Are there any culture wars inside the Great Gray Lady?

Here’s a safe prediction for 2014: Look for another year with tough culture wars cases — whether from courthouses in Utah or your local Christian university or parachurch ministry — rolling toward the church-state crossroads at the U.S. Supreme Court.

If that’s the case, journalists will continue to face a numbing barrage of stories in which they will be challenged to accurately and fairly report the views of activists on both the religious left and Religious Right.

Yeah, right.

With that in mind, consider this interesting Quora.com comment by elite columnist Nicholas Kristof, in response to this question: “What is the culture like at The New York Times?”

Things start rather slowly, before candor strikes:

There isn’t really a simple answer to this question, because the culture of the Times varies by section and even time of day. In my part of the building, where the opinion columnists have their offices, it tends to be a bit more relaxed, even sleepy, while the metro desk at deadline on a big story will be frenetic and full of electricity. When I started at The Times in 1984, it was mostly male, and we wore jacket and ties; there was plenty of smoking and drinking. These days, the dress code is much more casual, and somewhat more earnest; not a lot of whiskey bottles hidden around today. There are also lots of women, which means there’s less of a locker room atmosphere. …

But what about the word “culture” as in, well, you know what?

People sometimes ask if everybody is liberal politically, but I’d say that journalists define themselves less by where they are on the political spectrum and more as skeptics providing oversight to whoever is in power.

Classic answer. How many Americans still accept that, when looking Times coverage of, well, you know, certain issues?

I would say, though, that while there is a range of ideology from liberal to conservative on political and fiscal issues, on social issues most journalists (everywhere,not just at The Times) tend to have an urban bias: They are more likely to be for gun control and gay marriage than the general public, and much more likely to believe in evolution. They are also less likely to have served in the military or to have working class backgrounds.

That’s more like it. Now, what is the religious, the doctrinal content (even strictly secular beliefs have doctrinal implications) of an “urban bias”? Is that essentially saying that elite urbanites find it easier to embrace doctrinally liberal forms of religion, as opposed to those who believe in transcendent, eternal doctrines?

What was it that William Proctor — author of “The Gospel According to the New York Times” — said long ago?

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Not 5Q+1: Thoughts from Michael Luo on faith and ink

A long, long time ago, during the gentle, mild reign of GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey, we used to have “5Q+1″ features in which we asked journalists — including many not on the religion beat — a set of questions about their views on religion and the news.

Maybe we will bring that back sooner or later. That think ye?

As time went by, Sarah broadened the feature to include a wider variety of questions. In one such interview, she e-chatted with Michael Luo of The New York Times about a variety of subjects, including that whole “Linsanity” explosion in Madison Square Garden and the NBA in general. Click here for a refresher on that. One of the key exchanges went like this:

I grappled a good bit with what exactly I could say in my essay that was new and potentially instructive about Jeremy Lin. I thought about just explaining my emotional connection as an Asian American, which is arguably applicable to a broader swathe of people. But I realized writing about him as an Asian American Christian, specifically, could be illuminating, because it is a sub-category on the religious continuum that is not widely known. It is also a huge part of Lin’s identity. Understanding that he is an Asian American Christian, specifically, is important to understanding him, I felt. Of course, that is not what the entire piece was about. I was trying to explain this welter of emotions inside of me that he evokes and this multi-layered sense of connection.

Certainly, there is a danger in lumping all theologically conservative Christians, or “evangelicals,” together, because there are distinct differences in the histories, cultural milieus and general orientations of white, black, Asian and Latino evangelicals. Has the media papered over these distinctions? Sure. Part of it is our under-coverage of religion in general. The other part of it is just getting out there and covering these communities in thoughtful, in-depth ways.

When you tweeted that it was a vulnerable column, did you feel like you were risking something by writing about yourself? How do you think reporters who are open about their faith are perceived internally at their media outlets or externally as a reporter?

As a journalist, my instinct, in general, is to shy away from making myself the story in any way. The risk in identifying myself, as I did in the article, as one of these “every-Sunday-worshiping, try-to-read-the Bible-and-pray” types is on two levels. There’s the personal risk in terms of what others might think of me, whether they will instinctively try to put me in a certain box, or ascribe certain stereotypes onto me, which no one likes. There’s also the journalistic risk, in terms of whether it might affect my ability to do my job and be credible as an objective journalist. …

Now, journalist Paul Glader of The King’s College faculty (best known for his Wall Street Journal reporting) has explored some of the same material with Luo in an interview featured in the current issue of Christianity Today.

