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Originally posted on getreligion.org

Day after day, millions of Americans who frequent pews see ghosts when they pick up their newspapers or turn on television news.

They read stories that are important to their lives, yet they seem to catch fleeting glimpses of other characters or other plots between the lines. There seem to be other ideas or influences hiding there.

One minute they are there. The next they are gone. There are ghosts in there, hiding in the ink and the pixels. Something is missing in the basic facts or perhaps most of the key facts are there, yet some are twisted. Perhaps there are sins of omission, rather than commission.

A lot of these ghosts are, well, holy ghosts. They are facts and stories and faces linked to the power of religious faith. Now you see them. Now you don't. In fact, a whole lot of the time you don't get to see them. But that doesn't mean they aren't there.

I want to show you an an example -- a case study, if you will -- of what I am talking about, a ghost in a set of stories that is related to this blog that you are visiting (and we hope you come back often).

Democracy of the Dead - Snow Traditions

inter is over and it's time to pack away the shovels, down jackets, insulated boots and mittens until next year. The changing seasons teach different lessons and, this winter, I was reminded of a great truth about life. It goes something like this: There is a right way and a wrong way to shovel snow.

Perhaps you saw the headlines about the massive storms that hit the nation's capital, this past winter. Right after everyone calmed down from the Y2K scare, we were reminded that there are other ways to bring an entire region to a screeching halt.

Or, perhaps you had to dig your way out of record-breaking drifts in some other corner of the country, this year. Or perhaps you live someplace where it's normal to see several feet of snow. Perhaps you're a pro.

I grew up on the Texas Gulf Coast, which is hardly a great place to learn how to handle snow. We were masters of mosquito control.

But, after college, I found myself in the frozen Midwest, where shoveling snow is an art -- right up there with boiling corn and planning tailgate parties. The snow started about Thanksgiving and, before long, I realized that it wasn't going away on its own.

Several weeks, and several backaches later, I started watching the local talent. This is when it hit me: I was not the first person in the history of the world to shovel snow. I didn't have to reinvent the wheel. There I was, a youngster, slumping to the side of the path in exhaustion while gray- haired neighbors soldiered on.

What did they know that I didn't know? Well, yes, there were different kinds of shovels and different kinds of techniques and some folks were more doctrinaire than others. But there were common themes, such as bending your knees, not getting the shovel TOO full and never flinging the snow into the wind. There was a right way and wrong way to face this challenge and, I decided, only a fool would go it alone.

Eventually, I humbled myself and started asking questions. The elders took me in, showed me the ropes and handed down what they had learned -- a kind of oral snow-shoveling Tradition.

Rediscovering Religion — Religion Coverage: Past as Prologue? (2003)

Religion Coverage: Past as Prologue?
(Copyright) The Poynter Institute Poynter Reports, May 2003

Lou Grant had a problem.

Actually, the city editor of the classic TV comedy had two problems.

First of all, the fictional Los Angeles Tribune had lost its religion editor and no self-respecting journalist wanted the job. Second, Grant needed to ditch a lazy, often-drunk, no-good reporter named Mal Cavanaugh.

Finally, Grant saw the light. He told Cavanaugh he was the new religion editor.

"That stinks! Before you stick me with a lousy job like that, I'd quit," said the reporter, before storming out of the room.

Grant's staff beamed. The religion beat was still vacant, but who cared?

That scenario rang true to the editors and religion reporters I interviewed while doing my graduate work at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, researching a project that reached the cover of The Quill in January, 1983.

Many religion-beat veterans were proud of their work, but felt like Rodney Dangerfield in their newsrooms. Editors kept saying that they knew religion was news, but that religion-beat stories seemed too boring, or too controversial, to warrant dedicated coverage.

That's the ticket -- too boring and too controversial.

Journalism strategies in a hostile marketplace (2001)

Soon after John Grisham finished law school in 1981, he started hanging out at the DeSoto County Courthouse on the town square in Hernando, Miss. He had tried writing a book or two at the University of Mississippi, but nothing came of it. Then one day he overheard the horrifying courtroom testimony of a 12-year-old girl who had been raped. What would happen, he asked himself, if the girl's father became so outraged that he killed the rapist?

Grisham couldn't get this story out of his head. Soon he was getting up at 5 a.m. with a notepad, writing chapter after chapter of his first courtroom drama. It took three years to finish the manuscript, and another year of rejections by dozens of companies, before Wynwood Press published 5,000 copies in 1988.

But there was more to this process than telling a story that was in his head and heart.

"While I was writing 'A Time to Kill,' I read everything that was on the New York Times list," said Grisham, at a Baylor University conference called "Art & Soul" in March, 2000. "Most of it, I said to myself, 'I can do better than this.' A lot of it, I said, 'I'll never be that good.' "

Grisham realized that he was not writing the first legal thriller. So he read the competition and he learned the rules -- the writing style of the marketplace in which he would have to compete. He created a likable hero and then he ensnared him in a dangerous conspiracy. Then he carefully plotted a way to get him out of that mess, with as many entertaining twists and turns along the way as possible to create tension.

"I didn't invent that," said Grisham.

Stephen Carter 2.0 — "God’s Name in Vain" (2001)

A Yale law professor -- and evangelical -- warns about the costs of political involvement. 
God's Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics Stephen L. Carter Basic, 288 pages, $26

Reviewed by Terry Mattingly

During the 1992 Republican Convention, Vice President Dan Quayle shouted this question to a room full of delegates: "Who do we trust?"

The assembly yelled, "Jesus!"

Quayle had expected to hear, "George Bush!"

This anecdote appears early in God's Name in Vain by Yale law professor Stephen Carter. The question, of course, is whether this is a parable about Christians (a) selling their souls for a place at a worldly table or (b) bluntly confessing that eternal authority is more important than a political endorsement. The answer seems to be--both.

In this sequel to his breakthrough book, The Culture of Disbelief, Carter argues that believers--even fundamentalists and evangelicals--have every right to raise their voices early and often in the public square. He warns, however, that they will pay a high price for their covenants with political principalities and powers.

So, yes, the religious right has softened its rhetoric on moral and social issues in order to dance with the Libertarians in the gop tent.

