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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WPost examines the demons (and a ghost) in ‘The Exorcist’

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It’s that time of year again, the time when reporters keep trying to reach author William Peter Blatty to talk about pea soup, noises in the night, long flights of stairs and the degree to which human necks can swivel.

Consider this one-liner, drawn from a much better than normal chat with the author just published in the Washington Post:

“As I say, every Halloween I’m dragged out of my burrow like some demonic Punxsutawney Phil,” says Blatty, a hale and hearty 85. “And if I don’t see my shadow, the horror box office is gonna be great. Either that or I’m dead. Nobody has had the guts — or the kindness — to tell me which it is.”

William Peter Blatty is not dead.

Now, this Post interview does have its snarky moments — hang on for its swipe at the legacy of the Blessed John Paul II — but I want to stress that the article at least attempted to take seriously the spiritual, even doctrinal, side of Blatty’s life and work. The sense of fairness breaks down when the Post team moves from a consideration of the themes Blatty wove into “The Exorcist” to his views of his alma mater, Georgetown University.

But first, God and the 40th anniversary of “The Exorcist.”

… Blatty will bear the cross of his mammoth success, which was fused long ago to the kitschy holiday by virtue of its terrifying imagery. Never mind, he says, that the story is more about the mystery and power of faith than the ultimate violation of a 12-year-old girl by evil forces. …

The cuffs on his denim jacket are flipped. Underneath his navy T-shirt is a silver medal etched with the three crosses of Calvary, where Jesus was crucified in the Gospels. The medal belonged to his son Peter, who died seven years ago. One reason “The Exorcist” has endured, Blatty thinks, is because it shows that the grave does not mean oblivion. That there is something after death.

“I’m not sure of what’s there,” he says, “but it isn’t oblivion.”

The story, as it must, quickly covers lots of ground in Hollywood and D.C. On one level this is a common tale, the story of the struggling screenwriter who suddenly finds a source of inspiration that saves his career and changes his life. In this case, we are talking about a comedy pro (best known for his work with director Blake Edwards) who, well, was inspired to spin his career in a totally different direction.

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#OMG! Christians starting to use Twitter — details at 11!

Anyone who’s been around the news for a while will notice that, from time to time, media outlets will “discover” something that’s been talked about, elsewhere, for quite some time. Nearly 20 years after the online world of AOL, Prodigy and CompuServe began to morph into the Internet as a place where people can find information about God, at last a metropolitan daily newspaper has learned that Christian folk are using Twitter to communicate with each other.

As a breathless newsreader might say on those grating “teaser” TV news breaks during commercials: “Details at 11!”

In this case, the apparently surprised outlet is The Deseret News in Salt Lake City. Owned by a business unit of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the DesNews, or DN, as it’s known locally, actually does a very good job of covering religion in general, and, as might be surmised, a good job of tackling LDS news. They don’t have the occasional edginess of the secularly owned Salt Lake Tribune when it comes to the Mormon beat, but the DN often pleasantly surprises with its Godbeat coverage. Indeed, I find their coverage of non-Mormon faith topics, in general, to be quite good.

Oddly enough, this article about “How social and digital media are changing #religion” isn’t all that bad, in my opinion. As journalism, the content is pretty good.

But, then there is the sense of gee-whizziness throughout the text:

Brian Hemsworth’s book club wasn’t anything to write home about.

The club — one of about 80 created and founded by Mosaic, a non-denominational Christian church in Pasadena, Calif. — didn’t offer much for the members, save for some discussion on the previous week’s service and the occasional get-together at a picnic or church function.

It was all standard and by-the-book.

That was, until Hemsworth and other group members flocked to Twitter and began dropping their hashtags and tweets. They snapped photos and sent them instantly via the new-age telegram.

Soon enough, what was once a weekly gathering transformed into an everyday discussion.

“People just began to connect,” Hemsworth said. “People are wanting to find ways of connecting and getting together. And social media is really helping that.”

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Is the ‘New Atheism’ any different from old atheism?

BETH ASKS:

Are there any substantive differences between traditional atheism vs. what is called “New Atheism”? Or is the term used just to describe a bunch of popular books (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, etc.) coming out at once? Who coined the term “New Atheism” and can it be described as a new philosophical movement (or reframing of an old one)?

THE RIDGEWOOD RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

The “New Atheism movement” originated, or at least gained wide currency, with a 2006 article by Gary Wolf in Wired the technology/cyberspace magazine (whose innovative founding editor Kevin Kelly happens to be a devout Christian).

Yes, Wolf’s news peg was a “bunch of popular books” preaching atheism that appeared around that time: “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins (now professor of science literacy at Britain’s New College of Humanities), “Breaking the Spell” by Daniel Dennett (co-director of Tufts University’s Center for Cognitive Studies”) and “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris (a Ph.D. in neuroscience who runs Project Reason). Later books capitalized on the trend.