There is material in this piece that I know will interest regular GetReligion readers, since it relates directly to interactions between religion and journalism and religion in major newsrooms, such as The Times. The key is that Luo sees the connections between religion and real life, including his own work covering criminal justice.

For starters, there is this:

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NYTimes: Mouseketeer-turned-Pagan-turned-Christian trip

One of the staples of evangelical Christianity — at least so far as I can remember — is the story of the spectacular sinner who found redemption, preferably on the “sawdust trail” of a tent revivalist’s “canvass cathedral.”

One of the more dramatic examples is the 1949 conversion of songwriter/actor Stuart Hamblen under the ministry of a then-very-young Billy Graham; Hamblen went on to write a gospel music staple, “It Is No Secret,” about that experience.

It is equally true — for those of us with a bit of experience in the evangelical realm — that sometimes these testimonies should be viewed with skepticism. Evangelicals, myself included, were entertained and impressed by “Christian comedian” Mike Warnke in the late 1970s and 1980, He regaled audiences with tales of his being a “high Satanist priest” and having later come to the light of faith in Jesus. Sadly, Warnke’s testimony was later challenged and shown to be suspect, at the very least, which is why we don’t see him much on TBN these days, although he still professes Christian belief, and has an independent ministry.

Both of these elements popped into my mind as The New York Times featured a former member of the “Mouseketeers of “The All New Mickey Mouse Club,” which ran from 1989 to 1996 on the Disney Channel,” a cable outlet. Born and raised as Matt Morris, the onetime-Episcopalian embraced Paganism, with a capital “P,” and, “under a red moon” one night pledged fealty “to the unseen forces that guide my life.”

“Beliefs” columnist Mark Oppenheimer sets the ex-Mouseketeer tone here:

They’re an august alumni association. … Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake top the charts. Keri Russell was Felicity. Christina Aguilera stars with CeeLo Green on “The Voice.” Ryan Gosling starred with his own abs in “Crazy Stupid Love.”

But Teo Bishop, while keeping up a career in pop music, accomplished something less predictable and altogether curiouser. Beginning about three years ago, he began a rise to prominence in the Pagan community. Then, last month, he shocked the Pagan community by re-embracing Christianity.

“I’m overwhelmed with thoughts of Jesus,” Mr. Bishop wrote on Oct. 13, on his blog, Bishop in the Grove. “Jesus and God and Christianity and the Lord’s Prayer and compassion and forgiveness and hope. … I don’t know what to do with all of this.”

For American Pagans, Mr. Bishop’s defecting to a big, bad mainstream religion is bigger news than winning a Grammy, bigger than shooting a Vanity Fair cover. If you’re a Druid, a Wiccan or any of the nature-religion followers grouped under the label Pagan, you’re not talking about Britney, JT or Xtina. You’re talking Teo Bishop.

Bishop — he legally changed his name from Morris — found great success with the “Bishop in the Grove” blog, earning plaudits in the pagan (or is it still Pagan here?) community:

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General Butt Naked and God in Der Spiegel

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Let me commend for your reading a story in last week’s Der Spiegel on the Liberian war lord General Butt Naked. The article in its English-language version entitled “The Penitant Warlord: Atoning for 20,000 War Crimes” recounts the war crimes of Joshua Milton Blahyi and his subsequent transformation into a priest.

But there is a chauvinism among many newspaper readers that when terms familiar to them are used in a story — “priest” being an example — the word means what they understand it to mean. Call someone a “priest” and many will assume that person is a Catholic, for example. What sort of priest is General Butt Naked?

The 3,600 word article focuses on the question whether Blahyi’s confession and conversion can be believed. It opens with the a summary of his crimes, and adds a hook to catch the reader’s attention.

Blahyi had a reputation for being more brutal than other military leaders. Everyone knows his nom de guerre, which he says he will never lose: General Butt Naked. He was a cannibal who preferred to sacrifice babies, because he believed that their death promised the greatest amount of protection. He went into battle naked, wearing only sneakers and carrying a machete, because he believed that it made him invulnerable — and he was in fact never hit by a bullet. His soldiers would make bets on whether a pregnant woman was carrying a boy or a girl, and then they would slit open her belly to see who was right.

Blahyi is now a priest who goes to chess club on Saturdays.

The article sets his crimes against his current life and beliefs, offering several exchanges between the reporter and Blahyi.

 “Do you sleep well at night?”

“I am blessed with good sleep.”

“Are you happy?”

“Yes, very.”

“Will you go to heaven?”

“That’s what it says in the Bible. He who believes in Jesus shall not be condemned.”

