Shyamalan caught selling tickets to the wrong niche

thevillagewallOK, I first spotted this a week or two ago and I have been watching ever since for another flash of this possible, maybe, kind of guilt-by-association, post-Passion ghost story.

Of course, we are used to reading about ghost stories involving the work of M. Night Shyamalan. But I am talking about an interesting thread that is woven through some of the essays about his latest movie. The best example of the genre is found in “Village Idiot: The case against M. Night Shyamalan” by Michael Agger, published at Slate.com.

It is always interesting, of course, to watch the tide turn in criticism of an artist who had previously been a critical darling. This is the whole “jump the shark” phenomenon, only being played for keeps in the mainstream media. Shyamalan has been one of the “it” directors for several years. But then he made a movie with, well, that Mel Gibson fellow. And it had a priest in it, and prayer, and that faith-friendly “did somebody save me?” dialogue in the final scene, and the cross symbol on the door and other problems, as well.

Maybe something was seriously wrong with Shyamalan. Pay close attention to this passage from Agger:

The Sixth Sense became one of top 10 grossing films of all time, and what does M. Night do with his newfound power? He stays put in Philadelphia, refusing to move to L.A. and play ball. He creates a local film industry around his productions. And most importantly, he begins the process of burnishing his legend. When a reporter asks him what he wanted his name to mean in the future, he replied, “Originality.” Access to his scripts in progress is extremely limited, lest anyone reveal their secrets.

OK, so far so good. It is interesting, of course, to note that the director is being lashed for the very qualities that previously led critics to praise him. This is one of those artists who wants to stand out and does not mind being honest about it. He holds prayer vigils at the start of his movies and things like … Wait, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Here comes Agger again:

M. Night could not control the audience, however, and he was unhappy with the poor performance of his sophomore thriller, Unbreakable (2000). He vowed to inject more emotion (and box office) in his next effort. Again, Shyamalan made the talk show rounds, promising another twist ending and cultivating auteurish tics such as putting himself in the movie, just like Quentin, just like Hitchcock. The result was Signs (2002) and a teary Mel Gibson. It became a modest hit, but only after it was adopted by Christians as [a] movie about the power of faith.

Bingo! The spiritual imagery in “Signs” must have been so obvious that even people in the Red Theaters liked it and started buying tickets and spreading the good news about the movie, perhaps even in church publications. Here is how Roberto Rivera, a culture writer for Boundless.org and other similar venues, reacted to the anti-Shyamalan blitz at Slate.com:

The writers’ problems stem from the religious/spiritual core to M. Night Shyamalan’s movies. He’s so distracted by this that he commits howlers like ascribing “Signs” $450 million take to evangelicals. Evangelicals probably didn’t get much of “Signs,” what with its sacramental imagery.

And while we are at it, is a film that makes $227 million or so domestic and $400-plus at the global box office really a “modest” hit? Perhaps in comparison to “The Sixth Sense,” but the adjective still seems a little strained. As does the headline on the second Slate.com essay attacking “The Village.” Speaking of interesting adjectives, check out this headline: “Village of the Darned: More pious hokum from M. Night Shyamalan.”

I think Mr. Shyamalan has wandered into the “culture wars” minefield, whether he wanted to or not.

Now, I have not had a chance to see the film yet as I dash to get ready for a new semester after a wild summer of work, study and travel. But the word of mouth from friends is almost totally positive. The film is doing OK, but not rocketing out of the gate.

Has anyone else in GetReligion-land (a) seen the film as worthy of comment on these semi-political lines or (b) seen other essays and reviews that reflect this Slate.com onslaught?

New York Times visits Mizzoo red pews: And the blue?

save_marriageDavid D. Kirkpatrick is back, with another scary story on the “issues that moral conservatives argue about” beat at the New York Times.

