Knowing when to hold my peace

WikiBookshelfThe winter issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review features an essay by blogger RJ Eskow (a regular at The Huffington Post) about the challenge of balancing blog-inspired activism with Buddhist disciplines. Both the promise and the limits of Eskow’s vision appear in his lede:

There is no way out of a spiritual battle
There is no way you can avoid taking sides

In the years since Diane di Prima wrote those words in a poem called “Rant,” the United States has become a rantocracy of screaming politicians, pundits, and talk radio hosts. They shout, even when they whisper. Some of us try to make ourselves heard above the shouting, and that raises Buddhist questions: Can a person maintain equanimity and stay in the political debate? And what about the precept of right speech? It forbids lying, of course. But it also means no harsh words, rumor-mongering, or frivolous talk.

In today’s political dialogue, what’s left?

Eskow acknowledges his pugnacious style — such as referring to “Cheney’s Chappaquiddick” or threatening to “respond physically” to a Joe Klein column (“I was joking, but the feeling was real”) — but suggests that pundits Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity are worse ranters still.

Eskow achieves two breakthroughs: he refrains from responding when one of his readers criticizes him for writing about JonBenet Ramsey rather than Darfur, and he chooses not to exploit aggressive email from a New York Times reporter that would have diminished the reporter’s image. These feel like rather small steps in the rantocracy that Eskow sees in American politics, but it’s something. Eskow has a clear grasp of the long-term goal:

“First, do no harm.” The physician’s precept should also be mine. In an ideal world, everything I write would come with a disclaimer that says: “No animals or humans were harmed in the production of these words.” No one. Not Tucker Carlson, or Sean Hannity, or Joe Klein. Not even Dick Cheney. I’m not there yet, but I’m trying.

I mention Eskow’s essay by way of confession. Blogging is not my default setting as a writer, and I’m not sure I’ve ever found a relaxed, unguarded voice in this medium. Blogging has sometimes made it too easy to lapse from noting irony to indulging unkind sarcasm.

Eskow makes his peace with sarcasm by consulting Dharmavidya David Brazier:

I was certainly finding it difficult to maintain an aggressive, ironic tone, so I asked Dharmavidya about irony and satire. “The Buddha was attracted to irony,” he said. “He was a prophet with a sense of humor. Once when he was debating the idea that bathing in the holy river is purifying, he said, ‘There must be a lot of holy fish.’ And when he talked about Jain asceticism, he pointed out that it was designed to end suffering by inflicting even more suffering — on its followers.”

So irony, or even its evil twin, sarcasm, isn’t necessarily un-Buddhist? “Not necessarily,” said Dharmavidya. “The Buddha judged these things based on the likely outcome and how wholesome the speaker’s intent is.”

I’m more inclined to agree with my friend Frederica Mathewes-Green, who has long argued that sarcasm is of the spirit of murder.

As Eskow confronts the Buddhist notion of right speech, I struggle with Scripture’s teachings that an abundance words can lead to foolishness (Ecclesiastes 5:3), or that the tongue is a most destructive force (James 3).

GetReligion has welcomed me during two tenures, and I’m grateful for that, but it is now time to devote myself to other callings. One year from now, I owe an editor friend a book about tithing. That book will be the primary focus of my writing in 2008.

I will continue writing a column for Episcopal Life and contributing to a blog called Covenant, which strives for irenic reflection on the Anglican Communion’s conflicts.

I think Eskow asks, in so many words: How do I blog without losing something important in my soul? For now, this is my answer: I must blog less, and do more long-view writing that generates joy — both in my life and, I hope, in the lives of my readers.

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Let Dallas be Dallas?

Dallas Skyline dayThat post from the other day about the Dallas Morning News Solstice coverage continues to draw interesting comments.

As I said in the comments pages, it’s clear that the solstice celebration was a valid news story. But it’s also clear that many Christmas-related events that were much, much, much larger were deemed to be old hat and not worthy of fresh coverage.

That may or may not be true. We don’t know if there were valid news hooks linked to any of those other mainstream events in Dallas. If the tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound?

Anyway, here is the archetypal comment from one of our faithful readers on the journalistic left, which means, in this case, that the purpose of news is to educate the mainstream readers who need to have their world views broadened until they resemble those of journalists:

Michael says:

The goal of a local newspaper is to cover events that are newsworthy and interesting. The goal is to get readers to consider things they’ve never considered before, open a door to something they don’t know much about, to tell the untold stories. It is not to always just hold up a mirror for the reader so that they can gaze at themselves, although clearly there is a role for that.