As it works towards its finish the article states there is no way to measure the sincerity of Blahyi’s convictions, but notes that he does not have to play the penitent to avoid prison or reprisals — there has been a de facto amnesty for war crimes in Liberia.

And it closes with these observations:

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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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Luke Russert on snark, journalism, faith and easy targets

Let’s start the day with a quick thought from Luke Russert of NBC News, who recently sat down with David Brody of The Christian Broadcasting Network — the rather rare reporter in the Christian television world who often talks with real, live national leaders and thinkers.

Russert, of course, is the son of the late Tim Russert of Meet The Press fame, who an outspoken Catholic and quite respected by activists and leaders on both sides of American politics. Why? He was a veteran Democrat who had some understanding of the beliefs of blue-collar workers, labor-union members, Midwestern Catholics and other members of the old Democratic Party coalition that included some room for moral conservatives.

Thus, Tim Russert was known for occasionally stating the obvious truth that others declined to voice.

So, let’s let this exchange with the young Russert speak for itself:

DAVID BRODY: Do you believe the media, or if not so much the media, writ large, the much larger population has some sort of bias against whether it be a strong conservative evangelical or maybe a strong Catholic, whatever it happens to be, you know, people of faith. It just seems that if you wear it on your sleeve too much you can get bit to a degree.

LUKE RUSSERT: I think that’s absolutely accurate and I think the current world in which we live in, specifically with the American media, snark is valued. And it’s very easy to come after people of faith no matter what they’re religion is — Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu. That you’re sort of tagged with this label of being puritanical and not understanding of others or of different viewpoints and I think that’s kind of, it’s lazy, number one, and I think it’s just something that just feeds the snickering masses if you will in that regard. …

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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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Memories of Jack Spong (as opposed to hagiography)

Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been molded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory — this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savors, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?

Remembrance of Things Past. Volume 1: Swann’s Way: Within a Budding Grove by Marcel Proust, translated by  C.K. Scott Moncrieff. p. 48.

Jack Spong is my petite madeleine.

The former Episcopal Bishop of Newark does for me what a cookie did for Marcel — open the door to bittersweet memories. The taste of the tea-soaked biscuit reminded Marcel of Charles Swann’s destruction that had been precipitated by his unfaithful wife Odette. An article in today’s Washington Post‘s On Faith section from the Religion News Service reminded me (as a priest in this church) of the destruction of the Episcopal Church precipitated by its unfaithful leaders over the past 40 years.

The article entitled “An aging maverick, Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong has no regrets” is part Edith Piaf — part Soviet Life hagiography. As I read through article I heard Jack Spong proclaim “Non, Rien de rien / Non, Je ne regrette rien” — while RNS went into full bore People magazine puff piece mode. All that was missing was the photo of the smiling peasants with their balalaikas extolling the virtues of the dear leader. One cannot blame Jack Spong for his part, but I do think RNS might be a little embarrassed.

The article opens on a friendly note:

MORRIS PLAINS, N.J. — At 82, retired and enjoying life, Bishop John Shelby Spong doesn’t have to be the liberal enfant terrible whose pronouncements for gay rights and against traditional dogmas once scandalized Christendom.

Indeed, many of the views that once turned the former Episcopal bishop of Newark into a lightning rod are now regarded as so matter-of-fact that they barely occasion much notice: ordaining gay clergy and blessing same-sex marriages, for example, or having a female presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman elected to lead a national church in the Anglican Communion.

And it gets better from here. The good bishop enumerates his triumphs with but slight modesty … but he discounts any direct responsibility.

Yet while he finds the victory deeply satisfying, he says he doesn’t take personal pride in this tectonic shift.“I was simply interpreting a rising consciousness,” he said. “Whether it was race or women or homosexual people, the issue was always the same: fighting against anything that dehumanizes a child of God on the basis of an external characteristic.”Now, he said, “I feel mellow,” his soft drawl burnishing the tone of reflection. “And I don’t think I’ve changed, particularly. I’m just not controversial in my church anymore.”

But RNS tells us:

[T]hose who love Spong — and the many who love to hate him — need not worry: He is hardly going gently into that good night. He seems as vital and youthful as ever, tall and lanky with a shock of reddish hair that still falls insistently across his forehead. He does four miles every morning on the treadmill, and he and his wife travel about 60 percent of the year, mainly at the invitation of audiences who want to hear more from Spong.And he has a new book out — his 24th. This latest one is a take on the Gospel of John called “The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic.” As the subtitle suggests, Spong reads the Gospel through a Jewish lens, as he has done in many of his works.

It continues in this vein of hero worship. Jack Spong is a mystic — but a rationalist one.

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