But what goes around comes around, notes Carter, who openly identifies himself as an evangelical believer in this book. Leaders on the religious left have also walked this tricky path. Long ago, the clergy who led the civil rights movement surrendered many of their most prophetic goals when they married the Democratic Party. How long has it been since anyone heard the Rev. Jesse Jackson preach a prolife sermon?

This would not have surprised C. S. Lewis, whose brief essay "Meditation on the Third Commandment" provides one of the central themes of this book. In it, Lewis argued against founding a "Christian" political party. If it were truly Christian, then it would preach the whole package of the Christian faith and, thus, would be too demanding to succeed at the ballot box. But if it were truly a political party, it would be driven to make the kinds of compromises needed to win elections. Thus, it would not be truly Christian.

Carter concludes, "Religious organizations making pragmatic compromises for victory should ask themselves two simple questions: If we win, what are we winning? And at what cost?"

A sad Democrat votes: Why I cast my first vote for a GOP president (2000)

Copyright © WORLD Magazine, November 2000

The Gen-X blond standing behind the Democratic Party placards gave me a tired smile election morning as I headed into my polling place a few miles from the D.C. Beltway.

Vote for the Democratic Party, said the signs.

Not this time, sister.

I smiled back, sort of. It was a sad smile. I'm a Democrat and have been all my life. That used to be a normal thing for people who grew up in middle-class Bible Belt homes. But I cast my first vote today for a Republican candidate for president.

Why? Because Gov. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania is dead and I can't write in his name anymore, that's why. He's the old-guard Catholic Democrat who was banned from the 1992 Democratic National Convention floor, the man who told his party's platform hearings: "The national Democratic Party has embraced abortion on demand. I believe this position is wrong in principle and out of the mainstream of our party's historic commitment to protecting the powerless.... Abortion is the ultimate violence. Abortion on demand has, in my judgment, contributed significantly to an environment in our country in which life has become very cheap."

Powerful words, coming just a few years before Columbine High School and so, so much more.

The Mercy Of Confession (2000)

Published in Again Magazine and a shorter version at WWW.Beliefnet.com

When I was a teen-ager, it took forever to get my hair right.There was this one place that was really bad, behind my right ear. My hair wanted to flip out. I wanted it to flip under. The longer I grew my hair out, the better, or the worse, this particular thicket would become.

It was incredibly important -- almost a life-and-death matter -- to have long-ish hair when you were a Southern Baptist preacher's kid in the late 1960s.

But there was no way, given the social and theological realities of the circumstances, for me to take the plunge and grow my hair out so far that gravity would take care of the tell-tale flip, turning it into a mere wave in a shoulder-length mane. What I needed was hair that was long enough to satisfy me and my friends, yet hair that wasn't longer than the hair on most of the heads of the sons of the deacons at the Proctor Street Baptist Church in Port Arthur, Texas. In many ways, it must have been easier to be a hippie than a Baptist.

The liturgy of mass media (2000)

Published in Again Magazine, an Orthodox magazine emphasizing missions and evangelism 

I have no idea how many times I have heard church leaders quote the following statement by Bob Pittman, one of the key executives in the development of MTV: "At MTV, we don't shoot for the 14-year-olds, we own them."

It's easy to understand why conservatives keep doing this. This is precisely the kind of laugh-to- keep-from-crying line sound bite that cuts deep with Christian audiences. I've used it myself and, truth is, I just used it again.

Pittman was being serious and his boast is fair game, when it comes to sparking discussions of many cultural and moral issues linked to young people in America and, increasingly, around the world. However, I'm getting worried about the frequent use of this quotation, and many other punchy references to MTV and youth culture. Frankly, I worry that adults would rather moan about the sins of the young, and those who cater to them, than focus on the role that entertainment plays in all of our lives.

During the past two decades, I have had many conversations with leaders in churches, denominations, parachurch groups and even seminaries about media trends. Most in most of these interviews, we cover a wide range of issues. But there almost always comes a time when the other person says something like: "You know, we really need to do something about our young people. You wouldn't believe some of the stuff they are exposed to these days. You know, I heard somewhere that the head of MTV once said. ..."

Yes, I know: "At MTV, we don't shoot for the 14-year-olds, we own them."

Don't get me wrong. I'm worried about the role that music videos, movies, computers, personal stereos, television and other forms of mass media play in the lives of young people. I agree with the statement, made by Dr. Quentin Schultze and a circle of media researchers at Calvin College in their classic book "Dancing In The Dark": "Usually adults simply ignore youth-oriented popular art and accept only their own views as legitimate. By ignoring youth art, however, adults ignore the children in their care."

Dr. Haddon Robinson: A Tribute (1999)

A Tribute

The expositor must also be aware of the currents swirling across his own times, for each generation develops out of its own history and culture and speaks its own language. A minister may stand before a congregation and deliver exegetically accurate sermons, scholarly and organized, but dead and powerless because they ignore the life-wrenching problems and questions of his hearers. Such sermons, spoken in a stained-glass voice using a code language never heard in the marketplace, dabble in great biblical concepts, but the audience feels that God belonged to the long ago and far away. Expositors must not only answer the questions our fathers asked; they must wrestle with the questions our children ask." (1)

The Baptist preacher had a mysterious look on his face as he gestured to me across a crowed hall at Denver Seminary. He was using that discreet come here" index-finger waggle folks use when they're trying to get a specific person's attention without getting anyone else's attention. He spoke in a low voice, like an embarrassed teen in a drug store asking the person behind the counter to sell him a copy of Playboy.

Look, Mr. Mattingly," he asked. What did YOU think of Thelma & Louise?"

I need to set the scene. You see, this is a parable about how clergy end up on a different wavelength than the people who sit in their pews or who live in neighborhoods surrounding their churches. And it sheds light on one of the toughest tasks that Dr. Haddon Robinson has faced while teaching men and women how to preach.

It was the fall of 1991, a few months after I left my work as a religion reporter at the Rocky Mountain News to work with Dr. Robinson on a project attempting to integrate studies in popular culture and mass media into the seminary's core curriculum. On this particular day, I was the speaker in luncheon for clergy, alumni and others interested in the seminary and, in particular, its post-graduate studies.

