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.

Bad News, Good News at Denver Seminary (1993)

Exploring the Gulf Between Seminaries and Mass Media

*For the Association for Communication and Theological Educuation

I have some good news and some bad news. Actually, I have lot of bad news and a seed of good news, which I hope can bear fruit in the future.

The bad news is that the attempt to start a program blending media and popular culture studies into core classes at Denver Seminary has failed. I will teach the main media-driven course we discussed during the meetings at Yale Divinity School -- the course called ``The Contemporary World and the Christian Task'' -- for the last time in the Spring quarter.

(In the fall, I will begin work as assistant professor of journalism and communications at Milligan College in Johnson City, Tenn. Milligan is a member of the Christian College Coalition and has begun work to encourage more undergraduate students to double major in communications and Bible.)

The leadership of Denver Seminary insists that my work here has opened eyes and that the faculty's decision to discontinue this program should not be seen as a negative critique. The role of mass media in American life and culture is important, but the faculty decided that this subject could not be given full-time attention at this time, or by me. Thus, I was let go.

I believe the seminary's leaders are sincere in saying that some attention will continue to be given to issues of media and popular culture. This work will be done by a seminary-trained theologian -- not someone from the media.

I am grateful for the chance I was given at Denver Seminary. I offer the following comments as lessons I learned on this campus, with the hope that others in our new association can learn from my experiences.

Why did this effort fail? Three reasons were given.

And Now, a Word from Your Culture (1993)

Mass Media, Ministry and Tuning in New Signals 

True or false: It is impossible to talk -- in terms of practical details and statistics -- about how modern Americans live their lives without addressing the role played by television and other forms of news and entertainment media.

True or false: Most churches have little or nothing practical to say about the role that television and other forms of news and entertainment media play in the daily lives of most modern Americans.

True or false: Most churches have little or nothing practical to say about the daily lives of most modern Americans.

True or false: This applies to my church.

Let me stress that, by asking these questions, I am not suggesting that Christian theology and church traditions are irrelevant. I do, however, want to force church leaders to talk about the statistical realities of life in modern America -- dollars, cents, hours, pocket calendar, wallets and free time. Our goal is to think in secular terms, for a few moments.

Beyond any shadow of a doubt, the answer to questions one and two is ``true.'' As a religion columnist and Christian educator, I am convinced that the answer to the third question is ``true.''

I will leave the answer to question number four up to you.

Liturgical Dances With Wolves (1993)

10 Years As An Episcopalian: A Progress Report

New York City has its share of glorious autumn mornings when it's tempting to commune with God by taking an extra long Sunday walk, rather than finding one's place in a pew. Oct. 3, 1993, was just such a day.

I was staying over the weekend on the upper West side after arriving early for a weekday conference at Columbia University on religion and the news media. I decided that if I was in the city that is the spiritual heart of the Episcopal Church then I should visit the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Besides, this was the feast day of St. Francis and friends told me not to miss the media circus at the cathedral's annual blessing of the animals.

Liturgical dances with wolves is, literally, one way to describe this green high mass, which centers on the spectacular music of jazz musician Paul Winter's ``Missa Gaia (Earth Mass).''

In the Kyrie, the saxophonist and his ensemble improvised to the taped cry of a timber wolf. A humpback whale led the Sanctus.

Skeptic Carl Sagan preached, covering turf from the joyful ``bisexual embraces'' of earthworms to the greedy sins of capitalists. The earth, he stressed, is one body made of creatures who eat and drink each other, inhabit each other's bodies, and form a sacred ``web of interaction and interdependence that embraces the planet.''

Most of the faithful came for the blessing of pets, a few of which grew restless during the long service. Several rows of large dogs nipped at the dancers who were racing through in the aisles. At other times they howled along with the piercing tones of the amplified soprano sax. Nevertheless, the final procession was spectacular and included an elephant, a camel, a vulture, a swarm of bees in a glass frame, a bowl of blue-green algae and an elegantly decorated banana.

After the service was over, a line of men from the choir captured the mood of the day by cheering ``New York! New York!'' as they waved to television crews on the steps outside the cathedral.

But, for me, the most symbolic moment of the service came at the offertory. Before the bread and wine were brought to the altar, the musicians offered a rhythmic chant that soared into the cathedral vault:

OBA ye Oba yo Yemanja
Oba ye Oba yo O Yemanja
Oby ye Oba yo O O Ausar
Oba ye Oba yo O Ra Ausar
Praises to Obatala, ruler of the Heavens
Praises to Obatala, ruler of the Heavens
Praises to Yemenja, ruler of the waters of life
Praises to Yemenja, ruler of the waters of life
Praises to Ausar, ruler of Amenta, the realm of the ancestors
Praises to Ra and Ausar, rulers of the light and the resurrected soul.

—From the printed worship booklet for ``Liturgy and Sermon, Earth Mass — Missa Gaia,'' distributed on Oct. 3, 1993, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

All churches have water fountains: A dangerous age in which to pray (1993)

The water fountain is at one end of our church's foyer, conveniently located near the rooms where the choir and clergy prepare for worship. 

It's a modern chrome model with a push-bar control on the front to make it easier to use. Week after week, parishioners help small children use the water foundation. At some point -- usually about 4 or 5 years of age -- children can get drinks on their own. 

Little kids like to go get drinks of water. It's a sign that they're getting bigger. It gives them a chance to move around during long worship services. They can get away from the adults for a few seconds and run and yell and play and act like children. 

