Search Results for: Fundamentalist, Stylebook

She blinded me with history

baptismofJesusNewsweek‘s Lisa Miller wrote an article for the May 21 issue that looks at the new book on Jesus by Pope Benedict XVI. Newsweek apparently had an exclusive excerpt of the book and Miller did an article about the book’s meaning, a portion of which dealt with Jesus’ baptism:

[T]he pope explicates Jesus’ baptism by John–a story that appears in all four Gospel accounts and that modern historians believe is at least partially grounded in fact.

This is just choice, if I may borrow one of my favorite words from elementary school. So “modern historians” believe that the baptism of Jesus is “at least partially grounded in fact”? Well that is certainly noteworthy to include in a story like this! What parts are we to believe, oh holy and infallible “modern historians”? Does that sentence even mean anything? Since when could historians even come to consensus on something like this? And on what basis? Who are these historians and why aren’t we told more about them? Are these Jesus Seminar types? Are these the ones who figured out Lincoln was gay? But beyond that, it is just so weird that Miller thinks some odd partial-verification of a story by “modern historians” is really key to understanding or shedding light on Benedict’s book. As if two millennia of systematic theology are really affected by what someone in that bastion of consistency and integrity — the academy — has to say about it. Sigh.

(Benedict is notably silent, though, on the Baptist as an apocalyptic preacher and on the probability that Jesus also believed that the world was about to end in flames. In a discussion elsewhere in “Jesus of Nazareth,” Benedict goes to lengths to show that when Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” he didn’t mean the apocalypse. What he meant, the pope writes, is that “God is acting now–this is the hour when God is showing himself in history as its Lord.” This interpretation may be profound and in keeping with Benedict’s Christ-centered message; it is not, many scholars would say, historically accurate.)

Again, what? Jesus probably wasn’t referring to his own life, death and resurrection when he referred to the Kingdom of God being at hand? And Jesus probably believed the world was “about” to “end in flames”? What does that even mean? And how does she figure that Jesus believed this at all, much less say he did so with any degree of probability? And who in the heck are these “many” scholars who say that Benedict’s view — the orthodox Christian view, I might add — is historically inaccurate? And where can I find an editor who lets me use the word “many” to describe anything in any story? Much less anything of import?

Moving on:

What of the next part of the story? The part where Jesus rises from the water, the heavens part, the Spirit descends on his shoulders (in the shape of a dove) and God’s voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Does Benedict believe, as the fundamentalists do, that this literally happened?

Oh. No. She. Didn’t. Fundamentalists? Um, what? And yes, I hope you do see that I’m rather unable to respond to the complete lack of understanding here. When you’re talking about the Pope, is it better to compare his completely orthodox thoughts on the baptism of Christ “literally” happening to those of fundamentalists (that word! Gah!) or, say, every single one of his predecessors in the Pope seat? The presence of fundamentalists — a rather modern theological group — in this story makes no sense to me. As readers of this blog know, fundamentalist was a term used in the 1910s and 1920s to describe a specific type of religious believer in Britain and the United States who emphasized so-called “fundamentals” of the faith. The AP Stylebook says that reporters should not use the word unless they are using it to describe a group or individual that also uses the term to describe itself. But could someone explain why that group is included in a story about Benedict’s book?

Also, this snide and condescending mainstream media incredulity at the notion that Christians might actually believe that the baptism of Jesus took place as described in all four Gospels is just beyond words. I think more than a few barrels of ink have been shed over this very important moment. Unless Newsweek has only graduated to the journalistic equivalent of Chris Hitchens still expressing shock that billions of very backwards people believe in the transcendent. I mean, is that really news? That Christians believe Jesus to be divine? That Christians believe in the Triune God? For real? I mean, talk about your fundamentals!

Now what’s most disconcerting about this whole mess is that Lisa Miller is Newsweek‘s religion editor. I know that Newsweek is fond of that whole opinion-journalism-masquerading-as-regular-reportage shtick, but this piece reads like it was written by someone with disdain for orthodox Christianity and, much worse, not enough knowledge of the basic topics at hand. It reminds me of that horrible Newsweek International piece on Benedict a few weeks ago. Is that what the magazine is going for? Why?

