Digging into the Narnia story

Narnia posterWhen conducting interviews, most reporters conduct themselves knowing that their notes, questions and side remarks will never be seen by anyone other than themselves, even their editor. In the rare occurrence of a subpoena of their notes, a handful of lawyers may have the opportunity to pour over the material, but it would be extremely unusual for the world to have that opportunity.

This could be changing with the Internet and a great example is this online package on the upcoming movie, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe from PBS’s Religion & Ethics Newsweekly. Most people who caught this program on television will allow the content and the interviews — which include our own Tmatt — to slip into a forgotten part of the past. But this is no longer the case.

(Don’t forget to check out some of our past posts on the release of the film, here, here and here.)

For people like myself, who missed the live broadcast, the transcript of the program along with the video is available for any and all with an Internet connection. But that’s not all. Religion and Ethics Newsweekly was kind enough to post the transcripts of the interviews with Tmatt and author and Wheaton College professor Alan Jacobs for the piece so we could analyze ourselves the questions asked and the thoughts of the person actually doing the reporting. For those analyzing the media’s coverage of anything, this is an incredible tool and in an ideal world, the way it should always be.

Kim Lawton’s report on the film is a solid piece of work. It focuses on the film, the targeted audience and the producer’s marketing approach, and from what I could tell, Lawton uses the material from her interviews quite fairly and accurately. For time’s sake, not all quotes are completely intact, but that is to be expected. For instance, take this quote from the edited version:

Mr. MATTINGLY: The major symbolism, of course, is the death and resurrection of a Christ figure. And all of this is interpreted with language that is not out of the Bible, but you would have to be pretty blind not to see what the symbols mean and to hear what the words mean.

And here it is in the entire section:

Q: What are the key religious themes and symbols in THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE?

A: The major symbolism, of course, is the death and resurrection of a Christ figure. It’s interesting in the sense that there is no attempt to create a cross. Instead, Lewis, who, like Tolkien, loved ancient mythologies and loved those stories, goes with a much more ritualistic image of an altar, a stone table, an Aztec stone knife, and a witch who just slays him. But then you have a very vivid and literal resurrection. All of this is interpreted with language that is not out of the Bible, but you would have to be pretty blind not to see what the symbols mean and to hear what the words mean.

Tmatt told me that he was thankful that they ran the entire interview. And why not? It was a 45-minute ordeal and that type of information should not be left to just the producers to cut and paste into a nice package. We the viewer/reader should be able to examine the interview in its entirety.

Is this the way of the future? Will the interviews I conduct for my day job end up online uncut and unedited? How will this change reporting? Will I be more formal with those I interview? It sure didn’t seem to hold back Jann Wenner in his interview with Bono. But did he know at the time that the tape of the interview would be thrown out on the Web for anyone to download?

When I cite a document when writing a story for my day job, I consistently link to the original document if possible. In the next year, will I start linking to the mp3 of an interview when I quote a source?

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Faith in that redneck music

rednecks 265x397As the old saying goes, the secret to country music’s appeal is that it can deal with what happens on Sunday morning as well as Saturday night.

Or, as Naomi Judd once told me, if you’re going to write songs about sinning, it helps to have some listeners to still think that sin exists. You don’t hear many cheating songs on MTV because cheating songs imply that there is something holy called marriage to cheat against.

The religious side of country music — this is not a “ghost,” because it’s right out there in the open — is one of the subplots in my friend Chris Willman’s new book entitled “Rednecks & Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music.” He is one of the senior music writers at Entertainment Weekly and when it comes to the smart side of popular music, he has been there and done that for, well, ages and ages.

By all means, rush out and buy the book. But if you want to sample it for free, the Dallas Morning News recently featured a chunk of it in its Sunday Points magazine. Here is one section that I found especially interesting, in a GetReligion-ish sort of way. Why is country music the true “folk music” of the modern American mainstream?

… (Consider) the varying musical responses to 9-11. In the world of rock, Paul McCartney, one of the great songwriters of the 20th century, delivered a spirited new anthem called “Freedom.” It really did unite a wounded nation, if only in unanimous declaration that this was the suckiest composition of his storied career.