The question is how you achieve that balance. On the Solstice, writing about the Solstice is a reasonable news decision. Just as on Christmas, there will be the inevitable story from Midnight Mass because that is a reasonable news decision.

But if I had to choose between a story about a Solstice celebration in the buckle of the Bible belt or a story about Bible Belt Megachurch doing their 17th annual Living Nativity, it’s a reasonable news decision to cover the news because it is going to be “new” and “news” to many readers. There’s a reason we don’t call it “olds.”

Winter solstice LW2 01Meanwhile, I received a private email from a Dallas reader who wanted to comment on the reality that is facing readers and former readers of the most powerful newspaper in Texas. It appears that this reader still reads the dead-tree-pulp edition.

As a Dallas Morning News reader who is grateful for the extra coverage the newspaper has given to religion over the years (and who mourns the loss of the Religion section), I appreciate your attention to our hometown paper’s continuing reporting on religion here. I don’t know if you get to see the print edition of the News, but this past weekend’s Religion page was a good example of what I consider to be the paper’s blind spot about its own audience.

There were two stories on the page. One was a story from wire services about Christians who don’t celebrate Christmas. The other was about Latino Christians and a Christmas procession. Both were interesting, but I couldn’t help wondering if this was the best the newspaper in this overwhelmingly Christian community can do on the weekend before Christmas. If you look on the page opposite the Religion page, it’s a full page of ads for Dallas area churches listing the times of their Christmas services. All of them are in English.

Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I couldn’t help thinking that the News is selling ads to English-speaking people (mostly Protestant) who observe Christmas, but their news pages have nothing really for those people. I mean no disrespect to my Latino brothers and sisters in Christ, but how many of them are buying the Dallas Morning News? Maybe I’m too sensitive about this, but I get the feeling that my local newspaper is bored by ordinary northern European Christians who live in the suburbs, even though as far as I can tell from reading business trends stories, it’s people like us who are the few remaining subscribers to newspapers.

If you think I’m overreacting, please tell me. I know that I’m not the only one who feels this way, because my Christian friends, a lot of whom have stopped subscribing to the News because they (we) think the paper is either hostile to people like us, or doesn’t care, talk about it. I’m also curious to know if the readers of your blog who live elsewhere in the country notice something similar about their own local newspaper’s religion coverage. Please don’t misunderstand: I don’t want a newspaper that only pays attention to people like me! I’m just lots of times left scratching my head about the news judgment of editors. Is this just a Dallas thing, or do you see this trend nationwide? Or am I completely out to lunch.

Yours sincerely,
A North Texas Reader

More comments?

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GetReligion wants your local religion news

I want youAs a detour from our usual fare here at GetReligion, I wanted to drop this personal note and give you all an update on life in the Midwest and my life as a law student. Needless to say, the first semester of law school was quite a challenge. The most peculiar aspect of the experience was the Darwinian grading system we all knew we were up against. It mattered less how well you learned the material and more whether you knew how to apply that knowledge better than the person next to you.

As for the religion and journalism aspect of the experience, the two subjects were frequent topics of class discussion. Journalists were given surprisingly deferential treatment (part of this has to do with their First Amendment protections) and respect for religious freedom went unquestioned. Perhaps this doesn’t come as a surprise to many readers, but the fact that countries such as France are banning headscarves and other religious apparel has many American legal scholars considering whether that type of restriction could pass constitutional scrutiny.

As for the Midwest, being outside of Washington, D.C., has been a breath of fresh air in many ways. Journalism is taken just as seriously and the stories tend to hit closer to home. Religious issues remain of critical interest, but are not the flashpoint they tend to be in politically charged D.C. News coverage of religious issues focuses less on politics and more on what is actually happening in communities.

As many of you know, I am trying to carve out a “Heartland” beat of sorts. Some have raised compelling objections to the use of the term “Heartland” and would prefer that the term be eliminated in favor of a simple geographic terms like “the Midwest.” For a bit of perspective, here is what Wikipedia has to say about the term:

Heartland is used in geography to refer to the central areas of a country. This occurs in many nations and areas, such as Eurasia and the United States.

