Tesser well, Madeleine L’Engle

Wrinkle In Time CoverAs some GetReligion readers may know, my wife is a professional librarian at a public library in Anne Arundel County, Md. Thus, it is no surprise — with a librarian married to a journalist — that whenever we move into a house the first thing we do is build about 18 to 20 feet worth of bookshelves, to add to the free-standing units that we already have.

So we are book (and audio book and DVD) people. It should also come as no surprise that there are shelves — more than one in a few cases — for works by or about the likes of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen Lawhead, Frederick Buechner and others. And one of those others is Madeleine L’Engle, who is my wife’s favorite author.

We had the joy of meeting L’Engle several times during the years we lived in Denver, when she game for speaking engagements in the area.

In fact, she visited Christ Church, our parish at that time, during an All Saints service. I saw her on a kneeler in the third row and, at first, I did not recognize who this was. The face looked so familiar, yet I kept trying to think of someone who might, you know, show up in your local parish on a Wednesday night. My wife was sitting behind L’Engle during the service and did not see her, at this point in the evening. And the priests did not single her out in any way.

Then it hit me, where I knew this face.

When the service was over and people headed to the potluck, my wife made sure that Madeleine knew she was invited — while I tore home to grab a stack of favorite L’Engle hardback books. We all sat around talking for an hour or two. I also had two chances to interview her, at length, and heard several of her lectures.

L’Engle was a very, very complex person and there are few thoughful people, I imagine, who would agree with her on a variety of doctrinal issues. Yet her faith shines in her writings and she was a wonderful person with whom to “talk shop” on issues of vocation and calling.

Which leads me to my Scripps Howard News Service column for this week, which several people have suggested that I post here. There are many other tributes to L’Engle around at the moment in some interesting places — like National Review Online and Salon.

Please share your favorite L’Engle links with us, if you will.

L  EngleSo here is the column:

Madeleine L’Engle found it amusing that her critics kept missing the obvious in her fiction.

Consider the magical women in “A Wrinkle In Time” — Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which. It’s true that they have strange wardrobes and unique ways of speaking. Mrs. Whatsit is chatty, for example, because she is so young — a mere 2,379,152,497 years, eight months and three days old.

When the elder Mrs. Which arrives from another dimension, her colleagues begin giggling. Why? Since she is meeting three human children, Mrs. Which elects to appear as a “figure in a black robe and a black peaked hat, beady eyes, a beaked nose and long gray hair.” She is holding a broomstick.

Get the joke? For decades, L’Engle’s fiercest critics kept missing it. Thus, “A Wrinkle In Time” — which won the 1963 Newbery Medal — became one of America’s most frequently banned children’s books.

“If you read the book, there is no way that they are witches. They are guardian angels — the book says so. You don’t have to clarify what is already clear,” L’Engle told me, in a lengthy 1989 interview.

“Don’t they know how to spell? W-H-I-C-H is not W-I-T-C-H.”

This interview came during a time when L’Engle (pronounced LENG-el) had increased her already busy lecture schedule after the death of her husband of 40 years, actor Hugh Franklin. But L’Engle kept writing and talking about the themes that dominated her life — faith, family and creativity — until her health failed. She wrote more than 60 works of fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry and prayers during her life, which ended with her Sept. 6th death in Litchfield, Conn., at the age of 88.

Wherever L’Engle went, people kept asking her to explain her beliefs, from heaven to hell, from sex to salvation, from feminism to the arts. The writer did not hide her views, but rarely used the kind of language that so-called “Christian writers” were supposed to use.

Thus, her career was defined by a paradox: Many of her strongest admirers were evangelical Christians, as were most of her fiercest critics. Thus, it’s symbolic that she donated her personal notes and papers to Wheaton College — the Rev. Billy Graham’s alma mater — where they are part of a collection best known for its materials about the life of Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.

L’Engle was also candid about the role her faith played in her writing. She was, throughout her life, an Episcopalian’s Episcopalian from New York City who was determined to keep describing the visions and voices that filled her soul. While her writing was often mysterious, she kept hiding the crucial clues right out in the open.

It’s hard, for example, to miss the source of the climactic speech to Meg Murray, the heroine in the science fiction series that began with “A Wrinkle In Time.”

“The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men,” says Mrs. Who, who always speaks in quotations, such as this lengthy passage from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. “… God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty.”

