Memory eternal, media eternal

Howard Kurtz is already up with a roundup of the final media issues in the Terri Schiavo case. Lots of links to people on the right as well as the left, but the emphasis once again is on the pundits. It you want another blast of the “I know what Terri Schiavo would have wanted” opinion, then by all means click here and read it. I expect more and more coverage now on the pope’s feeding tube as the press moves on to the next story. Reporter Daniel Williams at The Washington Post is already listening to the Catholic debates and, no surprise, finds that some are already not-so-gently asking if this pope is being a good Catholic at this moment. The key: Please help GetReligion spot the good and the bad in the hard news coverage in the next 48 hours or so. Let us hear from you.

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Let's play "Spot the loaded verb"

Reuters religion editor Tom Heneghan has just used one of those verbs that taints an entire news story. At least, I think that “Pope’s ‘Living Will’ Wants Life Support to the End” is supposed to be a hard news story about the implications of a major papal address. Then again there is this: “The Catholic Church has traditionally taught that doctors and families could end artificial life-extending measures in good conscience if a dying patient’s prospects seemed hopeless. John Paul, who has long railed against a ‘culture of death’ he saw in abortion and artificial birth control, surprised moral theologians in a speech in March 2004 by insisting Catholics can no longer make such decisions even in extreme cases.” Whoa! Spot the loaded verb?

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The Miracle Detective outs a believer

sullivan-miracle_detective.jpgDuring the 25 years or so I have been studying the religion beat, I have read more than my share of stories and statistics about media bias. It is still a subject that makes headlines several times a year, with roots running deep into the world of politics as well as religion.

But every now and then you run into someone whose take on this whole, tired, nasty topic breaks new ground. There is something about their experience that transcends the stereotypes and gives us a glimpse of the larger reality — which is that religious faith, in and of itself, drives lots of people in the MSM absolutely nuts. Traditional, ancient forms of religious faith are even worse.

Take, for example, the story of Rolling Stone scribe Randall Sullivan — author of several well-received works of contemporary journalism. He is also the author of The Miracle Detective, a (to me) remarkable volume in which he investigates the Roman Catholic authorities who investigate miracle stories.

What’s the problem? Sullivan tells the story in a first-person essay in Points, the weekly commentary magazine at The Dallas Morning News. It’s edited by friend of this blog Rod Dreher. Here is how Sullivan begins:

When my book The Miracle Detective was published last spring, I felt as if I had come out of the closet. I wasn’t revealing some secret sexual identity, but rather violating a more contemporary taboo — the one against making a public statement about private experiences that result in religious faith.

This prohibition is especially powerful in my particular workplace environment, where the term “religious nut” is a redundancy. If there’s one thing that the vast majority of my colleagues can agree upon, it’s that nobody in his or her right mind would join the ranks of the devout, at least not openly. Churchgoers, after all, are so obviously pathetic, so patently deluded, so totally uncool.

And there I was identifying myself as the worst of this sort, not only writing sympathetically about miraculous claims and mystical experiences, but actually making it clear that my investigation of such phenomena had resulted in a profound respect for certain reports of supernatural contact. My greatest folly, though, was to describe my own numinous moments and how they led me to convert to Christianity.

You have to read the whole essay, if only to enjoy the bittersweet humor of Sullivan — a longtime political progressive — getting stiffed at a reading when he refuses to mock the faith of President George W. Bush. Then there’s his visit to the Air America program of Janeane Garofalo.

Well, at least someone in Hollywood liked the book. There are, after all, lots of theaters in red zip codes. I wonder if it is Icon Productions that is considering bringing The Miracle Detective to the big screen.

And what is the bottom line in this story? Here is Sullivan again:

I was discovering something a lot of people on the right already understand very well, and that is the depth and breadth of America’s cultural divide, especially when it comes to religion. Back when Publishers Weekly praised The Miracle Detective as the rare book “that should appeal to believers and skeptics alike,” I imagined I could bridge this divide. I had a lot to learn.

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Of voices and tubes

SufferingJPII.jpgBoy was this ever a bad time for the Vatican to release the news that complications from the pope’s tracheotomy have made it so difficult to swallow that he must have a feeding tube inserted.

According to a story in The Times of London, the pope appeared at his study’s window today and visibly “struggled once more to bless thousands of pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square.”

He made the sign of the cross silently and then tried to speak, but his words “were not clear,” The Times reports. “It was a Vatican official who read out greetings and prayers.”

