When visions clash with reporting

BC 0743299426My latest column for the ethics and diversity team at Poynter.org is online, if GetReligion readers want to check it out. You may, however, hear a bit of an echo since this piece called “Articles of Faith” grew out of a July post on this blog titled “Visions of another Magdalene bestseller.”

That earlier blog item focused on a USA Today feature story about journalist-turned-novelist Kathleen McGowan and her post-Da Vinci Code novel called The Expected One. I was somewhat amazed that the newspaper didn’t ask more probing questions about the spiritual visions that led to McGowan’s claims that she is part of the bloodline of Jesus of Nazareth and St. Mary Magdalene.

For my friends at Poynter, this raised a larger question: How are journalists supposed to gather “facts” when they write about these kinds of highly personal faith experiences? I decided to start the column on a personal note:

Growing up as a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid, I didn’t think about visions and patron saints very much.

So it felt strange when I converted to Eastern Orthodoxy and my morning prayers began including an appeal to my patron — St. Brendan of Ireland — to pray with me. I asked my spiritual father about this. He laughed and said, “Just say your prayers. But if your patron saint ever talks back, that’s when you need to go ask a priest for help!”

Yes, I have a journalistic reason for bringing this up.

If priests are supposed to ask questions that challenge a person’s claim to have had visions, then certainly journalists are allowed to do that.

When in doubt, ask questions. Like I keep saying, that is what journalists are supposed to do. However, this clash between “facts” and “faith” is an important issue for many people in newsrooms, including many who simple do not get religion.

So here is how I ended the Poynter piece.

I have, through the years, heard many journalists say that one of the main reasons they struggle with religion news is that journalists are supposed to write about facts, while many religious issues are rooted in personal beliefs. In other words, it’s hard to do journalism about all that mushy spiritual stuff.

Nevertheless, it’s a fact that millions of people have religious beliefs that, in some way, shape their lives in the real world. That’s a fact. We can ask these believers lots of detailed questions. We can ask them to describe their spiritual experiences and to explain how these experiences affect their lives. Then we quote the answers.

I thought it was strange that the USA Today story never really did that, and that bothered me. When it comes to people making claims about visions and revelations, I think it’s OK for a journalist to be at least as skeptical as a good priest.

Hey, if Oliver Stone can handle this stuff with some degree of respect, journalists ought to be able to do it.

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Shameless promotion for friends

mordor 01I have been missing in action, most of the past few days, because of the start of the very first semester of the classes here at the Washington Journalism Center. If that really interests you, take a quick trip to this site to see the weblog that has just opened up. It will grow as the students get the hang of things in the first few weeks of classes and, ultimately, their internships in mainstream newsrooms.

But I have been swamped (and this is not a reference to the rain outside my window). I have a few things to share and I’ll try to get them online in the next day or so. We have another class meeting tomorrow — with a lecture linked to the movie World Trade Center and post-movie dinner commentary by Bill Mattox of USA Today.

So, for starters, if you have ever wanted to hear what Rod “Friend of this Blog” Dreher sounds like, then OK, click here and listen to his NPR commentary on why living without air conditioning in one’s car can, in Dallas (see photo), be a spiritual exercise. No, this is not directly linked to the doctrine of hell and damnation. And, yes, the image is a joke. There are no mountains in Dallas. I was born there and I know.

Meanwhile, let’s move on to another newsy plug. Young master Jeremy Lott — formerly of this weblog — has coauthored a piece with Patrick Hynes for Financial Times (via MSNBC) arguing that traditional religious believers (some would say the Religious Right) are unlikely to abandon the GOP this fall, and that this is not a good thing for Democrats. A key statement therein:

Remember, Roe v Wade did not create the modern religious right. Former president Jimmy Carter did when he refused to rein in an Internal Revenue Service that had decided to go after the tax exemptions of private Christian schools that were not in compliance with civil rights quotas. Evangelicals could live with legalised abortion and bedlam in the public schools by removing their children from the system. It must have grated that they were paying to subsidise education they did not agree with and then paying again for private education for their children to opt-out, but Caesar was dutifully rendered unto, until he threatened to hike the cost of tuition.

The same dynamic persists today. The Democratic party elites cheer when regulators force Catholic charities to fund things the church considers immoral. They vote to curtail the freedom of conscience of pro-life pharmacists. They filibuster judicial appointees who do not hold to the interpretation of Ted Kennedy, senator, of the constitution-as-rubber-stamp for liberal causes. Worse, they compare religious rightists to Muslim terrorists (“Christianists”) and warn that we have entered a new Dark Age. Garry Wills, the popular historian, called the 2004 election the end of the Enlightenment on American soil, and meant it.

The good folks who make up the religious right may not love the Republican party, but they know a threat when they see one. The modern Democratic party is hostile to their very existence.

