For BBC, Doctor Who faith is real, but never really Christmas

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“Go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine”

– The Doctor

The folks who created “Doctor Who” were well aware that, by creating a show centering on a noble alien who has limited control over time and space, they were sailing into an ocean of religious questions. Have I missed something or has the Doctor specifically avoiding using the Tardis to pay a visit to biblical times? A chat with the Buddha? A conversation with Muhammad about faith, warfare and governance?

Frankly, I have been wondering if anyone was going to use the 50th anniversary of the series as a chance to produce a news feature about its religious content. News? Not yet.

So far, the BBC — naturally enough — is the only organization to come close, with an essay by a Dr. Andrew Crome, a historian who lectures on modern Christianity at the University of Manchester. The top of this non-news piece takes us straight into the heart of the nerd beast:

A near immortal crossing space and time, followers split over interpretation, characters in strange hats … Perhaps it is no surprise Doctor Who is sometimes described as a form of surrogate religion. However, behind this light-hearted comparison lies a grain of truth, as Doctor Who has continually engaged with important religious themes across its 50-year run.

At times religion has been addressed directly. For example, 1970s producer Barry Letts, a practicing Buddhist, worked ideas from his faith into the show’s narrative: witness Jon Pertwee sharing a version of the Mumonkan’s sixth Zen Koan with companion Jo Grant in the 1972 episode The Time Monster. When Jon Pertwee regenerated into Tom Baker, elements of the episode were set in a Buddhist meditation centre, with a fellow Time Lord clandestinely living as a Buddhist monk in close attendance.

However, as you would expect, the show’s relationship to Anglican Christianity has been complex or downright muddled.

Semi-Anglicans have shown up as military monks in several episodes and if a character shows up in a collar the odds are very high that the resulting plot twist will be quite nasty. It’s clear that the current executive producer and lead writer, Steven Moffat, is having fun running through his catalogue of comments he wants to make about the future of the church and his views — as an atheist — of its evolution toward chaos or irrelevance.

… Moffat has … re-imagined a 51st Century Anglican Church as a morally ambiguous paramilitary organisation, complete with ranks made up of bishops, vergers and soldiers with special holy names. While the Church can ally with the Doctor, as in the 2010 episodes of The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone; in the 2011 episode A Good Man Goes to War they fight against him, working in tandem with an order of headless monks and a mysterious religious sect known as The Silence.

These varied portrayals should remind us that Doctor Who has no default position on religion, whether positive or negative, and a writer’s idea can be adapted by actors, directors and producers to take on themes which might be contrary to their original intention. …

This essay does a fine job of listing a view of the specific episodes of Doctor Who 2.0 that veer into religious territory, including one show that — amazingly enough — was nominated for the Evangelical Christian Epiphany Prize, given for offering a positive depiction of belief.

However, trends can be noticed. Eastern religion is treated with more respect than Western forms, and churches provide wonderful hooks for satire. And when in doubt, the Doctor helps liberate people from their false gods (who usually turn out to be nasty aliens). The default is a liberal post-Christian Universalism.

However, I thought it was interesting that the essay does not refer to a very important word in Doctor Who — Christmas.

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Concerning C.S. Lewis, Christian apologist (not theologian)

The mistake showed up in news reports so often that it almost became normal, which is the worst possible thing that can happen with a mistake. Over and over, journalists kept pinning the “theologian” label on the Rev. Martin Marty of the School of Divinity at the University of Chicago.

The problem, of course, is that Marty is one of the world’s best known church historians. In the world of elite academia, which is certainly Marty’s territory, calling a church historian a theologian is something like calling a quarterback a wide receiver, or calling a surgeon a dentist, or calling a drummer a guitarist.

Why do this? And, once the mistake is made, why not correct the error? Marty once told me that, no matter how many times he tried to explain this error to journalists, it just kept happening. The mistake lived on and on.