This report — entitled “Churches See an Election Role and Spread the Word on Bush” — is an example of an interesting trend on this beat. This story includes no reaction whatsoever from voices on the religious and cultural left. You read that right, with one possible interesting exception, Kirkpatrick has built an entire report in the Times on voices from the right.

And what a frightening missive this is, centering on conservative flocks in the pivotal swing state called Missouri. Out there in the red pews, people even say things like this:

Susanne Jacobsmeyer, a member of the West County Assembly of God in a St. Louis suburb, voted for George W. Bush four years ago, but mostly out of loyalty as a Republican and not with much passion.

This year, Ms. Jacobsmeyer is a “team leader” in the Bush campaign’s effort to turn out conservative Christian voters. “This year I am voting for him as a man of faith,” she said over breakfast after an early morning service. “He has proven that he will do what is right, and he will look to God first.”

Jan Klarich, her friend and another team leader, agreed. “Don’t you feel it is a spiritual battle?” she asked to nods around the table.

Yes, lock up the “Fresh Air” coffee mugs! There are people out there in Middle America using their free speech rights to talk about “spiritual warfare” related to politics and moral disputes. The pastor of this church prays for the president — in the pulpit — every week and has even preached sermons in opposition to abortion, stem cell research and same-sex marriage. The congregation has formed a more than symbolic “moral action team” — with 12, count ‘em, 12 — members. This squad of disciples even registers voters.

These actions have had consequences, noted Kirkpatrick.

Before Missouri voted last week to add a ban on same-sex marriage to the state’s Constitution and keep in place a restriction on gambling, the church newsletter endorsed both measures so vigorously that the post office denied the church its usually discounted postal rate for engaging in political activity.

Now, there are all kinds of valid questions that can be asked at this point, because this story is build on a crucial church-state legal conflict that is not new. For years, lawyers on the lifestyle left have argued that the Roman Catholic Church has often blurred the line between legal advocacy on moral and cultural issues and improper advocacy of specific political candidates. Call any church-state think tank — left or right — and they will tell you this. Kirkpatrick mentions this issue, but does not call in a balanced squad of church-state authorities to update us on the status of this conflict.

Once again, the problem is that American political life these days is rooted in conflicts over moral issues such as legalized abortion and the redefinition of marriage. In other words, traditional/orthodox churches cannot be silent because there are 2,000 years of tradition out there that affect their beliefs on these issues. However, these issues also create political wars in an age in which the U.S. Supreme Court is pondering postmodern theories about the meaning of the universe and its impact on Constitutional law. (The Baptist Press photo with this post is from a Missouri rally on marriage.)

Here’s another question: Are these conflicts present in other churches? We can tell that Kirkpatrick knows about this conflict because he touches it, then drops it like a hot skillet.

Socially conservative pastors and priests are wrestling with their potentially pivotal role in the tight presidential race. In interviews with more than a dozen religious leaders in the St. Louis area, several said they felt a duty to speak up for what they consider biblical values like opposition to abortion and same sex-marriage. Some also mentioned the longstanding role of African-American pastors in encouraging their members to vote for Democrats.

This is an interesting issue. What are the facts here? Are there investigations of the tax-status of churches on the left as well as the right? What do the new religious activists at the Democratic Party have to say about all of this? Are these probes of conservative churches — I wonder if there are liberals monitoring and/or taping sermons out there — linked to political-action groups with ties to the Democrats? Just asking.

Finally, there is a chance that Kirkpatrick needs to head down to Nashville and Dallas and look up a good church historian to get some background on Southern Baptist history. You see, there are Southern Baptists on the left side of this conflict — think Bill Clinton and Al Gore — and when you quote them, it might help to remind New York Times readers of this reality. I mention this because of the following paragraph in the story, noting that some of the pastors were nervous about Iraq, tax cuts and other issues.

