Sunday, December 12, 2004

# Posted 11:27 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

NO "COLLABORATIVE RELATIONSHIP" BETWEEN CHRIST, APOSTLES: This headline is a masterpiece of meta-politics: "Bush's References to God Defended by Speechwriter". The speechwriter in question, Michael Gerson, defended his work at an off-the-record meeting with reporters that Gerson subsequently decided was partially on-the-record.

While we are all familiar with the accepted (but still questionable) practice of providing national security information on background or off-the-record, it seems quite strange for theological debates to be withheld from the public -- especially when the subject of debate is the President's public statments.

Then again, religion is such an explosive political issue that perhaps it should be handled with such extreme care. Yet once again, as in the case of national security coverage, there is an unacknowledged trade-off between public education and professional objectivity.

For example, consider the cover story [subscription required] from last week's issue of Time Magazine. It's title is "Secrets of the Nativity". Naturally, the folks at Time aren't going to tell you that there was no actual news about the Nativity last week, but that they are hoping to capitalize on the relentless merchandizing of the holiday season.

That may seem like a cheapshot, but there's a serious point I'm trying to make. Feature stories about religion are meant to boost sales and you can't do that by antagonizing your customers. On the other hand, journalists don't want to compromise their objectivity. So what you wind up with is a strange sort of hybrid coverage that never makes it own premises explicit.

Imagine for just a second that journalists treated the messages that come from America's pulpits the same way they treat the messages that come from our White House. Instead of emphasizing the beauty and wonder of the Nativity (a la Time), journalists would embark on a wholesale effort to expose the lack of historical evidence for the events described in the Bible. The result would be headlines such as "No 'Collaborative Relationship" Between Christ, Apostles".

Of course, the polarizing effects of such coverage would outweigh any positive value it might have. But since religion is so important in American life, how exactly should journalists describe it?

Time's cover story by David Van Biema resolves this conflict by presenting a highly critical take on the Gospels with an upbeat, pro-religious attitude. The opening paragraphs of Van Biema's cover story are set in a Presbyterian church where
As if on cue, from a Sunday-school classroom upstairs wafts the sound of 70 angelic young voices rendering a still shaky but clearly heartfelt version of Away in a Manger.

Across the U.S., similar scenes are unfolding, as small children progress from incomprehension to playtime participation to the beginnings of actual Christmas understanding.
The literal content of these sentences in no way suggests that there is any inherent validity to the Christmas story or the Christian faith. While some might suggest that the use of the word "angelic" is a little much, the heavy lifting here is being done by the words 'progress', 'participation' and 'understanding'.

Ostensibly neutral, each of these words has a positive connotation in the American political lexicon. Participation and understanding are the prerequisites of democratic deliberation. 'Progress' describes the success of enlightened policymaking. In contrast, when evil individuals, e.g. Iraqi insurgents, achieve success, we tend to describe it as 'sophistication'.

Van Biema balances such positive descriptions by observing that no Christmas pageant
Will be precisely like the New Testament Gospel accounts...a fact that causes concern to almost no one.
As we all know, journalists only pay attention to a fact that causes concern to almost no one only when the jouranalists themselves believe that such facts should cause tremendous concern to just about everyone. Once again, the literal meaning of the sentence is neutral. Yet within the context of journalistic convention, its connotation self-evident.

Shortly after offering up this bit of heresy, Van Biema protects himself by writing that
In the debates over the literal truth of the Gospels, just about everyone acknowledges that major conclusions about Jesus' life are not based on forensic clues.
Van Biema further protects himself by quoting numerous scholars from prestigious seminaries and universities, all of whom have a fairly upbeat (or least diplomatic) attitude toward the Gospels. The one scholar who breaks from this pattern gets introduced to the reader as an "iconclastic feminist critic". And nowhere in this very long cover story do we hear from those who see religion as a dangerous set of myths that promote intolerance and threaten democracy.

Nonetheless, Van Biema still senses the need to put a positive spin on some of his interlocutors already positive quotations. For example,
What jumps out at close readers," [Prof. White] says, "is Matthew's and Luke's different roads to performing the vital theological task of their age: fitting key themes and symbols from Christianity's parent tradition, Judaism, into an emerging belief in Jesus and also working in ideas familiar to the Roman culture that surrounded them." Thus the Nativity stories provide a fascinating look at how each of the two men who agreed on so much—that Jesus was the Christ come among us and was crucified and resurrected and took away sin—could be inspired to begin his story in similar, yet hardly identical ways.
A "close reader" might notice that Prof. White is carefully suggesting that Matthew and Luke were far more concerned about winning converts than they were about the (Gospel) truth. To prevent this point from becoming too obvious, Van Biema reminds us again how much Matthew and Luke did agree on.

This strategy of broaching a heretical suggestion then insisting that it has no such implications characterizes the whole of Time's cover story. Perhaps that isn't a bad thing. Time's cover story accomplishes the important task of introducing readers to a broad range of modern scholarship about the Gospels. I have to admit, I myself found the article tremendously informative.

And yet there is something condescending and disingenuous about the whole approach. Putting on the kid gloves suggests that Christians aren't really ready to grapple with the complexities of their own faith.

Now, I don't pretend to know exactly how journalists should balance the imperatives of candor and tact. Yet I can't help but conclude that the best way to resolve this question is to be open about it and to engage the reader, rather than crafting an unstable and silent compromise. You might say that my philosophy of journalism comes down to just one word: accountability.
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