rarely noticed or understood in the press. It’s extremely frustrating but great training for this gig: I’ve spent decades contemplating what’s missing from religious stories. And my past year studying Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism confirmed that the problem extends well past Christianity.

Here at GetReligion, I hope to shed a bit of light and heat on local religion coverage. I grew up reading Old Man Mattingly in the Rocky Mountain News, where I learned that all the best religion stories are local. Snake handlers drinking strychnine don’t start out as national news after all. In research for my book, I came to rely on a number of excellent religion reporters at medium to large papers and I look forward to highlighting their work on these pages.

For what it’s worth, I attend Immanuel Lutheran Church, a congregation of the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod, in Alexandria, Va. I serve on the LCMS Board for Communication Services. I also serve on the board of Higher Things, which helps parents, pastors and congregations cultivate a Lutheran identity among youth. I have four awesome nieces and a nephew. I have almost 1,000 LPs, ranging from Sufjan Stevens to Roberta Flack. And my favorite color is green.