Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Put 'em up, secular media!

It's so common that it's a cliche. My next younger brother and I were close growing up, which means we fought regularly. The physical side of our altercations usually involved pounding on one another's shoulders and back with our fists. We were smart enough to stay away from faces sensitive areas. He could really be a jerk sometimes. But if someone else had ever attacked him, either verbally or physically, in a serious way, I would have been on the attacker like a Tasmanian Devil. He may have been a jerk, but I'm the only one who had the privilege of calling him one or holding him to account for it.

I kind of feel the same way about free church evangelicalism, the ecclesial tradition in which I was raised and formed until I was midway through college. Obviously, I left that community, and for reasons that I still consider compelling. I have long since made peace with my religious past, and think of it very fondly. Two years ago this week it, while back in that world to bury my father, it was a luminous moment for me to sit down at the organ console in the Baptist church of my youth and help accompany the singing of that marvelous hymn, "When peace like a river attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, 'It is well, it is well with my soul.'" I tear up thinking about it.

So, while I have reserved the privilege for myself of making critical comments about evangelicals, I tend to get a little testy when others do so--particularly those who are not and have never been a practicing evangelical Christian. I'm suspicious of any critique of any church, sect, cult, political party, or philosophical position that is not launched from a place of empathy, from the experience of an insider. With respect to Christianity, this seems to be a challenge that the savants of popular culture, including the news media, have not shown themselves up to.

I'm already on record (here and here) as to my observation that Hollywood falls short. Today I ran across this article about a young documentary film maker by the name of Alexandra Pelosi. Yes, she's related to that Pelosi, which is her good fortune, since now her work is likely to get a lot more attention. Miss Pelosi has produced a film called Friends of God, two years in the making, in which she explores what might be called the "evangelical subculture." Her principal guide for the endeavor was recently discredited Colorado Springs pastor Ted Haggard.

For Reuters reporter Barry Garron, she was not keeping a sufficient distance from her subjects. He chides Pelosi by excoriating them:
Still, the parts of the film that were most troubling were not about abortion or gay marriage or even the incredibly pathetic attacks on evolution. Rather, it was the willingness of evangelicals, young and old, to accept as figurative and literal gospel anything and everything fed to them by authority figures. They appear as automatons, unable or unwilling to question the pronouncements of their leaders.

Also difficult to watch were those who, despite having elected a born-again president and established giant radio and TV networks and a political power base second to none, still feel they are a persecuted minority. If Pelosi's intent is to show that evangelical faith suffocates reason, the point is well-made.

Tell us how you really feel about Christians, Barry!

I haven't got a problem with evolution as the most plausible scientific theory as to the origins of life in general and biodiversity in particular, but the level of vitriol against "creationists" and advocates of "intelligent design" here makes me think Mr Garron has other "issues." And I continue to hang out with evangelicals enough to know that the "automaton" rap is a baseless slur. And evangelical faith suffocating reason? I know of evangelical scholars in just about every academic discipline who could expose that as a pure confection.

Now let's talk about "born again." This is a category that the media really don't get. Part of that is not their fault. The phrase, of course, is from John 3, and Jesus' nocturnal chat with Nicodemus. The concept of spiritual new birth, or regeneration, has been part of Christian theology from the get-g0. In the Catholic tradition it is more or less identified with the moment of baptism. From that perspective, all Christians are "born again." There is no other kind; there is no such thing as a non-born again Christian. This is my own view.

The theology of some of the Reformation churches, however, tends to look for either a conscious moment of decision ("accepting Christ") or an overpowering experience (Wesley's being "strangely warmed") as the sign of new birth. The phrase "born again" came (and I think this is pretty much a twentieth century phenomenon) to be used as a mark of distinction not only from non-Christians, but between Christians. Some groups see the conscious decision or the overpowering experience as the authenticator of one's Christian faith. Someone who has not been "born again" in that way is not, in fact, a real Christian.

So the media were originally misled. But they've since upped the ante. They have taken the label "born again" and honed it to a sharpness beyond that of even the most devout evangelicals. They apply it as a marker by which they sort irrational, fanatical, conservative social agenda-driven, Bible-toting Christians from reasonable, educated, liberal "persons of faith." It's not insidious so much as it's just plain silly, and reveals how little the media really understand about Christian theology, history, and spirituality. It makes me wince.

A word to journalists who would presume to cover the religion beat: Put in the work to get it right. You're just making yourselves look like idiots.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Go get'm Father Dan, a great post.
(Brother Tim)