All churches have water fountains.

Why is Religion Television So Bad (1992)

Having a Bad Hair Era 

I have a friend who is a faithful viewer of religious television. Years after ``Pearlygate,'' he still longs for his Jim and Tammy Bakker fix.

But there are other stars to watch. He is especially fond of talk shows featuring evangelicals whose hair does not appear to be their own.

Week after week, this media professional turns on his TV and cracks up laughing. He says it would be impossible for secular pros to create satire as cutting-edge as the contents of most religious shows. He calls it ``unintentional comedy.'' In his opinion, the electric church is good precisely because it is so bad.

Yes, my friend was raised in a nominally Christian home and, today, he is part of the flock most researchers call the ``unchurched.'' He is the kind of person most religious broadcasters say they need to raise money in order to reach.

Well, he loves religious television. But I doubt many religious broadcasters would be cheered by this man's glowing, if somewhat twisted, review of their work.

Let's assume for a moment that there is truth in this secular point of view and that, as a rule, most religious broadcasts are technically inferior to their secular counterparts. And let's assume that what many Christians say is true: that much of what is aired on religious television is embarrassing and that they cringe when secular people laugh at it.

Note: We are not discussing the contents of religious and secular television, in terms of morality. This is a discussion of entertainment values.

So why is religious television so bad? I propose five theories.

    Youth Culture: Try to Think Like a Missionary (1992)

    Welcome to Post-Christian America & the New Media World

    It's a fact of life: young people change faster than the weather. The same goes for the trends that shape their daily lives.

    This is true of individuals, these days, and it is also true of groups. It's true of the young people in your pews and of those in other mission fields around the world.

    We're talking about more than a stage of life. We're talking about rapid changes at both the personal and cultural levels. But these trends touch the hearts and minds of individual young people. To them, everything feels personal, not cultural.

    Change. Growing pains. The joy of discovery. The fear of the unknown. The struggle to find meaning, while your thoughts ricochet between the stars and the boredom of daily life.

    In the United States, young people frequently complain that they are bored and that they have nothing to do. They seem to be saying that they wish things would hurry up and change. Suffice it to say that people who work or live with today's young people rarely share these sentiments.

    Is any part of the lives of young people around the world constant, other than change?

    What Fire? The Church and Madonna’s Prayer Life (1992)

    Racing to Put Out the Old Fires 

    Maybe the secret of Madonna's success is the vitality of her prayer life.

    Count them -- there are more prayers than simulated sex acts in the "Truth Or Dare" movie about her "Blonde Ambition" concert tour. Night after night, the secular superstar gathered her dancers and musicians for a pre-concert prayer circle. In Toronto, police officials warned that Madonna would be arrested if she performed some of her raunchier numbers.

    Then the scene shifts. "Dear Lord, this is our last night in ... the fascist state of Toronto," says Madonna, before aiming her words at those gathered around her, instead of the heavens. "I just want you to know that I love you all that I appreciate everything that you're doing for me and that I'm here if you need me. ... Remember that in the United States of America there is freedom of speech, and let's kick a**."

    During a later clash with the Vatican, Madonna told reporters: "I say a prayer, not only that the show will go well, but that the audience will watch with an open heart and an open mind and see it as a celebration of love, life and humanity. ... The audience is left to make its own decisions and judgments. ... When a mind is imprisoned then our spiritual life dies. When the spirit dies, there is no reason to live."

    It would be interesting to conduct a poll to discover the impressions of children and teen-agers who watched "Truth Or Dare" in theaters and on their VCRs. Would most say that Madonna's prayers were sincere? Is she right that the ultimate standard of truth is the solitary mind and the voice of the heart?

    I'm sure that few pastors, or maybe even youth pastors, have spent much time thinking about this Madonna and her prayers. It's much easier to think of her as a jiggling, profane secular humanist who exists to mock God and make money on MTV.

    Can You "Spot The Lie" in TV Ads? (1992)

    Written for Discipleship Journal 

    On the TV screen, average Joes pop open their beers and ogle slinky women who welcome their stares.

    It's impossible to avoid seeing variations on this theme in TV commericals during professional sports events. Which means more Americans need to play a living room game called "Spot the Lie."

    Cultural analyst Os Guinness created the game when his son, Christopher, was five years old. The point is to recognize the temptation to uncritically soak up TV commercialism.

    The rules are simple: Parents say "spot the lie" when an ad comes on TV. The kid has to pay attention and then find an implicit lie, non sequitur or totally irrational statement in the ad.

    Perhaps it's an ad that suggests that men don't love their children unless they buy a particular car tire. Or that women lack self esteem if they don't buy an expensive shampoo. Or that teens can be revolutionaries merely by watching music videos. Or that average Joes are sexy if their drink the right beer.

    If the child "spots the lie," the parent hands over a quarter. Parents judge whether the child has succeeded, since its mom or dad who has to pay up. Note: Parents have to "spot the lie," as well as their children. Everyone has to think critically.

    The Moscow Files: Images from the revolution of 1991 (1991-93)

    This is a collection of Terry Mattingly's "On Religion'' columns preceeding, during and after the Moscow Project in 1991. They were written for the Scripps Howard News Service in Washington, D.C. Mattingly teaches communications at Milligan College in East Tennessee. Many of these columns were written while Mattingly was teaching as Communicator on Culture at Denver Seminary.  