This brings me to a very interesting story that ran in The New York Times marking the 50th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis, who died the same day as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. (Speaking of which, is there a story on the Lewis anniversary in your local newspaper today? If so, please leave the URL for us in the comments pages.)

Lewis, of course, was a man of many academic and literary talents. The Times story sought to capture that right up top:

LONDON – C. S. Lewis was a noted polymath: philosopher, theologian, professor, novelist, children’s writer, literary critic, lecturer. But he was not much of a poet.

Still, 50 years to the day after his death, Clive Staples Lewis, known to his friends and family as Jack, will be among the more than 100 people commemorated in some fashion in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner, alongside figures like Geoffrey Chaucer, Ben Jonson, Samuel Johnson, Shakespeare, the Brontë sisters, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Keats, John Milton and Ted Hughes.

Lewis, who died at a week before his 65th birthday, on Nov. 22, 1963 — the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated — will receive the honor of a memorial stone in the floor in the Poets’ Corner, a portion of the abbey’s south transept that contains graves, memorial stones and a memorial window.

Sigh. Once again, that “theologian” label is so easy to abuse. Lewis wrote a wide variety of books, but he never produced a single work of systematic theology or anything resembling work in that disciple. There is a good reason for this: Lewis was a skilled literary critic and professor of literature. He was not a theologian and, to my knowledge, never claimed that label. His Oxford colleagues would have loved taking shots at him for that.

Now wait a minute, some GetReligion readers will respond. Isn’t it right to call him a “popular theologian,” in that he wrote books that for general readers — as opposed to academic readers — served as works of “popular” level theology?

That may be true, if one accepts that people have redefined the word “theologian” and are using it in a way that would be quite offensive to theologians. I am not aware of Lewis ever accepting that label, either.

It is also confusing to see that error in the Times lede, since the an accurate label is later used in the story when talking about some of this more popular books, such as “Mere Christianity” and “The Problem of Pain.”

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Mau-mauing The Times of London

The Archbishop of Canterbury has stated the Church of England was  moving away from using faith as a criteria for admission to its church-supported schools, The Times of London reported last week.

And the newspaper caught hell for it. The Church of England’s press office said this was untrue — a “creative piece of writing.”

Was this a he said/she said (or wrote) dispute? The “he” being Justin Welby the archbishop of Canterbury and the “she” Ruth Gledhill, The Times‘ star religion reporter. Or was this a case of what the archbishop said was not exactly what he meant? Were his words taken out of context? Did The Times deserve the drubbing it was given?

At this point — a week after the story entitled “Church in ‘move away’ from school selection” (behind a paywall I’m afraid) — a newspaper reader is not likely to be any the wiser as to what happened. The Church of England’s press office and the Lambeth Palace press office have thrown up such a wall of flak round the interview that the archbishop’s original statement is moot. The content of the denials are now the story — or the official line from the church.

On Nov. 14, 2013 The Times reported:

Church of England faith schools are moving away from selecting pupils on the basis of their religion, the Archbishop of Canterbury has revealed.

The Most Rev Justin Welby said that selection was not necessarily the key to good results and believes that throwing open the doors to all-comers can help the Church achieve its mission to alleviate poverty.

Church of England schools are not analogous to Catholic parochial schools in the U.S. They are not private schools funded by tuition and supported by a sponsoring denomination. In England they are state funded. The Church of England explains:

The English system of education has been built in partnership with the Christian churches. The Churches were the first providers of schools, funding building and staff costs through voluntary donations. The State gradually became convinced that it had a duty to provide education and gradually assumed a larger part of the task. But Government has always recognised that Church schools are important partners in providing education for all. That partnership enables the State to use  around  8,000 school buildings and sites owned by the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church free of charge, but in return successive governments, irrespective of political party, have continued to provide financial support for church schools.