This followed his Easter appearance, when John Paul II attempted the address an audience, failed, and banged his fist on the podium out of anger.

Stateside, Terri Schiavo continues to linger. Who knew one could live so long without water?

Over at Reason magazine, Boston Globe columnist Cathy Young wrote that while she doesn’t think the Taliban and the “religious right” are a one-to-one match, the latter are “about as close to a Taliban as you can have in modern American society. These are people who really do want the state to enforce their vision of ‘what God wants.’”

This prompted Reason managing editor Jesse Walker to reply, “If anything, the forces of dehydration are even more of a headache. At least pro-lifers — not all of whom are from the religious right — know that they’re on a moral crusade.”

By contrast,

Much of the pro-death side pretends that they’re neutral bystanders who don’t want to “interfere” with a family’s private business, even as they actively argue for one side of the family dispute. They say they want to respect the woman’s wishes, even as [they] refer more readily to what they’d want for themselves in such a situation. And they warn gravely of a slippery slope to theocracy, without pausing to wonder whether there are any other slippery slopes to worry about.

He then linked to a piece in the Catholic magazine Voices in which a registered nurse offered a scenario that Walker judged to be “a lot more plausible than any American Taliban nightmare.”

The picture was of a soft, suffocating, ever-evolving consensus between doctors and medical ethicists to refuse to offer treatment to ever more patients whose chances they judge to be futile — and not in the classical understanding of the word.

“Instead,” the nurse wrote, some medical ethicists now “argue for a new definition of futility to overrule patients and/or families on a case-by-case basis based on the doctor’s and/or ethicist’s determination of the ‘patient’s best interest.’”

Regarding National Post columnist Colby Cosh’s latest fusillade on the Terri Schiavo matter, let me just say he reaches a remarkably churlish conclusion based upon one angry, misinformed e-mail.

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Shocking! Easter praise for The Palm Beach Post

empty_tomb2.jpgRegular readers of GetReligion may recall that I am not a big fan of my local daily newspaper, The Palm Beach Post. I could cite a number of past complaints, but we will settle for this one (a rant about what I believe is the weakest weekly religion-beat column in America).

However, I appreciate the work of Elizabeth Clarke, the newspaper’s actual religion-news specialist. The problem is that her work is rarely featured by the Post and she is often — sadly — not part of the coverage team for controversial stories about religion and culture. There is more that I could say, based on my interaction with religious leaders in Palm Beach County, but I will leave it at that. The bottom line: If you have a good religion writer, turn her loose.

This past weekend, Clarke had a quartet of stories in the Accent pages based on a simple Easter-weekend theme, captured in the simple headline: “Resurrected lives.” That’s the whole headline. The package deserved more promotion.

The basic idea was to let four Christian believers tell moving, human stories of how they once were lost and now are found. In one case, Bob Teresi went from drug pusher and abuser to playing Jesus in a local Passion play. While watching just such a drama when his life turned around.

. . . (The) crucifixion scene got him.

“As they nailed him to the cross and I could hear the thud, thud, thud, that was the turning point,” he says.

He left with a desire to learn more and he kept going back. When the church Christmas pageant came around that year, Teresi was asked to play Jesus.

“I said, ‘Well, that church has lost it if they think this cat’s going to do that,’ ” he recalls thinking. “I don’t act.”

It’s not a simple story, it just seems that way since it is told in his own words.

The other stories share many common themes. In the case of Father Justin Foster, I knew some of the details since the second-, or third-career Orthodox priest is a friend of mine. He found his faith once again while working in Saudi Arabia, far from the pain of his divorce and earlier life in Hollywood. He ended up in a monastery and, now, leads an Orthodox Church in America mission parish in Palm Beach County.

. . . (Amid) all the symbols and rituals, he’s finally so comfortable in his ancient faith. “It’s a daily journey,” he says. “You have to, every morning, start again. It’s almost like the AA program because we’re all sinners.”

This is not hard news. But sometimes the big religion stories are linked to the quiet, daily details of life — the little miracles that don’t show up on page one. In evangelical circles these stories are called “testimonies.”

Many newspaper leaders are trying to find new, authentic voices of faith to feature in the news pages. This is one way to do it, offering people of different faiths a chance to tell their stories — with little editing. Here is my only fear: It is easy to demote religion from a public force, a public reality, down to a quiet, personal, totally subjective subject with a tiny footprint in hard news.

When that happens, the news is warped. Truth is, millions of people take their private beliefs into the public square. Journalists have to find a way to tell those stories, as well.