    Amy Syndicate Columns

    Another Tacky Piece of Cloth

    The ancient cloth is dirty, creased, torn, stained, bloody and even burnt in places. Despite this contamination, it has been venerated for centuries. Scientists who have studied this piece of linen say it appears to have been used after the death of male who had a beard, moustache and long hair that had been plaited into a ponytail. The man had suffered horribly. Then his dead body was left hanging vertically for an hour, then placed on the ground on its right side, before it was moved to another location.

    No, I am not describing the Shroud of Turin.

    The cloth in question is much smaller -- 84 by 53 centimeters -- and woven in a taffeta pattern. It is called the Sudarium Christi (Face Cloth of Christ). Now, the history of this lesser-known relic is affecting the story of that other, more famous, piece of herringbone linen, the one bearing the mysterious, scorched photographic negative of a crucified man. The Shroud of Turin will be displayed between Aug. 12 and Oct. 22, its fifth public exhibition since 1898.

    As if centuries of controversy about the Turin Shroud -- from the crusades to carbon dates -- were not enough, now there is evidence that links both these cloths to one place in time, to one body, and to one story 2000 years ago.

    But, first, what is the Sudarium?

    The answer to that question may be in the 20th chapter of the Gospel of John, which reports what Peter and John found when they reached the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. John got there first and: "Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie, and the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself."

    This detailed account makes sense, according to a 1998 paper published by a trio of Spanish scholars. Under Hebrew law, it was the custom to cover a corpse's face when it became bloody or disfigured. This bloody cloth would then have been removed as the body was placed in a proper shroud. However, since the face cloth was now ritually unclean, it would have been buried in the tomb.

    What evidence links the Sudarium and the Turin Shroud?

    "Here's the bottom line: when you take a photo of the Sudarium and you lay it over a photo of the Shroud's face and head images, they match. It's amazing," said Barrie Schwortz, the official photographer for the 1978 Shroud of Turin Research Project.

    Each appears to have matching blood and serum stains from the mouth, nose, beard and hair of a man who was beaten, crowned with thorns and killed by asphyxiation, which is consistent with crucifixion. The blood on both appears to be type AB, although some disagree. The broken noses are both 8 centimeters in length.

    According to Avinoam Danin, a Jewish botanist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the Turin Shroud contains pollens from a thistle plant, the Gundelia tournefortii, which grows only in the Middle East. This would be a likely plant from which to create a cap of thorns. Pollens from this species are on the Sudarium, too. Both cloths contain myrrh and aloes.

    Why does this matter? The Sudarium Christi has been venerated at the Cathedral of Oviedo in Spain since the sixth century or thereabouts. Researchers claim they have found documents tracing it to first-century Jerusalem. This is hard to explain if, as carbon-14 tests indicated, the shroud was created between 1260 and 1390 A.D.

    "If these blood patterns came from contact with the same face, then that means those Medieval carbon dates for the shroud are off by six or seven centuries and maybe more," said Schwortz. "At that point, we have a whole new set of questions we have to ask."

    And the questions are not just about science. The Bible tells of signs of wonders that show God's power and inspired faith. But there were other times when Jesus declined to perform miracles and he told the doubting disciple Thomas, "Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed; blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed."

    How did the scorched photographic negative get on the shroud? Why do some icons weep myrrh? Why does prayer and anointing with oil bring healing to some believers and not to others? Why do scoundrels, as well as saints, keep seeing visions?

    For millions of people, the shroud and the Sudarium point to the Resurrection. For others -- including many Christians, as well as skeptics -- all of this adds up to one big, tacky, mess. Believers have been probing these mysteries, and praying about them, for centuries.

    Leigh, Lewis & Letterman

    By the time C.S. Lewis reached the virtue called "faith," his famous British Broadcasting Corporation radio talks had already covered social justice, psychology, sex, marriage, forgiveness, pride, charity and hope. Many people, noted Lewis, seem to think the goal of a life of faith is to achieve a winning bargain with God. This is a strange proposition.

    "When we talk of a man doing anything for God or giving anything to God, I will tell you what that is really like," he said, in a talk that would, in 1943, be published in a series of essays that would, collectively, become known as "Mere Christianity." "It is like a small child going to his father and saying, 'Daddy, give ME a sixpence to buy YOU a birthday present.' Of course, the father does, and he is pleased with the child's present. It is all very nice and proper, but only an idiot would think that the father is sixpence to the good on the transaction."

    The witty Oxford don was speaking to a broad media audience, but he knew he had time to lay one concept atop another to build a framework of logic and images.

    Things move so much faster in today's digital, post-modern age. Nevertheless, Jesus did tell his disciples: "Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature." But how could a Christian apologist pull this off when facing the likes of David Letterman?

    During a recent appearance on "The Late Show," a young Christian named Leigh Nash - the lead singer in a band called Sixpence None the Richer -- found herself sitting in the spotlight next to the czar of irony. One thing led to another and she ended up trying to explain C.S. Lewis to Letterman, in front of a studio audience of hooting New Yorkers and tourists.

    Letterman called Nash over for a chat, after the band in which she sings lead performed it's gentle hit "Kiss Me." This song contains an unusually innocent note that the two youngsters doing the kissing will let their romance "take the trail marked on your father's map."

    Letterman asked if the band's name was a literary reference. Perhaps to Dickens?

