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


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.