Now, after you have read that piece, click here and see what another friend of this blog has to say about a related topic. I am referring to Amy Sullivan and her latest epistle — there is a new one every month or so — on the Democratic Party and its struggles to get religion.

This one is at that right-wing site (I’m joking) called Slate, and it’s called “Not God’s Party: A new poll shows Democrats are losing (more) religious voters.”

Yes, this is another trip into the Pew Forum poll numbers (PDF) that we have discussed here several times.

Enjoy. I have to get back to class!

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“This letter … acts similar to a correction”

1097250162 s1qdaq78jk7 sackconst 01We have an end to the saga of GetReligion’s request for a correction on that April 9 feature story in The Washington Post, the one that ran with the headline “In Turkey, a Deep Suspicion of Missionaries — Priest’s Killing Shows Complex Ties of Islam to Nationalism in Officially Secular State.”

This is one of those good news-bad news situations. The Post has said “no” and has not formally admitted an error. But, as you will see, it has admitted that some people — or at least one — thinks that it made an error.

Here is the latest epistle from the foreign desk:

Hello Professor Mattingly,

Thank you for you patience regarding our lengthy review of your request for a correction on Karl Vick’s April 9 article, “In Turkey, a Deep Suspicion of Missionaries.” After speaking with Mr. Vick, we have decided not to publish a correction. The reason for this decision is based on a “Letter to the Editor” that was published on the Editorial Page on May 6, 2006. This letter, titled “This Battle Wasn’t Over Islam,” addresses the very same complaints that you have discussed with me and acts similar to a correction. … Thanks for your understanding and for contacting us regarding our coverage. If you have any other inquiries, please do not hesitate to get in touch with us again.

I must confess that I did not think to do an online search for a letter to the editor. It is also interesting that the copy desk did not recall the letter, either. I consider this a rather honorable way out of the argument, from the newspaper’s point of view.

As a reporter and columnist, I know that “corrections” carry more weight than letters. Still, it’s a good letter and makes the key point. Thank you, Kenneth Bernstein of Arlington, Va.

This Battle Wasn’t Over Islam

Saturday, May 6, 2006; A15

In his April 9 article, “In Turkey, a Deep Suspicion of Missionaries,” Karl Vick wrote, “The tension dates at least to the 13th century, when Christian Crusaders sacked what is today Istanbul.” This statement presents a very inaccurate picture.

There was a sack by Crusaders, but it had no direct connection with Islam.

The sack by the knights of the Fourth Crusade in 1204 was of the Byzantine city of Constantinople. The sack may well have been at the instigation of the Venetians who transported the knights, because Constantinople was a major commercial rival of Venice.

Islam enters the picture with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks under Mehmed II on May 29, 1453. Some argue that the city had been irrevocably weakened by the sacking and plundering of the Fourth Crusade, but whatever destruction then occurred was that of Christian upon Christian. And while the city suffered during the siege before its 15th-century fall and in the first few days after the conquest, there is no element of this being an issue that could inflame attitudes toward Christian missionaries.

– Kenneth Bernstein
Arlington

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Is Getreligionistas a keeper?

frappr navI have asked the Rt. Rev. Doug LeBlanc to find a way to put the link to the Frappr site for GetReligionistas somewhere on our left sidebar for those who want to continue to sign up. I may make another appeal or two on my own listserv, as well.

It’s kind of fun, but also shows us — again — the need to try to get more international coverage into the site. In fact, the first few days we had more global people on the Frappr map than we do now.

So, hey, where did some of you go? Sign back in.

Also, please let us know if there has been any kind of negative result from this fun little toy, some major rise in spam or anything like that. We do want to know where you are and what you think. Sign in, if you will!

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Listening to Mount Athos voices

hildr2This weblog has received a fine comment from Neil Averitt, author of the Washington Post travel piece about his visit to Mount Athos that I mentioned last Thursday. Since this is precisely the kind of dialogue with journalists that this blog welcomes, I thought I would pull his letter out of the comments pages to share with more readers.

As you may recall, I thought that his piece was very enjoyable, especially all of its references to the spiritually interesting people — monks, in other words — that he encountered. I was interested in knowing more about them and what they had to say.

Thus, Averitt writes:

I am sorry that there wasn’t more information about religious issues and in direct quotes. In part that was just an oversight, and it part it’s because the conventions of travel writing do call for a first-person focus, as you mentioned. Anyway, here are a few more details:

1. The monks at the Danieleon chanted beautifully, but they weren’t quite as open to visitors as the monasteries were, perhaps because they weren’t set up to receive them. When it came time for dinner, I was sent outside with the command “exo, exo,” or “out, out,” and ate by myself at a table on the terrace. This was presumably because I was non-Orthodox. The non-Orthodox are sometimes sent to secondary places on Athos, particularly during church services. However, the monks at the Danieleon did invite me into their chapel for the primary service the next morning, which was the main thing. (The monasteries varied widely in their approach to this issue, with some involving the non-Orthodox on equal terms, some seating them in the outside hall, and some keeping them farther back on the porch; in all cases where it happened, however, this was done with kindness and with the explanation that there was some injunction against praying with people who were not members of the church.)