It’s even clearer, in the next novel, that the children are backed by the powers of heaven. Meg finds herself face to face with a many-eyed creature with a 10-foot wingspan, a being with too many wings to count, wings that were in “constant motion, covering and uncovering the eyes.” This is a biblical cherubim, yet another angelic vision. He stresses that he is not a singular cherub, and adds, “I am practically plural.”

The goal, said L’Engle, was to create fiction that was unmistakably Christian, while writing to an audience that included all kinds of believers and unbelievers.

“I have been brought up to believe that the Gospel is to be spread, it is to be shared — not kept for those who already have it,” she said. “Well, ‘Christian novels’ reach Christians. They don’t reach out. … I am not a ‘Christian writer.’ I am a writer who is a Christian. I think that you have to be the best writer that you can be. Now, if I am truly a Christian, then that will show in my work.”

So, does everyone understand the headline on this post? And what do think are the implications of that final L’Engle quote for people of faith in all kinds of writing? Valid for screenwriters? Songwriters? Dare I ask, for journalists?

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The Revealer seeks new heretics

8176078It’s time for an update on the status of one of the other blogs that tries to monitor life on the Godbeat (or, perhaps, the beat of the gods). That would be the Jeff Sharlet (5Q+1 file here) project at New York University called The Revealer. Thanks to the omnipresent Ted Olsen over at CT‘s Liveblog for his tip on this one.

GetReligion and The Revealer have been at this for a long time and we often get mentioned as flip sides of the same coin, when it comes to trying to watch what is happening in the mainstream press. In a way, we disagree a bit on whether there is a mainstream press and who is in it and who should be and whether any of this matters when it comes to religion news. These are all topics worth arguing about, and we are happy to take part in all of that.

Way back at the beginning, Jeff had this to say as he told his readers about this blog:

Their mission is both a little bit and enormously different than The Revealer‘s. They’re tracking the mainstream media and its Christian counterparts; The Revealer was reminded yesterday of its responsibility to the smaller stories and its interest in finding new ways to write about religion. But that’s tomatoes and tomatoes compared to the main distinction, as hinted by GetReligion.org’s title — they want you to get God. Their God, to be exact, although they’re smart enough to know that there’s a huge range of understandings within evangelical Protestant theology.

Well, actually, we don’t spend much time worrying about Christian media and the “evangelical” label is certainly problematic for me as an Orthodox Christian and probably for the Divine Ms. M.Z. as a confessional Lutheran. We also think there are fine, talented, informed religion-beat pros out there who are not believers of any stripe.

Whatever. There are certainly differences in the worldviews of the two blogs and that’s a good thing. We will continue to let know readers where we stand (see “Is GetReligion a ‘Christian’ blog?“) and we hope The Revealer does, too.

This brings us to a new Sharlet post in which he updates his readers on the status of the weblog, after its usual summer-break slowdown. To cut to the chase, he is looking for some new volunteer writers.

Check out the appeal. Some of you might be interested.

And, while you are there, it’s interesting to mull over this provocative passage in this new, updated, mini-anti-credo of sorts for Sharlet and crew. Jeff wants to hear from some of you, but not all of you.

Don’t bother to write him if:

… You want to write primarily about your own religion or lack thereof; you think religion can be explained with terms like true and false; you believe religion must include belief; you’re a fan of Sam Harris or Rick Warren; you’re too sweet; you’re too cruel; you care passionately about the fate of the American newspaper. Such sentiments don’t make you a bad person, of course but they will make you a bad fit for The Revealer. We’re not trying to disprove religion or prove that “true” religion is peaceful or “fix” mainstream media’s religion problem. You should know what we’re trying to do: It ought to go without saying that you’re a Revealer reader, and equally obvious, I hope, that you don’t need to agree with everything you read here to write here.

Well, OK. We don’t apologize for caring passionately about the fate of the American newspaper and we do think that there are elements of mainstream coverage that can be approved.

So may both sites carry on. Amen.

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Compassionate criticism

RoveBushI wrote a post here the other day about the resignation of Karl “Boy Genius” Rove in which I noted that the mainstream coverage of his exit did little to dig into his relationship with conservative Christians. This gap was really strange if you stopped and thought about it, in light of that voting bloc’s strategic role in the Bush era.

What was it, I wondered, that the evangelical Alpha Males saw in Rove, this Episcopalian who loved to spend his political chips on country-club GOP economic packages? Was the religious left right all along in its claims that Rove simply taught his president how to mouth the correct phrases?