In Eurasia, the Heartland is remote and inaccessible from the periphery. The term Heartland has a particular importance in the works of Sir Halford Mackinder. He believed that the Heartland was the strategic region of the foremost importance in the world. See Heartland (geopolitics). In Canada, the “Heart land” area stretches from the City of Québec in the south-west to Windsor on the south-western peak of the Ontario Peninsula. That is one reason the area is sometimes called “Québec-Windsor-Axis”.

The term Heartland is also frequently used to describe the Midwestern region of the United States. It is also used for other areas of the US which are culturally similar to the Heartland; for example, the Stater Bros. supermarket chain, which is concentrated in the Inland Empire counties of southern and central California, ran TV commercials for many years using the slogan “in the Heartland” to refer to inland counties such as San Bernardino County, Kern County and Riverside County being culturally more similar to the central United States than to coastal California. In the state of Florida is a region called the Florida Heartland, a six county region that is rural and in the south central part of the state.

With that definition in mind, I want to encourage story submissions from “the Heartland.” In the couple of months that I have been working with this concept, I have found that the best stories come from small, local newspapers, often unknown to me. Since I am limited in the number of these I can cover daily, I need you to send me the best from your local newspaper.

In addition to individual news stories and newspapers that excel when it comes to covering religion, please suggest religion reporters who do an outstanding (or not so outstanding) job on their beat. If your local newspaper is failing to cover an important religion story, give us a heads up on that as well.

One of the things I greatly appreciate about Indianapolis in particular, and I am sure it is true throughout the country, is the strong local blogging community that has sprouted since I last lived here. If there are exceptional local bloggers that cover religion and/or journalism, submit those as well.

With that, I hope you all have a joyous holiday season, and thanks for reading GetReligion.

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Shameless double-shot of promotion!

sd02Last time I checked, our amazingly calm and constructive thread about that Los Angeles Times feature on basic Mormon doctrines was at 100-plus comments and still growing. Go for it.

However, let me step in here with a rare double-shot blast of shameless promotion for two online items linked to this topic. One is my Scripps Howard News Service column for this week, which focuses on (cue: drumroll) the controversial subject of the doctrine of “exaltation” in contemporary Mormon theology.

The other is a column by Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher, which ran in The Dallas Morning News. Dreher set out to say some blunt things in a kind way. He opened with some journalistic fireworks, underneath the headline “Mormons aren’t Christians … and other thoughts on religion and politics sure to get your blood boiling.”

Herewith, my views on religion and the politics of the present moment, with something to offend just about everyone:

1. Mormons aren’t Christians. I don’t mean that as a criticism, only as a descriptive phrase. When Mormons claim Jesus Christ as their savior, there’s no reason to doubt their sincerity and good will, or even to deny that they are in some way followers of Christ. Yet Mormonism rejects foundational doctrines of traditional Christian orthodoxy, such that it is impossible to reconcile with normative Christianity.

2. Anyway, the Latter-day Saints church teaches that all other Christian churches are apostate. A heretic is someone who rejects one or more doctrines of religion, but an apostate is someone who has rejected the religion entirely. How is it, exactly, that you can get mad when people you regard as apostates consider you to be … apostate? How does that work?

Meanwhile, my new Scripps Howard piece is based on some materials from my own files, but seen through the lens of an interview with Dr. Robert Millet of Brigham Young University, a major figure in dialogues between Mormons and evangelical Protestants. He was very kind and generous with his time, especially during finals week on his campus.

Here is how that column begins:

Few religious leaders on earth have as much power and authority as the “prophet, seer and revelator” who leads the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But this life, on this world, is just the beginning. Consider this glimpse into eternity, drawn from a funeral eulogy for President Spencer W. Kimball in 1985.

“In the Colorado Rockies, I asked President Kimball a searching question,” recalled Barbara B. Smith, the 10th general president of the church’s Relief Society. “‘When you create a world of your own, what will you have in it?’ He looked around at those mountains for a few minutes before he answered and then he said, ‘I’ll have everything just like this world because I love this world and everything in it.’”

After all, added Smith: “What is our greatest potential? Is it not to achieve godhood ourselves?”

This is the question that will not die when Mormons face the leaders of traditional Christian groups to discuss that blunt question: “Are Mormons Christians?”

A fussy feud over doctrinal details? Ask Mitt Romney about that.

This concept of devout Mormons achieving godhood and creating worlds “is not an idea that would be foreign to Mormons today, but it is also not a concept we hear a lot about,” said religion professor Robert Millet of Brigham Young University, a veteran of many interfaith dialogues.