2. Father Damian had originally stopped by Grigorieu for the normal one-day visit. He enjoyed that and felt at home, so he got permission from the abbott to extend the stay a day at a time, and then by a week at a time. After some interval (I think about two months, but am not sure) he went back to England to talk with his family and check on his feelings, and then returned to Athos. The abbott’s reaction to this unplanned entry into the monastery was that “perhaps it was meant to be.”

3. That attitude — that the workings of Providence show themselves in everyday life — seems relatively common on Athos. When the monks are talking about the comparisons between eastern and western Christianity, that is a point they frequently mention — that Catholicism has an intellectual tradition, as exemplified by the Jesuits, but that Orthodoxy is more a “religion of the heart,” with its rituals set to encourage a sense of spirituality through more directly aesthetic means. These include the nighttime services, candles, scents, and so on.

I hope these additional details help.

They do indeed. So here is another question for Neil, if he has the time to respond. Would a kind of spiritual feature story about the Holy Mountain fly in the Post? A kind of collection of mini-interviews, a journey based on the lives and stories of the people one meets in such a place? Is that news, in the context of a postmodern and evolving Europe?

Take, for example, that reference to “some injunction” against praying with the non-Orthodox (or, in this case, the non-Orthodox being allowed to pray with the Orthodox). This is a point of dispute between different churches and, frankly, it’s an interesting story in the context of North America. There is “spiritual” content there, in other words, and both sides can be reported.

We hear a lot today about trends in “spirituality” replacing much of the hard-news content on the old denominational “religion beat.” I thought this Post feature gave us a hint of what might be possible, with the color left intact and the voices of the believers put back in. But would the newspaper allow that? Or, what the heck, just tell us what the pilgrim Prince Charles is up to, with his future role as “defender of the faiths” (plural) colliding with some of the messages he is sure to hear during all of those visits to Athos. Go for it.

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Aging Billy finally achieves humility, says Jon

Franklin Billy 1As noted in the past, Newsweek Managing Editor Jon Meacham really doesn’t do ordinary journalism anymore.

Instead, he writes cover stories that are doctrinal essays that seek to guide Americans toward a more mature, nuanced, educated, intelligent approach to religious faith. This would bring us closer to Meacham’s approach, of course.

This week’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” feature — yet another report about Billy Graham as a lion in winter — is an instant classic and a perfect example of why Meacham is must reading for anyone striving to understand what is happening on the left side of American Evangelicalism. Meacham is the voice crying in the wilderness, “Repent! Repent of your doctrinal absolutes! Repent and embrace mystery and humility! Like me!”

So let me start with a personal note of my own. Regular GetReligion readers may remember my list of the three doctrinal issues that, in this era, tend to separate Christian liberals from Christian conservatives? As journalistic questions, I think they are relevant to Meacham’s epistle. As a refresher, they are:

(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).”

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

Meacham leaves the Resurrection alone, but addresses the other two. The key is that the elderly Graham is, we are told, maturing into a more nuanced, mysterious view of Christianity. Thus, this new Billy can be held up as a moderate prophet whose example should be heeded by his less mature, more judgmental brethren. That means you, Franklin.

Here is the key passage:

A unifying theme of Graham’s new thinking is humility. He is sure and certain of his faith in Jesus as the way to salvation. When asked whether he believes heaven will be closed to good Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or secular people, though, Graham says: “Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won’t … I don’t want to speculate about all that. I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have.” Such an ecumenical spirit may upset some Christian hard-liners, but in Graham’s view, only God knows who is going to be saved: “As an evangelist for more than six decades, Mr. Graham has faithfully proclaimed the Bible’s Gospel message that Jesus is the only way to Heaven,” says Graham spokesman A. Larry Ross. “However, salvation is the work of Almighty God, and only he knows what is in each human heart.”

Surely Meacham knows that Graham has been giving these very same answers to basic questions for decades, at the very least since the hard lessons of the Watergate era. There is a reason that Christian fundamentalists have, since the 1950s or thereabouts, called Graham a dangerous man who has sold out to modernity. You can look it up.

What we needed here were a few specific questions and then some solid direct-quote answers from Graham himself. Other than strident voices on the far right, no orthodox Christian would claim to be able to see into the human heart and pass judgment. Graham has been saying that for decades. At the same time, he will also affirm that Jesus did not call himself “a” way, “a” truth and “a” way to eternal life.

In other words, I think Meacham needed to take a more journalistic approach. Ask the man specific questions. Print the answers. Read the man statements that he has made in the past and ask him to respond. Print the statements in the past and contrast them with his current words.