What’s new about New Atheism?

No, not substantive arguments for disbelief, which are as perennial as the case for God. Rather, a tactical lurch toward emotion-laden partisanship and take-no-prisoners rhetoric that might make a Fundamentalist blush. Such tactics win visibility and sales, much like what we get in current U.S. politics and political media. Wolf said the new approach demands uncompromising hostility by folks like himself, “we lax agnostics, we noncommital non-believers, we vague deists.” The New Atheists insist that such fence-sitters must arise to ”help exorcise this debilitating curse: the curse of faith… They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it’s evil.”

Thus all religions must be ridiculed, believers scorned as naive or stupid, and even trivial acknowledgments of religious heritage extirpated from public life. Some proponents even think parents should no longer be permitted to raise children in their faith. (It’s unclear whether government should enforce this by law or whether in fairness atheists should likewise be forbidden to press their skepticism upon offspring.)

No more mere tut-tutting in faculty lounges or living rooms. It’s all a throwback to Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899), a preacher’s kid and onetime Illinois attorney general who fashioned a lucrative career delivering caustic, entertaining lectures that assailed religion and the Bible.

What did agnostic Wolf conclude about the anti-God ruckus?

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Still falling for ‘The Exorcist,’ 40 years later

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Long ago, pre-Internet, some researchers tried to find out which movie had the greatest spiritual effect on viewers, in terms of provoking people to think about sin, salvation and life after death.

A Billy Graham movie perhaps? “The Ten Commandments”? “Chariots of Fire”?

Nope, apparently it was the R-rated, scare the living daylights out of audiences classic, “The Exorcist.”

With that in mind, let me state that I really enjoyed that USA Today feature that took director William Friedkin and author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty back to, well, their old Georgetown haunts 40 years after the release of that famous film.

However, I really do think that this story has one serious hole in it — but we’ll get to that shortly.

The key to the story is that, for Blatty, the major themes in his book and in the movie were rooted in his Catholic beliefs and, most of all, in his conviction that life-and-death battles between real evil and absolute truth take place and cannot be explained away. Reporter Brian Truitt made this a key issue in his news feature (which has also been circulated by Religion News Service).

The story of the story starts at Georgetown University, back when Blatty was a student:

It was in White-Gravenor Hall in a New Testament class that Blatty first heard of the 1949 exorcism of Maryland boy Roland Doe, and that sparked his interest in writing about the possession of Regan. And the infamous fall of Father Karras was influenced by Blatty watching one of his physics classmates take a hospitalizing tumble after trying to steal a final exam.

Blatty modeled Karras after his own feelings, he says. The death of Karras’ mother caused him to lose faith in God for a time, while the passing of Blatty’s mother also was deeply traumatic, “a period when my faith was more a hope than a belief.”

Exploring the evidence of his faith in writing “The Exorcist” was “very gratifying because it solidified my belief that I would one day see my mother again,” Blatty says.

Through the years, the film has grown in popularity, but Blatty missed the spiritual aspects from his original work, so Friedkin added 12 minutes for an extended director’s cut that was released into theaters in 2000.

And the bottom line? Why show such torment in the life of a young girl, her mother and the priest who, literally, gives his all to save the child? Blatty explains:

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WWROD? Hang out with the GetReligionistas team

Ask any religion-news professional to list the top reporters on the beat in the late 20th Century and Richard Ostling will be right near the top.

That’s why, very early in the history of this blog, your GetReligionistas started suggesting that — when facing tough issues about how to cover religion in an accurate and balanced manner — journalists should ask this not-so-simple question: What Would Richard Ostling Do?

For newcomers to this terrain, Ostling was the religion-beat pro at Time magaizne, back in the days when it was a gold standard in weekly hard-news reporting at the national and especially global levels. From there, he went to the top religion slot at the Associated Press. He is retired now, but still active in religion-news circles as a writer and consultant.

Last fall, Ostling started writing a Patheos blog called “Religion Q and A” and he explained his goals like this:

Most features on Patheos are opinionated, faith-specific (Buddhist, Catholic, Pagan) … whereas mine will be non-partisan and journalistic in approach and cover wide-ranging topics.

We’ll be asking folks in cyberspace to send in questions regarding any and all faiths, any Scriptures, current church-state and religion-politics issues, moral quandaries and other such puzzlements and curiosities. If I’m able, I’ll post an answer with others then welcome others to add comments.

From the beginning, there has been quite a bit of GetReligion-esque material at Ostling’s blog — a trend that he welcomed and we welcomed.

Stop and think about it. It’s understandable that lots of people have lots of questions about topics they keep seeing in religion-news coverage. Thus, we have linked to quite a few Ostling posts here at GetReligion.

And now there will be more.

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Another haunted story about Ravens locker room faith

At this point, fans who pay close attention to the Baltimore Ravens are contemplating a deep moral and religious question. No, I am not referring to the sins being committed on a weekly basis by the offensive linemen who are allegedly blocking for quarterback Joe Flacco.