A ‘fundamental’ problem in ‘B.C.’ obits

BChart1All together now. Please take out your copy of The Associated Press Stylebook and turn to page 213 (in the edition currently on my desk) or look up the “religious movements” reference.

There you will find the following, which has been quoted many times here at GetReligion:

fundamentalist The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians. In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

I have been planning to bring this up all week because of MSM coverage of the death of cartoonist Johnny Hart, but have been delayed by sickness, academic work and various online issues.

Thus, it is no surprise that a journalistic friend of this weblog, Frank “Bible Belt Blogger” Lockwood at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette beat me to it. Here is a part of what he had to say:

A reminder to the New York Times and the Washington Post — Many American Christians consider the terms “fundamentalist” and “fundamentalism” to be pejorative. In the 1910s and 1920s, the term referred to a Christian who believed in the “fundamentals” of the faith — the Virgin Birth of Christ, his sinless life, his atoning death, his bodily resurrection and his second coming in the clouds of glory.

Since then, however, the term “fundamentalist” has been hijacked. Today, it is an insult, a slur, a code word the Manhattan media and others use to marginalize people. It’s not nice to call someone a fundamentalist when they’re alive. It’s even worse to use the term in an obituary.

Here’s the key paragraph in the Times, located at the end of a piece by Charles McGrath titled “An Appraisal — Johnny Hart and His Wham-Wham World”:

In his later years, Mr. Hart’s religious fundamentalism got him into hot water more than once as he insisted on incorporating Gospel messages into his strips, most famously one that depicted a menorah morphing into a cross. But his literalism also enabled a kind of comic daring in which he could imagine his cavemen playing baseball and football, worrying about Noah and the flood, wisecracking about 21st-century dining habits. They lived in an eternal present that was also a kind of prehistoric paradise.

Note the word “insisted,” which is a strange thing to say about the work of an artist who never hid what he believed and, come to think of it, named the cartoon strip in question “B.C.” — which stands for “Before Christ.”

Meanwhile, over at the Post, Adam Bernstein included the following reference:

For a strip whose tone was lighthearted, “B.C” suddenly became controversial in the 1990s when Mr. Hart included themes influenced by his fundamental Christianity and literal interpretation of the Bible. He did so sparingly, often around holy days, but its inclusion was perceived by many readers as making him far more frank about Christianity than any of his mainstream contemporaries.

Some newspapers canceled the strip. Others, including The Post, pulled it selectively. On at least one occasion, the Los Angeles Times relocated it to the religion page. The Times initially canceled the strip — scheduled to run on Palm Sunday 1996 — showing Wiley drafting a poem about Jesus’s suffering on the cross.

bc easter2And so forth and so on.

There is no question that Hart was a controversial figure, and it is easy to find fierce and often valid debate about some of his statements, debate in which he stood his ground. Hart was also one of the most popular cartoonists alive, if one considers the number of newspapers that carried his work. His work pleased millions of people, and it offended many as well.

So be it. The obvious point is that free speech is free speech and Hart had as much right to defend traditional Christianity as other cartoonists have the right to attack it, something that happens rather frequently in modern media.

The journalistic question, however, is more basic. What do the editors at these newspapers think the word “fundamentalist” means? Is the mere defense of the ancient Christian belief that salvation is found through Jesus alone enough for a person to be labeled a “fundamentalist”? Do journalists have a right to redefine words in this manner, even when guides to journalistic style and ethics urge them not to do so?

Thus, let me echo Lockwood and note that the leader of The New York Times has already voiced his concern about this issue. Remember that 2005 memo by editor Bill Keller to his staff?

Too often we label whole groups from a perspective that uncritically accepts a stereotype or unfairly marginalizes them. As one reporter put it, words like moderate or centrist “inevitably incorporate a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme.” We often apply “religious fundamentalists,” another loaded term, to political activists who would describe themselves as Christian conservatives.

