The silence of the shepherds, again

NipTuckSeas3Read the following Los Angeles Times report and tell me if the phrase “culture of death” does not pop into your mind every few paragraphs. As graphic as this Greg Braxton story is, I think it actually avoids several issues that would have made it even worse.

You know you’re in for it when a daily newspaper starts a story with this kind of “warning” disclaimer:

The following story contains graphic and good-taste-defying descriptions of bone snapping, limb hacking, fingernail pulling and body zapping. Read on at your own risk.

The actual thesis paragraphs put this mass-media torture campaign into a context that strikes me as rather mild. The movies are getting bad, as we’ve discussed before, but some of the television shows are wading into the same violent swamp:

… (In) the last several months, numerous torture scenes — many of them graphic and bloody — have been set pieces on TV dramas, not only in thrill-ride dramas, such as “24″ and ABC’s “Alias,” but also in melodramatic or escapist fare such as Fox’s “Prison Break.” One key character on ABC’s “Lost” is an Iraqi military officer who tortures a fellow castaway. “Alias” had an unnamed recurring villain who quietly tortured key characters. FX’s “Nip/Tuck,” a hit drama about the psychic turmoil of those who seek and perform cosmetic surgery, recently spotlighted physical turmoil with two simultaneous torture scenes, each set to a tango.

It’s unclear — both to those who create torture-inflected scenarios and those who have taken note of their proliferation — whether such themes reflect a pop culture recalibration or a blip on the screen. But for now, at least, torture seems inescapable.

Here’s the question I wanted to ask. Braxton asks if the ramping up of the pain and suffering might, in some way, be linked to this era of fear and terrorism. But I was left thinking darker thoughts. What happens when the movies are not as bad as what ordinary citizens can see, if they wish, on the World Wide Web with a few clicks of a mouse? What can Hollywood do to top an online videotape of a man’s head being hacked off?

The obvious thing to say is that some people who choose to drink from this bloody well are getting used to it by now and want stronger and stronger drink. You can hear clergy and other moral leaders voice that sentiment every now and then. And, sure enought, the Los Angeles Times offers a mild disclaimer of that kind.

The people behind these projects maintain that movie ratings and parental advisories on TV tip off viewers to graphic material, and many stress that audiences themselves ultimately set the boundaries for what’s portrayed on-screen. Networks’ and studios’ reading of audience reaction has some amping up the torture in their projects, believing that doing so increases its effectiveness.

OK, we hear you. But how does this work in homes that have four or five cable-linked televisions? How does this work in the age of director-cut DVDs? How does this work in an age in which most religious groups are totally silent about the role that entertainment plays in daily life, other than to blow the warning trumpets every year or two about sex in a specific show or movie (as if waves of teen-agers are rushing out to see Brokeback Mountain)?

There is a ghost in here. It’s the silence of the shepherds. Again.

Follow the mass-media statistics for ordinary homes and for those “conservative” homes. There is a story in there.

Print Friendly

Are reporters too stupid to get religion?

IDDONchurchteresamikeWhen Mother Teresa comes to town for an ecumenical prayer service, all kinds of people are going to show up. That’s what happened in Denver back in 1989, when the tiny nun came to town to pray for peace and for the poor in that city.

The list of local clergy taking part was very long, drawing a Judeo-Christian all-star team that included rabbis, Eastern Orthodox priests, Anglicans and Protestant clergy of every kind, from nationally known evangelicals to the mainline left. Of course, Denver Archbishop J. Francis Stafford — now a cardinal at the Vatican — was at her side to preside.

Before the event, Mother Teresa and some of the top clergy held a press conference. It was, for me, a memorable event because I asked her if she was considering opening a Missionaries of Charity convent in Denver. When I talked with her again an hour later she reminded me of that question and, in the prayer service itself, she stunned the archbishop and the crowd by announcing that she would do precisely that — creating an AIDS hospice in urban Denver.

However, there is another reason I remember that press conference. The throng of reporters who attended included a number of local television reporters, several of whom seemed to have been assigned to the story at the last minute. One asked a simple question: Would this prayer rite include a Mass?