Neil Young might have seemed better equipped for such a topical task. Three decades earlier, the mercurial rocker had written a song about “four dead in Ohio” and released it within two weeks of the actual event. But 45 dead in Pennsylvania seemed to vex him. “Let’s Roll,” a tribute to the heroic passengers who fought with terrorists on doomed Flight 93, was well-intentioned, yet curiously unmoving.

So who did step up to the contemplative plate and become America’s poet laureate at the end of 2001? A guy whose last single was “It’s Alright to Be a Redneck”: hat act Alan Jackson, whose reflective “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” caught the attention of even a lot of non-country fans, who whispered to themselves: Out of the mouths of rubes …

You remember that song, don’t you? That’s the one that had a chorus that would have turned an MTV programmer into a pillar of salt. Let’s see, it went something like this:

“I’m just a singer of simple songs. I’m not a real political man. I watch CNN, but I’m not really sure I can tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran. But I know Jesus and I talk to God and I remember this from when I was young. Faith, hope and love are some good things he gave us, and the greatest of these is love.”

And all the people said: Amen.

You know, I think that Johnny Cash guy understood this stuff, too. Somebody ought to make a movie about that.

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Hat tip to Duin (two of them, in fact)

questionsBIG2One of the advantages of having a veteran reporter on the Godbeat is that they have long memories and they can spot key updates in ongoing stories. Here are two fine examples, in the recent work of Julia Duin at The Washington Times. Both of these stories are linked to one of the major U.S. religion trends of the past generation or two, the statistical implosion of what was once called mainline Protestantism.

• Remember those hot United Church of Christ ads that trumpeted this denomination’s more-inclusive-than-thou status on issues of sex, race, singleness, handicaps and who knows what all? The church on the left edge of American Protestantism is preparing another wave of ads, and Duin has a very informative interview with the Rev. Ron Buford about what is ahead in this drive to find a way to do liberal evangelism. Here is a sample:

Although evangelical Christian groups have boomed since the 1960s, mainline Protestant denominations have hemorrhaged members because of differences over women’s ordination, issues surrounding homosexuality, biblical interpretations and the importance of evangelism. After the UCC unearthed, through market research, an undercurrent of alienation among unchurched Americans toward church in general, it began playing up themes of inclusivity and acceptance.

“I consider ourselves evangelical, too,” Mr. Buford said, “but for a different market segment.”

The hook for Duin’s report is that other churches on the religious left are launching similar efforts, trying to reach beyond their aging demographics. (Our thanks to the Episcopal Diocese of Washington for granting permission to reproduce one of its ads in this post.)

• Speaking of Episcopalians, Duin (who has a degree from an evangelical Anglican seminary) latched on to a hot lead out there in cyberspace. It seems that someone connected to (or close to) the Episcopal Church leaked a key set of notes from an anti-traditionalist strategy session to someone who forwarded them to someone who carbon-copied (or blind carbon-copied) a set to the famous (or infamous) Anglican news-blogger David W. Virtue. The key question, of course, is this: Is the material real?

Duin quickly confirms that, along with the detail that plans are in fact underway to toss out as many as 16 conservative Episcopal bishops:

Informally named the “Day After” for the aftermath of the June 13-21 event, the strategy outlines a way to file canonical charges against conservative bishops, unseat them from their dioceses, have interim bishops waiting to replace them and draft lawsuits ready to file before secular courts for possession of diocesan property. The strategy was revealed in a leaked copy of minutes drafted at a Sept. 29 meeting in Dallas of a 10-member steering committee for Via Media, a network of 13 liberal independent Episcopal groups.

“It was a worst-case scenario — what people in various dioceses would need to do if their bishop and much of their diocesan leadership decided to walk away from the Episcopal Church,” said Joan Gundersen, the steering committee member who drafted the minutes. Conservatives also “have made statements to that effect,” she said.

Where in the world are the major dailies on this story? There are all kinds of explosive details in here, including Duin’s note that: “In July, about 20 liberal and conservative Episcopal bishops met secretly in Los Angeles to discuss how to divide billions in church assets in the event of a split.”