By the way, before I end, let me note that I thought the Associated Press piece on Hart by Mary Esch was very newsy and fair and the Los Angeles Times piece by Claire Noland was also quite good, which is important in light of that newspaper’s role in the disputes over the cartoonist’s work. Noland wrote:

Cartoonist Johnny Hart, who created the popular Stone Age comic strip “B.C.” and generated controversy in recent years with overtly religious themes reflecting his evangelical Christian beliefs, died Saturday, the day before Easter. He was 76. …

Hart began imparting Christian messages, especially at Christmas and Easter, in the 1980s, after experiencing a religious conversion. Some Jewish, Muslim and secular readers complained to newspapers and to the syndicate, saying his views were offensive or inappropriate for the comics page and better suited for the op-ed pages.

But many Christian readers gave overwhelmingly positive reaction to his unapologetic statements, and free speech advocates spoke up for his right to express himself.

And all the people (hopefully not just conservatives) said, “Amen.”

A sermon on journalism: Let us attend

cpulpit4Please hang in there with me as I continue to do some post-Key West forum housekeeping.

GetReligion readers who are interested in debates about Associated Press style, the history of American religion and the future of newspapers may want to click here and head over to my latest column for the ethics and diversity team at that online newsroom water cooler operated by the Poynter Institute.

I admit that the style of this one is a bit strange and even preachy. Thus, the headline that they provided: “Literal Evangelism: A Sermon on Language, Usage and Religion in the News.”

Here’s how I started things off:

The readings for today’s sermon are from Billy Graham, Bill Keller and The Associated Press Stylebook.

Let us attend.

If you go to the Poynter.org site, you’ll find quite a few URLs in this column and themes that will sound familiar to frequent GetReligion readers.

Please remember that this column is written to an audience of professional journalists and I am trying to make a case for some fundamental values in the craft of newswriting. This is, to use Jay Rosen’s way of talking, an example of a journalist (that would be me) trying to preach the old-time religion to the journalism choir. I freely admit that, inside the modern tent, there are strong debates going on about some of these old doctrines. But it is still acceptable to preach about the basics.

I won’t bore you with the whole thing, but here’s a summary statement that gives you a good idea of what I’m up to.

Words have great power in the world of religion. However, there is a problem: Many religious leaders do not agree on what many of the powerful words mean. As Graham noted, it may be impossible — in clear, historical terms — to define words that are used all the time in religious and mainstream media.

What does the word “church” mean to a Southern Baptist? What does the word “Church” mean to a Roman Catholic? A “bishop” in the United Methodist Church is not the same thing as an Episcopal bishop, or an Eastern Orthodox bishop, or an AME Zion bishop, or a Catholic bishop, or a Pentecostal Holiness bishop or, come to think of it, a Mormon bishop.

I could go on and on. Define “marriage.” Define “sin.” Give three examples.

This is complicated stuff. … Many religious believers are convinced that journalists do not have well-developed vocabularies, when it comes to the rites and the wrongs of religious doctrines, rituals, history and traditions. It’s hard to do a good job, journalistically speaking, when you are not getting many of the words right.

Journalists also like to use certain words to describe people they respect, or with whom they agree. This works the other way around, too. One person’s “evangelical” is another person’s “fundamentalist.” One person’s “moderate” is another’s “liberal.” The public is convinced that our labels are clues to our biases.

We cannot avoid labels, in hard-news reporting. Thus, I suggest that we strive not to attempt to read people’s minds. We must strive to let people describe their own beliefs and do our best to report their words as accurately as possible. We must try to let people label themselves.

The goal is to report unto others as we would like them to report unto us.

More “moderate” than thou (Rumble III)

home leftcol imageRemember that soul-searching June 23, 2005, memo that New York Times editor Bill Keller wrote to his staff? This was the one called “Assuring Our Credibility” (PDF) that talked about the newspaper needing to do a better job of covering religion and being fair to people whose beliefs seem strange to people who work in the world’s most powerful newsroom.