Mother Teresa was confused for a minute. How could they celebrate a Roman Catholic Mass with an ecumenical flock, one that included Protestants, Jews and others who were, obviously, not in communion with Rome? For starters, I thought, had the reporter not heard of the Protestant Reformation?

I thought of this story this week when several GetReligion readers posted comments about Father Richard John Neuhaus’ bitting remarks at the First Things blog about the stupidity of journalists. He was inspired to write by early coverage of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, “God Is Love.”

Here is how his post opens:

As you might imagine, I spend a good deal of time talking with reporters. I usually don’t mind it. It comes with the territory. With notable exceptions, reporters are people of good will working hard to write a story that will please their editors. It is true that they are not always the sharpest knives in the drawer. These days most of them have gone to journalism school, or j-school, as it is called. In intellectual rankings at universities, journalism is just a notch above education, which is, unfortunately, at the bottom.

An eager young thing with a national paper was interviewing me about yet another instance of political corruption. “Is this something new?” she asked. “No,” I said, “it’s been around ever since that unfortunate afternoon in the garden.” There was a long pause and then she asked, “What garden was that?” It was touching.

And so it goes. I will pass by his undocumented claim that student journalists are, as a rule, stupid. I have found, in the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, that my journalism students are almost always drawn from the honor rolls. Frankly, I have no idea what Father Neuhaus is talking about and I wish he had added a hyperlink to the source of his opinion. But I will move on.

Father Neuhaus is a very witty man and you can read his remarks for yourself, if you have not already. It is interesting that he ends up, in a strange way, affirming the stance of thinkers — most in the news industry or on the left — who argue that bias is not at the root of the news media’s struggles to “get religion.” Instead of bias, he argues that journalists are simply ignorant. (I argue that clashing “worldviews” are the key.)

Neuhaus concludes:

… (Over) the years of dealing with reporters — and, again, there are notable exceptions — I have been led to embrace something like an Occam’s razor with respect to journalistic distortions: Do not multiply explanations when ignorance will suffice.

It is hard to tell if his “notable exceptions” are reporters who are biased or reporters who are not stupid.

Anyway, my story about the Mother Teresa press conference would slip nicely into the First Things commentary. Believe me, I have heard waves of similar stories through the years, and some of them will make you laugh to keep from crying. Click here to read some classics.

042803neuhausrichardjohnIf Father Neuhaus had been at the 1989 press conference, I am sure he would have rolled his eyes at the ecumenical Mass question and tucked it away in his mental humor files for future use (as I did).

However, there is a problem. That press conference included a number of reporters who were rolling their eyes, reporters who had years and years of experience on the beat and had, in a few cases, even done graduate degrees in various types of religious studies to be able to do a professional job covering complicated religion-news stories. Where do these reporters fit into Father Neuhaus’ rather snarky scenario?

You see, I have met some brilliant journalists in my day. I have also met some journalists who are so dedicated that they can keep working and working on a topic until they get most of the questions answered and they get the key facts right. I have also met plenty of journalists who fit all of the good father’s stereotypes. But what is his solution to this problem? Ignore reporters? Just write off the press?

I think it would help if the people who run newsrooms had the option — as they seek intellectual diversity — of hiring more reporters from excellent reporting and writing programs in religious colleges and universities.

Might Father Neuhaus lobby for at least a few Catholic schools in this nation to stress journalism? He could offer his praise and support for postgraduate projects — such as those at the Poynter Instituteand the Pew Forum — that help journalists learn more about religion and improve their reporting skills.

Does Father Neuhaus think this line of work is too shallow or too gritty for serious study and even theological reflection? And speaking of that “garden,” is this conservative Catholic theologian arguing that some parts of God’s creation are simply too fallen to be taken seriously? Is his theology putting a newsy twist on Orwell? All of God’s creation is both glorious and fallen, but some parts of it — newsrooms — are more fallen than others? I assume not, since that would be, well, heresy.

But it is so, so easy to blast away at the press — especially in a week in which the Western world’s newspaper of record serves up headlines such as this one: “Benedict’s First Encyclical Shuns Strictures of Orthodoxy.”