I told them what I had been telling my students: that they live and minister in a culture built on language and symbols created by mass media. Modern media are so invasive and pervasive that church leaders simply cannot afford to ignore them.

Clergy can respond to this reality in one of two ways: No. 1: They can be so threatened by it that they remain silent. No. 2: They can learn to think like missionaries and use popular culture as a source of insights and information for ministry.

Popular culture is a warped mirror of our lives, but a mirror nonetheless. To use approach No. 1 is to be purely negative. Approach No. 2 mixes criticism of mass media's contents and social role with a sobering realization of the power that media have in modern life. It is realistic, critical and, ultimately, constructive.

At one time of another, most of the people at that luncheon had heard Dr. Robinson say that they needed to exegete their culture as well as exegete the Word of God. That was bad enough. Now here was a journalist standing at a seminary podium telling them that they needed to try to pay critical attention to magazines and movies and television and talk shows and then take what they learned with them into the pulpit.

Many of the preachers were not amused and the discussion after my lecture was lively, to say the least. One pastor bluntly said that he couldn't get up in his pulpit and talk about movies, because that would mean admitting that he had SEEN them. Another added: If I do that, I have a couple of deacons and big givers who will kill me."

We broke for lunch and that was when the Baptist preachers began pulling me aside. One after another, three different pastors found a way to raise the same question: What did I think of Thelma & Louise, referring to director Ridley Scott's explosive feminist manifesto that had been making headlines all summer. Eventually, actresses Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis ended up on the June 24, 1991, cover of Time, with the confrontational headline Why Thelma & Louise Strikes A Nerve."

I gave the preachers an honest answer. I hadn't seen the movie. But I did have an entire file folder full of essays and reviews about the film. I was aware it had served as the latest spark igniting the gasoline of our culture's ongoing debates over sex roles. I was planning to wait and see if the movie would have a lasting impact. Then I would rent it on videocassette and, with pen and notepad in hand, sit down in a responsible and controlled environment -- perhaps with seminary colleagues -- and take careful notes.

But clearly, I needed to turn this question around. I didn't have a pulpit. They did. They were pastors, with the responsibility of guiding pilgrims in the modern world. They were experienced preachers. Plus, it was these preachers -- not me -- who had on this occasion ventured into the risky environment of a multiplex sanctuary.

By the time the third Baptist cornered me, I was ready to ask the questions that needed to be answered: What did HE think of Thelma & Louise? Why had HE chosen to go see it?

Well, yes, he saw the Time cover. And, yes, he had heard about the movie from his wife, who heard some of her friends talking about it. And then he overheard a conversation in the church office. He knew that some women in the church had seen the movie and were still talking about it. His instincts told him this was something worth pursuing.

So far, so good, I said. What nerve did he think the movie struck?

Now he was on uncertain ground. Clearly, he said, it had something to do with female anger.

OK, I asked, what were Thelma and Louise angry about?

Well, he said, husbands and lovers had abused them, or abandoned them, or both. Other men tricked them, or attacked them, or failed to make or honor commitments. Even good men who were sympathetic managed, in subtle ways, to keep a safe distance. Thelma and Louise felt stranded. Then they got mad. Then they tried to get even.

This is very interesting, I said. Why did he think this message appealed to more than a few women in his conservative Christian flock? Why were they forming packs, or slipping off solo, to sit in the dark and watch this movie? And, come to think of it, did he have any angry women in his church?

Now he was very uncomfortable. Sure, he said, some women in his church were angry for some of the same reasons. His congregation contained its share of divorces and some had been messy. There was emotional abuse and one or two cases of physical abuse. A few husbands had vanished and there were times when he wished some other men would take a hike, too. Behind the scenes, many wives complained that their husbands were workaholics and emotionally distant. Some of them felt like single moms.

Yes, he said, there were angry and grieving women in his church.

Are some of them, I asked, the women who were going to see Thelma & Louise?

He nodded -- yes.

Well, to me this sounded like this might be worth a sermon.

Yes it did, the pastor said. But he knew that there was no way he could preach it. For one thing, he wasn't sure he could afford to preach about such an emotional, volatile topic. He also knew that many in his congregation would be upset if he quoted an R-rated movie, let alone suggested that it raised questions relevant to the church. Even some who had seen Thelma & Louise, and identified with it, might be upset if their pastor said that the film asked valid questions, but offered dangerous answers.

It would just be too risky. He could go and see the movie, but he couldn't admit that he had done so. The insights and feelings inspired by the movie couldn't be applied, at least directly, to the lives of his people. He was caught in a painful dilemma, a wrenching separation of church and life. Trouble was, this signal was coming from a sector of life that his church had declared out of bounds.

I asked one final question. So, his people went to the mall and the movie multiplex to find sermons on these kinds of life-wrenching issues?

Once again he nodded -- yes.

Men or women who speak effectively for God must first struggle with the questions of their age and then speak to those questions from the eternal truth of God. To expound the Scriptures so the contemporary God confronts us where we live requires the preacher study his audience as well as his Bible." (2)

Day after day, our culture sends us signals.

Many, if not most, are worthless. Thus, we have a tendency to ignore them. This is especially true of visual media -- especially television. Television is everywhere, so we no longer notice many of its messages. As media researcher Neil Postman has noted: Television has become the background radiation of the social and intellectual universe, the all-but-imperceptible residue of the electronic big bang of a century past, so familiar and so thoroughly integrated with American culture that we no longer hear its faint hissing in the background or see the flickering gray light." (3)

Some people have a gift for sorting through the static and seeing the patterns, hearing the signals and then figuring out a way to deliver a response. This doesn't mean that this work is easy. This doesn't mean that anyone has found a perfect way to teach others how to learn to perform these kinds of intellectual and spiritual gymnastics.

But somewhere in the middle of his ministry, Haddon Robinson began urging his students to try to take the leap.

Perhaps this had something to do with the lessons he learned studying communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he used an early computer the size of a warehouse to help pinpoint patterns in his data on religious broadcasting. Or perhaps something clicked earlier in his live -- much, much earlier.