“I don’t see how a president could call on so many young men and women to sacrifice in our nation’s service and not call the rest of us to sacrifice financially as well,” said Rudy Pulido, pastor of Southwest Baptist Church, a member of the theologically conservative Southern Baptist Convention, and the president of the local chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Now there is another group on the left that loves to be quoted and has tons of information — Americans United. Call them up. This is the rare New York Times story that lacks a left wing and urgently needs one.

Talking about the power of faith, with "anonymous" at the CIA

osama_bin_ladenI have been dealing with the side effects of a computer crash for some time now at home, yet another sign that this is a fallen world and that Microsoft may have played some role in events at the Tower of Babel.

But I digress. Several items that I meant to blog some time ago were locked up and I couldn’t get to them. But I still think they are worth noting, because of ties into several ongoing threads here at GetReligion.

The first is a quote appearing near the end of a USA Today interview with Michael Scheuer, who is also known as “anonymous.” Scheuer is a CIA terrorism expert who, at the insistence of the agency, does not use his own name when he writes. This 23-year veteran in the war on terror directed research into the life and work of Osama bin Laden from 1996 to 1999 and his most recent book is entitled “Imperial Hubris.”

It is a book full of scary ideas, both for those who currently run the White House and for those who want to overthrow the current regime in Washington, D.C.

Here is the big idea: Americans cannot seem to accept that the course plotted by bin Laden is logical.

That is, it is logical if he is trying to affect the course of American foreign policy and he is acting on motives that are totally consistent with his faith and worldview. According to “anonymous,” this is precisely what bin Laden is doing and these are also the two crucial concepts that American political, intellectual and media elites cannot seem to grasp.

The policies that the radical Islamists oppose, he argues, are easy to list: (1) Support for Israel that allows the Israelis to dominate the Palestinians. (2) U.S., Western troops on the Arabian Peninsula. (3) Occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. (4) Support for Russia, India and China against the Muslim militants there. (5) Pressure on Arab energy producers to keep oil prices low. (6) U.S. support for corrupt Muslim governments.

And the role of faith? This is where the question and answer transcript ends:

Q: When you talk about the mind-set of the country on the war on terror, where do you think the misconceptions come from? The media, politicians?

A: It’s trite to say, but the idea of political correctness is very, very important in terms of the performance of the intelligence community. How many times has USA TODAY, or The New York Times or The Washington Post discussed the role of Islam as a motivating factor in bin Laden’s appeal in the Muslim world? I can’t remember it very frequently. The director of intelligence and the president say al-Qaeda represents the lunatic fringe of the Muslim world, which, on the face of it, is absurd. But there is no one talking about Islam as a motivating factor for war.

There were times when our ancestors went to war to defend their faith. So, the debate is very constricted, not only in America but certainly within the intelligence community. We do a lot of analysis by assertion rather than by reality. Somehow the argument that someone is fighting for his faith is seen as a negative. So we assert that only gangsters do that. We make bin Laden into a gangster. But it doesn’t get you anywhere.

These are sobering thoughts to say the least. It is so much easier, “anonymous” keeps saying, to assume that one’s enemy is a coward and a lunatic than to assume that he is a powerful and consistent religious leader who has reasons to do what he is doing.

This may also be the case in most newsrooms, where discussions of dangerous religion always involve the word “fundamentalist,” which means lunatic.

But what if bin Laden is not a lunatic and the brand of Islam that he advocates is, in large parts of the world, not a set of fringe beliefs? And what if his beliefs are consistent with the brand of Islam that is being sponsored by Saudi Arabia in some growing sectors of Muslim communities in Europe, North America and elsewhere? In other words, what if our enemy’s actions are rooted in a form of faith that is more discreetly advocated by some who claim to be our allies?