I like that memo — a lot. I also think that Keller was rather brave to write it. Here is one of my favorite passages, talking about the work of a committee that is trying to help the newspaper work on its faults and build bridges to its critics. Keller writes:

We must … be more alert to nuances of language when writing about contentious issues. The committee picked a few examples — the way the word “moderate” conveys a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme, the misuse of “religious fundamentalists” to describe religious conservatives — but there are many pitfalls involved when we try to convey complex ideas as simply as possible, on deadline.

GetReligion readers already know how this blog feels about the abuse of the term “fundamentalist,” as defined in The Associated Press Stylebook. So let’s not linger there.

But what about that “moderate” problem? It does seem that, in many religious and cultural disputes, there are “conservatives,” “evangelicals” and “fundamentalists” who are forever wrestling with intelligent, sensible people called “moderates.” There are no “liberals” in sight.

Which brings us back to the Episcopal Diocese of California and its election this weekend in San Francisco of Mark H. Andrus, the bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Alabama, as the new leader of one of the most liberal regions in the U.S. Episcopal Church. There was a somewhat surprising result, which ABC News captured in a rather blunt headline atop a Reuters report: “Heterosexual elected Episcopal Bishop of Calif.”

At the New York Times, reporter Neela Banerjee continued to cover this story, noting that the diocese did elect a straight white male, but one who had bravely stood up for gay rights in the heart of the Bible Belt. So this landslide in Grace Cathedral (photo) was a cautious win for the Episcopal left. Here is a summary:

Bishop Andrus, 49, was not one of the gay candidates. … Nonetheless, in an acceptance statement via a phone call piped into Grace Cathedral, where the voting was taking place, Bishop Andrus said he would continue to support the full inclusion of gay men and lesbians in the church.

“We must all understand, and here I address the Diocese of California and those listening from elsewhere, that your vote today remains a vote for inclusion and communion — of gay and lesbian people in their full lives as single or partnered people, of women, of all ethnic minorities, and all people,” Bishop Andrus said, referring to continuing in the Anglican Communion, which has about 77 million members worldwide. “My commitment to Jesus Christ’s own mission of inclusion is resolute.”

So this election did nothing to bring peace in the global Anglican Communion, but it did not make matters immediately worse. You can find a similar template in the solid stories featured in the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.

mitre2But before we go, let’s reflect on a passing remark near the end of that Banerjee report, which included fleeting references to other Episcopal elections taking place across America this weekend.

Take the race for a key mitre down in the Bible Belt, for example:

In the Diocese of Tennessee … voting for a new bishop ended in a stalemate on Saturday after more than 30 ballots. Lay delegates backed a conservative minister who they hoped would take the diocese out of the Episcopal Church, and clergy members backed a more moderate choice, said the Rev. William Sachs, director of research for the Episcopal Foundation, the church’s analysis arm.

There are several loaded wordings in that paragraph. It is possible that this “conservative” candidate believes that it’s more important in the long run to keep the Nashville diocese in the global Anglican Communion (majority conservative, on moral theology) than in the U.S. body currently called the Episcopal Church (majority liberal, on moral theology). However, one can be sure that the use of the “moderate” label here — outside of a direct quote — is loaded. The analysis is, after all, coming from the head of the analysis office for the New York City-based Episcopal hierarchy.

And that would certainly sound right to the New York Times. So here is the question for Keller the editor. Does the New York City Episcopal establishment get to determine who is in the “moderate” camp?

P.S. No sign, as of yet, of the Times publishing a correction on Banerjee’s earlier story, which reported that the Anglican Communion (77 million members) is the world’s second largest church, as opposed to the Eastern Orthodox Christian communion (250 million members).

The Times speaks: “No miracles allowed”

“The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”

This is, of course, the famous credo used time and time again by the late Dr. Carl Sagan. What has always fascinated me about this statement is its open use of religious — even creedal — form and its willingness to launch beyond the rules of science and into a kind of anti-theology.