As a boy, Robinson attended the 1938 World's Fair in New York City. It was a day packed with wonders, but what intrigued him the most was the exhibit on the emerging technology called television. The thought of being able to see movies at own home was astonishing. In the 1940s, Robinson worked as a bicycle courier. By then some of the city's bars had televisions and, in between jobs delivering messages, he would linger at the doors watching snippets of baseball games. He was fascinated. He was changed. Years later, it would be crucial that he could remember a time when television was new. This is one reason he has always been able to study it, as well as watch it.

As a teacher, Robinson stresses that preachers must understand the forces that shape the lives of the people they want to reach. This is an obvious point -- elementary oral-communications theory. Yet preachers don't seem to have noticed mass media's role in the changing lives of their people in the second half of the 20th Century. Almost overnight, television went from being an innovation to being so common that it is all but invisible. Modern church leaders live in the world of television, yet most act as if the medium and the culture it has helped create do not exist.

Most of you cannot conceive of a world without television and television has come to dominate the life of men and women throughout the world as books did three and four hundred years ago," said Robinson, in a 1991 Denver sermon ranging from oral tradition and clay-tablet libraries to satellites and computer networks. Television is omnipresent. We have now moved in our society into a post-literate society. The way in which people get ideas, the way in which they shape their ideals, comes not because they read books, but because they see it, they visualize it. It's on television." (4)

Most church leaders have been taught how to work and preach in the culture of books. They feel comfortable with books. They know how to respond, in the pulpit, to most concepts that they encounter in print. They are less comfortable with the barrage of images, concepts and feelings that they encounter at the multiplex in the mall, in lobbies and waiting rooms, at the local video-rental establishments or on the TV screens strategically located throughout their own homes and those of their parishioners.

If asked to do so, most seminary-educated pastors could write a paper or preach a sermon about why it is important to believe that the Word of God contains absolute truths that can help people make tough decisions in daily life. Many pastors would be able to debate a representative of another world religion, drawing lines between its beliefs and centuries of Christian teaching.

But it's highly likely that those same preachers would struggle -- or be totally lost -- if shown episodes of Oprah in which she winsomely tells story after tear-jerking story about how people follow the whispers in their hearts and then find happiness and wholeness. In other words, truth is rooted in human experience and there are few, if any, moral absolutes.

These pastors may have been required to take a seminary course that would help them debate a Hindu believer. But no one told them that screenwriters and producers would take the same concepts and, backed with multimillion-dollar budgets, beam them into living rooms in the form of mesmerizing myths and parables. Odds are that their apologetics professor didn't apply the Bible to Star Trek and its Prime Directive."

We live in an age of visual sermons. We are entertained by them, but do not take them seriously. Above all, we do not understand that how visual media communicate is just as important as what they communicate. We soak up the symbols and stories, while waiting for the secular media's principalities and powers to send us a book containing propositions we can refute with logical, linear arguments based on chapter and verse.

Look at advertising. One of the few things on which most Americans agree is that they are not influenced by advertisements. Yet most folks walking in the mall can sing dozens of jingles, fill in the blanks in hundreds of ad slogans and their likes and dislikes have, in large part, been shaped by years of images -- a video catechism of what it means to be alive.

But few ads today make their pitch using lines of type and linear arguments. Instead, they show us images. Some are funny and some are stupid, but they are almost always colorful and gripping. Truth is, these images are the first step in a kind of sacramental system. Step 1: See this image, experience this feeling, feel this need. Step 2: Buy and consume this product. Step 3: Accept, by faith, that using or consuming this product will help you become like the people in the images. The goal is to be able to say, I am the kind of person who consumes this product." Whether they realize it or not, millions of people make professions of faith at the shopping mall.

This transcends logic. Media theorists Luigi and Allesandra Maclean Manca note that consumers tend to act toward a product as if it had a soul or a personality of its own. The function of advertising is therefore to suggest or even create this soul in the minds of the consumers. This is obviously a pseudo-spirituality. Viewing the crime, fear, organized violence, poverty, racism, and genocide that are also part of our daily lives, it seems likely that we actually have a great spiritual void." (5)

Visual images are especially effective at telling stories and stirring emotions. They paint in broad, symbolic strokes, with the images building in layers, shaping opinions and attitudes.

There is a debate going on in our culture, stressed Dr. Robinson. The problem is that someone changed the rules and very few church leaders noticed.

We are in an antagonistic environment," he said, in that 1991 sermon. It's an environment that communicates with images. It doesn't come out and argue. It just simply shows you pictures -- day after day after day after day. Before you realize it, in the basement of your mind, you discover that you have shifted your values and many times you've lost your faith. That's a change. When you watch television, people are robbed and raped and murdered and they never pray. They never seek out a minister. They never bother going to church. That world of television is a world in which God has no place. It's the world we live in." If the church doesn't take this change seriously, he noted, then we are going to be left in the exhaust fumes of the society."

Few church leaders will come right out and say that the church should ignore these changes, said Robinson. But when challenged to address the symbols and sermons in popular culture most preachers respond with silence. They have not been taught how to respond. Often, they have been taught that they should not attempt to do so.

In quoting the Greek poets and philosophers, of course, Paul was not endorsing Athenian philosophy to Athenian philosophers. In quoting the pagan sources, Paul merely took advantage of insights consistent with biblical revelation and more easily accepted by his hearers." (6)

The Master of Divinity student was confused and angry. Why was it so important, he asked, to analyze news and entertainment trends? Everyone knows that the secular media are liberal and opposed to the church. So why spend so much classroom time talking about popular culture? After all, he said, he came to seminary to learn how to be a pastor. What did this media stuff have to do with that?

"Now, pretend that I don't speak fluent evangelical, I said, in response. "Tell me, in simple English, about a subject that really matters to seminary students.''

In the front row, a student answered: Discipleship."

That's a code word, I said. What does discipleship" mean?

The student said that he wanted his ministry to touch the real lives of real people. He wanted to affect their views on the big issues, such as jobs, marriage and money. I want the faith to affect ... how they really live," he said.

I agreed. Discipleship," if taken seriously, should have an impact on checkbooks, pocket calendars, parenting and daily life. Then I pivoted and pointed to my list of the major forms of modern mass media -- television, advertising, movies, print and video news media, popular music, etc. Of course, these secular media, I joked, don't influence how people view work, success, sex, family, divorce, children, life, death or eternity. And the folks who run the media never ignore or knock Christianity. Right?

