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.