These questions have been bothering journalist Rod Dreher for some time now and he (a friend of this blog) recently explored some of the themes of “Imperial Hubris” in the pages of the Dallas Morning News. He begins by noting that even the 9-11 commission concluded: “The enemy is not just terrorism, some generic evil. It is the threat posed by Islamist terrorism.” Dreher begins right there:

Golly, ya think? It’s more than a little ridiculous, three years after 19 Muslims flew airplanes into buildings for the greater glory of God, to see a government panel direct Americans to think about the central role that religion plays in this war. But I’m glad it did, because our continued refusal to come to terms with the essentially religious nature of the conflict prevents us from devising effective plans to combat the enemy. …

From a Muslim point of view … Mr. bin Laden can plausibly be seen as a heroic defender of the faith. To be sure, there are many Muslims who don’t accept this view. The point is that bin Ladenism is at least rational within Islam.

The problem, Dreher noted, is not with the worldview of bin Laden. It is with our own worldview, our own culture’s willingness to minimalize the power of religious faith. We cannot grasp what our enemies consider to be real, true and just.

Because we in the secular West have made God a mere hobby, we don’t comprehend how devout Muslims perceive reality. Our materialist-minded leaders prattle on about solving the “root causes” of terror — poverty, illiteracy, lack of democracy and so forth — because we cannot fathom the idea that hundreds of millions of people believe that obeying the God of the Quran is the most important thing in life. … Islam is the issue, not because we want it to be, but because the enemy explicitly says so and is winning more followers by the day by appealing to the religious sense of the world’s Muslims.

That sound you hear is mainstream politicians, intellectuals and media leaders shouting “SHUT UP!”

But surely these ideas can be discussed and debated. Can’t they? Surely they can be reported, along with the views of those who reject them? Right?

The Greatest Divide? Don't ask moral questions in pews

martyThere is an old, old saying among God-beat professionals.

What most mainstream newspaper editors want when they assign a religion news story is “three anecdotes, a poll and a quote from Martin E. Marty.”

That quote is so old I may already have used it on GetReligion.org. But it’s relevant right now, because of a new column offered up by the nation’s most quoted church historian on the “Sightings” page at the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago.

Marty was reacting to a series by Bill Bishop in the Austin American Statesman which noted (prepare for stunning observation) that there are basically two kinds of churches in America today and that they don’t seem to have much in common with each other when it comes to morality, culture and politics. He calls one side “modernist” and the other side “traditionalist.”

Bishop doesn’t dig too deep into the theology of this, other than to say that churches on the left are more “universalist.” Bingo. Give the man a prize.

(Religious) beliefs and practices have come to align with political party, according to surveys conducted by John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. People who follow more traditional religious practices — Protestants who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and Catholics who accept the authority of the Pope — generally supported Bush in 2000 and say they will vote for him again this year.

Those in what Green describes as “modernist” religious congregations, for example, churchgoers who were more ecumenical, or universalist, in their beliefs, tend to vote Democratic, regardless of denomination. Traditional evangelicals support Bush by 68 percentage points over Kerry in Green’s latest poll, taken in the spring. But modernist evangelicals back Kerry by 8 percentage points over Bush.

Note the term “modernist evangelical” — that deserves more attention. You’ll be hearing more about the evangelical left in the months and years ahead. Then brace yourself for the charismatic left.

Bishop’s “modernist” and “traditionalist” divide sounds very similar, of course, to Dr. James Davison Hunter’s thesis in “Culture Wars,” in which he described the worldviews of the “orthodox” (truth is transcendent, absolute and eternal) and the “progressives” (truth is personal, experiential and evolving). This sociologist at the University of Virginia Center on Religion and Democracy has been talking about the cultural and political implications of this new divide for 15 years or so. I dedicated by 10th anniversary column to his work.

Of course, anyone who covers the world of oldline Protestantism knows how this divide is shaping the wars among United Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Lutherans and everybody else on that side of the church aisle.