UPDATE: Doug LeBlanca participant in this Anglican story, and thus silent about it — tells me that the religious-press scoop on the Via Media story belongs to the venerable journal for Episcopalians called The Living Church. I will try to confirm that, if and when I can ever get the publication’s slow website to respond and let me read the story.

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Olbermann goes on floozy patrol

all about eveAs Terry pointed out this morning, E.J. Dionne has written that “It is pro-administration conservatives, not those terrible liberals, who are making an issue of Miers’s evangelical faith.”

Apparently Keith Olbermann of MSNBC hasn’t received the memo from the Office of Benevolent Liberalism. On Thursday night’s Countdown, while introducing a segment with the deadpan master Mo Rocca, Olbermann depicted Miers as a femme fatale who “[converted] to evangelism” for political reasons:

When he nominated her to the vacant position on the Supreme Court of these, the United States of America, President George W. Bush told the American people — quote — “I know her heart.”

What may have seemed more than a little creepy then now makes perfect sense. Our number one story on the Countdown tonight, Harriet Miers is a man killer. Yes, behind that seemingly bland exterior beats a rather potent heart, apparently, one capable of besting the competition, not only professionally, but also personally, Ms. Miers ultimately getting the nod here for the top spot here, despite [previous] speculation that it might go to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Priscilla Owen.

Poor Judge Owen. It’s not the first time she’s been one-upped by Harriet. It seems she once dated Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht. Along comes Harriet Miers. Before you know it, reports the blog Wonkette, Miers and Hecht were dating. She’s converting to evangelism. And a quarter of a century later, he’s making the rounds defending her nomination, Judge Hecht telling the . . . “Legal Times” that Miers is — quote — “very kind. She always remembers everyone’s birthday. She’ll be finding a present for somebody in the middle of the night.”

Before his next commentary on Miers’ faith and love life, perhaps Olbermann should consult The Associated Press Stylebook to grasp the difference between evangelical and evangelism. Then he can sound like he may know his subject matter while implying that Miers is an eyebrow-batting opportunist.

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Another dangerous appeal for balance

coppermug250x250 1 And now we return once again (cue: swirl of soapy organ music) to As Public Broadcasting Turns. That’s kind of what I hear inside my head whenever I read news reports about the ongoing tensions in the Corporation for Public Broadcasting linked to the work of chairman Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, who, reporters always remind us, had this strange idea that PBS and NPR lean to the left.

This, of course, is a ghost. While public broadcasting has its share of critics who are mere GOP politicos, NPR and PBS have also been criticized through the years for “liberal bias” on cultural and religious issues.

To make matters more complex, there is a solid and loyal progressive choir of listeners and viewers out there who sincerely like this progressive slant and feel quite possessive. So when NPR, for example, decides to reach out to a new demographic with an increased emphasis on religion news, these loyal listeners in the platinum-coffee-mug set tend to feel very uncomfortable.

Now, Tomlinson has stepped out of the line of fire and turned things over to yet another chairman, or chairperson, with conservative credentials — Cheryl F. Halpern. And, according to a report by Matea Gold and Johanna Neuman of the Los Angeles Times, she is already saying dangerous things. For example:

“Our goal, whether it’s in our support of educational children’s television, insightful features and documentaries, or entertainment that sparkles, is to make public broadcasting a haven for the mind and for the spirit,” Halpern said. “We have a duty to provide the public an explanation for the kind of work we do — and we must honor the principles clearly stated in our charter: to encourage objective and balanced programming.”

Uh-oh. Here we have another one of those appeals to “balance” and even “objectivity” in news reporting. (Note to those about to click “comment.” I like the word “balance,” but much prefer “fairness” instead of the word “objectivity,” a term that tends to lead into philosophical minefields.) Clearly, this is pro-conservative code language that could skew news reports toward the middle.

We can tell that this is dangerous code language, because the same point shows up again a few paragraphs later. Is Halpern some kind of fanatic?

“There has to be recognition that an objective, balanced code of journalistic ethics has got to prevail across the board, and there needs to be accountability,” she told the Senate Commerce Committee at her confirmation hearing in 2003, according to Current, a public broadcasting trade publication.