Beats me, but I was amazed that more mainstreamers were not including these angles in their stories.

So with that in mind, I’d like to pass along the following chunk of a commentary by Dr. Marvin Olasky, a journalism historian at the University of Texas and the editor of the conservative Protestant commentary journal called World. The second deck of the headline is what caught my eye: “Karl Rove reimagined politics but not governance.”

Consider this a dose of compassionate criticism. Note in particular the comment about the fate of “compassionate conservatism,” a phrase from Olasky that had much more to do with the church and its work in the culture than Beltway insiders playing political poker.

George W. Bush nicknamed Rove “The Boy Genius” and “Turd Blossom,” Texan for a flower that grows from a pile of cow dung. Both monikers were spot-on: Rove engineered all four Bush political victories and foraged for ideas amid academic wastelands (my first meeting with Bush was in the office of Rove, who had read a book I had written). Rove had the advantage and disadvantage of sitting at the right hand of the recent political god most often deemed dumb by reporters. They saw Rove as either archangel or demon. (“Bush’s brain,” one book title put it.)

It’s hard for me to see him as either. Rove has had an extraordinary knowledge of voting patterns and a respect for the Christian understanding that animates the best of American culture. He has never been much of a decentralizer, though: He enjoyed so much the use of power that he didn’t want to give any away. That led him to see compassionate conservatism not as a way to restructure Washington but as a nice thing that could win votes. He reimagined politics but not governance … .

Read that second paragraph again. There is a story in there.

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Doctrinal battles in academia

transgender symbolNew York Times health and science reporter Benedict Carey has had more than a few interesting stories this summer. I particularly liked his write-up about how firstborn children have higher IQs. I’m a last born, for what it’s worth. For years he’s covered the case of one J. Michael Bailey, a pscyhologist at Northwestern University. Yesterday he wrote about the academic dispute involving Bailey, the former head of the psychology department:

The central figure, J. Michael Bailey, a psychologist at Northwestern University, has promoted a theory that his critics think is inaccurate, insulting and potentially damaging to transgender women. In the past few years, several prominent academics who are transgender have made a series of accusations against the psychologist, including that he committed ethics violations. A transgender woman he wrote about has accused him of a sexual impropriety, and Dr. Bailey has become a reviled figure for some in the gay and transgender communities.

To many of Dr. Bailey’s peers, his story is a morality play about the corrosive effects of political correctness on academic freedom. Some scientists say that it has become increasingly treacherous to discuss politically sensitive issues. They point to several recent cases, like that of Helmuth Nyborg, a Danish researcher who was fired in 2006 after he caused a furor in the press by reporting a slight difference in average I.Q. test scores between the sexes.

“What happened to Bailey is important, because the harassment was so extraordinarily bad and because it could happen to any researcher in the field,” said Alice Dreger, an ethics scholar and patients’ rights advocate at Northwestern who, after conducting a lengthy investigation of Dr. Bailey’s actions, has concluded that he is essentially blameless. “If we’re going to have research at all, then we’re going to have people saying unpopular things, and if this is what happens to them, then we’ve got problems not only for science but free expression itself.”

Bailey argued, in his 2003 book The Man Who Would Be Queen, that some men who desire to change their sex are driven by an erotic fascination with being female. Conventional teaching is that most people who desire sex changes are correcting a biological mistake of being born the wrong sex. And as political as most academic fights go, you can imagine how heated this one is.

Let me be clear: this story is not directly about religion at all. It’s about political correctness and academic independence and all sorts of other juicy things. But I think it’s worth considering from a journalism and religion angle. So many of the hottest religion stories are framed as religion vs. science — assuming not only a conflict but a superiority of supposedly objective reason, logic and scientific method.

One of my husband’s best friends is a cell biologist and we were recently discussing how the academic funding system reinforces conventional views and makes it somewhat difficult to deviate or experiment with alternate views. Particularly considering how much scientific research is conducted with federal taxpayer dollars, this funding mechanism is understandable. But it’s worth considering how much pressure is on scientists to follow governmental or big business research goals.

Carey’s story is readable and very balanced, quoting Bailey critics such as one of my favorite economics professors (Deirdre McCloskey). Interestingly, he doesn’t mention that McCloskey is transgendered — someone I began reading as Donald McCloskey. I’m not sure why that information was deemed unimportant, but I can’t help but think more transparency is wise in a story about political correctness and questionable motivations. Carey does mention the transgendered status of Bailey’s other critics.