Looking around, I could see lights clicking on. At that moment, I improvised a kind of journalistic definition of "discipleship,'' consisting of three questions: How do you spend your time? How do you spend your money? How do you make your decisions? If pastors can answer these questions today in America without colliding with the power of mass media, then they have a promising future in ministry to the Amish.

Yes, this is a secular, highly statistical definition.' But asking and answering these kinds of practical questions will force church leaders to study the lives of the people they want to reach. Again and again, Dr. Robinson reminds speakers that they must try to understand what is inside the heads and hearts of those to whom they speak.

Think of it this way. What are the basic subjects that foreign missionaries study? Obviously, they need to learn to speak the language of the culture in which they will minister. They must study its myths, symbols and taboos and the forces that shape family life, education, politics and commerce. They must be able to analyze a culture and anticipate opportunities to meet needs and answer questions.

When it comes to these kinds of issues, any missionary who came to North America would quickly grasp the pivotal role mass media play in this culture. Often, Americans cannot see this because the subject is too big. It is like the old Chinese proverb about the fish that, when asked to describe its life, forgot to mention water.

How can preachers learn to think more like missionaries? Every time St. Paul entered a new land he seems to have headed straight to the synagogue and the marketplace. Any preacher who wants to do this today will need to study the signals that people receive while sitting on their couches or strolling through their malls.

So what is a signal?" I define this as a single piece of media or popular culture focusing on a subject that is of vital interest to the church. It can be a newspaper article, a single episode of a television show, a compact disc, a movie, a new video, a best-selling book or some other item. The goal is to tune in a single worthy signal, out of the millions the media pour over us every day. Above all, preachers must learn to recognize when the media launch a major invasion into biblical territory.

In the Thelma & Louise case, those preachers had found a solid signal. How? They spotted evidence in other media that this was an important film. This kind of crossover effect is common. For example, newspapers usually write advance stories about controversial movies or television programs. Also, these preachers listened to members of their families and congregations. It's crucial for preachers to find some forum in which they can talk to the unchurched. Youth ministers can ask young people to provide news clippings about their favorite artists, or videos by their favorite bands. Above all, church leaders must listen and pay attention. I have never stood in a packed church lobby and failed to overhear people talking about movies or television shows. Once again: think like a missionary.

I have found that most signals fall into three categories.

The first is so obvious that even the secular media themselves recognize that it has moral and theological content. These signals reach a very high percentage of the population, in and outside the pews. The movie version of The Silence of the Lambs put the subject of evil and sin on the cover of Time and a preacher that read the novel would have found a revealing study of theodicy. Every year or two, the culture rides another wave of interest in life after death and near-death experiences. A list of such obvious topics would go on and on.

The second kind of signal" can be seen as a rifle shot at a specific niche" in the population. Anyone who works with single adults knows that their media lives are different from those of adults who are married or who have children. Today, a youth worker must ask WHICH youth culture is most relevant. But they can never forget that cable television and satellites have wiped away many regional differences. Members of a youth group in the Appalachian hills may have been just as devastated by the 1994 suicide of grunge rocker Curt Cobain as teens in big-city suburbs.

This is one of the most frustrating aspects of mass media to most church leaders. The same media that create national trends and myths also carve congregations into tiny camps of people who speak different languages. One day, the young people are talking about aliens and the paranormal. The next day, it's on 60 Minutes or The Today Show and grandparents are asking for guidance.

Preachers fear that, by addressing a signal that hits one part of the congregation, they will alienate everyone else. There is no one spirit of the age -- they are legion. But the solution to this problem isn't silence. Here is the general rule: the broader the audience touched by a signal, the more likely it can be used effectively in the pulpit. If the niche is small, then this issue should be addressed in smaller forums, such as retreats or seminars.

Finally, there are signals that are important precisely BECAUSE they haven't exploded into the public consciousness -- yet. Often, it is possible to hear whispers in the popular culture about issues that will soon be shouted from the rooftops. This is where church leaders must concede that screenwriters and musicians and journalists often do a better job of monitoring the public pulse than do religious educators, entrepreneurs and bureaucrats. Musician and writer John Fischer has noted:

No one can paint a picture of being lost better than someone who is lost and cannot see the way. In many ways, the world is its own best critic. The keenest indictments against the world come from the pages of its journalists, commentators, artists, and comics. The funny pages of a newspaper can convey the most scathing of social criticism, showing how the world's attempts to solve its own problems often come up short." (8)

Once, the so-called men's movement was a whisper. Once, The X Files was just another obscure cable television show for curious teens. It turned out to be the tip of an iceberg of doubt about the wisdom of modern science. For that matter, the creators of Thelma & Louise may have thought they were making a niche movie for feminists who yearn to handle guns.

Preachers may fear that they will wander through the pop-culture fields, picking through mass-media haystacks in search for the right illustration to plug into one of their sermon outlines. They're right. That would be a tremendous waste of time. Instead, they should listen to their own people as they describe the truths and lies they encounter in popular culture. Once again: How do they spend their time? How do they spend their money? How do they make their decisions?

So a preacher finds a worthy signal. Now what? While working with Dr. Robinson, I developed a four-step process to get from the mall to the pulpit.

Step one, obviously, is to find a specific media signal, as previously defined.

Step two requires honest, open-minded analysis. We want to find what I call the signal's secular subject," as the artist would define it. Interviews often contain clues.

Remember that artists must attract and hold an audience. In one way or another they have to deal with real issues or with what we could even call big ideas" -- life, death, love, hate, money, marriage, sex, fear, children, anger, pride, hatred, war and so forth. We must ask: what was the subject that the artist wanted to address?

Step three is mirrors step two. Once you have found this "secular subject,'' it will almost always have moral or theological overtones. It will be a "sacred subject'' that we share in common with the saints and sinners down the ages. Stories change. Images change. Questions often sound new and strange. But the "big ideas'' are remarkably constant, because the stuff of human experience is the same.

Doctrines exist and the Bible is relevant to each generation because the ``sacred subjects'' don't change. At this point, seminary-educated pastors and other church leaders are within shouting distance of the media-dominated lives of millions of Americans.

