Saturday, August 23, 2008

Small Sips: Religion Journalism, Shiny Happy Church

Greg at The Parish has an excellent commentary on religion journalism. And he should know religion journalism, because he's a religion journalist. After analyzing the suggestion that newspapers are dying/dead, he turns his attention to the credibility of the religion page. Here are a few points that he made that I really liked (Caution for language):
Most reporters don't know enough about their own religion, if they have one, to write intelligently about it. Now throw them into a story about Jainism or Wicca and watch them try to understand the vocabulary and basic concepts. People with degrees in journalism tend to know a lot about journalism, a little about their own faith, and nothing about other faiths. Think America post-9/11 when we were trying to understand Shia and Sunni and Wahhabi.

Editors don't often know what to do with religion stories because they've been given the task of assigning a reporter to explain something in 500 or 750 words, but the background information necessary to make sense of the context is not present in the audience. A reporter doesn't have to say, "Barrack [sic] Obama is a bi-racial senator from Illinois running for President..." every time she writes a piece about Obama. The background information of Democrat, Republican, Senator, President, race relations, etc., are all present to greater or lesser degrees in the audience. To do a story about Buddhism, the audience may need to understand karma, samsara, meditation, eight-fold path, four jewels, etc. That works well in SE Asia, not SE Oklahoma.


Religion reporting requires that editor, reporter, and audience understand why the story is important. How is it that our Presidential candidates are forced to answer inane questions about what Jesus means to them but we can't figure out how to make religion reporting relevant? Can't explain its impact? It's possible that all forms of religion have become so privatized, except for the civil variety that we trot out every 4th of July and every election cycle, that we are incapable of understanding how religion becomes news because we no longer believe religion motivates anyone to do anything but pick a political side. This is obvious when we read otherwise excellent magazines like The New Yorker or Atlantic and see caricatures of Christians we know. The media is guilty of elevating spokespersons to that status because they say stupid or inflammatory shit. That doesn't mean they speak for all people in the community of faith, but people in the community of faith have to help editors understand why religion reporting is important. Right now, I'm pretty sure that neither editors nor practitioners think it is.
So Greg's basic point is that reporters and editors need to 1) understand religion in general, and 2) understand why a particular story about religion is newsworthy. Nowadays, I agree that the majority of religion-based stories in national media are somehow interwoven with politics: what candidates believe (ignoring the fact that a vast majority of the nation is throwing out that whole "no religious test for a political candidate" thing when they do it) and the influence of religion on conflicts such as those in the Middle East (and even then, it's usually very simplistic, i.e., "The Jews and The Muslims are fighting again"). It seems to be a case of "ignorance breeds ignorance," really.

Our local papers feature exactly the kinds of religion stories that Greg describes elsewhere in his entry. First off, the section only shows up maybe on Saturdays. This week, the section's big story is all about how megachurches use technology. That's CUTTING EDGE~! There is a smaller story about a jury using the Bible in deliberations on a murder case, but what could have been an interesting analysis of church/state issues is relegated to a small piece of the second page, just under another small piece on Todd Bentley's extra-curricular activities. Religious figures in scandal will get a mention, and there would have been potential in the jury story, but my newspaper chose megachurch technology. Good one.

Go read the whole thing at The Parish.

At A Church for Starving Artists, Jan reflects on that aspect of ministry where people share Big Secrets with her...
And so, as a pastor, every once in a while, someone will get up the nerve to confess that he is a sex addict or she is sleeping with her married boss or he has a child with his grown daughter's college roommate's sister. And then they vanish, perhaps too mortified to face the one who knows, which is harder than praying to The One who knows. But nothing changes without letting someone in on The Secret - whether it's a secret habit that we'd like to shake or a secret burden that's crushing us or a secret hurt that makes everything hard.

This is what the church is supposed to be about. A hospital for sinners. A community in which friends are willing to drop you through the roof if it would give you the chance to be healed. A gathering that welcomes even the scuzzy and the shady and the secret sufferers.

Slowly dying - I hope - is the church that requires everybody to be shiny and problem-free. Slowly dying is the church that expects everyone to look good whether or not you are good. Until we form true spiritual communities - instead of spiritul [sic] clubs - it won't be easy to be transformed from hurting/broken/sick people into the people God made us to be. At least, that's what I think as I got stood up yesterday by someone who told me she needed to share a personal secret. It must have been too scary.
The key for me is in that last paragraph. I may be more cynical than her, as I think that the Shiny Happy Appearance church has a lot of life left in it, and it's not just in well-polished megachurches and suburban churches either. Smaller rural churches can have this problem, too. Or maybe that's why she uses the word "slowly." Churches need to learn a very high degree of trust in order to speed up Shiny Happy Church's death. It also involves a complete overhaul in one's understanding of church, from safe haven from sinners to safe haven for sinners.

But Jesus didn't teach anything like that. Oh, wait...