    "Thanks for asking. I will quickly tell you," said Nash, fighting her nervousness. "It's from a book by C.S. Lewis. The book is called Mere Christianity. "

    What happened next was typical late-night talk show banter, with Nash admitting that she was scared and then adding that being on this show was a dream come true for her. Then her band mates started laughing and the crowd kept cheering and Letterman started doing that straight-faced riff in which he wiggles his tongue in his cheek and acts like he can't understand what's going on. Anyone who has watched American television in the past decade has seen this routine a thousand times.

    Nash hung in there through it all, even when the host asked the beautiful singer - who is married - if she was staying in town. Could he drop by the hotel? Clearly, Letterman is not used to handling sincerity and innocence.

    "I really want to tell you the story," said Nash, at one point in the silliness. "Do you want to hear it?"

    Letterman said he did.

    "A little boy asks his father for a sixpence, which is a very small amount of English currency, to go and get a gift for his father. The father gladly accepts the gift, but he also realizes that he is not any richer for the transaction because he gave his son the money in the first place."

    "He bought his own gift," noted Letterman.

    "That's right, pretty much," said Nash. "I'm sure it meant a lot to him, but he's really no richer. C.S. Lewis was comparing that to his belief that God has given him and us the gifts that we possess and that to serve him the way that we should, we should do it humbly - with a humble heart - realizing how we got the gifts in the first place."

    "Well, that's beautiful," said Letterman. "Charming."

    It was a charming, yet very strange moment in the marketplace of mass media - with a simple message of faith leaping from C.S. Lewis, to Leigh Nash, to who knows where. Certainly, Letterman got more than he bargained for.

    Watching the Grass Grow

    Every once and awhile, my mind wanders off during church. It drifts along, pondering this or that until — bang — something in the sermon, or the scriptures, or the prayers in the liturgy connects with whatever is happening inside my head. Since I'm a newspaper guy, this usually means a collision between the past and present, with an eternal truth crashing into a newspaper headline.

    This happened a few weeks ago when our priest was reading a familiar passage in the Gospel of Luke, in which Jesus tells the story of a wealthy man who decides to hold a great banquet. A strange thing happened when his servant handed out the invitations to his master's friends.

    "They all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, 'I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it; I pray you, have me excused.' And another said, 'I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I have to go examine them; I pray you, have me excused.' And another said, 'I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.' "

    Now, I can imagine that handling oxen could be complicated and a newly married man has to do what a newly married man has to do. But, on this particular Sunday morning, it struck me as especially funny that someone opted out of a banquet just to go look at a field. Maybe he was in real estate and his lawyers made him do it. Maybe he just liked to watch the grass grow.

    And then my mind wandered off, back to something in a newspaper. It was one of those stories that show up from time to time reporting some of the frightening facts about the role that television and other forms of mass media play in our lives.

    As the Washington Post reported:

    Children today live in bedrooms that are fully equipped media centers, spending hours watching television and listening to music by themselves with little parental supervision and almost no rules, according to a survey of more than 3,000 children ages 2 through 18 released by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

    For most children, various forms of mass media were combining to eat up 5 hours and 29 minutes per day, seven days a week. It was 6 hours and 43 minutes a day for kids eight and older. It was like these children had been given an adult's full-time job and that job was to sit and soak up mass media, mainly television. Sixty-five percent of kids older than 8 had televisions in their bedrooms.

    The report emphasized that the content flowing through those media channels has changed radically in recent decades.

    "While one generation of Americans experienced a childhood in which they shared a single black-and-white, three-channel TV with their parents, the next is growing up with a Walkman glued to their ears, 100 channels in the bedroom and a World Wide Web of information at their fingertips," according to the authors of the Kaiser report. "One generation may have flinched at gunshots in a western; the next generation plays video games with violence so vivid it leaves them ducking to avoid being splattered."

    If the children are going it alone, where are their parents?

    The odds are good that the parents are at work, at play or in the next room watching Oprah or ESPN. The parents have 100 channels in their bedroom, too, as well as media hook-ups in the kitchen, the den, the office and sometimes the bathroom. Everyone is watching his or her own niche-group commercials and sit-com reruns and the talking-head politicos and regular- season basketball games and talk shows and chase scenes and music videos and whatever else is on, world without end. Amen.

    It's hard to hold a banquet, when everyone has his or her own TV tray.

    Nevertheless, invitations are still being delivered to the banquet. Many of us are invited to the banquet called marriage and then to another called parenthood. There are banquets of friendship and fellowship and learning and service. God loves banquets.

    Yet right now, out there on the World Wide Web or community-access cable television, I bet someone has a digital camera aimed at an empty field, perhaps an empty football field. And, right now, some man is probably saying that he has to watch the grass grow in that field, because it's a good excuse not to go do something else that he really knows he should do. Perhaps he's avoiding a walk with his wife or a chance to read Bible stories to his kids.

    And he's missing a banquet, whether he knows it or not.

    When an Orthodox bishop enters a sanctuary, he is traditionally greeted with the following words chanted in Greek — "eis polla eti, despota." [more]...

    Whatever is Lovely (on TV)

    The weather at the 1988 summer U.S. Catholic bishops meeting was scorching and it didn't help that the flock of middle-aged and elderly men in black suits and tight collars were cloistered in an un-air-conditioned hall under bright TV lights. But the lights were appropriate, since one of the big questions they spent hours discussing was what the hierarchy should try to accomplish in television. Finally, after voting to stick with a conventional approach to worship and public affairs, the bishops took an afternoon off.