How, in a lab, can one prove under the rules of science that the material world is all there is? How does one run scientific experiments in the past? And how in the world does one claim to be able to test the future?

Sagan knew what he was doing, of course. I had a chance to ask him about it. He knew his famous Cosmos series was making an argument that the scientific evidence backed up these sweeping truth claims that carried him far outside the rules of research. He believed he had the facts on his side and, thus, he was willing to make a leap of faith from facts to a larger philosophy. Then he became an evangelist for this philosophical point of view.

I was reminded of Sagan while reading the massive New York Times series on how the priesthood of modern science is responding to the rebels gathered under the banner of Intelligent Design. Click here to go to a clearinghouse page for all of the Gray Lady’s efforts on this issue in the recent past.

Clearly we are in the midst of a blitz. Cages have been rattled.

As I have stated before, I try to stay on the fringes of this issue because I have so many close friends who are at the heart of it. So take what I say here with a grain of salt. It should also be noted that the scope of this Times series is so large that it would take days to respond to it point by point.

On the whole, I think it is a rather mixed bag. There is some give and take by the most intelligent voices on each side of the debate and that is a good thing. I am sure the powers that be in the newsroom believe it is a totally balanced package. For example, the reports do stress that the ID leaders are, if anything, trying to increase the amount of attention evolution is given in the classroom, not ban the theory. They simply want students exposed to the debates that are already taking place within the scientific community. They also do not think the religious implications of these debates — on either side of the table — should be included in public classrooms. The ID leaders want this to be a scientific discussion. However, this would apply to Darwinian philosophy as well as to deism or theism.

I digress. There are times in the Times, however, when it is clear that the scientific arguments at the heart of the story simply cannot be covered in depth in a newspaper series. When this happens, the Times uses this formula: The controversial religious people make this claim. The real scientists make this response, based on facts. That’s that. There is no need to let the critics respond to their critics.

At one key moment, reporter Jodi Wilgoren even slips into the old “fundamentalist” trap, violating logic, the facts and The Associated Press Stylebook all at the same time. Here is the context, speaking of the ID leaders:

Their credentials — advanced degrees from Stanford, Columbia, Yale, the University of Texas, the University of California — are impressive, but their ideas are often ridiculed in the academic world.

“They’re interested in the same things I’m interested in — no one else is,” Guillermo Gonzalez, 41, an astronomer at the University of Iowa, said of his colleagues at Discovery. “What I’m doing, frankly, is frowned upon by most of my colleagues. It’s not something a ‘scientist’ is supposed to do.” Other than Dr. Berlinski, most fellows, like their financiers, are fundamentalist Christians, though they insist their work is serious science, not closet creationism.

What does the word “fundamentalist” mean in this context, when speaking of a group that includes Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and a dozen other faith traditions? Why use this word? Is the goal to underline a basic assumption that one side uses faith and the other intellect?

Let me conclude by returning to Sagan. The various Times writers seem to glimpse, every now and then, the larger fact that Darwinian orthodoxy makes truth claims that are based on claims of logic as well as laboratory results. What they seem to miss is that the Intelligent Design people want to use the same sequence as Sagan. They believe that laboratory evidence and logic point to an unknown designer — something that cannot be tested in a lab by science. But what they also want people to note is that the ultimate claim made by many in the Darwinian priesthood also cannot be tested.

In academic circles, evolution has been defined as an “unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process . . . that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.”

The controversy centers on the words “unsupervised” and “impersonal.” That is the heart of this story. These are the words that Sagan and others cannot test in a laboratory, yet many still believe they are at the heart of all legitimate science. For, you see, any involvement whatsoever by a Divine Person — any meaningful role for a Creator — is called a miracle. That is bad. Millions and millions of taxpayers, representing (cue: Sagan voice) billions and billions of tax dollars, must be shown the light.