Ballot-box politics aside, when you look at these issues in terms of doctrine and sacraments, I have found that you can almost always sort these churches out by asking three ancient questions: (1) Did the resurrection of Jesus really happen — in real time? (2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? (3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Get answers to those three questions and, nine out of 10 times, a journalist will know who he or she is dealing with in terms of this modernist/progressives vs traditionalist/orthodox divide. How does this affect politics? Well, what percentage of the heat in political life today is generated by discussions of issues linked to the Sexual Revolution, such as abortion and homosexuality? While we are at it, it is also interesting to ponder the impact of these questions on the growth and decline of churches and denominations.

So Bishop never should have expected to find churches in which people calmly and gracefully discuss the issues of the day. Martin Marty says so. Instead of calling his article on churches and politics “The Great Divide” between the two Americas, Bishop should have called it “The Greatest Divide.” Marty noted:

To do our own framing, let me suggest an experiment for those who attend worship (non-attenders can easily get reports from experimenters). In the polite company of fellow-believers, on church premises, whisper words such as “Bush” or “Kerry,” “Democrat” or “Republican.” Thereupon, if you are not met with spite or spit, go on to the second part of the experiment: voice support for one party or candidate and reject the other. The custodian will clean up your broken glasses or other debris left over from the smashing that will follow. …

A church building will not have a sign out front: “This is a Republican congregation” or vice versa. But when the Republicans go trolling for votes by asking for membership lists, or ask pastors for formal endorsements, they know exactly which congregations in any urban or town and country setting to approach. And Democrats, should they also go pushing the edges of I.R.S. regulations by asking tax-exempt churches to go partisan and support a candidate — as some do especially in the case of African-American congregations — they know better than to walk down the aisle of “the other kind” of church and bid.

This divide is disturbing, but real, noted Marty. Religious people have few chances to hear the arguments of other believers, or perhaps even the voice of divine judgment.

But politics will be politics and the religious voices are certainly not staying silent out there in the larger debates. If you don’t believe me, check out the New York Times coverage of the landslide victory in Missouri for an amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriages. You can click here or even here.

Print these stories out and grab a yellow highlighter pen. You should find a dozen or more passages that sound something like this ballot-box collision between two people who probably don’t go to the same church.

Mary Klostermeier, 77, said she saw the need to bar gay marriage. “I guess I’m in the old school,” Ms. Klostermeier said. “I’m just a very religious person.”

But her friend Gene Gabianelli, 72, said he had voted against a ban. “People should do what they want to do,” Mr. Gabianelli said. “This whole thing is all about politics as far as I can tell — all about mobilizing people for George Bush.”

Taking a photo tour of Greece, or at least parts of it

GreekChurchHello out there in Godbeat land. Anybody home?

I ask this because I want to post something that will take a minute or two of your time. A few clicks of the mouse even.

We are not the most high-tech of blogs, but Doug and I have noticed that interesting things are happening in the online multi-media world. The concept of online slide shows is especially interesting to me, since I love photojournalism in all its forms.

Which meant that I have enjoyed the trailblazing work of the Washington Post in its Camera Works division and I have been clicking my way into the current New York Times efforts to capture the spirit of Greece in the weeks leading up to the Olympics. It’s a journey worth taking.

Start with this one: “Photographers’ Journal: A Journey Through Greece.” The text that went with this said simply:

The Magnum Photos cooperative set out to capture a portrait of Greece to mark the 2004 Summer Olympic Games. The work of six photographers, as well as audio interviews with the shooters, is featured in this presentation.

As you may remember, I was in Greece a few weeks ago myself. So I thought it was interesting to note certain differences in the work of these photographers.

Visit the site and look through the slide shows. Then let me ask: Am I the only person who notices any differences — statistically speaking — of these photos? Does it seem to you that the Greece visited by Mark Power, Carl De Keyzer, Alex Webb and Patrick Zachmann was a radically different place than that visited by Constantine Manos (of South Carolina, of all places) and Nikos Economopoulos?

Just asking. Look for yourself. And, by the way, the photograph attached to this blog item has nothing to do with the subject at hand.