Anyway, Bailey went through holy hell after the publication of the book. While the Lambda Literary Foundation nominated the book for an award, prominent transgendered activists were alarmed. One compared Bailey’s views to Nazi propoganda. Four men who changed their gender and discussed same with Bailey wrote letters of complaint to Northwestern. One claimed Bailey had sex with her. A transgender advocate downloaded pictures of Bailey’s children and posted them on her website with sexually explicit captions. The university launched an investigation, as did Dreger:

Dr. Dreger is the latest to arrive at the battlefront. She is a longtime advocate for people born with ambiguous sexuality and has been strongly critical of sex researchers in the past. She said she had presumed that Dr. Bailey was guilty and, after meeting him through a mutual friend, had decided to investigate for herself.

But in her just-completed account, due to be published next year in The Archives of Sexual Behavior, the field’s premier journal, she concluded that the accusations against the psychologist were essentially groundless. . . .

The accusation of sexual misconduct came five years after the fact, and was not possible to refute or confirm, Dr. Dreger said. It specified a date in 1998 when Dr. Bailey was at his ex-wife’s house, looking after their children, according to dated e-mail messages between the psychologist and his ex-wife, Dr. Dreger found. . . .

“The bottom line is that they tried to ruin this guy, and they almost succeeded,” Dr. Dreger said.

ulcerBailey’s book was social science — not grounded in hard science — but he was doing what scientists do. He threw out an idea and tested it. It may or may not be worthy, but it’s interesting how vociferously it was fought. It’s also worth noting just how much political pressure scientists face. Consider this quote from Carey’s piece:

Dr. Ben Barres, a neurobiologist at Stanford, said in reference to Dr. Bailey’s thesis in the book, “Bailey seems to make a living by claiming that the things people hold most deeply true are not true.”

Yes, and from Darwin to Freud to Dawkins, this is precisely what scientists do. But challenging science and transgendered activists can be just as — if not more — difficult as challenging religious doctrine. Think about all the myriad of academic debates dealing with cloning, embryonic stem cell research, evolution and global warming. And consider this other bit of reportage from the article:

One collaborator broke with Dr. Bailey over the controversy, Dr. Bailey said. Others who remained loyal said doing so had a cost: two researchers said they were advised by a government grant officer that they should distance themselves from Dr. Bailey to improve their chances of receiving financing.

“He told me it would be better if I played down any association with Bailey,” said Khytam Dawood, a psychologist at Pennsylvania State University.

Next time reporters pit science vs. religion, it’s worthwhile to investigate a bit further on both sides of the equation.

NB: I chose that peptic ulcer image on account of how conventional wisdom held for decades that stress caused ulcers. In 2005, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren won the Nobel in Physiology or Medicine for successfully challenging prevailing dogma in showing that bacteria cause peptic ulcers.

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Hot, hellish paraphrased Oxford quote

oxfordskylinedawnHave you ever been reading a news story and hit a paraphrased quotation — as opposed to a verbatim direct quote — that made you stop and mutter, “Now wait a minute! Did that person really say that? Does the reporter actually have a recording of that?”

This is a topic that has come up here at GetReligion a time or two before, as regular readers may recall. In the age of the World Wide Web, it really is great that editors have the ability (and we cheer when they elect to do so) to print transcripts of controversial speeches and interviews.

Here is the passage that punched my “record” button this time.

There is a very nasty academic battle going on right now over at Oxford University and I have been silent on it for a very good reason. The story centers on Anglican critics of Wycliffe Hall, one of the Oxford schools, and its leadership — especially its principal, Richard Turnbull. Wycliffe Hall is also the academic partner of the Oxford study program operated by the global network in which I teach, which is the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities.

Much of the coverage driving the controversy has come from Stephen Bates, the religion correspondent for The Guardian. No one who follows the Anglican wars will be surprised to know that the conflict centers on issues of gender and sexuality. However, another basic doctrine is being debated — the ancient teaching that salvation is found through faith in Jesus Christ, alone.

Thus, in a recent report by Bates we read:

In a video of a speech released onto the internet this summer, Dr Turnbull is heard suggesting that 95% per cent of the population were going to hell unless they converted to conservative evangelicalism.

