Criticism: Reporting on religion can be bleak. But we need people on the God Beat more than ever.
When people asked me why I chose to be a religious journalist, they usually got one of two answers. One was my official response; the other was the truth.
The official response went something like this: Religion is a force that moves billions of people, for better or for worse. You cannot truly understand our world without understanding religion.
It’s true, but that’s not why I became a religious journalist. The real answer was more personal. I was in search of the truth and saw journalism as the means to access free or at least modestly subsidized education. I think this idea was stolen from Pete Hamill, who advised young New York writers to apprentice in one of two story-rich fields: driving a cab or journalism.
My plan worked at first. In my nearly 16 years as a religious journalist, including the last eight on CNN, I have learned more than I could have hoped for. But over time, the stories that other religious journalists and I have covered have become darker: religious violence, racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism; the lies, crimes and occasional cruelties of the Trump administration; the rise of QAnon and the disappearance of the truth; the crisis of Catholic sexual abuse; and, of course, the pandemic. The pain, anger and confusion of the people seemed unfathomable, the institutions hopelessly self-involved and the religious leaders willfully blind and enthralled with politics or fame. At any other time, such a pace would be difficult. For me, in our relentless online culture, it was deflating. At the end of my time on CNN, I was a beat reporter.
I thought about all this while reading The God Beat: What Journalism Says About Faith and Why It Matters. The anthology of 26 essays is edited by Costica Bradatan, religion editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books and professor of humanities at Texas Tech University, and Ed Simon, editor for The Millions literary site and author of several books on religion and morals.
Like New Journalism, New Religion Journalism prioritizes staff, including the journalist’s subjective experience in the story.
In their introduction, Bradatan and Simon say they are more interested in what Simon calls New Religion Journalism, a literary movement they say was created by Killing the Buddha, an online religion journal written for ” people made uncomfortable by the church “.
Like New Journalism, the movement heralded by wizard Tom Wolfe in the 1970s (and before him, Matthew Arnold in the 1880s), New Religion Journalism prioritizes staff, including the journalist’s subjective experience in the story. Most importantly, argues Simon, New ReligionJournalism challenges the “theism / atheism” binomial and displays the “full ambiguity and ambivalence of belief”.
This ambiguity is explored in Leigh Eric Schmidt’s in-depth essay, “Monuments to Unbelief,” which guides readers on a short jaunt through 19th-century atheism and features figures like the miraculously named Octavius Frothingham .
In “Amma’s Cosmic Squeeze,” Erik Davis reflects on the main character’s signature gesture – a hug – as a “quietly subversive transformation of mainstream South Asian cult” as he stands in a Disneyland-worthy line awaiting his sacred embrace . But Amma, who has kissed more than 26 million people, isn’t just talking about silent subversion, Davis reports: “During the massive fiftieth birthday celebration in 2003, inaugurated by Indian President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, Amma walked through a stadium full of worshipers for twenty-one hours straight as a scoreboard recorded numbers well within five digits.
Nice scene. But, as I said, these are dark times, and many writers of The beat of god address topics such as death, hatred, abuse and decadence.
In “Will Anyone Remember Eleven Dead Jews?” Emma Green wonders about the paradoxical satisfactions of a Pittsburgh archivist tasked with collecting artefacts from the worst anti-Semitic attack in American history. Likewise, Shira Telushkin’s essay, “Their Bloods Cry From the Ground,” is a powerful meditation on the 2018 murders of these 11 people as they worshiped and the task of those who remain. Telushkin explores the work of the chevra kadisha, the Jewish funeral society responsible for collecting different types of remains. They slipped quietly onto the scene of the crime, scraping blood from walls and floors, burying their martyrs as the Jews have done for millennia.
The best trials of The beat of god are like that – quietly thoughtful, deeply informed, subjective but not solipsistic. They combine the knowledge of an initiate with the practiced observation of a stranger, transcending the limits of third and first person writing.
These are dark times, and many writers in The beat of god address topics such as death, hatred, abuse and decadence.
As a former Catholic, Patrick Blanchfield brings an insider perspective to his essay on the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal, written in 2018, weeks after a report from a grand jury in Pennsylvania described in detail decades of overwhelming sexual abuse. committed by priests against children. Blanchfield raises a question that perhaps only an ex-Catholic could articulate. Namely, is there something inherently Catholic about the Catholic abuse scandal?
“Whatever the problems of ‘society’ in the broad sense, it is impossible not to see in these horrors a very particular Catholic characteristic: tropes, however twisted, of penance, mortification and punishment, concepts and ritual objects used as tools of abuse. Blancfield writes. “These priests, in other words, didn’t just rape children using their hands, mouths and genitals. They also raped them using their faith.
Behind this rhetoric hides the force of truth. I have heard many victims of sexual abuse by clergy tell how their abuse and lost innocence amounted to “soul murder,” as Blanchfield calls his powerful article.
The essay reminded me of another, coincidentally published the same day in America. Kerry Weber, Editor-in-Chief at America, wrote about the questions she pondered while reading the Pennsylvania grand jury report while her children were napping. “I found myself really scared of what it means to ask and allow my children to be a part of the church,” Weber wrote.
Reporting for CNN, I had pursued the “hard news” – counting victims, tracking down guilty priests, trying (and most importantly failing) to hold bishops to account. Weber’s voice – singular, plaintive, coming from within the fold – made my head spin. Behind all the hard news is what the scandal has produced, I realized: a mother who is afraid to raise her children in the church she loves. And it’s a story that needs to be told.
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