Then again, I am more interested in what Graham has to say about Graham than what Meacham has to say about Graham. Silly me. The GetReligion non-Borg will now weigh in.

(Photo from Baptist Press.)

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Neil Averitt visits Mount Athos

mountathosSeveral readers have dropped me notes, seeking my take on that Washington Post travel feature the other day focusing on what it is like to visit the Holy Community of Mount Athos, on its rich, green, mountainous peninsula in northeast Greece.

This is the kind of place where people come back with prayer ropes and Byzantine flags, rather than T-shirts and high-end clothing. We also live in a day and age in which Mount Athos — which is its own mini-state, operating under a charter granted in 972 by the emperor in Constantinople — is also rather controversial. The holy mountain is, of course, covered with monastic communities that are full of monks, about 2,500 of them. They are all male.

Thus, Mount Athos is not a very diverse place, in at least one sense of the word, and that is the part of Neil Averitt’s article that people have been asking me about. Thus, he wrote:

Another thing notably absent is the feminine touch; even most female animals are excluded. Partly this is a consequence of monastic status, for Mount Athos is basically a cooperative of private monasteries. Another reason is a belief that Christ gave the peninsula to his mother, Mary, to be her private garden, and other women are excluded to more distinctively honor the Virgin Mary.

The exclusion of women is, naturally, controversial. The European Parliament has endorsed a report containing a paragraph that suggests this is a violation of women’s rights. The Greek government has responded that the special status of Mount Athos was recognized in conjunction with the treaty by which Greece joined the European Union in the first place.

This isn’t all bad, confesses Averitt, because it creates an atmosphere in which men (including visitors like Prince Charles) seem more open and willing to communicate with one another. A kind of relaxed, spiritual bonding takes place as the guests begin to settle into the simple religious and cultural rhythms of the mountain and the monks who inhabit it. This is not a user-friendly place to hang out, even if guests — those that get through the selection process — are allowed to stay for free. (For information on that, see the Friends of Mount Athos.)

Some people are even afraid that, if the EU had its way, Mount Athos would “become a tourist destination like any other” and lose its unique atmosphere, says Averitt. You think? The Orthodox would prefer to say that Mount Athos would simply cease being Mount Athos.

But here is the main reaction that I had to this interesting article.

To state it bluntly, I would like to know more about the famous chanting monks at the Danieleon. I wanted to know more about Father Damian, the English monk who visited and never left. The monasteries, we are told, are attracting many young monks who often spend hours sitting in sunlit courtyards talking about spiritual issues with visitors from Greece, America and around the world.

Well, I would like to know what they talk about. Can we listen to those voices?

So I’d like to know more about those people and a bit less about Averitt, even though I know that most travel-centered journalism is a bit first-person. It sounds like Averitt got to meet some interesting people. What the heck did they say?

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Update on Stolzi funeral

IMG 9593I have received several private emails and calls requesting information about the funeral for Mary “Stolzi” Stolzenbach. I hope that this post reaches her many online friends at other websites and listservs.

I talked with Father Stephen Rogers, the senior priest at St. Ignatius Parish near Franklin, Tenn. The funeral is at 1 p.m. today, Central Daylight Time. The service was delayed while her son John flew in from Japan. The other son, Fritz, lives in Washington, D.C.

It is unclear whether Stolzi suffered a mini-stroke that caused her to fall on the evening of July 29 or whether the fall led to her coma. She was able to call 911 after the fall and was admitted to the hospital, where doctors treated a cut on her face. Father Stephen talked with her at about 9:45 that night and she was completely lucid. Then she went into a coma about 30 minutes later and never recovered.

As many of her online friends know, her husband, Conrad, has Alzheimer’s Disease and had recently moved into an assisted living facility and has been comfortable there. As Stolzi’s had requested, the family asks that those wishing to honor her do so by donating to the Alzheimer’s Association, in honor of Conrad Stolzenbach and his caregiver, Mary.

May her memory be eternal!

P.S. Father Joseph Huneycutt of the Orthodixie blog has added a tribute of his own. It included this salute to his sister in this strange parish called the World Wide Web, and the ties that bind cyberfriends together.

Mary and I had many arguments over the years. These were always ill matched because Mary’s intellect was far superior — with a biting wit. Some of these disagreements happened on various e-lists. We would often swap friendly private posts to each other while carrying on “badly” for public consumption. When Mary sided with you, you felt justified. When she was on the “other side,” well, you felt differently. And, I must admit, sometimes she would send me emails — or questions — that helped me to realize just how non-intellectual (aka dumb) I am really am. But, like a good school teacher, you never doubted that she loved you. …

I am stunned and saddened by her sudden passing. I cannot believe that there will be no more “Stolzi” on the internet. We’re all the worse for it.

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