But kudos to Clarke for these quiet, personal, yet effective Easter features.

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Hymns abide

SingingCongregants.jpgOn Palm Sunday I visited a mission congregation that’s largely on my theological wavelength. I would have felt entirely at home if sound theology alone made for rewarding worship.

Then I encountered what has become a common problem on the Anglican Right: substandard music. When the priest was about three-fourths of the way through the traditional Palm Sunday Gospel reading — the lengthy description of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and his trial before Pilate — I suddenly heard the sort of doleful and mawkish harmonica-playing that would occur around a bonfire at summer camp.

This caused two immediate thoughts for me: “What the hell?” and “Oh, please, don’t let this be what I think it is.”

Once the Gospel reading was done, the congregation sang through a Taize chant (“Jesus, remember me”), and then the harmonica solo returned. Even if the solo had been played in the style of the beloved Bob Dylan, I would have considered it a distraction from the point of the Gospel.

The Daily Telegraph brings welcome news about a survey of people who watch the BBC series Songs of Praise. The headline says it best: “Traditional songs beat the ‘happy clappers’ hands down in search for Britain’s best hymns.”

Michael Wakelin, the show’s executive producer, offers an explanation filled with good old British common sense:

“It takes a long time for a hymn to settle into the national consciousness,” he said. “For a classic hymn you need a very substantial piece of music and a very substantial piece of poetry. I think modern hymns will take their place eventually, but they are battling with the likes of Charles Wesley.”

And there’s an interesting political thread running through the story, offering a contrast between a tut-tutting bishop and a conservative politician who has her priorities straight:

The shortlist is likely to prove highly controversial — not least because of the much-loved songs that have not made it to the final round of voting. We Plough The Fields And Scatter and All Things Bright and Beautiful, among the most performed songs in Britain, both failed to make the final list. By contrast, Jerusalem and I Vow To Thee My Country, which many worshippers contend are not hymns, made it to the final 20. Originally entitled Fight for the Right, Jerusalem was a favourite of the suffragette movement and has subsequently become the anthem of the Women’s Institute.

But I Vow To Thee My Country has actually been banned in some churches. In August the Bishop of Hulme, the Rt Rev Stephen Lowe, asked local churches to prohibit it because it expressed “inappropriate sentiments for Christians to hold”.

He said the hymn was a “dangerous” example of rising English nationalism.

Ann Widdecombe, the Conservative MP and a practising Catholic, said: “Strictly speaking, Jerusalem and I Vow to Thee My Country are not hymns. But I am not particularly dismayed that they are on the list. I think I Vow to Thee My Country is there because it is one of the very few outlets for patriotism which we still have left in the country.”

Miss Widdecombe’s favourite, How Great Thou Art, which was inspired by a Swedish folk melody, made the list.

“It is about the majesty of God,” she said. “It is not petitioning or asking for anything, it is merely celebrating God’s glory.”

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Chasing the Monitor

Perhaps The Christian Science Monitor did have a hot story in post-election Iraq. At least, the Los Angeles Times has followed up with a major story, with the headline: “Iraq’s Sunni Arabs Seek Their Voice.” Reporter Richard Boudreaux notes: “The chief, Mazin Jaber Nima, said the Sunni Arab-led insurgency against American troops would falter if Sunni Arabs joined in the U.S.-backed creation of a new political order. Applause filled the Babylon Hotel’s ballroom, but the next speaker was undeterred. “The subject today is how to represent the Sunni people in the political process,” argued Sheik Isam Sheikhli. “Do we do it with slogans? If we go on like this, we will not achieve a thing.” Uh, is it just me or is the time element rather weak in this story? When was this?

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You knew this was coming

I meant to put this up earlier, but decided not to double up on the Rt. Rev. LeBlanc’s latest Ashley Smith post. Veteran USA Today religion scribe Cathy Lynn Grossman landed the interview that everyone knew was coming sooner or later — with Purpose-Driven Pastor Rick Warren. As it turns out, he has been counseling Smith via telephone and email, although that took some doing since he was in Africa. Africa is also the beneficiary of many, many of the dollars he has earned with his best-selling books. There are other crisp details in the story, which can be found in the Christianity Today weblog guide to the Smith story. Here is a choice quote from Grossman’s short but newsy story: “Warren steered any credit back to God and the Bible. “There’s not a single new thought in Purpose-Driven Life that hasn’t been said in historic Christianity or Judaism. I’m just a communicator for the 21st century.”

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