Still, it’s clear that this belief — called “exaltation” — is something that remains “conceivable to Mormons, while it is absolutely inconceivable to traditional Christians.” But for modern Mormons, he stressed, there is little or no difference between talking about “exaltation” and talking about salvation and “eternal life.”

LDS Jesus 01The column also includes a quote from one of the top leaders in the Mormon faith, focusing on whether it is accurate to use the word “polytheism” when describing the church’s view of the God of this world and the gods of other worlds that will be created by dedicated Mormons who achieve divine status.

I once made a reference, here at GetReligion, to this interview during my days at the Rocky Mountain News. However, this time I dug way back into the files and found my transcript. So here is the key quote from that discussion:

“I think ‘polytheism’ is used … to describe the multiple gods of, say, the Greeks and the Romans,” Boyd K. Packer, now acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, told me in a 1986 interview. “We are talking about something entirely different, and that word conjures up ideas that are not accurate.

“I suppose that technically, it means ‘many gods.’ Technically, the word is all right. … It carries a lot of baggage.”

In other words, the word is technically accurate, to describe a version of eternity that contains many gods, yet not a word that Mormons would like to use. Millet said that, if asked about the accuracy of the word “polytheism,” he would have answered in precisely this manner.

The key, Millet explained to me, is that Mormon doctrines on this matter have not changed or been abandoned. However, they are being clarified and the trend in recent decades has been toward a more “Christocentric” approach to faith that is more rooted in the Old and New Testaments, as well as in the unique Mormon scriptures. Interesting, to say the least.

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Bookmark (do not memorize) this link

puzzlepieceAs I have noted in the past, there are newspapers out there that make it very easy to find their religion news reports — no matter what section — and there are those that just don’t get it.

In my humble opinion, this is especially tragic when a newspaper (think Orlando Sentinel) has one of the top religion-beat pros on the planet.

But I digress.

I also need to add another paragraph or two to see if I can get the following awkward paragraph with the giant URL to wrap around this graphic without leaving a big white hole in this quick post.

There. That’s a little better.

I simply wanted, as a public service, to note the following interesting “Articles about religion and belief” link — http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/r/religion_and_belief/index.html — buried in the redesigned New York Times website, deep down there in the Times topics grid. Do not attempt to memorize this link.

I do not know if this gets you to all of the newspaper’s religion content, even when it crosses over into arts and op-ed. I know it can’t hunt the ghosts for you.

Still, it’s progress.

Has anyone out there spotted any other new, clear links to religion sections and, even better, religion news work that crosses all the borders inside the newspaper?

Dish, folks.

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BeliefBoom

beliefnet coverI think I will just post this, while watching Beliefnet for more information.

Sit down, folks.

FOX ENTERTAINMENT GROUP ACQUIRES BELIEFNET

World’s Largest Spiritual Web Site Joins News Corporation Family

Fox Digital Media to Oversee Business as Part of Expanded Role

Los Angeles, CA, December 4, 2007 — Fox Entertainment Group (FEG) today announced its acquisition of Beliefnet, a Web site that enables consumers to better understand their faith and build diverse spiritual communities by providing content and tools for a broad range of religions and spiritual approaches. Beliefnet, the largest online faith and spirituality destination, will become part of Fox Digital Media, spearheaded by President Dan Fawcett, which takes on an expanded role to support FEG’s vast cable, TV and film brands online, and drive FEG’s continued growth in the online market.

The acquisition provides Beliefnet with vast resources to further build and enhance its already popular brand. It also offers an online platform for FEG to distribute content from its extensive media library and for News Corp. to expand its faith-based businesses, including HarperCollins’ Zondervan and HarperOne brands, and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment’s faith-based programming initiative.

Additionally, Beliefnet will provide unique, world-renowned spiritual programming to the company’s various businesses. Beliefnet will also partner closely with Fox Interactive Media, leveraging the group’s world-class technology and “FIM Serve” targeted advertising delivery platform.

“Beliefnet has garnered respect for its commitment to quality, editorial strength and unbiased approach to faith and spirituality from a broad range of consumers, religious and political leaders, journalists and advertisers,” said Dan Fawcett, President of Fox Digital Media. “FEG’s goal is to leverage these characteristics across a broader media canvas and provide programming, production, advertising sales, technology and marketing expertise that will enhance an already terrific product in a rapidly growing market.”