Step four is the hardest part, because it requires church leaders to think of ways to respond. This does not require a television network or digital equipment. I believe the church must respond by using its strengths -- preaching, Christian education, prayer groups, retreats, and other traditional forms of ministry.

However, I remain convinced that it is crucial to actually quote media signals as part of a response. In other words, we must confess that the myths and messages we consume on our couches and at our malls matter. We must talk to our people about their real lives and, like it or not, this means talking about popular culture. We must admit that we are listening. We must try to understand. By doing so, we are not letting the world hijack the church's agenda. We will merely be taking part in a debate in which the church cannot afford to remain silent. We cannot do so without studying signals from popular culture and then openly discussing them in the church.

Preachers who dare to do this will find that people will discuss these subjects -- a lot. They will not be dispassionate. They will challenge opinions and criticize judgments. They will bend the preacher's ear. They will ask questions. Many will ask for help.

For many church leaders these reactions will be scary, at first. But this is a reason to address media issues, not a reason to turn and run. We must admit that most of our people do not have the media under control. If anything, it's the other way around.

It would be easy to get depressed. It would be easy to be discouraged and to say that this task is impossible, that it will require a kind of honesty that is impossible in our churches. Others will say that the church is already too far behind, so it is better not to even try to defend timeless truths from those who attack them in the modern age.

Dr. Haddon Robinson knows all of that. But he still believes that God can use preaching to shed light in our time, in this age. If churches and seminaries will not do what needs to be done, then God will go on and do other things," he said, as he concluded his sermon that day in Denver. We always live in the light of his triumph. He doesn't need us. He doesn't need folks who are sure that they are going to do it the way they've always done it. He passes by churches. He blows out lamps. He moves on to other things. The only question is whether we are going to move with him, or stay where we are and let the fire fall someplace else. That is the challenge and if we do not rise to it, someone else will. God's work will be done -- with us or without us."

  1. Biblical Preaching, pages 77-78.
  2. Biblical Preaching, pages 78-79.
  3. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. (New York: Penguin, 1985), page 79.
  4. From a Haddon Robinson sermon at Denver Seminary on Jan. 4, 1991, focusing on mass media, seminary education and the church. All other subsequent Robinson quotes in this chapter are from this same address, unless marked otherwise.
  5. Luigi and Allesandra Manca, The Siren's Song: A Theory of Subliminal Seduction," published in Mediamerica, Mediaworld, Fifth Edition. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1993), pp. 298-300.
  6. N.B. Stonehouse, The Areopagus Address," in Paul Before the Areopagus and Other New Testament Studies (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), pp. 1-40, quoted in Biblical Preaching, page 85.
  7. The remainder of this chapter is based on material in Prof. Terry Mattingly's annual And Now A Word From Your Culture" lectures, given in the Doctor of Ministry program at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. See also the chapter with the same title in Shaping Our Future: Challenges for the Church in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge-Boston, Mass.: Cowley Publications, 1994), pp. 130-144.
  8. John Fischer, What On Earth Are We Doing? Finding Our Place as Christians in the World (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant Publications, 1996), page 119.

Thoughts in Hong Kong: Journalistic heresies in our times (1997)

We live and write in an age in which all kinds of groups in the world of religion are being reshaped and their words and rites and symbols are being redefined.

This is news. Many religious groups are growing. So are in decline. Some are evolving. Some who call themselves Catholics act like Pentecostals and others act like goddess worshippers. There are Pentecostals who are converting to Eastern Orthodoxy, while others meet in megachurches and stage rites that resemble rock concerts. There are Jews who plead for universal religious liberties and those who want to strip gentiles of their right to freedom of speech. It's a confusing age.

It would be good to be able to read more about these kinds of trends in the morning newspaper. If and when we do see news reports about events of this kind, it would be good to be able to trust what we read. Meanwhile, the Internet allows all kinds of people involved in these events and trends to spread all kinds of information around the world. We do not know if we can trust them, either.

In the conventional press, we hear silence or worse. In the new media of cyberspace, we hear all kinds of voices. Where can we find information we can trust?

It would help if there were more communication, and better communication, between the people who see their calling as turning over rocks to find dirt and those who believe they are called to dig through the dirt to find the Rock. The worlds of journalism and religion are, at times, part of the same equation. The people in these fields often have remarkably similar motivations. Yet they could not possibly live in more different worlds -- with different goals and different rules.

It goes without saying that many religious leaders believe they are slighted and abused by the press. But we also meet here in an age in which people in the media are beginning to feel a bit downtrodden -- with good reason. A former colleague of mine in the Scripps Howard News Service, political writer Peter Brown, tells a story about the public's attitudes towards journalists that is both funny and rather sobering.

"The Salvation Army headed relief efforts in Waco, Texas, in the spring of 1993 when 80 men, women and children holed up from federal law enforcement officials for almost two months in a (Branch Davidian) compound before perishing in a conflagration. During that period, it got a few dozen calls from people who saw pictures showing this group distributing coffee, cold drinks and sandwiches to the hundreds of reporters on hand. One woman from Detroit was so incensed she called the Salvation Army commander there, Maj. Avedis Kasarian." She said her blood pressure went up about 40 points when she read we were serving the news media,' he recalled. She couldn't understand why anyone would be nice to journalists." (2)

This image captures the view that many citizens -- especially religious people and cultural conservatives -- have of those who work in the news media.

A Modest Proposal to Save the Church (1997)

To Save America and the Church (Yes, A Satire)

Please consider this modest proposal.

On a nationally publicized Sunday morning - progressive scholars might choose the feast of St. John, the Beloved Disciple - every gay, lesbian or bisexual person in America who has the slightest interest in declaring themselves to be a "person of faith" should flock to the nearest Episcopal parish and sign up. If they did so, I believe this would have a tremendous, positive effect on the Episcopal Church, on all other Christian churches in North America and on this deeply divided nation.

How, you ask, did I reach this conclusion?

It was in March that Time magazine published a news piece that got me to thinking. The article focused on the recent votes within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to pass a constitutional amendment declaring that clergy should "live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage of a man and a woman, or in chastity in singleness." In other words, the Presbyterians had taken the radical step of defending the traditional Christian teaching that sex outside of marriage is sin.