No, the bigger question is this: Who dominates the locker room, the party players associated with the recent “party bus” incident, with that strong supporting role played by a stripper named Sweet Pea, or the inner core of religious believers who are clearly being pulled into the organization or retained as leaders by head coach John “give me some mighty men” Harbaugh?

As the defending Super Bowl champions attempt to get their act together on the field, it’s clear that there are questions that need to be answered in the locker room.

Do the reporters and editors of The Baltimore Sun see what is going on?

I honestly do not know. I do know that, in story after story, the folks that operate the newspaper that lands in my front yard demonstrate that they are tone deaf when it comes to writing about the lives of the many religious believers who are playing key roles in the Ravens locker room. Tone deaf? What other explanation is there for this trend in which the religious role in players’ personal lives is either ignored or downplayed in story after story? Want to see a few examples, just from the past 12 months? Then click here, here, here, here and here.

The latest story in this haunted series focuses on safety James Ihedigbo, who — against strong odds — has emerged as a leader on the Ravens defense. It’s important to know that his family is from Nigeria.

Thus, this crucial transition in the story:

After bouncing around the NFL for a couple of years and surviving another training camp competition, Ihedigbo is thriving as a starter for the Ravens. The 29-year-old is providing sound coverage, reliable tackling and leadership for a younger group of defensive backs that lost a pair of veteran mentors in Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard this past offseason.

“James has been kind of the glue back there,” coach John Harbaugh said.

Fighting to keep a dream alive is nothing new for him or for the Ihedigbo family. Decades before, Ihedigbo learned about perseverance and the power of faith from his parents.

The Ihedigbos, Apollos and Rose, left Nigeria and came to the United States in 1979, settling in Amherst, Mass. Two of their five children were born there, including their youngest son, James.

OK, there’s the faith word. Now what’s the story, in terms of the journalistic facts?

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Pod people: Deja vu on global persecution of Christians

As a rule, I don’t discuss the contents of one of my new Scripps Howard News Service columns here at GetReligion. However, from time to time I need to do so in order to describe some of the content of a new podcast in our GetReligion “Crossroads” series with radio host Todd Wilken & Co.

This is one of those weeks. Click here to listen to the podcast.

Meanwhile, this week’s column for Scripps grew out of all of the reading I did writing a recent GetReligion post on the subject of the recent wave of persecution being inflicted on religious minorities, especially Christians, in Egypt, Syria, Kenya and Pakistan. That post included a link to an early post — a very GetReligion-esque essay — by a senior editor (M.Z. Hemingway to be precise) at the new webzine called The Federalist.

As I worked on that GetReligion post, I kept having flashbacks to an earlier Scripps column I wrote long ago on the same topic (“Persecution: The power of apathy“). Eventually, that’s where I decided to start this week’s column:

Churches were burning in Pakistan, while African Christians died and radical forms of Islam threatened monasteries, sanctuaries and villages in Egypt, Syria and Iraq.

That was 1997. Human-rights scholar Paul Marshall kept hearing one question over and over when he addressed this rising tide of persecution: Why didn’t more American Christians protest as their sisters and brothers in the faith were jailed, raped, tortured and killed?

Some Christians, he said, were distracted by apocalyptic talk in which persecution was a good thing, a sign that the end of the world was near. Others weren’t that interested in violence on the other side of the world that threatened believers in ancient churches that looked nothing like their own suburban megachurches.

“The result is a stunning passivity that calmly accepts such suffering,” said Marshall, in an interview for an earlier column for Scripps Howard News Service. “Perhaps this … could be justified if we were dealing with our own suffering. But to do this with the suffering of another amounts to theological sadism.”

That was 1997. Marshall had just co-written the groundbreaking book “Their Blood Cries Out,” with journalist Lela Gilbert. Since then, I have worked with both of these writers in global projects about religion-news coverage.

After I filed the column, an editor emailed back a logical question. I had used the punch phrase, “That was 1997″ twice. Was that intentional or a typo?

Very intentional, I replied.

In fact I spent about an hour trying to find a clear, concise way to set up the haunting similarities between the religious persecution scene in 1997, which led to “Their Blood Cries Out” and developments in the past year or two that led to Marshall, Gilbert and Catholic lawyer Nina Shea writing their new book, “Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians.”

I found the similarities between the events, and thus the column, from 1997 and the waves of bloody headlines — often from the same nations — from the past two weeks to more than haunting, but downright agonizing. More on that in a minute.

So are some GetReligion readers thinking logical thoughts as I spell all of this out? Thoughts like, “Well, of course, Marshall, Shea and activists of their ilk think this is a front-burner issue. They are conservative Christians and we all know that conservative Christians see persecution behind every rock.”

That’s part of what I found so haunting. Many media people were already saying that back in 1997.

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