Some parents choose Church schools because they want to have their children educated in accordance with their Christian belief, others because it is the nearest school or because it is a school which takes spiritual as well as social, moral and cultural development seriously. Whatever the reason, Church of England schools are committed to offering high quality education to the whole community and are part of the Church’s commitment to serving the common good. Taxpayer’s money is therefore being used to provide high quality education for tax payer’s children.

Many Church of England schools, which educate a quarter of England’s primary school children, are over subscribed. Removing faith, or lessening its importance,  from among the selection criteria for prospective students, would be a game changer in the admissions game.

Shortly after the story went live on The Times website, the archbishop’s interim press officer sent an email blast to religion reporters, saying the report was untrue.

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Oh, those pagan Irish Anglicans?

Was it a case of good manners?

Did the editors at The Irish Times print the obituary of Olivia Durdin Robertson, who it described as, “the self-styled ‘high priestess’ of a Co Carlow-based cult devoted to an ancient Egyptian goddess, [who] has died aged 96,” without any comment or further investigation to avoid a scandal in the Church of Ireland? Or were they unaware of what they had in front of them?

The Church of Ireland is in a delicate state in terms of its unity. Divided roughly along North/South lines over the culture war issues — homosexuality, abortion and the like — the church funeral of Olivia Durdin Robertson might tip the church over the edge.

This Irish Times story marks the passing of a generation: English aristocratic eccentrics (in this case Angl0-Irish) with oddball country house antics. While Miss Durdin Robertson appears not to have aspired to the cat suits of Dianna Rigg, the conversion of her ancestral home, Huntington Castle in the Irish village of Clonegal in County Carlow, into a temple dedicated to “the Goddess” would not have been out of place in an episode of the ’60s television show, The Avengers.

The Irish Times reported:

Ms Durdin Robertson came to international attention in the 1970s when she co-founded the “Fellowship of Isis” with her late brother Lawrence Alexander Durdin Robertson – a former Anglican clergyman — and his wife Pamela.

And noted:

Her nephew David Durdin Robertson, a craftsman and sculptor who predeceased her in 2009, created an Egyptian temple for her in the dungeons of the castle. In recent years this has been opened to the public for tours at Halloween.

Intrigued? Click this link to learn more about the Fellowship, which appears to have drawn heavily from Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. The article notes:

Her funeral on Wednesday will begin with “a private ceremony in the temple, organised by the Fellowship of Isis, by invitation only” followed by a public Church of Ireland service at St Fiacc’s in Clonegal.

And then closes with odds and ends about the Fellowship and the castle.

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Pod people: Don’t mess with C.S. Lewis

This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.

Dorothy Parker in her review of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (1957).

I cannot read Ayn Rand. I have tried. As a teenager, friends assured me I would love Atlas Shrugged. I didn’t.

In college and in my 20′s I was pressed to try again. I did, this time cracking open The Fountainhead. I detested it. Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal could not budge me either. I can’t stand Ayn Rand.

The inimitable Whitaker Chambers spoke for me when he wrote in The National Review in 1957:

Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal. In addition, the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. 2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber — go!”

Yet among my circle of acquaintances are serious thoughtful individuals who number Rand among the great thinkers and writers of the 20th century. Her economic and philosophical theories are on the tip of their tongues — and passages of her fiction are committed to memory. I have learned over the years to be certain of my references to her life and work when she pops up in a story — for if I make a mistake I will hear from her legions.

Rand is one of a select group of authors who have maintained a devoted following. Monty Python, Star Trek, Karl Marx, and the Aubrey-Maturin naval adventures in literature, Bob Dylan in music, for example, have spawned fans who have memorized the canon of their classics.

C.S. Lewis is one such figure. In this week’s Crossroads podcast I spoke with Lutheran Public Radio host Todd Wilken about the perils of C.S. Lewis reporting, citing my GetReligion post “C.S. Lewis the occultist and other rather obvious errors”.