Thus, the Times notes:

. . . (M)ainstream scientists say that the claims of intelligent design run counter to a century of research supporting the explanatory and predictive power of Darwinian evolution, and that the design approach suffers from fundamental problems that place it outside the realm of science. For one thing, these scientists say, invoking a higher being as an explanation is unscientific.

“One of the rules of science is, no miracles allowed,” said Douglas H. Erwin, a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian Institution. “That’s a fundamental presumption of what we do.”

That does not mean that scientists do not believe in God. Many do. But they see science as an effort to find out how the material world works, with nothing to say about why we are here or how we should live. And in that quest, they say, there is no need to resort to otherworldly explanations.

Thus, one side gets to use the equation — science, logic, philosophy — but the other side does not. One side gets to make leaps of faith in the public square, but the other side does not. Rules are rules.

Dr. Sagan would be proud.

P.S. For a lively discussion of the terms that journalists are tossing about in this coverage, click here for a visit with William Safire.

Another win for vague “fundamentalism”

I have been mulling over a Los Angeles Times story about Iran for several days. I get stuck on something like this every now and then. I used to work on a copy desk.

Once again, I am upset about that troublesome word “fundamentalist” being used in a way that leaves it totally undefined. Here, for example, is the headline for the online version of reporter John Daniszewski’s report from Tehran: “Iran’s Runner-Up Puts Fundamentalists in Race.”

Then we have the first two paragraphs.

TEHRAN — From his childhood as the impoverished son of a blacksmith, to his youth as a student activist against the shah of Iran, to his manhood as a soldier fighting in Iraq, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has had a fierce attachment to Islam and to the teachings of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Now the 48-year-old appointed mayor of Tehran appears to have the backing of much of the military, fundamentalists and loyalists of the country’s supreme leader in a runoff election Friday with former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. If Ahmadinejad wins, it would be seen as a victory for the most fundamentalist wing of Iranian politics and a devastating setback for reformers.

Forget the outcome of the election for a minute or other recent developments. Just focus on the words. It would appear that “reformers” is the doctrinal word that is the mirror image of “fundamentalists.” Yet “fundamentalist” is defined, by context, as someone with a “fierce attachment to Islam.”

What am I missing? So, essentially, anyone who is unusually devoted to Islam is a “fundamentalist” and some who is not all that devoted is a “reformer”? So the word “fundamentalist” is bad, since it is against reform. Reform is good, since it involves a lack of strong belief in the historic doctrines of a particular faith?

“Fundamentalist” Catholic vs. “reform” Catholic? “Fundamentalist” Protestant vs. “reform” Protestant? “Fundamentalist” Anglicans vs. “reform” Episcopalians? This has all kinds of implications, doesn’t it?

So the goal of American policy — or at least the reporters covering it — is to prevent the rise of “fundamentalists” in the Islamic world and to encourage the “reformers” who are not as devout? What do Islamic religious leaders think of that? Maybe we don’t want to know the answer to that question.

Meanwhile, let us again meditate on these fading words in The Associated Press Stylebook:

fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians. In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

UPDATE: Election results are in. He won.

Newsweek takes a stab at Intelligent Design

DNA.jpgIt’s time for another one of those posts that begins with a disclaimer.

One of the hot Godbeat stories right now is the free speech controversy involving the science establishment and the rowdy band of intellectual rebels who promote what they call “Intelligent Design.” I have not written about this much because, for more than a decade, the patriarch of this movement — Berkeley law professor Phillip E. Johnson — has been a friend. As a result, I have only written a few columns on the subject and then only in cases when the focus of the story was very narrow and I ran the ideas past my editor first.

As a rule, the mainstream press divides these “evolution” wars into two camps.

On one side are the real scientists in the evolution establishment. It is interesting to note that many in this camp call themselves “theistic” evolutionists, even though this implies some role for a God or gods in creation. Thus, they do not believe that, in a classic statement of Darwinian orthodoxy: “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process which did not have him in mind.” In a strict academic battle, the term “theistic evolution” is an oxymoron.