Say what? Wait, there was more. Here is the opening of reporter Ian Fisher’s New York Times story on the new papal encyclical:

Pope Benedict XVI issued an erudite meditation on love and charity on Wednesday in a long-awaited first encyclical that presented Roman Catholicism’s potential for good rather than imposing firm, potentially divisive rules for orthodoxy.

The encyclical, titled “God Is Love,” did not mention abortion, homosexuality, contraception or divorce, issues that often divide Catholics. But in gentle, often poetic language, Benedict nonetheless portrayed a tough-minded church that is “duty bound,” he wrote, to intervene at times in secular politics for “the attainment for what is just.”

You could spend a week in the Catholic blogosphere reading about reactions to “God Is Love” and the news coverage of its contents. I will not linger on this, since this post is long enough already. Suffice it to say, many of the reports would have put a smile on the face of Father Neuhaus, for all of the usual reasons. I will end with one comment from an email by my friend, the Catholic pop-culture scribe Roberto Rivera y Carlo:

Talk about your ideological slip showing! The lede draws not one, but, two, idiotic juxtapositions: “erudite” versus “firm” and “love and charity” versus “orthodoxy.” These people really don’t and can’t get it, can they?

Actually, I believe that most reporters are smart enough to get it and it would be good if they tried to do so. I also think if would help if more religious leaders — especially brilliant people like Father Neuhaus — helped promote education and diversity in journalism, rather than merely firing shots from the sidelines.

Print Friendly

Not getting it

BibleInfluenceThis New York Times story does everything possible to fit the facts into the mold of a “Democrats try to get religion in order to appeal to religious people” story. I find this an an example of how many in the Democratic Party and many mainstream reporters do not get religion or religious people.

Fortunately the reporter, David Kirkpatrick, included a thorough accounting of the facts in the rest of the story. Here’s the lead, which is what I found a misinterpretation of what is described later in the story:

WASHINGTON, Jan. 26 — Democrats in Georgia and Alabama, borrowing an idea usually advanced by conservative Republicans, are promoting Bible classes in the public schools. Their Republican opponents are in turn denouncing them as “pharisees,” a favorite term of liberals for politicians who exploit religion.

Democrats in both states have introduced bills authorizing school districts to teach courses modeled after a new textbook, “The Bible and Its Influence.” It was produced by the nonpartisan, ecumenical Bible Literacy Project and provides an assessment of the Bible’s impact on history, literature and art that is academic and detached, if largely laudatory.

The Democrats who introduced the bills said they hoped to compete with Republicans for conservative Christian voters. “Rather than sitting back on our heels and then being knocked in our face, we are going to respond in a thoughtful way,” said Kasim Reed, a Georgia state senator from Atlanta and one of the sponsors of the bill. “We are not going to give away the South anymore because we are unwilling to talk about our faith.”

The premise of the article is that Democrats are attempting to out-religion Republicans. The roles have been reversed. Republicans are now opposing religious teaching in schools.

Alas, this is not the case. The class proposed by Democrats is nothing to get excited about politically (I think the course looks great educationally). How is a textbook titled The Bible and Its Influence at all controversial or beyond the status quo, especially in the South? It’s produced by an ecumenical religious group and does not come close to touching the separation-of-church-and-state clause, as I see it, because it is not focused on a particular translation or interpretation of the Bible.

I’m sure Kirkpatrick’s original idea for an article on Democrats getting religion was a good one, and he cites several examples nationwide, but I believe his attempt (or his editor’s or whoever wrote that lead) to spin the story at the top falls flat on its face. An article with that type of lead made me think there was an actual proposal that would reach the religious voter Democrats are so desperate to bring into their fold.

As long as politicians see religion as solely a political vehicle for attracting votes, they will not gain the support they seek, especially in the South. The same goes for journalists and their media outlets — not that the NYT or its reporters are marketing their product to religious types in the South anyway.

The rest of the article is a series of politically charged back-and-forths between Republicans and Democrats that does little to get to the bottom of the story. Nice reporting, but isn’t getting to the bottom of things a journalist’s goal? Gathering the back-and-forth is key for getting to that truth, but in the end, give the reader a more accurate idea of the situation being reported.

