By Nathan Bierma
Content & Context
My summer internship at the Chicago Tribune was about two hours old when an editor in a nearby cubicle made a crack to another about how small-minded evangelical Christians were. I kept my mouth shut; on your first day you barely dare to ask where the bathroom is, let alone profess your faith. But I wonder how I would have reacted had this happened when I felt more settled in.
As seriously as I take my faith, and as earnestly as I believe any vocation is not just a job, but kingdom service, I had little appetite for drawing attention to myself and my faith with "God-talk" in the newsroom. If I was going to stick out, I wanted it to be for two things: creative story ideas and good writing. Not only because this would be the most useful witness—editors want good articles more than a sermon—but because the purpose of writing, I believe, is to explore God's creation with contagious curiosity. If Christian journalists get that part right, they'll have more impact when it comes time to talk about whose creation they're exploring.
That's why it's encouraging to see Steve Rhodes' comments introducing his interview with Chicago Sun-Times religion reporter Cathleen Falsani at the Web site of Chicago magazine. Rhodes says Falsani writes "one of the city's most engaging columns, despite her focus on a subject that often is handled with a deadly dullness." He calls her approach "fresh and heartfelt," and her writing "humorous, thoughtful, intelligent, and spiritual." High praise for someone who works at a newspaper, where the daily grind and stiff style guidelines tend to drain originality and empathy out of the broadsheets and the reporters who fill them.
It also struck me as the exact kind of praise Christian journalists should be trying to earn. With the awareness that evangelicals are mostly absent from the mainstream media (or at least its East Coast epicenters)—an awareness shared in a noteworthy confession by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (discussed in B&C by Mark Noll and, later, Stan Guthrie in an article called "A Journalist in Babylon") —comes the temptation to say, Let's get more evangelicals in newsrooms, and we'll have news coverage that is more fair to evangelical viewpoints. That's a good start. But rather than saying, Let's go balance it out, it's even better to say, Let's go do it more thoughtfully, thoroughly, and impressively. We should be less preoccupied with the failings of "liberal media" than with bringing some passion to bland, corporate, uninspiring media. Imagine the witness Christians (evangelical and otherwise) would bear if we came to pile up journalism awards not just in religion news but in categories such as feature writing, investigative reporting, film reviewing, and sports columns.
As Mark Noll noted, there may be significant numbers of at least nominal Christians already in newsrooms who don't see themselves as missionaries. Falsani is one of them. A Wheaton alum, she wrote last year in the Sun-Times that she "never felt comfortable in a community where my religious identity was presumed to define my politics, gender identity and taste in pop culture in a narrow way." These comments, which she says drew criticism from evangelical readers, preceded a stirring account of Wheaton students' response to U2's Bono, whose nationwide AIDS awareness tour Falsani was covering at the time. She concluded that she would never "apologize" for her alma mater again. "Wheaton was, at least in those moments, the best of what Christianity can be." This column, she tells Rhodes, "outed" her as a Christian after years of refusing to reveal to sources what her religion was, in the interest of objectivity.
It's ironic that Christians in the media feel muzzled (or muzzle themselves): such treatment hardly lives up to the ubiquitous ritual celebration of "diversity" in the newsroom. And it's unfortunate that Christians are pressured to avoid "theology or dogma" and accept popular culture's amorphous interest in "spirituality [rather] than religion," as Rhodes says he prefers. Still, we can only hope that the work of people such as Falsani—and the notice of media critics such as Rhodes—will be what defines a Christian presence in the mass media.
From the Washington Post:
TUKTOYAKTUK, Northwest Territories—Gordon Anaviak lives in a house by the deep, black, cold Beaufort Sea, a sea that is eating away at the shoreline and causing the ground to melt. Anaviak, 72, a fisherman, looks out his window at the waves and is worried. With each wave, he knows the sea is taking away a little more of Tuktoyaktuk, until one day this hamlet may dissolve like salt in water. Nobody knows for certain why the sea is eroding this spit of land, exposing the permafrost upon which Tuktoyaktuk, a town of just less than 1,000 people, is built. But Anaviak, an elder of the Inuvialuit community, was born on the land and has his own theory. It boils down to global warming. Even as he apologizes for his lack of formal education, he rises from his sofa and pulls a book off of a shelf. He flips the pages until he comes to a paragraph that explains how explorers here in 1911 recorded temperatures of 60 degrees below zero and a wind chill of minus 110. "The cause of the permafrost melting," Anaviak said, "is because we don't get that cold anymore." Full story
HONOLULU—A river of crimson T-shirts stretched more than a mile down Waikiki's main thoroughfare. With Hawaiian chants and the blowing of conch shells, the throng of demonstrators moved slowly past befuddled tourists along the oceanfront. "Ku i ka pono. Ku 'e i ka hewa!" they chanted, in a display of solidarity that included the governor and lieutenant governor, education officials, students, families and elders. Their chant translated: "Stand up for justice. Resist injustice!" The sight of several thousand marchers drew attention … in the tourist mecca of Waikiki. [At] a federal courthouse three miles away … three anti-discrimination lawsuits may undo a catalogue of services available only to those of aboriginal Hawaiian ancestry—health care, housing and even a prestigious private school. … The three lawsuits reject long-held notions that Hawaiians deserve special treatment in the islands their ancestors ruled as a kingdom, in large part because they suffered after the monarchy was overthrown in an 1893 conspiracy aided by representatives of the U.S. government. Full story
CITY SCENE: BOSTON
This week, my friend and fellow Michigan émigréSara VanderHaagen checks in from her new home in Boston:
This is Kennedy country. I've heard it said but now witness it on a daily basis. This summer, Boston's John F. Kennedy Library opened a new exhibit celebrating the 50th wedding anniversary of JFK and Jacqueline Bouvier. From there, you can hop on the Red Line at the nearby JFK/UMass stop, and the trusty Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority—the "T"—will take you northwest to Park Street, a short perambulation from the doorstep of either JFK's senatorial pad or the slightly stuffy "Kennedy's" bar, replete with black-and-white snapshots of Boston's first family. The omnipresence of political celebrity, the ubiquitous picketing in squares, and incessant distribution of "informational" fliers all augur the tense climate of New England in the autumn before a presidential race. Before a move to Boston, a Midwestern ingé nue like myself would have been hard-pressed to find folks who tracked the candidates in the New Hampshire primary as assiduously as Michiganians follow the Red Wings' progress toward the Stanley Cup. In my middle-class Somerville neighborhood, porch banners proclaim allegiance to one candidate or another. Political taste clings to the bumpers of SUVs and coupes alike. Red, white, and blue signs angrily litter the tiny lawns in every borough. They are, you might say, signs of things to come as election year nears. They say that in New England, politics is a contact sport. So I prepare to tread lightly through the charming streets, staying out of harm's way, watching for the plays these uncharacteristically impassioned Bostonians will run over the next year.