On the other side are “Creationists” who sell fake science. They range from true fundamentalists to, strangely enough, people who believe in the gradual evolution of species over time, but believe there is scientific evidence — the kind that can be studied in a lab — that this process was too complicated to be random. These people want to see reporters draw a line between “Creationism” and “Intelligent Design.”

On one level, this is a debate about a issue that has not been addressed in the Associated Press Stylebook, but may need to be. On another level, it is simply an issue of trying to offer fair and accurate coverage of two conflicting points of view in a complex and heated debate. It is hard to write news stories that warriors on both sides are going to embrace as accurate, as opposed to favorable. The goal is for leaders on both sides to be able to read a story and say, “My words and point of view were reported accurately.” The goal is a fair fight.

Reporter Jerry Adler’s “Doubting Darwin” feature in Newsweek gets many parts of this debate right. It contains lively quotes from the usual suspects who say the usual things. But major problems arise, right in the lead:

When Joshua Rowand, an 11th grader in Dover, Pa., looks out from his high school, he can see the United Church of Christ across the street and the hills beyond it, reminding him of what he’s been taught from childhood: that God’s perfect creation culminated on the sixth day with the making of man in his image. Inside the school, he is taught that Homo sapiens evolved over millions of years from a series of predecessor species in an unbroken line of descent stretching back to the origins of life. The apparent contradiction between that message and the one he hopes someday to spread as a Christian missionary doesn’t trouble him. The entire subject of evolution by natural selection is covered in two lessons in high-school biology. What kind of Christian would he be if his faith couldn’t survive 90 minutes of exposure to Darwin?

This is interesting for several reasons, not the least of which is that this local United Church of Christ must be a very, very unusual congregation in this most liberal of all oldline Protestant denominations. These are not churches that are known for cranking out young six-day Creationists, or even missionaries, for that matter.

This lead also gives the impression that leaders of the ID movement do not want schools to offer traditional lessons about evolution. This is not the case. If anything, the “teach the controversy” model advocated by Johnson and his associates want to see educators expand their lessons to include some of the hot and even bitter debates inside some of the various Darwinian camps. The goal is to discuss the kinds of gaps and puzzles that scientists get to talk about in places such as China, where no one has to be afraid of raising the God question at all.

This leads to another key point. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone inside the big ID tent — there are lively debates and disagreements inside this flock, as well — say that public schools should teach anything that is not rooted in open debate about the interpretation of traditional scientific research. Even if ID thinkers proved that the information contained in DNA codes was too complex to have been the product of a random, materialistic process, this would not prove in a scientific sense that any kind of higher power was involved. The goal is free speech about scientific issues in the public square.

Here is an example of a faith statement that cannot be proven in a lab: “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” Of course, the televangelist who made that statement was Dr. Carl Sagan. Traditional religious believers have also been known to make similar statements that cannot be nailed down with data. This is not the stuff of public-school textbooks.

I could make a few more observations about Adler’s fascinating report, but let me conclude with this. Near the end, one parent is quoted as saying: “I don’t know what to believe. … I just want my child to go to heaven.” Adler writes: “Well, so does the pope, but the Vatican has said it finds no conflict between Christian faith and evolution.”

Once again, this raises questions. For, you see, that is not what Pope John Paul II said. Here are some of the crucial quotes from the pope on this issue:

“Rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution. On the one hand, this plurality has to do with the different explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution, and on the other, with the various philosophies on which it is based. Hence the existence of materialist, reductionist and spiritualist interpretations. …

“Theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person.”

Note that the pope said theories — plural. There are conflicts within these theories. Most of all, John Paul clearly rejected the position that creation was the result of — to cite one wording — an “unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process … that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.” This is a problem, since this is how the National Association of Biology Teachers has defined evolution.

A scientific theory, according to John Paul, only “proves its validity by the measure to which it can be verified. It is constantly being tested against the facts. When it can no longer explain these facts, it shows its limits and its lack of usefulness, and it must be revised.”