Print Friendly

Last year’s news, today

Hindu Childrens BookBack in early December, I pointed out the media silence over a curriculum battle in California. Even though reporters were all over stories about curriculum battles in Kansas and Pennsylvania, no one was paying attention to California, where Hindu nationalists were succeeding in making major changes to sixth-grade textbooks about Hinduism.

I have no idea what changed but the Wall Street Journal (sorry, no link), Christian Science Monitor and Sacramento Bee published stories this week about the controversy. The Christian Science Monitor‘s Scott Baldauf wrote the most comprehensive story, explaining the positions of the Hindu nationalists fighting for the changes, and the Hindus and scholars who are fighting the changes. It’s worth excerpting some of his excellent explanations of the conflict:

Communities use history to define themselves — their core ideals, achievements, and grudges. Small wonder, then, that history is frequently reevaluated as political pendulums shift, or as long-oppressed minority groups finally get their say. History, and efforts to revise it, have touched off recent controversies between Japan and its neighbors over its World War II past, as well as between France and its former colonies over the portrayal of imperialism.

Here in India, Hindu nationalists have pushed forcefully for revisionism after what they see as centuries of cultural domination by the British Raj and Muslim Mogul Empire.

The Hindu nationalists fought for over 100 changes. One photo caption in the textbook, for instance, needed to be changed as it identified a Muslim as a Brahman priest. But other changes were much more controversial, such as downplaying the Hindu caste system.

The most contentious debate in the textbook battles is over when Indian civilization began. Most scholars believe Hindu was codified by people who came from outside India. Baldauf explains why this a problem:

Many Hindu nationalists are upset by the notion that Hinduism could be yet another religion, like Islam and Christianity, with foreign roots. The HEF and Vedic Foundation both lobbied hard to change the wording of California’s textbooks so that Hinduism would be described as purely home grown.

The final changes to the textbook, many of which were already adopted by the textbook committee, will be completed in the next couple of weeks. I remain curious why mainstream education and religion reporters failed to cover this for most of the past three months. I’m also curious why they started noticing now.

Print Friendly

In the name of (insert god), we pray

Mason  Communion TableI waited a few days to comment on this story for two reasons. First of all, I was on the road and had limited access. Then I wanted to wait a day or two to see if any other media chased what I thought was a very significant story.

Alas, this seems to be another one of those stories that is only of interest to “conservative” media. For the life of me I cannot understand why, unless you want to say that the separation of church and state is merely a “conservative” issue.

The key story comes from Julia “There she goes again” Duin over at the Washington Times. According to a number of sources, the White House has agreed to pressure the Pentagon into letting military chaplains continue to voice public prayers that are appropriate in their own faith traditions, rather than requiring a kind of generic language that promotes a tax-dollar-funded civic faith that pleases people who believe that followers of all the world religions are basically on the same path to the top of the same mountain where they will someday learn that they have been worshipping the same God or gods or whatever (if you will allow me to be blunt about it).

Evangelical Protestants activists have, of course, been asking President Bush to clarify this situation with an executive order. Now, apparently, they have agreed to let the White House work quietly behind the scenes. Pay close attention because this gets complicated:

The administration struck a deal … with Rep. Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican, said the Rev. Billy Baugham of the Greenville, S.C.-based International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers. Since October, Mr. Jones has arranged for letters from 74 members of Congress demanding an executive order to end reported religious discrimination against evangelical Christian chaplains.

Claude Allen, White House domestic policy adviser, promised the congressman that President Bush will take up the issue personally with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said Mr. Baugham, who was involved in the discussion.

“He asked Jones if he’d be satisfied with less than an executive order, and Jones said ‘yes,’” he said.

Mr. Jones’ office, which confirmed that the conversation had taken place, says chaplains should be able to pray to whomever “their faith tradition” demands, including named gods, saints or prophets.

One of the most interesting details, for me, is an anecdote about a Muslim chaplain candidate who was corrected for praying in the name of “Allah, the most blessed and beautiful.” That turned into an safer appeal to the “most generous and eternal God.” One wonders how many Muslims will be willing to edit their faith in this manner.