Behind the Christian comedy story — two views of culture

victoria_jacksonAs Doug just noted, this whole “Christian comedy” story is really, down at the roots, about the wider issue of Christian and conservative subcultures.

Surely it says something about our age that culturally conservative believers are plugging away at influencing real politics (as opposed to Contemporary Christian Politics?) at the precise moment that so many Americans are turned off by real politics. But in the area of entertainment and mass media — the heart of American cultural life — Christians flee to niche cultures. Movies. Comic books. Music. You name it. There is a whole world with the letters CC in front of the product.

The Washington Post recently waded into this topic, as well, in a Natalie Hopkinson feature entitled “The Ha-Ha-Hallelujah Comedy Movement.” Here is the crucial “love offering” passage in this report on the opening night at the Synergy comedy club. If you don’t know what a “love offering” is, this club isn’t for you.

Row by row, the audience marches to the stage and drops singles, fives and checks hastily made out to Synergy Ministries — $1,260 by the end of the night. He’s joking, but it’s no joke. This is the house of the Lord.

You can call them “inspirational,” “alternative,” “Christian” and even, as some of them plead, “just clean.” They are the dozens of comedians working the Washington area’s gospel comedy scene. For years, these comedians have been performing at churches, community centers, parties and weddings. But now a small circuit of Christian comedy venues has popped up, struggling to make a go.

In addition to keeping it clean, the key to these clubs is that they offer a mixture of entertainment and “ministry.” Remember that this is supposed to be evangelism, even if everyone in the crowd is a born-again consumer.

But these set-apart “Christian venues” are not the whole story — in comedy and in other forms of popular culture. The larger story is elsewhere.

All across the country, mainstream comedy clubs have spotted the large and, well, passionate audience of mainstream believers. They have started holding “Christian” or “clean” comedy nights in real comedy clubs, often featuring real comedians with mainstream credentials. The key is that these funny people happen to be Christians.

These two crowds may overlap, but are not quite the same. But we are talking about two entirely different ways of doing business and creating culture.

If you want to spot the difference, just Google the name “Victoria Jackson.” Yes, that Victoria Jackson from the Saturday Night Live crew. She’s alive and well and still funny as, well, heck. Here is a Cox News Service glimpse into her experiments in this emerging marketplace.

ATLANTA — Dressed in a sequined black French maid costume, comic Victoria Jackson was complaining about men in her squeaky high-pitched voice. “We get rewarded for big boobs in your face, but you can’t see our souls,” she said.

She paused, eyes wide, looking a little nervous: “I probably wasn’t supposed to say ‘boob’ on Christian comedy night.”

Well, she did, but nobody stomped out of the Funny Farm at the club’s first Christian comedy night with Jackson, a lifelong Christian known as the ditsy blonde from “Saturday Night Live” from 1986 to 1992. She’s still delightfully amusing at age 44.

The very phrase “Christian comedy” can be confusing.

No joke. That is why this is such an interesting story. It is a doorway into a clash between two different worlds, two different ways of living and working. One seeks to be in the world but not of it. The other is, well, of the world but not in it. There’s a difference.

"Kill the Nazis" and other loud opinions (Spot an albatross)

protestersWe’ve had a lively little comments thread going on the past few days inspired by the “Kill the Nazis” post about the protesters and counter-protesters during the Democratic National Convention. That was the one about the pro-peace crowd that tried to kick some sense into a loud anti-abortion activist who had a bad — or good — sense of timing, depending on one’s point of view.

I must admit that I was amused at the whole “tolerant people attacking the intolerant” angle of that story. As some of you may have noticed, I love that old saying: “There are people in this world who don’t love everybody the way that they’re supposed to and I hate people like that.”

But something got lost lost in the lively debate about angry anti-war people and arrogant conservatives and everything else. This is a blog about mainstream media coverage of religion news and I hoped to get everybody thinking about unusual political-religious stories that the press could cover during the two conventions and the rest of the long and winding road to the White House.