The university report says Wycliffe Hall needs to “make a determined effort to clarify these matters to the rest of the university if it is to achieve manifest harmony with the university’s principles of education.” It adds that the university’s licence to the permanent private halls did not give them the right to move outside “the values to which the university holds, namely of liberal education conducted in a spirit of free and critical enquiry and debate.” They should not override Oxford’s policies on equal opportunities, harassment and freedom of opinion and speech.

recorder1The key is the paraphrase quote in the first paragraph, the headline-grabbing part about “95% per cent” of the people in England “going to hell unless they converted to conservative evangelicalism.”

That is quite a lively paraphrase. As you would expect, the direct quotes are now floating around the Internet. A transcript shows a statement that is a bit more complex. It appears that Turnbull actually said:

Evangelism is another one of those words that has been broadened to — well, or submerged maybe more than broadened — under this overall title of “mission” and you wonder what it really means when that is debated. We are committed, are we not, to bringing the gospel message of Jesus Christ to those who do not know Jesus. And in this land that is 95% of the people, and 95% of the people in this country facing hell unless the message of the gospel is brought to bear. So those are my four points about evangelical identity: the priority of scripture, substitutionary atonement at the heart of our doctrinal beliefs, the need for personal relationship with Jesus and our commitment to evangelism.

This is clearly a statement of the ancient Christian doctrine that salvation is found through faith in Jesus Christ, alone. The emphasis on a “personal relationship with Jesus” is not unique to evangelicalism, let alone “conservative evangelicalism.”

Now, this is a very controversial doctrine to affirm these days (and thus is found in the infamous tmatt trio of questions that we keep suggesting that reporters ask wishy-washy Christian leaders).

What the man said was controversial enough, in the context of academic life and Oxford.

But this was certainly one case where the reporter threw gasoline on the fires of hell with a loaded paraphrased quote. When in doubt, we need to let religious leaders speak for themselves — especially when a speech or sermon was recorded. Let’s go to the tape (or the digital file).

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Texans love God and killing killers

TexasDeathPenaltyWell, this is certainly a pushy opening for a story on a hot-button issue, care of Reuters reporter Ed Stoddard in Dallas:

Texas will almost certainly hit the grim total of 400 executions this month, far ahead of any other state, testament to the influence of the state’s conservative evangelical Christians and its cultural mix of Old South and Wild West.

… Texas has executed 398 convicts since it resumed the practice in 1982, six years after the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a ban on capital punishment, far exceeding second-place Virginia with 98 executions since the ban was lifted. It has five executions scheduled for August.

Speaking as a prodigal Texan (and as an unrepentant opponent of the death penalty), I would have to say that a statement like that raises at least two big questions.

(1) Is this iron-clad connection between Christians in Texas and the death penalty justified?

(2) Has the reporter fairly demonstrated that it is justified?

In this case, I am going to go with “yes” on the first question and “no” on the latter.

Why? Here is a sample of the Godtalk in this piece, just to give you a flavor of what is going on here in the land of President George W. Bush and current Gov. Rick Perry:

Like his predecessor, Governor Perry is a devout Christian, highlighting one key factor in Texas’ enthusiasm for the death penalty that many outsiders find puzzling — the support it gets from conservative evangelical churches. This is in line with their emphasis on individuals taking responsibility for their own salvation, and they also find justification in scripture.

“A lot of evangelical Protestants not only believe that capital punishment is permissible but that it is demanded by God. And they see sanction for that in the Old Testament especially,” said Matthew Wilson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Texas also stands at an unusual geographical and cultural crossroads: part Old South, with its legacy of racism, and part Old West, with a cowboy sense of rough justice.

All kinds of things are going on in that crucial chunk of text, starting with the vague, vague, vague reference to “many outsiders” standing in judgment of these conservative, pro-death-penalty Christians. Might it have been possible to quote a critic or two by name?

Well, wait a second. I think Stoddard does that, only his outsider is a professor at Southern Methodist University — a progressive enclave in Bible Belt land of Texas if there ever was one. So the outsider is actually an insider on the left side of things.

This is good, since you need that voice in the article. However, it is also very bad in that this is the voice who gets to speak for the very, very complex world of Christianity in Texas. Where are the voices from Southern Baptist higher education — left and right — and from, oh, Hispanic Catholicism in the state? Trust me, there are people out there who can defend the death penalty and attack it from a wide variety of pews.

