Our friends over in the Christianity Today kingdom often wait, for a few weeks, before some of the pieces in their publications make their way from dead tree pulp into cyberspace. Thus, I have held off a bit posting a note about the recent Books & Culture essay by historian Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University entitled “Religion and the Media: Do they get it?”
This is, on one level, a book review by Jenkins of “Quoting God: How Media Shape Ideas About Religion And Culture,” a Baylor University Press volume edited by Claire H. Badaracco. But Jenkins, who is best known among Godbeat writers for his book “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity,” opens with some comments about the state of the Godbeat (or godsbeat) that would be interesting to all. (Click here for his famous Atlantic Monthly cover story called “The Next Christianity.”)
While MSM journalists do muck up religion news quite a bit, Jenkins has high praise for many beat professionals. He does name names and newspapers. The key, however, is not so much in the stories that the press covers as in the stories that newsrooms do not cover. In particular, he says that the press has trouble handling the day-after-day, century-after-century, power of faith in normal life. “Normality” gets bad press or no press.
Given conventional priorities, the customary and unsensational is not news, so that media stories about Islam are likely to expose terrorism and subversion rather than everyday piety, while according to most media accounts, the Roman Catholic church is either engaging in moral crusades or picking up the pieces after the latest sex scandal. If all an observer knew of Roman Catholicism was drawn from mainstream reporting over the past forty years — or indeed, from the Hollywood productions of that period — what would that person know of the central fact in the church’s life, the Eucharist, or how radically the lived realities of the Catholic faith have changed following the liturgical reforms of those years? And the same might be asked of any other tradition. How many media professionals have the slightest idea of the distinctive theological beliefs that characterize evangelicals or Pentecostals, as opposed to knowing the political and sexual prejudices such groups are presumed to share?
In some ways, this sounds a bit like the people who always complain that the press spends more time covering the “bad news” rather than the “good news.” Whenever you hear this, it is good to remind them of that C.S. Lewis quote — it goes something like this — about the “Good News” starting off as the “bad news” about humanity, before if becomes the eternal Good News.
Jenkins, however, hones in on another issue that is crucial on this beat (and in this blog). It is hard to cover religion news in a serious manner unless you have some idea what all the words mean and, thus, can cover complex topics (even in the lives of ordinary people) in an accurate manner.
And then there are those words that turn into straw-man stereotypes, complete with the “sneer quotes” that so irk the Rt. Rev. Doug LeBlanc. Lo and behold, Jenkins veers — he is a historian, remember — straight into familiar GetReligion territory.
One such demon word is fundamentalism, originally a description of a particular approach to reading Christian Scriptures, but now a catch-all description for supernaturally based anti-modernism, repression, and misogyny. Within the past few years, evangelical has been similarly debased, gaining its popular connotations of white conservative politics. (Sorry, African American evangelicals don’t exist, and as everyone knows, all Latinos are traditionalist Catholics. Right?) Most pernicious of all, perhaps, is the benevolent-sounding word “moderate,” which equates to “the side that we (the media) agree with in any religious controversy, no matter how bizarre their ideas, or how bloodcurdlingly confrontational their rhetoric.” In this lexicon, likewise, theological is an educated synonym for nitpicking triviality.