For example, what kind of counter-protest situations might pop up during the GOP convention? Young Republicans throwing Howard Dean plush toys at peaceful throngs of Michael Moore supporters? Choirs of religious right leaders singing “We shall overcome” during a march by the Congressional Black Caucus? Michael Reagan going mano a mano with a sort-of-sibling?

Have some fun with this. Our goal here is to have fun, but also to think about what lively religion coverage can look like. The left and right both have their stereotypes and sacred cows. Let’s spot them. Anyone want to make some predictions about what might happen next on the campaign trail?

Also, any nominations for the best just-off-the-religion-beat story during the Democratic shindig?

The people at the Christianity Today blog — as always — did amazing work. The daily blog at Beliefnet.com by Steven Waldman was also fun. Both featured sharp insights into the efforts by Democrats to ring spiritual bells, without hanging a copy of the Ten Commandents around the necks of the candidates like a large, heavy ocean-friendly bird with a giant wingspan.

(Not) preaching to the New York Times choir

old_timesAs you might expect, I have been getting quite a bit of email about the recent column by Daniel Okrent titled “Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?”

The “public editor” at the Gray Lady stirred up the milk real good and then immediately went on vacation. He answers his own question with the simple lead: “Of course it is.”

The column did not directly address the issue of religion coverage. It also did not openly address the wider issue of news coverage of religious people, which is not quite the same thing.

But with a fascinating series of wink-wink comments, Okrent made it clear — I think — that he knows where the biggest chasm exists between the deep-blue world of the Times and the lives of people out in flyover country.

For example, note this passage at the beginning:

(Readers) who attack The Times from the left — and there are plenty — generally confine their complaints to the paper’s coverage of electoral politics and foreign policy. I’ll get to the politics-and-policy issues this fall (I want to watch the campaign coverage before I conclude anything), but for now my concern is the flammable stuff that ignites the right. These are the social issues: gay rights, gun control, abortion and environmental regulation, among others. And if you think The Times plays it down the middle on any of them, you’ve been reading the paper with your eyes closed.

But if you’re examining the paper’s coverage of these subjects from a perspective that is neither urban nor Northeastern nor culturally seen-it-all; if you are among the groups The Times treats as strange objects to be examined on a laboratory slide (devout Catholics, gun owners, Orthodox Jews, Texans); if your value system wouldn’t wear well on a composite New York Times journalist, then a walk through this paper can make you feel you’re traveling in a strange and forbidding world.

Gun control might stir up legions of conservative New York Times readers, but I doubt that is the heart of the matter. I wonder why he did not mention evangelical Christians?

It seems to me that Okrent was struggling to find some issues to mention that are not directly attached to the big two — sex and salvation. He talks about the thick folder of complaints on his desk. It would have been interesting to do a quick blitz through that folder and give his readers some indication of what percentage of the letters were rooted in religious and moral issues. I would have been stunned by any figure under 50 percent.

Okrent is close to the mark when he notes that the op-ed pages do a pretty good job of offering a wide range of views from outsiders. But the columnists? Only two of the seven are conservatives and those two, he admits, are of the “conservative subspecies” that is liberal on social issues such as gay rights and abortion. In other words, the big issues that dominate the contents of his folder full of letters. How about arts and culture?

In the Sunday magazine, the culture-wars applause-o-meter chronically points left. On the Arts & Leisure front page every week, columnist Frank Rich slices up President Bush, Mel Gibson, John Ashcroft and other paladins of the right in prose as uncompromising as Paul Krugman’s or Maureen Dowd’s. The culture pages often feature forms of art, dance or theater that may pass for normal (or at least tolerable) in New York but might be pretty shocking in other places. Same goes for fashion coverage, particularly in the Sunday magazine, where I’ve encountered models who look like they’re preparing to murder (or be murdered), and others arrayed in a mode you could call dominatrix chic.