In that post, I recounted a series of unfortunate errors about C.S. Lewis’ life — mistakes that had nothing to do with the issue at hand, but ones that cropped up in the filler — background material about Lewis’ life and work used to round out the story. I noted the claim that Lewis was involved in the occult was untrue, and cited a portion of his autobiography. I wrote:

While Lewis, like his friend and colleague J.R.R. Tolkein, was devoted to the Norse sagas and mythology, he was not an occultist. While some Christian groups have denounced Lewis’ work, saying it glorifies witchcraft and magic, the only evidence of a personal interest in magic comes in this passage in Surprised by Joy where he recounts how a matron at his prep school dabbled in the occult. (citation follows in the original.)

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C.S. Lewis the occultist and other rather obvious errors

Here’s a dirty little secret that reporters don’t want you to know. When writing the back story or filler for a news item, we often rely on our knowledge of a topic to flesh out a story.

While some newspapers used to boast that they fact-checked every statement before releasing a story to a waiting world, that degree of rigor has disappeared. Budgets cuts have reduced editorial staff who were once tasked with cleaning up stories, while at the same time more copy is demanded of writers at a faster pace.

Factual errors happen for many reasons. Reporters mishear or misread things, sources are misinformed, story subjects lie and other reporters try to trip you up. I am not as familiar with American media culture as I am with the British — but I have been led astray by my peers and I in turn have been less than helpful to others. And I have produced howlers that still haunt my dreams.

Often a mistake will not be caught — allowing a graceful correction in the next issue buried beneath the candle ads. But there are some topics that most reporters know not to mess with  — items that are part of our collective memory, or items memorized by fanatics. Woe to he who mangles a Star Trek or Monty Python quote.

Religion News Service dropped a brick (several in fact) in its article entitled “Fifty years later, C.S. Lewis’ legacy shines in US, not his homeland”, making mistakes of fact that fans of Lewis would spot in an instant.

The article begins:

When he died on Nov. 22, 1963 hardly a soul blinked in Northern Ireland where he was born or in England where he spent most of his working life as one of the world’s greatest Christian apologists.

Clive Staples Lewis was a week short of 65 when he suffered a heart attack at his home in Oxford. The obituary writers barely noticed his demise, in part because he died on the same day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

British indifference to Lewis half a century ago will be examined at a one-day seminar at Wheaton College on Nov. 1, co-sponsored by the Marion E. Wade Center, the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals and Wheaton College’s Faith and Learning program.

Not much to worry about so far — save for the fact the conference was not about “British indifference to Lewis.” The circular for the conference states it will examine the “Oxford don’s influential presence within American culture. ” In other words, the conference will discuss not why Lewis has not caught on in the UK, but why he is so popular in America. There is a difference.

Dropping into the filler of this piece — where RNS gives a biography of Lewis — we see these statements.

Shattered by [his mother's] death, Lewis abandoned his inherited faith at the age of 15 and threw himself into a study of mythology and the occult. …

His conversion to Christianity was slow and laborious. Reluctantly, he fell under the influence of Oxford colleague and friend J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton, who met every Tuesday morning at a local public house in Oxford and formed a debating club called ”Inklings.” …

Tolkien and Chesterton were disappointed that their new convert turned towards the Church of England, not Rome. …

C.S. Lewis went on to write acclaimed books about Christianity — “The Screwtape Letters,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Space Trilogy,” “Mere Christianity,” “Miracles and The Problem of Pain” — the latter written after he watched his American Jewish wife, Joy Davidman Gresham, die of bone cancer in 1960.

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Pod people: Does it matter if celebrities/royals have faith?

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As the old saying goes, Americans don’t have a royal family. We have celebrities.

We even live in a day in which it is terribly important for American political leaders to be perceived as celebrities, with as much cool clout as possible if they want to be successful. Ask Mitt Romney about how that works out in the real world.

Meanwhile, the members of Great Britain’s royal family are now, arguably, the most important, the most popular, the most omnipresent celebrities in the world. The light of the exploding star named Princess Diana still glows hot.