- Earlier in this weblog:VanderHaagen et al. on neuroscience and free will
- Previous City Scene: Chicago
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• Never mind gender, age, race, hometown. There's one way to spot a generous giver, according to a new study. "The data show that if two people—one religious and the other secular—are identical in every other way, the secular person is 23 percent less likely to give [to charity] than the religious person and 26 percent less likely to volunteer. … Religious liberals are 19 points more likely than secular liberals to give to charity, while religious conservatives are 28 points more likely than secular conservatives to do so." So writes Syracuse professor Arthur C. Brooks this month in Policy Review, analyzing the results of the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey. Brooks sums up the numbers in light of debates over faith-based programs, the separation of church and state, and the declining sense of civic obligation. He quotes Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart: "Religion provides a conception, even if rudimentary, of how one should live … one's obligation to God involves … what one does as a citizen as well as how one treats one's friends." Writes Brooks: "If charity is indeed a learned behavior, it may be that houses of worship are only one means (albeit an especially efficacious one) to teach it. Secularists interested in increasing charitable giving and volunteering among their ranks might spend some effort thinking of alternative ways to foster these habits." Full story
-Related from the Atlantic Monthly: "Why tax the well-off? Because, two recent studies suggest, it's practically the only way to persuade them to spend money on anyone but themselves." (Third item here)
-Elsewhere in Policy Review:Remember North Korea?
• You could view the recording industry's lawsuits against digital file sharers as a righteous roundup of 40 million shoplifters, or, says Michael Wolff in New York magazine, as foolish denial of the inevitable. File sharing isn't shoplifting, he says; it's just a better system than the one the industry currently monopolizes and manipulates. Seen that way, file sharing is a good thing. "The industry's argument—that without the industry itself setting the price and gathering and distributing the proceeds, there would be no incentives for the artists to create the product—is obviously spurious," Wolff writes. "Rather, there will be less incentive to create blockbuster products—less incentive … to create predictable, homogenized, crummy stuff." Artists could make "art for art's sake" and "pride of authorship," Wolff says, rather than for the almighty buck. Wolff is a cynic to the core, so it's unusual to hear him rhapsodize the coming of a purer age of popular art. It also veers toward tacky populism to say: Who are greedy executives to tell to you what is right and wrong? But his argument about dismantling the blockbuster structure should be central to the current debate. Full story
-Earlier in this weblog:U.S. News & World Report on "piracy as the national pastime" (third item here)
• The butler did it. That's the common joke about murder mysteries. But when has the butler actually done it? And how did this suspicion become a mystery cliche? The Chicago Reader is on the case. You can go back to best-selling thriller writer Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Door in 1930, in which the butler is indeed the culprit, or even to a Sherlock Holmes episode by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1893, in which the butler is a peripheral wrongdoer. But the Reader's Cecil Adams, as always, has done his homework: he digs up the 1928 essay "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories" which forbids incriminating the butler; it's "too easy." In fact, other than the above examples, butler-killers are notably scarce. In part, this is snobbery: a crucial figure in a story must be someone of repute, the thinking goes. But Adams notes that Rinehart's success with The Door was a juicy target for satirists lambasting the convenience of the plot device, and they must have scared other authors off. Full story
-From the New Yorker: "Forty-one of the most scathing pages in the history of reviewing … The scandal of the year" in 1886.
• There is much in Terry Gross' controversial interview of Bill O'Reilly on National Public Radio to confirm the worst suspicions about both: that O'Reilly is rude and pompous; that Gross uses a double standard for liberal and conservative guests. Hypocrisy is displayed by both parties. Gross refuses to dismiss Al Franken's statements about O'Reilly and uses them to ask serious questions, then tells O'Reilly that she had a "different" kind of interview with Franken because he is, after all, just a humorist. For his part, O'Reilly calls Gross' interview a "hatchet job" and hangs up on her, but provides no hint of how her aggressive approach to him differs from his television interviews of guests he disagrees with. But in between the contentious first and last ten minutes lie some innocent and interesting exchanges about O'Reilly's upbringing, his independent partisan status (he's written that he admires Robert F. Kennedy, he reminds us) and his views on the relevance of religion to politics. Audio interview
-Also from NPR:Interview with Daws Butler, the cartoon voice of Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear
• Miscellaneous:The history of suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge, from the New Yorker—Why a new governor will or won't be enough to fix California's money troubles, from Business Week—Telemarketers fear jobs cuts, from NPR—An underwater marathoner's trek through Loch Ness, from NPR.
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- See also: Christianity Today's religion weblog
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Nathan Bierma is editorial assistant at Books & Culture.