In another case, a chaplain was taught how to add disclaimers at the end of his prayers, turning them into dual-source appeals to a generic god followed by language making it clear that only the speaker was praying to Jesus. All of this is, to say the least, precisely what church-state law calls the “excessive entanglement” of government in the free practice of religion.

Mason  Easter CongregationOf course, some on the left side of the church aisle are pleased with the God-lite language because it accurately reflects their theology. This is interesting, since these are normally the people who do not want to see tax dollars spent to proclaim a specific approach to religious faith.

But wait, you say, if chaplains voice public prayers that are faith specific, doesn’t that mean that tax dollars are being used to support a specific faith at that precise moment in time? Isn’t the government, in effect, funding religious confusion and allowing offensive religious speech in the public square?

Yes, that is what it means. The problem is that there are only two options, if people insist on using religious language during civic ceremonies in a diverse public square. Oh, I guess you could just fire all the chaplains and make the military go totally secular. There are people who want that.

Someone is going to have to clarify all of this because the issue is not going to go away on its own. Meanwhile, this is an important story and other news organizations need to cover it. For one thing, it’s interesting that the evangelicals have let the Bush White House off the hook again, when it comes to taking a public stand (photos from IFCA.org).

Print Friendly

On hot wings and a prayer

HootersLogoWebA family member who knows a thing or two about culture in Waco, Texas, sent me this interesting ecumenical news story and you have to admit that Fox News put a snazzy lead on it. It’s about the decision of a local Catholic priest to do the official rites of blessing for the new and, in a Southern Baptist mecca, controversial Hooters franchise. And that lead?

Please bless these overly revealing orange shorts, and all who wear them while serving me cheese fries.

As it turns out, this online story was a revamped version of a much longer report by reporter Cindy V. Culp in the Waco Tribune-Herald. It seems that 60 local ministers had expressed their displeasure that this establishment that specializes in hot chicken wings and breasts was coming to their somewhat conservative community in central Texas. However, it might be very popular with backsliders and with mainstream reporters in town (and very bored) while covering President Bush’s retreats to nearby Crawford.

So what was the Rev. Msgr. Isidore Rozycki up to?

“Blessings are part of the Catholic tradition,” said Rozycki, who is pastor of St. Martin’s Church in Tours. “You bless the building so it will be a safe haven, so that the families that enter will be blessed, so the employees will be blessed — as they support their families. … God’s image is in all of these folks,” Rozycki said.

For the record, though, Rozycki said he doesn’t think Hooters deserves the bad rap it has gotten from some. He has eaten at a Dallas-area Hooters twice, he said, and enjoyed the experience. People who go to the restaurant with lust in their hearts are sure to find what they are looking for, Rozycki said. But that would be true no matter where they went, he said, adding that the waitresses’ uniforms are less revealing than what is on display at the beach or a public swimming pool.

The obvious follow-up story: Will this event hurt Baptist-Catholic relations in a state that is crucial to conservative political plans for America’s future?

Print Friendly

PBS overloads on Christian programming?

The AppalachiansThe second item in the ombudsman column Monday by the Public Broadcasting System’s Michael Getler deals with complaints from viewers who believe the publicly funded PBS carries too many Christian-oriented programs.

This is not a new complaint to the nation’s two public media organizations. Back in August we commented on a similar column written by National Public Radio ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin. These complaints seem to be of the same vein.

According to Getler, most of the complaints dealt with specific programs. In thorough fashion, Getler dispatches with the complainers who were “very concerned about the amount of Christian-related content oozing onto PBS.” The horror!

I found most of the complaints cited by Getler ridiculous. As a journalist I receive my fair share of kooky comments, along with an equal number of solid questions and informed statements of opinion. I wonder, where are the informed, intelligent complaints about the coverage of religion on PBS?

And where are the complaints about separation of church and state? I guess/hope we’ve moved beyond that for public broadcasting. As long as the news or feature value of the shows’ content was valid — which they appear to be — how can one complain?