Time saw this as a stunning development. Why, it even threatened efforts to promote Christian unity. How? For decades, the PCUSA had been active in merger talks with other mainline Protestant bodies. However, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), allow sexually active gays, lesbians and bisexuals to serve as clergy. Also, another party in the merger talks - the Episcopal Church - has a "de facto toleration policy." Now the Presbyterians had mucked up the whole thing.

"Thus, in the fierce debate over sexual orientation, Protestant Christians in America may have lost a chance to forge a historic unity," said Time.

Note that Time assumed that Christian unity was being threatened by the actions of the Presbyterians who were defending (a) centuries of Church teaching, (b) the views of the vast majority of Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians alive today and (c) even Presbyterianism's own teachings. In other words, those who wanted to change centuries of unbroken Christian tradition were not threatening the unity of the Church.

That's one way to look at it.

Location, Location, Location, Location (1997)

Four Camps In The Episcopal Church 

It's the cardinal rule of real estate and it's also true in Episcopal Church politics.

When push comes to shove, almost everything depends on location, location, location, location. How someone views the state and the future of the Church usually depends on the Zip Code in which an Episcopalian's kneeler is located.

Consider these four symbolic cases.

Episcopalian No. 1 lives in the Southwest. His bishop supports evangelical causes and can quote chapter and verse from recent papal encyclicals. The diocese has taken a strong stand in defense of traditional Christian teachings on the sacrament of marriage and has proclaimed that salvation is found through Jesus Christ, alone.

Episcopalian No. 2 lives out West. Her vestry has told the diocese that it will do everything it can to defend the catholic faith and biblical morality. The diocesan bishop -- flying in "stealth" mode -- has managed to keep from taking a stand. At this point, the bishop is being fair to churches on both the left and right.

Episcopalian No. 3 loves his parish. However, it is located in a Midwestern diocese that strongly supports the national church hierarchy. His bishop publicly supported Bishop Walter Righter and signed on the bottom line for Bishop Jack Spong. The bishop has, privately, told this priest that his parish will have to start opening its checkbook or be demoted to mission status. The priest has called the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese.

Episcopalian No. 4 is active in her Old South parish, but shuddered when her children came home from a youth group meeting talking about Gaia theory and environmental spirituality. Then the parish formed an Integrity chapter. Whenever she and her husband talk to the rector, they hear that their views matter -- but nothing ever happens. Meanwhile, there is no other Episcopal parish in town. The Charismatic Episcopal Church, however, may start a mission.

Whenever these four conservative Episcopalians bump into each other -- at national meetings or on the Internet -- they agree that something has to be done to defend traditional doctrine in the Episcopal Church. They all agree that times are tough. But they never can agree on what course of action to take and they keep getting mad at each other.

My Reading List on Media and the Church (1997)

DATE: January, 1997
FROM: Prof. Terry Mattingly
TO: Arrow Leadership Program participants
E: Bibliography on the church, media and popular culture

INTRODUCTION:

On one level, we are all experts on American popular culture. We breathe it in day after day. We can sing along with our favorite songs and quote the crucial lines of our favorite movies. We know the intimate details of the lives of our favorite media superstars and, often, we can quote a few of the jokes we heard on talk shows during the previous 24 hours.

Entertainment and news, or info-tainment, are important to us. Each year, we devote thousands of hours and dollars to media. Glance at our checkbooks, or at our unwritten schedules for daily lives, and you will see signs of the power of the secular media.

One of the only places a modern American can avoid hearing about media and popular culture is in seminary classrooms, and, thus, in church pews.

Thus, it isn't surprising that the shelves of most seminary or church book stores contain very few books about how to understand or interpret the media. A few books have been written -- most of them valid -- that focus on frightening trends in media and popular culture, especially trends that affect young people. But it's harder to find books that offer positive insights or that address the role that we allow the media to play in our lives.

Two Views of One Wall (1996)

The Church vs. Media; Media vs. the Church 

If you want to find unity in a room full of religious leaders, just ask them what they think of the news media.

A much-debated 1993 study of attitudes among clergy and journalists stated the obvious: "A chasm of misunderstanding and ignorance separates those who pursue careers in the secular news- media field and those whose careers are in the field of religion." This report from the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center found "two alien cultures, the media and religion -- one rooted largely in a search for facts and the other grounded in a discovery of faith beyond fact."

You can call it a chasm. I prefer to call it a wall. Whatever you call it, what we have here is a failure to communicate.

For nearly two decades, I've been beating my head on this wall that separates two worlds -- religion and the secular media. Most of this "research" came while working as a religion writer in secular newspapers and I continue to write a nationally syndicated column on religion news.

It's easy for religious people to pound away at folks in the secular media. Lord knows we deserve it, more often than not.

However, this walls has two sides. During the past five years or so, my experiences working with seminaries, parachurch groups and other religious institutions have forced me to take a second look at this wall. More on that later.

Four Biases Against Religion News (1995)

And What Newspaper Editors Can Do About Them

The Southern Baptists' 1984 convention in Kansas City, Mo., was a donnybrook, with waves of angry debate cresting as leaders of America's largest non-Catholic flock said women shouldn't be ordained because Eve sinned first in Eden. I wasn't surprised, when I got home, to learn that my Charlotte Observer stories about the event were drawing cheers and jeers from readers.

Before long, I heard whispers that SBC "moderates" might form a rump organization and were about to meet in Charlotte. This was national news, with a strong local angle. I sent a note to the city desk and dashed out to do research.

Later, I noticed the story wasn't in the daily news budget. I asked why and was sent to see an editor. I'll never forget why he spiked my scoop. He didn't want to see any Southern Baptist stories for a while, he said, because they made readers get too emotional and "every time you write about that stuff we get too many letters to the editor."

I am convinced this was a rare case of an editor actually saying what was on his mind when talking about religion news.

It was, and is, impossible to argue that religion isn't news. Everyone from Billy Graham to Shirley MacLaine has preached sermons to journalists noting that religious groups shape the lives of millions, control budgets containing billions of dollars and play pivotal roles in an unusually high number of gripping local, national and international stories. It was, and is, hard to argue that stories about religious trends and institutions aren't appealing -- or in some cases appalling -- to many readers. These stories get read and often provoke strong reactions.