On one level, the subject of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to listen) was my post the other day in which I argued that there was interesting religious content (gasp) in that baptism service for Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge. I was glad that the online version of the USA Today feature on the rite included a nugget of crucial religious information, yet sad that the version of the story that millions saw in the ink-on-paper edition lacked those crucial paragraphs.

Surprise. The first thing the copy desk cut out of the baptism story, to fit it around the adds, was the factual religious content. The fashion material? In, of course. The gossipy stuff about who made the cut as godparents? In. Plenty of Diana references? In. In. In.

In particular, I wanted to know which version, traditional or progressive, of The Book of Common Prayer was used in the service, so that readers could know — if they really wanted to know — the content of the eternal vows taken by the parents on behalf of their first child. They almost certainly spoke these words or words very similar to them:

Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?
Parents and Godparents: I will, with God’s help. …

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
Answer: I renounce them.

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
Answer: I do.

Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
Answer: I do.

Does this matter? Well, it matters if you are in any way interested in whether the royals remain committed to Christian faith in any way other than its ceremonial role in British life. The details of the service, the kinds of details reporters can seek out, may have offered clues.

You see, the international press said over and over that this rite made the baby prince a member of the Church of England. That is not what a baptism rite does, in the ancient faith. The rite was the doorway — at first through the pledges of the parents and godparents, backed by the work of the Holy Spirit — into the Christian faith. Period.

Is that content part of the news story?

Meanwhile, by this point readers may have asked a logical question: Why in the world is he bloody conclusion of “Training Day” at the top of this post about the baptism of a royal baby?

Good question.

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A baptism event or a Christian rite of baptism?

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It’s a question built on the harsh realities of journalism in the Internet era, when newspapers are thin and reporters often do not have the room in their stories to include essential facts. The question: Is the official version of a story the one that ran in the analog, ink-on-paper edition or the version of the story that ran online?

I’m in New Orleans at the moment, at the National College Media Convention, and as I flew into town I read the USA Today story about the baptism rite for Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge. The problem — surprise, surprise — was that this rather long story was all about godparent politics, Crown Jewels, designer clothes, tea parties, replica gowns and celebrity photographers.

Alas, all of that content is valid in the royals-as-movie stars era. The problem was that the story, to be blunt, covered a baptismal event, not a baptismal rite. There was depth to this story, but only on certain issues:

Compared to most rooms in Buckingham Palace, the Chapel Royal, started by Henry VIII in 1540, is much more intimate, with purple velvet-cushioned bench seating for about 40 people, beautiful stained-glass windows and gilded ceilings.

Like so many royal buildings in the U.K, the chapel has a rich history. It is believed to be the burial place of the heart of Queen Mary I, the elder daughter of Henry VIII. It’s where her younger sister Queen Elizabeth I waited and prayed during the Spanish Armada crisis in 1588. It was where Charles I received last rites before his head was chopped off in Whitehall in 1649. And it was where Queen Victoria married her Prince Albert in 1840.

But its real historic significance to the royal couple is its poignant association with the princess who would never be queen: Diana, William’s late mother. After she was killed in a Paris car crash in 1997, her coffin lay before the chapel’s altar until her funeral in Westminster Abbey.

And so forth and so on. The USA Today team stressed that this event was important because it once again demonstrated the “young royals’ savvy approach to duty, history, modernity and informality, obvious since their engagement in 2010.” Really? An details in particular that spell that out?

What about the actual status of the faith in this important and symbolic family? After all, Prince Charles has been somewhat controversial on faith issues, saying that he will someday be the “defender of faith” or even “faiths,” rather than the traditional “defender of THE faith” — meaning Christianity as expressed in the Church of England.

To my surprise, the longer online edition of this story suggested that the reporter on the scene even asked a few questions about the religious content of the rite itself, which was held in private and led by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.

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