I would also agree that one would have to be blind not to see an element of racism in the Texas death-penalty statistics. However, isn’t it a bit of a cheap shot to — wink, wink — link that so directly to the reference to Bible thumping?

There was no need to turn this story into a one-sided cheap shot. The story is complex enough, and sad enough, even if you tell it straight.

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Assume the official position

this week in godWhile visiting the blog of Episcopal priest Joseph Howard I came across a link to a new journalism and religion site. Funded by the Carnegie-Knight Initiative, the site has blogs, links to a Second Life community, and other features. Here’s how it’s described:

Stories about religion are too often framed around conflict and controversy, culture wars and holy wars. We want to tell another story — the lived experience of people’s faith.

We are a team of journalists from the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley exploring “God, Sex and Family.” That’s where choices about marriage, dating, the building of community, family and faith play out in private life.

And public life, too! I love the idea behind the site, as I’ve long advocated against religion stories being framed around conflict. And I think the current scope of sex discussions (homosexuality, abortion) is far too limited in most media coverage of religion.

It’s just getting started but some aspects are worth looking at. One popular area is the Moral Compass, where you can learn what the “official” positions are for nine major religions: Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Reform Judaism, Mormon, Muslim (mostly Sunni), Southern Baptist, United Methodist, Buddhist and Unitarian Universalist. Yes, Unitarian Universalism is a major world religion, isn’t it? Why not Zoroastrians?

It’s also interesting to note what is missing. Where are the Pentecostals? Where are the non-Baptist evangelicals? Where are the always-forgotten liberal Baptists? Charismatics? Why is Reform Judaism more important than the Conservative branch? How about Hindus? I would love to see the argument for including United Methodists over Hindus. A partial answer is given by one Erin Fitzgerald:

The plan for the Moral Compass was to state the “official position” for nine major religions. We discussed and debated which nine those should be. We wanted Hinduism; wanted to include it very much, but it didn’t fit our parameters, that is, first, stating the official position, then indicating nuances to that position via the videos. I personally contacted several Hindu groups but they said that Hindus do not normally take positions, as a group, on these types of ethical decisions. One of the Hindu organizations I spoke to said that they are currently working with other Hindu groups to prepare those types of statements, but the “official position papers” wouldn’t be ready until well after our deadline. In short, we did what we could given these constraints.

I know these are only grad students, but this journalist has just explained why so much media coverage is lacking. Rather than looking critically at the parameters set out by the project and readjusting to reflect the reality of different religions, the group simply excludes the religion that doesn’t fit. I’m not saying I’m not sympathetic, but it’s just interesting to contemplate how this works in story assignment and development.

When sources don’t say what you want them to say, do you ignore them? Do you exclude them? Do you rethink your story’s premise? I’d say how you answer that question says a lot about the quality of the piece you end up with.

The problem with Hinduism’s lack of “official” positions is legitimate, though. But how well did the journalists do with understanding the official positions of, say, the Episcopal Church? Here’s their answer to the question of what the Episcopal Church’s official position is on whether gays and lesbians can marry and have such unions blessed by the church:

We recognize that local faith communities are operating within the bounds of our common life as they explore and experience liturgies celebrating and blessing same-sex unions.

But as Howard notes, that’s not an official position and fails to reflect the true “fuzziness” of the current Episcopal position that is clearly changing:

I think it is important to point out that the response as to homosexual relationships are blessed by the entire Episcopal Church, thereby making it an official position is incorrect. At the most it should be listed as “varied” or “discerning,” since the item you refer to as indicating official blessing was merely a resolution indicating that some Episcopalians are exploring this as a legitimate position and we are not sufficiently of one mind to condemn them. That is hardly a unified and official position, and I would hazard a guess that while the majority of the Episcopal Church voted not to reject such practices at General convention, a majority of Bishops have not approved such rites, nor would they encourage priests in their dioceses to use them. A little more clarity about our confusion would be appreciated.

It’s a good point and one the journalism grad students should keep in mind as they develop their Moral Compass. After all, this is the closest most journalists will come to a moral compass. I kid, I kid. It’s been a long week at work. What do you think of the site? What could be improved? Is this a sufficient improvement over The Daily Show‘s “This Week in God”?

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Ingmar Bergman is dead, dead, dead

sealDuring the Culture Wars era, the U.S. Supreme Court has been forced to wrestle with this question: Can a government-supported advocacy of “secular humanism” (scare quotes were the norm) become a form of religion? I think the more important question is whether government-supported advocacy of Universalism is a form of doctrinal entanglement, but the hot-button phrase “secular humanism” was what grabbed the headlines.