Orlando, Evangelicals and the TV Culture (1994)

An essay that no one wanted to publish

DATE: 8/1/94
FROM: Prof. Terry Mattingly 
TO: Christianity Today
RE: Orlando and the role of television

This is a short test for evangelicals.Name three American cities that are known as centers for:

  1. Cultural liberalism.
  2. The news and entertainment media.
  3. Evangelical Christianity.

Whenever this test is used, two cities always top the list on question No. 1 -- New York City and Los Angeles. A number of cities compete for third, with Washington, D.C., and San Francisco usually strong contenders. On question No. 2, New York City and Los Angeles, or Hollywood, win again. In fact, many people cannot think of a third powerful media center. Some will name Washington, D.C.

On question No. 3, most people name Wheaton, Ill., and Colorado Springs, Co. Picking a third place finisher is a challenge and answers are often based on denominational ties. Some say Grand Rapids, Mich. Others will say Cincinatti, or Dallas, or Tulsa, Okla. Many will nominate Orlando, Fla.

People use this test to illustrate why evangelicals have so little impact in secular media, and why cultural liberals have so much power. Clearly, when it comes to creating the media signals that shape our society, evangelicals live in the wrong zip codes.

Doing that Episcopal Sex Thang (1994 - Present)

God, Sex, Soap, Other gods, Agnostics and the Fall of the Church  

WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly's religion column for 6/01/94.

It's hard to discuss what the Bible says about sex without mentioning marriage.

Nevertheless, the Episcopal House of Bishops is studying eight guidelines for sexual morality that call for lifelong relationships between "mature adults'' without making a single reference to marriages between husbands and wives. This latest modernized sex creed also embraces same-sex unions.

The guidelines wrap up the fourth draft of a text that is as ambitious and convoluted as its title, "Continuing the Dialogue: A Pastoral Teaching of the House of Bishops to the Church as it Considers Issues of Human Sexuality.'' The document will be revised again before it is aired at the Episcopal Church's 71st General Convention, which will meet Aug. 24-Sept. 2 in Indianapolis.

The sixth guideline proclaims: "We believe sexual relationships reach their fullest potential as healthy relationships and minimize their capacity for ill when in the context of chaste, faithful, and committed lifelong union between mature adults. We believe that this is as true for homosexual as for heterosexual relationships and that such relationships need and should receive the pastoral care of the Church.''

The complete 42-page text has not been officially released, but many of its critics and defenders are circulating detailed commentaries that dissect the early drafts. It is impossible to keep church debates behind closed doors in the age of photocopy and fax machines, not to mention electronic mail.

Why Journalists Love the Episcopal Church (1994)

Sex, Politics, Vestments, Urban Addresses -- We've Got It All!  

People phrase the question in many different ways.

Some do not mince words. "Why in the world,'' they say, "does the Episcopal Church get so much media coverage?''

In major media, the nation's 2 million or so Episcopalians often receive just as much, and sometimes much more, attention than the members of major denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church or the Assemblies of God.

I've heard a few leaders of other churches and religious groups ask variations on this question with a slightly anxious, or even jealous, sound in their voices. What they are really asking is this: Why doesn't my church get as much press coverage as those Episcopalians?

With good reason, many Episcopalians are amused by this question. It is difficult to conceive of a reason why any sane religious leader would welcome the media attention that is given, year after year, to the Episcopal Church. Who would covet someone else's root canal?

Thus, when many Episcopalians ask about the waves of coverage that the media give their church, the question that they are actually asking is: Why are the secular media always picking on us?

I will propose several answers for this question.

The Theological Impact of Microphones (1994)

People Just Don't Shout About Heaven and Hell Anymore  

The images of the old-fashioned pulpit pounders are remarkably vivid, even though they seem locked in the past. Everyone knows that preachers used to wave their Bibles and shout. But does anyone remember what they used to shout about?

It's easy to say that they shouted about everything. But there is truth in the old stereotype that preachers tended to work up a sweat and shout when they were talking about sin, damnation, hell, judgment and the wrath of a holy God. After talking about these hot subjects, it wasn't surprising that preachers also tended to get excited about mercy of God and the glories of heaven.

If a preacher shouted ``Sinner!'', it helped to end the sermon by shouting ``Saved!''

Today, preachers rarely shout. Also, many commentators in recent decades have noted that preachers don't seem to preach as much as they used to about sin and judgment. This, in turn, may have softened the church's messages about salvation. How long has it been since you heard a good sermon on hell, or heaven?

I've been thinking about high-volume preaching ever since I spent a few days at Gordon-Conwell Seminary with Dr. Haddon Robinson, the author of the classic ``Biblical Preaching.'' It's hard to talk to Robinson without being challenged to probe the act, and the art, of preaching. He has trained hundreds of preachers while teaching in Dallas, Denver and now in New England.

Today, most preachers use a friendly, conversational tone, said Robinson. They also tell gentle, humorous stories.

This raises an obvious question: Why?

Religion and the News Media: Have our biases fatally wounded our coverage? (1993)

Have our biases fatally wounded our coverage? Orthodox bishop on hot spot

(Copyright) The Quill: The Society of Professional Journalists July/August of 1993

Denver, 1988: Deadline was three hours away and the Rocky Mountain News was bracing for a new wave of abortion protests.

I raised a style question while working on a religion-angle story. Why is it, I asked an assistant city editor, that we call one camp ``pro-choice,'' its chosen label, while we call the other ``anti-abortion,'' a term it abhors?

The city editor began listening. We could, I said, try to use more neutral terms. I wasn't fond of ``anti-abortion.'' It seemed to fit Jesse Helms and not Mother Teresa. But it was literal. On the other side, I suggested a phrase such as ``pro-abortion rights.'' This might be wordy, but would help avoid the editorial spin of ``pro-choice.''

The assistant editor said ``pro-choice'' was accurate, because the real issue was choice, not abortion. In that case, I said, we should be even-handed and use ``pro-life.''

The city editor stepped in.

Minus a few descriptive words, here's what he said: Look, the pro-choice people are pro-choice. The people who say they are pro-life aren't really pro-life. They're nothing but a bunch of hypocritical right-wing religious fanatics and we'll call them whatever we want to call them.

That settled that.