    I was one of the reporters there and, during that lazy afternoon, spend some time eating ice cream with an archbishop or two under the shade trees at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn. For days, I had pressed bishops to answer what I knew was a loaded question: Is it wise to invest so much money in talking-heads programs, when so few Americans -- Catholics included -- enjoy this style of television?

    Finally, one of the men in the red hats turned the question around. OK, he asked, you're a media man. What would YOU propose that we do with our TV budget?

    Here's what I remember saying: "I would get on an airplane and fly over to England and hand my entire budget -- the whole shooting match for the year -- to Sir Alec Guinness and ask him to film as many of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown mystery stories as he can."

    In other words, hire one of the century's greatest actors to take some of the most entertaining works of one of history's great writers and turn them into excellent video entertainment -- programs that would be cherished for generations. Of course, it's crucial that Guinness and Chesterton were Catholics. But the goal was to create excellence that would both appeal to mainstream viewers and offer a witty, winsomely Christian alternative in the world of VCRs and cable television.

    Talking heads with Roman collars are not enough, I said. Do one great thing. Dare to believe that entertainment can be both great and Christian. The prelate said he wished they could take that approach. But trying to produce mass-market entertainment was just too risky.

    What brought this scene back into my mind was the recent death of Guinness, which drove me back into the pages of his autobiography, "Blessings in Disguise." Glowing media tributes covered his stunning 66-year stage and screen career -- from "Hamlet" to "Star Wars" -- but most missed his faith.

    It's symbolic that Guinness took his first steps from atheism to Christianity while playing Father Brown, that great detective-priest, in a 1954 film that in America was called "The Detective." In his autobiography, Guinness described how, soon after this conversion: "I was walking up Kingsway in the middle of an afternoon when an impulse compelled me to start running. With joy in my heart, and in a state of almost sexual excitement, I ran until I reached the little Catholic church there ... which I had never entered before; I knelt; caught my breath, and for 10 minutes was lost to the world." At a loss to explain his actions, he decided this was a "rather nonsensical gesture of love."

    But it also was a response to a faith that offered beauty, depth and truths that provided a foundation under the life of a great artist and his family.

    Guinness was not an evangelist. He was an actor. But he did good work, work that brings to mind the New Testament's admonition: "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things."

    Critics of Hollywood have a tendency to think about entertainment in purely negative terms, focusing on what we should not see, should not consume and what we should not dwell upon. That is, of course, an important issue — especially for parents.

    But whole question can be turned around. We must urge our schools to help raise up screenwriters, actors and other artists who can create work that is true, honorable, lovely and excellent. We must urge the shepherds of our religious flocks to praise what is good, as well as criticize what is bad.

    We must dare to think that art and entertainment can be excellent, beautiful and worthy of praise. Then we need to put our time and our money where our mouths are.

    A Visit from St. Nicholas

    Just before dawn on Dec. 6th every year, my wife and I tiptoe through the house as we happily act the part of cultural revolutionaries. We know what we will find, when we enter the bedroom of each child -- a pair of socks and shoes ready to be filled with candy, fruit and a few simple gifts. To add our own silly wrinkle to centuries of tradition, we allow the children to put their shoes inside laundry baskets, which gives us room for a few extra goodies.

    Nearby, there is an image of an ancient bishop in red robes, with a white stole over his shoulders containing a trinity of crosses. His hair and beard are white and his face is thin, which is natural for a monk. His right hand is raised in blessing and, in his left, he holds a golden Gospel book.

    His name is St. Nicholas and Dec. 6th is his feast day. Back in the 4th Century, he served as bishop of the city of Myra in Asia Minor. For centuries, he was one of Christendom's most beloved saints and, today, he continues to be honored by Eastern Orthodox and Eastern-Rite Catholic Christians.

    Yes, there is a St. Nicholas.

    Obviously, this is not the secular superman in the parades. This is the patron saint of orphans, sailors and all who are in distress. In a somewhat ironic touch, he also is the patron of merchants and pawnbrokers.

    "St. Nicholas is supposed to be the very image of charity and concern for others, especially the poor," explained Father Constantine White, dean of St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral in Washington, D.C. "There is some link there to gift-giving, but nothing that resembles what has happened with Santa Claus."

    Children in this parish, and many others with the same name, often do not connect their patron saint with the commercialized character in the TV ads. But this may change. The cultural steamroller called "The Holidays" is getting old. Many churches may be ready to consider alternative ways of celebrating the quiet season of Advent, or Nativity Lent, and then the 12 days of Christmas. Some people may even be ready to give St. Nicholas his day, as a way of gracefully turning the spotlight away from that Santa guy.

    "I can guarantee you this," said Father Constantine. "Any man in a red suit who shows up at this church around Christmas is going to be dressed like a bishop."

    Church history indicates that Nicholas was born into wealth and apparently gave his inheritance to the poor. He was elected bishop at age 30 and was listed as a participant in the pivotal Council of Nicea. When theological debate was not enough, Nicholas reportedly punched out the heretic Arius, who argued that Jesus was not fully divine. Later, the bishop was imprisoned under the Emperor Diocletian and released under Constantine. He died on Dec. 6, 343 A.D.