After the board meeting Monday, Halpern was pressed by reporters on whether she shared Tomlinson’s view of bias in the system. Halpern demurred, saying that two recently hired ombudsmen were now responsible for fielding such complaints. “We will not be intervening within programming,” she said.

I find it interesting that these references to “balance,” “bias” and “accountability” lead directly to the assumption that she might try to “intervene” in programming. Is the implication that she might seek new voices, new shows and more diversity? Or are the reporters suggesting that she might remove voices she considers “liberal”?

Horrors! Might she even offer new programs that take a balanced look at religious and cultural issues? Might we hear PBS- and NPR-worthy voices from the conservative side of religious sanctuaries?

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MoveOn’s lost opportunity?

SarahWestIn an interview with Noel Murray of The Onion‘s A.V. Club, the masterful documentary filmmaker Errol Morris vents that he could not interest MoveOn PAC in some of his anti-Bush ads. More specifically, he says MoveOn took a pass on commercials featuring pro-Kerry evangelical Christians:

I wish the ads could’ve been used. I kept thinking that the only way ads like this could be effective was to just blanket the markets with them. You don’t show one person, you show 50 people. Make it seem as though there’s a bandwagon. And one thing that really interested me is, I shot evangelical Christians, and MoveOn didn’t even put those in the mix! For reasons that, you know . . . I’m speechless. It was assumed that you can’t touch evangelical Christians. “Oh, they’re the Republican Right. Stay away from those people. Don’t even try to talk to them.” Well, what’s interesting is that there were evangelical Christians who were voting for Kerry. There were right-to-lifers who were voting for Kerry. And it’s interesting to listen to the reasons why. To ignore that segment of the electorate is moronic. Particularly if you don’t know who those people are, or what their concerns are.

Morris mentions that he has posted some of those commercials on his website. In the commercials posted under the category of Religion, only two people (Doug West and Sarah West) say they speak as evangelical Christians. Only one (Sarah West) mentions abortion:

I voted for President Bush in 2000, but you can’t just blindly follow someone because they say they are a Christian. You still have to use you mind and look at the evidence. I just don’t see integrity. I don’t see truthfulness. I just don’t see much evidence of a life devoted to Christ. I’m a Christian. I am against abortion, but I’m voting for John Kerry.

Deborah Wood, identified as a lifelong Republican, objects to Bush’s claim that God is on the side of freedom, which Wood reduces to “God is on our side.”

Bob Scott, also identified as a lifelong Republican, takes umbrage at the idea that Bush would ask God for guidance on any policy, which Scott believes means that “[Bush] thinks he is speaking for God.”

It’s too bad MoveOn chose not to air Morris’ commercials. Free speech, especially about politics, is an inherent good, and political nonconformists certainly are more interesting than people who remain undecided until election day. And it would have been entertaining to figure out whether those commercials changed the minds of more than a few hundred people.

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Do black Christians need to be angry?

image003It’s a challenge, in the print context of GetReligion, to do much reporting about the content of broadcast media. We can, of course, look forward to the day of expanded websites in which networks offer interactive print versions of the features that they broadcast in audio and video forms. We are seeing this happen more and more.

Nevertheless, religion-beat reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty at National Public Radio just served up a report that offered a totally new (at least to me) take on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. To hear it, click here and fire up the RealAudio player. Here is the brief description of the report from the NPR homepage:

All Things Considered, September 19, 2005 — For African Americans watching Hurricane Katrina unfold on TV, the need to help was especially pressing. But anger has often accompanied that desire to help, and many black churches are struggling to both provide immediate aid and to help black Americans confront the bigger issues the storm raises.

That’s one way to put it, and the key word is “anger,” because the MSM’s storyline post-Katrina has been built on that emotion. But Hagerty’s reporting digs into a not-so-subtle split within the African-American church.

She starts in a logical place — the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church here in Washington, D.C., which calls itself “The Cathedral of African Methodism.” The church responded to the TV coverage of Katrina by quickly rounding up $20,000 in donations and 45,000 pounds of goods and shipping them off to Mississippi in an 18-wheeler.

This is not a big surprise, notes Haggerty, because studies show that black believers regularly give 25 percent more of their discretionary income to charities — especially church causes — than whites. The church aid flowed straight to needy people, while many other agencies were briefly stalled by forms and interview procedures.