Beliefnet provides devotional tools, access to the best spiritual teachers in the world, thought-provoking commentary and a portfolio of Web-based social networking tools to enable a supportive community surrounding each person’s unique spiritual principles and beliefs. Its insightful and compelling editorial content has been consistently recognized by the American Society of Magazine Editors and the site has received numerous general excellence awards. Beliefnet strives for political and ideological balance and is not affiliated with any spiritual organization or movement.

“FEG’s vast resources will enable Beliefnet to expand our audience, enhance our offerings and more effectively carry out our mission to help people find and walk a spiritual path that brings comfort, hope, clarity, strength, and happiness,” said Steven Waldman, Beliefnet’s CEO, Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder.

Savvian LLC advised Beliefnet on this transaction. Financial terms were not disclosed.

The Faith and Spirituality market is strong and continues to grow. According to the Pew Internet Project, over 82 million Americans and 64% of all Internet users utilize the Web for faith-related matters. In addition, a division of Marketresearch.com put the demand for religious and spiritually-oriented materials like books, DVDs, software, etc. at well beyond $8 billion.

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Shameless plug for Godbeat friend

beliefblog2The world cannot have enough blogs about religion news, as far as I am concerned.

So I am happy to announce that veteran religion-beat specialist Julia Duin of The Washington Times has opened up shop online. She has had a personal homepage and blog for some time (if you are interested in parenting and conditions in Kazakhstan, check that out), and now she will be adding content to her newspaper work at the new BeliefBlog. I do have a style question: Is there a space between “Belief” and “Blog” in that title or not?

Duin opens the door with a reference — a Godbeat classic — to a comparision that the late George Cornell of the Associated Press used to make. It’s simple. Count the number of people who worship every weekend and the money they donate to religious causes and institutions. Then count the number of people attending sporting events every weekend and the dollars they spend. Compare the two, then count the number of journalists assigned to each of these subjects. It’s not a fair fight. Duin adds:

Not only is religion big business, it’s big news, which is why we felt it was about time this newspaper premiered a religion blog. It’s not the first to do so in the secular media. About 30 outlets are ahead of us on this one. But, better late than …

Today, Dec. 3, is an appropriate launch date for BeliefBlog, one day after the first Sunday in Advent and one day before Hanukkah. We did some mulling over the title and decided for alliteration and simplicity (although I do think one editor’s suggestion of “Papal Bull” could have attracted attention a lot quicker.)

I plan to make this stand out amongst many of the current faith blogs, many of which are little more than daily religion digests with uplinks. Not here. I’m aiming at something closer to Ruth Gledhill’s “Articles of Faith” blog blog in the London Times that has juicy details not in the dead tree version.

In other words, more of a commentary blog on news events, as opposed to a running digest and commentary on religion-news coverage (like, well, GetReligion).

So welcome to cyberspace. Any other nominations out there for new Godbeat blogs to add to the essentials list?

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Shameless plug for Godbeat friends

lathe of heaven17Kevin Eckstrom, the editor over at Religion News Service, just dropped us a line with the news that his wire service has updated and expanded its weblog.

So head over there and give it a shot. Pronto. We do this even though RNS does not — yet, hint, hint — have GetReligion included in its links list.

Kevin notes:

We’ve relaunched the blog in the last week or two, and we’ve got writers around the world (DC, Boston, NY, Rome) blogging away. There are a few kinks that still need to be worked out, but it’s essentially all there. Eventually, it will be moving to a new server so we can throw up some more bells and whistles, but we wanted to let you know it’s up.

Let’s hope that this is another way for non-RNS subscribers to keep up with the material that the world’s only mainstream religion-news wire service puts out — beyond the weekly feature (much appreciated) featured on its regular website. By the way, they need a nice, bright button at ReligionNews.com — right there in the mast, or something — that takes readers over to the blog. Right?

While I am spouting ideas, I have also told our friends over at Beliefnet.com that I think it would be good to create a better hard-news page on their site — in large part to handle the RNS copy they receive.

At the moment, it’s easier to get to the page on spiritual weight loss programs than it is to find the news. The actual news material is in the blogs section.

As always, your GetReligionistas are interested in knowing the best links that you find out there for religion news and commentary. Some papers do a great job of that and, well, some do not.

Help us find the good stuff.

Art: Your basic picture that pops up when you search for “heaven” in Google Images.

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