    The most famous tradition linked to St. Nicholas is captured in an icon called the Charity of St. Nicholas. It shows him visiting a poor family at night, carrying a bag of gold. The father could not provide dowries for his daughters, which meant they could not marry. Nicholas rescued them from slavery or prostitution by dropping gold coins through a window. The gifts fell into their stockings, which had been hung up to dry.

    The rest, as they say, is history.

    But for centuries, St. Nicholas remained a explicitly Christian figure and a crucial element in these traditions was a concern for the poor. Most churches that celebrate his feast today link the rites with efforts to help the weak and vulnerable, especially unborn children and their mothers. One hymn proclaims "Thou, O Righteous Nicholas, … truly wast shown forth as a sacred minister fulfilling Christ's holy Gospel; for thou didst lay down they life for they flock … and, O Saint, didst save the innocent from unjust death."

    So what happened to St. Nicholas?

    Sailors spread the saint's fame along the European coast and, over time, his lore blended with other legends -- especially after the birth of Protestantism. The result Father Christmas, Kriss Kringle, Pere Noel and many others, including Sinter Klaas, who came with the Dutch to the settlement that became the media and advertising capitol called New York City.

    Today, it's hard to see the face of gentle bishop in the fat, sassy and omnipresent images of Santa Claus. It's hard to remember that his life is linked to the words of Jesus that are always read at the saint's feast "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God; Blessed are you that hunger, for you shall be satisfied; Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh. …"

    Christmas is a long way off, on Dec. 6th. There are many prayers to be said and hymns to be sung. But, for those who know the truth about St. Nicholas, it's nice to have him joining in the pilgrimage to Bethlehem, instead of leading a stampede to the shopping mall.

    C.S. Lewis and A Tokyo Bookstore

    The bookstore was only a few steps away from one of those intersections where it seems like half of the population of Tokyo is headed one direction on foot and the other half is going the other direction in a bus, in a taxi or on a bike. A steady stream of customers flowed right off the sidewalks into the long rows of Japanese newspapers, magazines, comics, computer books and novels. There wasn't much to look at, if you couldn't read Japanese. But near the checkout desk I found a revolving display rack of English-language paperbacks.

    Sure enough, there were plenty of books by Stephen King, John Grisham and Tom Clancy. I turned the display and there was the Oprah book club. Then one more turn and there was "The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe" and the other six volumes of "The Chronicles of Narnia."

    I wasn't surprised. You can walk into just about any mainstream bookstore on Planet Earth and you will at least one shelf dedicated to C.S. Lewis, the witty Oxford don who wrote Mere ChristianityMiraclesThe Problem of PainA Grief Observed and numerous other works of popular Christian apologetics.

    And then there are the Narnia books, which remain a phenomenon in children's literature, selling millions of copies year after year even though it has now been half a century since Lewis finished the first volume. Come back in 2050 or thereabouts and let's see if you can find new editions of Harry Potter books selling in the same rack as the bestsellers in a Tokyo bookstore.

    The books are, of course, full of good stories that pull children through that mysterious wardrobe with Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy and into a world populated with talking beasts, fawns, wizards, giants, dragons and legions of other wonderful and horrible creatures. Narnia is created, redeemed and ruled by the great lion Aslan, the "son of the Great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea."

    The books full of child-friendly Christian symbolism and parables, of course, but they also are laced with adult messages about politics, theology, science, economics and who knows what all. The books can be read time after time by readers of all ages and that's precisely what millions of readers do, generation after generation.

    But that is not why the 50th anniversary of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe has been celebrated as a major publishing event. That is not why all of Lewis' books remain in print and many remain bestsellers, decades after his death in 1963.

    What matters the most is that Lewis set out to write books that were good enough to be read by bright people — young and old — all across England and, then, around the world. He did not set out to be a popular Christian writer. He set out to be a great writer — to produce what he called popular "little books" — who appealed to everyone. As people say in the American South, Lewis didn't settle for "preaching to the choir."

    "What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects — with their Christianity latent," argued Lewis, in an essay entitled "Christian Apologetics."

    "Our business is to present that which is timeless (the same yesterday, today and tomorrow) in the particular language of our own age," he added. The bad preacher and apologist "does exactly the opposite: he takes the ideas of our own age and tricks them out in the traditional language of Christianity."

    Lewis, of course, knew what he was saying about his own goals and motivations. He knew that he was paraphrasing the words of St. Paul, who reminded the leaders of the early church that "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever."

    So Lewis was setting the highest possible standards for his work, in the here and now and in eternity. It's sad that there are so few religious believers who are willing to pay the price to follow his path into the mainstream.

    You see, it's hard to produce stories, and books, and songs, and movies, and magazines, and newspaper columns that appeal to ordinary readers in America and around the world. It's easier to produce Christian products that sell to Christian consumers who occasionally visit Christian stores.

    But it is highly unlikely that you will find many stores of that kind only a few steps away from busy intersections in Tokyo, or London, or New York City.

    God of the Refrigerator

    All of the clear plastic half-bubbles in our egg rack are empty now, sitting right there at eye level every time I open the refrigerator door. The drawer that usually contains bacon, sausages, lunchmeat and chicken is full of flour tortillas. I still haven't thought of what to put in the three slots that normally hold cheese. The butter has gone AWOL, too, unless you count apple butter.

    This is Lent and, in million of homes around the world, the cooks are in a state of shock.