This is where the anger comes in.

Many of the church people making these donations were, of course, moved by the images of black people suffering in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region. They got mad and this motivated them. As the Rev. Ronald E. Braxton said of the storm’s fallout: “I hope that it keeps us angry, that it keeps us on alert against forces that dismantle people.”Bishop T D  Jakes and the Potters House Mass Choir   A Wing and a Prayer

But is prophetic — even political — anger the best, or the most constructive, stance for the black church to take today?

The word “today” is key, because right now that anger would be focused on President George W. Bush. Thus, the issue looming in Haggerty’s report is black church anger at other black church leaders who focus on a more positive, conciliatory approach to working with, and correcting, this White House. The big, and I mean big, example of this is Bishop T.D. Jakes at The Potter’s House in Dallas. He recently drew a big spotlight speaking at the National Cathedral service to remember those lost in Katrina. This meant he shared a spotlight, by default, with Bush.

As Haggerty notes, all of this raises a big question: “Who speaks for the black church and what kind of message will it have?”

Oh, and will those voters stay angry and solidly Democratic?

P.S. There might be a link between this story and another lurking just over the horizon (and I don’t mean Hurricane Rita). Click here and let me know what you think.

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Who’s calling who a “traditional evangelical”?

OK, I tried hard on my latest Pat Robertson post to keep things short, so I had better jump in here online (I am still in Chicago during some lectures) and address one or two concerns of readers who could see some of the holes created by my brevity.

How about Thomas Oden, Luke Timothy Johnson, Al Mohler, Mark D. Roberts, John Piper, Mark Noll, John Stott, R.C. Sproul, Paul Zahl, Alister Begg, John MacArthur, just for starters?
Posted by VaAnglican at 7:33 am on September 18, 2005pats

Fine list, with lots of good names. I was not trying, with my collection over at Poynter, to create any kind of definitive resource list. Instead, I was trying to suggest a range of options in terms of groups, gender, culture, skills, etc.

When reporters and broadcast producers research stories, one of the goals is supposed to be to find people who bring specific skills or fresh insights to the topic at hand. You see this a lot in niche-cable-news land on the left. You get serious or funny activists, you get young brilliant academics, you get behind-the-scenes powers who are not yet public names and so forth and so on. On the right you often get — Pat Robertson or another elderly white alpha male. I was trying to suggest that journalists could, with some digging, discover a range of traditional Christians of various pews who are experts on many different kinds of topics. Some are even pithy.

I also wonder if the other reason the Evangelical elite is afraid of criticizing Robertson is that it was Robertson who mobilized the first wave of religious conservatives to become involved in elective politics. The Robertson presidential campaign was a watershed among religiuos conservatives, and the elites owe his a debt.
Posted by Michael at 9:59 am on September 18, 2005

Yes, Robertson’s Don Quixote campaign was a major event for some evangelicals.

But even then, there was major opposition to Robertson among evangelicals, and some of the most telling criticism (even news coverage) of his campaign came from other evangelicals. I am thinking, in particular, of the trailblazing work by columnist Michael McManus digging into Robertson’s fundraising techniques. For a flashback on that issue, click here.

Why do VaAnglican and Terry’s lists of “representative Evangelicals” include non-Protestants, protestants who do and do not think “Fundamentalist” is a bad word, protestant mainliners, and reformed protestants who do not really regard themselves as evangelicals? . . .
Posted by +G.J. at 12:32 pm on September 18, 2005

I never said anything about “traditional evangelicals,” did I? Where did I use that phrase?

This is the essence of my complaint in the original piece. Robertson does represent a certain shrinking niche of the wider charismatic Protestant world. He has his niche. But year after year, he is held up as a major voice in the wider world of cultural conservatism and for Christians in general. He is propped up as a spokesman for many, many people who have never claimed him.

Thus, I said that my Poynter list offered a collection of interesting people who might serve as quotable sources for journalists looking for feedback from “traditional Christians” — not “evangelicals” or any narrower term. I also said that journalists needed fresh lists for the Christian left, Judaism and many other groups. It’s a tough and complex news beat, folks.

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