Amen. Journalists need to get their quotes right, if they are going to cover these debates. It is time to update some of our language and many of our stereotypes.

Creeping Fundamentalism XII: Private-school sins

HardlyboysLet me join the Rt. Rev. LeBlanc in praising the 1,400-word essay by Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times that used the word “fundamentalism” 15 times without veering into the cheap-shot territory that earns reporters a note in our Creeping Fundamentalism files. Let all the people say, “amen,” or “bravo,” or whatever.

At the same time, I hereby move to nominate another story for Creeping Fundamentalism status, even though it is rather old by now. It’s from the Dallas Morning News and it did not show up on my radar earlier, in part, because it was in the hard news pages and not in the religion section. That says something about how hard it is even make a dent in reading all of the major stories that are out there that we need to read while chasing our ghosts.

Reporter Kent Fischer’s story ran under the headline “Gay student forced to leave school.” But before we look at that report, let us turn once again to that familiar passage in the Associated Press Stylebook.

There you will find this wisdom: “fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians. In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.”

Let me note a few interesting word choices in this story. First of all there is the lead: “Three weeks ago an 18-year-old honor student at Trinity Christian Academy was cruising toward graduation. He had already been accepted to a prestigious university, and the final months of high school seemed a mere formality.”

Maybe it’s just me, but I would have avoided the word “cruising.”

Fischer’s story notes that the anonymous student — since named in reports in gay media and elsewhere — was a varsity athlete, thespian, journalist and student leader at a “fundamentalist private school.” However, he was forced out of school when administrators learned that he had created a website for young gays and lesbians to chat, hook up and exchange photos. Then, in “a matter of days, the student, who is gay, went from prized student to sinner outcast.”

We are told that he violated the student code. We are not, however, given the part of the code that he violated. Perhaps the school declined to provide this text. If the school does not have a fully detailed code that clearly states moral teachings for its students, then the school is really asking for trouble. Here is the money quote:

Today, the student attends high school in Plano, and students, teachers and administrators at Trinity Christian are left debating whether forcing the withdrawal of a popular lifelong student was the “Christian” thing to do. The case also shines a light on the moral culture clash with which private fundamentalist schools are increasingly wrestling.

The other use of the f-word is when Fischer notes that: “Those who work with gay teens say the expulsion of gay students from private fundamental school is quite common.” It seems there is something missing from this sentence. It could have been “from a private fundamental school” or “from private fundamentalist schools.” It’s hard to tell.

Either way, the report offers no indication whatsoever that the word “fundamentalist” has any specific content of meaning. This is interesting, in a newspaper published in Dallas, a city in which there are more than a few Baptists and other evangelicals who know the precise meaning of “fundamentalist” and probably would have answered their telephones. Maybe they were busy.

The News report does contain some useful information about this high-profile issue in private schools. First of all, a gay-rights lawyer does note that the private school was acting within its legal rights. He does not, however, note that this “freedom of association” for members of religious groups is precisely the same right that would protect, well, gay and lesbian groups. Religious groups have a right to define and defend their doctrinal and moral standards — especially when a student and his or her family signs the document.

Readers are also told about a national network that lobbies on behalf of gay students trapped in religious schools. We are not told about any corresponding groups on the other side of the issue, other than Christian-school professionals. It also would have been nice if Fischer had noted, when describing how school administrators declined to discuss aspects of this case, that they could not discuss these matters without violating privacy laws.

One more comment on this “fundamentalist” school. Its website shows it is backed by accreditation groups that are not, as a rule, associated with true “fundamentalist” or “Bible school” groups. Also, I could not help but notice that the school has a football team and a marching band. It is my observation that truly fundamental, separatist schools rarely draw a large enough student body to maintain competitive programs in sports and the arts. They tend to be small fortresses. I suspect, in fact, that many, many of the students at this school are from families that are not very conservative, when it comes to church practice. This tends to create interesting social problems.

But that is another news story. If the Dallas Morning News decides to cover it, I hope the reporters and editors that work on it will avoid making fundamental errors.


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