    For Eastern Orthodox believers, this season of Great Lent began with the candlelight Forgiveness Vespers on Sunday, Feb. 25. Thus, our family will be trying to follow a host of ancient Christian fasting traditions that ask us to shun meat and dairy products until the glorious feast of Holy Pascha (Easter) on April 15. This year, the church calendars in the East and West churches are on the same page, which means that for Western churches Lent began with Ash Wednesday on Feb. 28.

    There is more to Lent than the ritual avoidance of certain foods and our attempts to embrace truckloads of fruits and veggies. This is supposed to be a season of reflection and confession. As the old saying goes, Lent without prayer is just a diet.

    And many people observe Lent in different ways. In Western churches, some mark the season by giving up a specific pleasure -- such as candy or soft drinks. Some go much further and surrender all caffeine or meat. A friend of mine gave up email, one year. A few church leaders have even suggested that families give up television during Lent, to make more time for fellowship, worship and other activities that can bring loved ones closer to God and to each other.

    But for those of us who worship in churches that stress Lenten disciplines, this is a time when we venture way outside of our culinary comfort zones. Face it -- following a fast of this kind isn't easy in America. This isn't Greece, where one particular fast-food chain even offers a "McLent" menu.

    Do the math. Let's say that your house contains a boy under the age of 10. If you give up all meat and dairy, this means you will not be eating cheese. This means you will not be eating macaroni and cheese. Got the picture?

    Of course, the church isn't asking us to sacrifice the health of our children, requiring them, for example, to stop drinking milk. But most Orthodox parents still believe this is a season to make radical changes, in order to discipline ourselves and to reflect on the awesome sacrifice that Jesus made for us.

    But why place such an emphasis on food? Does anyone really think it's spiritually better to eat dark chocolate (no milk) during Lent than it is to eat milk chocolate? Some people forgo steaks or fried chicken, but then manage to eat their weight in forms of seafood that are allowed during the fast, such as shrimp or clams.

    A friend of mine who is a priest faces a unique temptation. He has an abiding passion for peanut butter, a substance that Orthodox Christians see a lot of during Lent. He would happily eat peanut butter several times a day. Is this good for him? Or is that a temptation? Perhaps it would be a better spiritual test for him to give up peanut butter instead of real butter. Go figure.

    The bottom line is that our appetites do matter. St. Paul warned the early church to avoid the sinful ways of those whose "end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things." But the Bible also warns believers not to turn ancient spiritual disciplines into showy gestures, planting the seeds of pride and arrogance.

    Yet it's good to open your refrigerator door and have to ask the question: Who's in charge here?

    "If God isn't in charge of my refrigerator, then He isn't in charge of the rest of my life," said one Orthodox friend. "If God isn't the God of my refrigerator, then He isn't the God of my check book, or my Day Timer, or my television or any of the other THINGS that try to run my life."

    Train up a Child

    My family loves old movies and I am a news guy, so it made sense to get a digital satellite mini-dish system soon after our recent move to the Washington, D.C., area.

    There was only one problem. It took me several minutes to get the man behind the counter at the big, blue electronics-and-entertainment superstore to grasp that my needs were actually quite simple. I just wanted a system that hooked up a satellite mini-dish to one television set.

    "No problem," he said, smiling and being patient. Clearly, I was not very well informed about my options in the digital marketplace.

    "You know, they make systems now that allow you to use your satellite dish with more than one television," he explained.

    That's OK, I said. But I just need it to hook up to one television, in one room.

    He smiled again, got out a brochure, and proceeded: "Let me show you what everybody gets, these days. It really doesn't cost that much more to get a system that you can hook up two or three televisions. It used to be hard to do that, but it's not, now."

    No thank you, I said. I just want to be able to hook up one television set, in one room, in my one house.

    Now the salesman was really confused. "Don't you want to hook up your other TVs? You can get a system that hooks up to the sets in your bedroom and your children's rooms and everywhere else."

    We don't own any other TV sets, I explained. We just have one television set, in one room, in our one house, for our one family.

    He looked me over. Now he knew what he was dealing with. I was one of those strange folks that are in denial. I was still fighting against the forces of cultural gravity in the modern world. I could hear him thinking: "This is one of those wacky people who think they're too good to watch TV."

    I could hear him thinking that, so I tried to explain where I was coming from.

    Actually, I said, I don't have anything against TV. I teach courses in journalism and mass media and I sure wouldn't be trying to teach students how to work in the world of news and entertainment media if I thought it was all rubbish.

    Truth is, there's a lot of good stuff on television. In fact, I think there's some brilliant stuff on TV. But there also is a lot of garbage. So I try to sit down at the beginning of the week and mark up the TV schedule, so that I know if there's going to be anything on that we want to watch, as a family, or that I want to tape to watch later. We talk to the kids about this, all the time.

    You know that old saying in the Bible, in the Book of Proverbs? "Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old, he will not depart from it."

    Our family rule is that we try to only watch an hour a day, on tape, usually, or a whole movie every couple of days. We also don't let our children watch TV alone. That's the main reason we only have one television and we keep it in the middle of a room that the whole family uses.

    In fact, now that we're getting hooked up to a satellite television service, we know we're going to have even more media options - for better or for worse.

    We want to face those decisions together. We believe that we owe that to our children, because we're their parents. We don't want to end up being one of those families in which people end up sitting in separate rooms, watching different shows, on private TVs, speaking different languages, living in their own separate worlds.