Here’s my favorite complaint:

It seems each show, whether it’s historical, scientific or documentary in nature[,] is flush with some sort of Christian angle. In this age of growing multi-ethnicity in the U.S., and increased conflict and tension between cultures of religion around the world, I find this bias highly disturbing and worse — validating the new Right Wing Evangelical perspective that has become oppressive in this country.” This viewer mentioned recent, high profile and high viewership series such as “Walking the Bible” and “Country Boys” and an earlier documentary on “The Appalachians.”

Where to start? Christianity is not exclusive to the right-wing evangelicals, ignoring a religion will not help subside conflicts and tensions and a relatively heavy load of religion programming does not implicate bias. Disclaimer: I have not seen any of these shows so I cannot judge their quality of slant.

Here is Getler’s explanation for the rise in Christian-related programming:

We have, of course, just passed the Christmas season. And we are also at a time, in mid-January, when the three-part documentary “Walking the Bible” is airing around the country. This series is based on the best-selling book by author Bruce Feiler, who also hosts the series and takes viewers on a 10,000-mile journey based on a retracing of the routes contained in the first five books of the Bible. This series drew above average viewership nationwide, and, according to the producers, the “vast majority” of the responses sent directly to them were positive. I got some of those as well. But the majority of people who wrote to me complained. “The show is simply religious propaganda wrapped in pseudo-history and dubious legend,” wrote a Baltimore viewer. A resident of Omaha, Neb., said, “The schools and governments are prohibited from promulgating superstitious dogma. How is it that PBS can even consider such as ‘Walking the Bible’?”

The “Walking the Bible” miniseries also roughly coincided in January with the airing of “Country Boys,” a three-part, six-hour documentary presented by PBS’s highly respected “Frontline” program and produced by widely-acclaimed producer David Sutherland. This was a very powerful program. The mail to me was overwhelming positive, and I’m the guy to whom people are supposed to complain. This painstakingly documented portrait of two teenagers struggling to escape poverty in a small Kentucky town also achieved solid viewership around the country, although not as high on average as the Bible series. But “Country Boys” also had a sizeable dose of religion throughout.

On the other hand, religion is a big part of life in those communities, and that’s just the way it is and it needs to be reported and reflected. I didn’t see “The Appalachians,” which aired well before I got to PBS, but it is the same region. Indeed, Christianity, and religion generally, have always been a very big part of American life and it is only natural that portraits of who we are as a country will contain this as one aspect.

Yet, I found this collection of messages from viewers around the country to be important and worthy of attention and discussion within PBS and its vast network of independent member stations. Is religious content being elevated these days? If so, why is that happening? Is it intentional and how should public television handle it?

Getler’s three questions are something of a copout, but not one I can be too hard on him for taking. They are tough questions and deserve some serious debate.

Q. Is religious content being elevated these days?

Q. Why is that happening?

Q. Is it intentional and how should public television handle it?

Tmatt believes that PBS could be attempting to attract viewers in a country that is about 40 percent evangelical Protestant and another 85-90 percent self-identifying as “Christian.” Taxpayers are also the base of much of PBS’ funding, and taking on subjects that involve its viewers’ lives might be a smart move. If the country were 30 percent Islamic, I’m sure the network would air more shows on Islam.

Print Friendly

Robertson will skip NRB gig

robertsonFor those of you who are still maintaining the Pat Robertson watch, here is the latest from the omnipresent Julia Duin of the Washington Times (who, it seems, has been able to cover a dozen stories in the past week or so). It seems that the leaders of the National Religious Broadcasters have had second thoughts about Robertson’s upcoming address:

Although the evangelist was not told to step down, he did release a statement citing demands on his time. A spokeswoman for Mr. Robertson did not return a call requesting comment. An NRB statement said the speaker switch was a result of “scheduling complexities.”

By the way, let me offer a compliment with a kick.

Someone at the Washington Times online division needs to create a website that makes it easier to find all of the many, many stories linked to religion, morality and culture (even pop culture) produced by Duin and others. Yes, they need a site that is even broader than the “Culture, etc.” page. That would make it easier to contrast Times coverage with the Godbeat offerings over at the Washington Post. This would be good for people who care about religion news, in Washington and beyond.

Print Friendly


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X