The Supremes always answered this question with a resounding “no.”

However, it is hard to argue that there is no such thing as a religion of secularism — or at the very least, that there are no secular saints and prophets — after reading the mainstream coverage of the death of the gifted filmmaker Ingmar Bergman.

Consider this language in a tribute offered by Desson Thomson in The Washington Post:

And what does it mean when we declare that Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish filmmaker who passed away early yesterday at 89, was the greatest artist in the history of film?

What did the son of a Lutheran minister, with five wives, four divorces, three Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film and at least one out-of-wedlock child, do to deserve this?

… the movie that would establish him as a great film artist — certainly in critical circles — was 1957′s “The Seventh Seal.” A drama about a medieval knight who rages at an indifferent God in the face of plague, it became an allegory for modern man. One scene in particular, in which the knight plays a game of chess with Death himself, a spectral figure in a monklike robe, became one of cinema’s iconic moments.

Or how about this quote in the Los Angeles Times feature essay by Myra Oliver?

Critic Peter Rainer wrote for The Times in 2005 that “Bergman is undeniably one of the great directors, but he has always stood for more than the sum of his films. From the first, he was regarded … as a visionary who grappled with the Big Questions of God and Man. His symbol-thick films were drenched in the night sweats of mortal torment. He was the kind of artist we had been brought up to believe was the real deal: He suffered for our souls.”

However, the newspaper that Woody Allen reads every morning is The New York Times, the holy writ of the high church of art and cinema and, thus, the veneration of Bergman.

It’s hard to know where to begin, when it comes to citing the religious themes, images and language in the “appraisal” offered by Stephen Holden, which ran with this perfect headline: “In Art’s Old Sanctuary, a High Priest of Film.”

There is, of course, the ultimate issue that is everywhere — death.

“Not a day has gone by in my life when I haven’t thought about death,” Mr. Bergman mused in “Bergman Island,” a recent, extraordinarily intimate documentary portrait, filmed on the island of Faro, where he lived in semi-isolation for four decades. The image of a chess game, he said, was inspired by a painting in a church he visited as a boy with his father. Until many decades later, when he underwent anesthesia that left him unconscious for several hours, he harbored “an insane fear” of death. Losing, then regaining, consciousness partially alleviated that fear, which seeps into the core of many of his finest films.

Mr. Bergman’s ruthlessly honest investigation of his demons is what lends such images their crushing weight. However fictional, they are undeniably truthful expressions of one artist’s personal torment, redeemed by fleeting glimpses of eternity and redemption in a long, dark night of the soul.

Intimations of divinity, he says in the documentary, can be found in classical music, in which he finds “human holiness.”

GodDeadEven the director’s technical genus becomes a form of religious practice.

Even Mr. Bergman’s comedies have a powerful undertow of sadness, of time rushing by and of dark shadows gathering. Geography has a lot to do with it. The chilly winter light of his films, most of them exquisitely shot by Sven Nykvist, emanates from a sun low on the horizon. Looking for the sun is tantamount to searching for God.

And on and on it goes, with more material on that stern Lutheran father — the symbol of a remote, judging God — and the “existential dread” that drifted over everything in the era defined by Freud, Sartre, Bergman and, later, Allen.

But here is the passage that really lets you know why Bergman’s passing is such a major event for a generation of movers and shakers in culture, academia and media.

Let us attend!

Attendance at Mr. Bergman’s films was a lot like going to church. Though many of those films are steeped in church imagery, God is usually absent from the sanctuary.

As a college student and avid art-film goer in the early 1960s, I was overwhelmed by Mr. Bergman’s films, with their heavy-duty metaphysical speculation and intellectual seriousness. In those days, you would no more argue with Mr. Bergman’s stature than you would question the greatness of the modern Western literary canon; like Mann, Joyce, Kafka, Faulkner, et al., Mr. Bergman was an intellectual god whose work could reward a lifetime of analytical study.

Over the past day or so, I have read other mainstream tributes to Bergman and I cannot find the answer to a logical question, after all of these references to God, doubt and death. Here is the question: What did Bergman believe, if anything, about the ultimate issues? Did he ever make a clear statement about his religious beliefs?

According to the Celebrity Atheist List site, he did not. That would have been a good thing to mention, just as a point of information.

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