    Actually, that's not word-for-word what I said. But that's what went racing through my mind at the moment, and I did end up saying something like that.

    The salesman remained patient. In the end, he smiled and sold me a system that would hook up one satellite receiver to our one television set, in one room, in our one house, for our one family.

    Beat The Devil: Real life on the religion beat (1985)

    On the religion beat, you can be your own worst enemy. But sometimes it's your editor 
    By Terry Mattingly (Copyright) The Quill: The Society of Professional Journalists April of 1985

    “Mattingly!” the editor said.  “There’s too much Jesus in this story.” It was hard to tell if he was joking. I took him seriously and tried to explain that whenever the person I was writing about opened his mouth some kind of faith-soaked religious language came out. His speaking style was part of the story, I argued. The editor was still a little uncomfortable: “Well, okay. Just try to tone it down a little. OK?” I tried to tone it down a little.

    When I wrote what became “The religion beat: out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets” (the QUILL, January 1983) I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. I had worked for three or four years as a copy editor and reporter (and rock’n’ roll columnist, for that matter). I had not, however worked as a full-time religion writer.  Now, two years later, leaving my first job as a religion writer, in Charlotte, N.C., for my second, in Denver, I have the perspective of personal experience.

    Organized religion, like journalism or politics or any other subculture, has its own jargon and a system of symbols encrusted with centuries of history.

    American politics can get complex, and its symbols are often strained to the limit. Still, there is one national political system. The nation’s churches and denominations operate with systems of government ranging from the intricate, gray-suited formality of a Presbyterian convention to the spirit-filled, hard-earned dollars-on-the-table freedom of a business meeting in a local Assembly of God church. News events may exist in words openly distributed in a denominational newspaper or in whispered prayers between shouted sermons at a healing rally.

    One Year As An Episcopalian: A Progress Report (1984)

    An Evangelical's Progress Report By Terry Mattingly

    58. For Guidance

    O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and light riseth up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what thou wouldest have us do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices, and that in thy light we may see light, and in thy straight path may not stumble; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

    It was a hot, muggy Sunday morning in July, 1983. The temperature in Charlotte, N.C., would later top 100 degrees. It was already hot at 7:50 a.m.

    I was making an exploratory trip to an Episcopal church service. My wife had blessed the effort, but was at home getting an extra hour of sleep. We would be going to "our" church later.

    I should explain that my father is a minister in another denomination, along with my brother and brother-in-law. My wife's background is similar. For reasons that are our own to understand we decided to look for a new church home.

    The Religion Beat: Out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets (1983)

    Out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets 
    By Terry Mattingly

    (Copyright) The Quill:

    The Society of Professional Journalists
    anuary of 1983

    As was often the case, Lou Grant was working on two problems at once. At first the problems seemed unrelated.

    The Los Angeles Tribune had lost its religion editor. City editor Grant had searched far and wide and, of course, no one was interested in the position. After all, what self-respecting journalist would want to be stuck with the religion beat?

    Problem number two was how to get rid of lazy, often-drunk, no-good reporter Mal Cavanaugh. All through this episode of Lou Grant the management of the Trib had been trying to find a way to get Cavanaugh to resign.

    Then, a spark of inspiration. The script is simple:

    LOU: Congratulations, Mal. You're the Trib's new religion editor.

    Lou sits back beaming. The information seeps in a bit slowly on Cavanaugh, who blinks at Lou.

    CAVANAUGH: Religion editor?

    LOU: That's right, Mal. And I can't think of a better man to interview the clergy ... take ministers to lunch.

    CAVANAUGH: Are you kidding?

    LOU: Detail the theological frontiers in this country and abroad.

    CAVANAUGH: That stinks! Before you stick me with a lousy job like that, I'd quit.

    LOU: Quit? You haven't even given it a chance. You can't quit.

    CAVANAUGH: The hell I can't. Just watch me.

    Grant's newsroom associates beam as Cavanaugh storms out.

    The television audience is left with the impression that Grant's problems are over. The religion editor spot is still empty, but who cares?

    Why I Am No Longer A Southern Baptist (1982)

    Several weeks ago, I burned a bridge in my head and in my heart. I made a decision that only sounds simple. I have decided that I will never join another Southern Baptist church.

    Being a Southern Baptist has always been a major part -- perhaps the major part -- of my sense of identity. I am a Southern Baptist preacher's kid. I am a graduate of the world's largest Southern Baptist university. I was ordained a deacon in a Southern Baptist church while in my mid-20s.

    Not long ago, I returned to Baylor University in Waco, Texas. While walking around the campus, I felt like I might as well have been at Brigham Young University.

    In the years since I left Waco, I have changed and Baylor has changed. I expected that. But, during my short visit, another set of feelings washed over me. By Southern Baptist standards, Baylor is an open -- and to use an SBC buzz word -- "moderate" campus.

    What I was feeling was stronger than the musings of a disenchanted graduate wishing for a return to the good old days. I realized that if I was rejecting Baylor, and Baylor rejecting me, then I was much further out of the mainstream of Southern Baptist life than I had ever dreamed. I asked myself, "If Baylor is left of center in the SBC, where does that leave me?"

    I began to try to fit my thoughts and feelings into some kind of mental and emotional structure.

    What was I really feeling? What is -- what will always be -- most important to me as a Christian? At some point could my struggles against the majority in the Southern Baptist Convention hinder me, or warp me, as a Christian?