Hinting again at the religious nature of the gap, Okrent notes that “creationists” will not feel at home in the pages of Science Times. Of course, one person’s “creationist” is another person’s rebel scientist, but that is kind of the point.

While the Times has demonstrated fits of balance and fairness on science issues — supporters of Intelligent Design theory have actually cheered some of the coverage of their research — anyone who reads these pages consistently knows who the Times considers smart and who it considers dumb. As Okrent puts it, millions of people read these stories and think: “This does not represent me or my interests. In fact, it represents my enemy.”

And finally, he ventures into the issue — gay rights — that is defining current debates about media bias. This requires a lengthy quote, in order to be fair to his perspective.

(For) those who also believe the news pages cannot retain their credibility unless all aspects of an issue are subject to robust examination, it’s disappointing to see The Times present the social and cultural aspects of same-sex marriage in a tone that approaches cheerleading. So far this year, front-page headlines have told me that “For Children of Gays, Marriage Brings Joy,” (March 19, 2004); that the family of “Two Fathers, With One Happy to Stay at Home,” (Jan. 12, 2004) is a new archetype; and that “Gay Couples Seek Unions in God’s Eyes,” (Jan. 30, 2004). I’ve learned where gay couples go to celebrate their marriages; I’ve met gay couples picking out bridal dresses; I’ve been introduced to couples who have been together for decades and have now sanctified their vows in Canada, couples who have successfully integrated the world of competitive ballroom dancing, couples whose lives are the platonic model of suburban stability.

Every one of these articles was perfectly legitimate. Cumulatively, though, they would make a very effective ad campaign for the gay marriage cause. You wouldn’t even need the articles: run the headlines over the invariably sunny pictures of invariably happy people that ran with most of these pieces, and you’d have the makings of a life insurance commercial.

This implicit advocacy is underscored by what hasn’t appeared. Apart from one excursion into the legal ramifications of custody battles (“Split Gay Couples Face Custody Hurdles,” by Adam Liptak and Pam Belluck, March 24), potentially nettlesome effects of gay marriage have been virtually absent from The Times since the issue exploded last winter.

The bottom line: If The New York Times is going to serve as a national institution, the bible of the journalistic elites that guide coverage in mainstream media from coast to coast, then Okrent believes that it is crucial that its editors manage to escape the zip codes of their own spiritual and intellectual biases often enough to at least accurately cover the lives and beliefs of those who differ with them on the hottest news issues of the day.

In other words: It’s journalism, stupid.

I sent a copy of the column to one veteran conservative critic, former New York Daily News reporter William Proctor. He’s a Harvard-trained lawyer and the author of The Gospel According to the New York Times. Proctor said he suspects Okrent knew that he could not directly address religion issues because he “could have ended up touching a philosophical third rail.” Proctor continues:

I have argued that the Times’ pervasive anti-Christian propaganda and its promotion of such issues as gay and transgender rights and unrestricted abortion have resulted in a phenomenon I call ‘Culture Creep’ . . . or the process of spreading the paper’s ‘gospel’ or comprehensive worldview to an unsuspecting public. I could hardly have asked for a better way to make my case than Daniel Okrent’s mea culpa on behalf of his paper.

The key, said Proctor, is that Okrent

. . . (May) have decided that the only acceptable and effective way to deal in his venue with moral issues such as gay marriage was to focus on journalistic and rationalistic arguments. Yet by employing religious language to describe the Times, he could subtly suggest — as I did less subtly in THE GOSPEL — that the Times is enmeshed in promoting a coherent worldview that runs counter to traditional morality and religious faith. …

If he is religious or sympathetic to traditional values, he may have assumed that dealing with such issues from a Biblical or traditional moral perspective would have fallen on deaf ears with the Times’ audience.

In other words, Okrent may have found a way not to preach to the choir. Of course, I realize that “preaching to the choir” is a phrase from Southern Protestantism, so I am not sure that many defenders of The New York Times will understand its meaning. Oh well, whatever, never mind.