Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Getting "Get Religion"

The blogs listed to the side -- the ones we read scrupulously -- are a mixed bag. We find every one of them entertaining and informative, but that doesn't necessarily mean we find them agreeable. According to the very precise metrics developed by our Consumer Ratings Team, we find ourselves nodding along with Pastor Joelle about 92% of the time. Father Z., more like 31.6%. As for Hunwicke, well, half the time we aren't even sure what (or who) he is talking about.

And then there's Get Religion.

Make no mistake, friends. It's an exceptionally fine website, which fills an unique and important niche. It offers criticism of the mainstream press's [mis-]handling of religious news, written by professional journalists who both cover religious affairs and participate in the lives of their own religious communities.

The importance of this will be evident to every pastor who has ever spent hours carefully explaining to a reporter just why Justus Falckner's tercentenary matters, only to read a one-inch article headed "Lutherans Support Atlanta Football." (Get it? Because they're the Falcons.) It is far more important on the national stage, where carefully-worded church documents and policies, not to mention the public statements of bishops and so forth, are routinely reduced to incomprehensible mush.

We read GR every day or two, and comment more often than we ought. Some days, we feel as if Terry, Brad and especially Mollie are old friends -- the way another generation thought of such every-evening "visitors" as Chet and David, or anyway Jack Benny and Charlie McCarthy. Despite this, we have to say that the site irritates almost as often as it pleases us, and we're not sure we can explain why. But we're going to try.

First, things GR does really well:
  • Its traditional[-ist] perspective. Because the writers are both participants and observers, they are able to provide a running critique of reporting that is religiously illiterate -- i.e., which displays an ignorance of (or lack of interest in) doctrine and polity, or which overlooks "ghosts," GR's pet name for hidden religious motivations.
  • Its professional staff. Because they are real reporters (as opposed to, say, bloggers or cable-teevee infotainers), they can offer a running critique of journalism that would be substandard on any beat. GR often highlights stories that are all about impressions (or cliches) without any facts; stories that report a fact but place it into the wrong context, or none at all; and for the use of AP style in reference to the clergy. They wage an endless, but seemingly vain, battle for the proper distinction between "evangelical" and "fundamentalist," as well as for more precision in the use of adjectives -- e.g., what does "devout Catholic" mean somebody who goes to Mass daily? Or weekly? Or somebody who went to Catholic school and still talks about it while cheating on all his wives?
So far, so good. But whence our irritation? We think it's a series of related matters:
  • Because of that traditional perspective we mentioned, the GR writers often ask traditional questions, and become irritated when they can't get traditional answers. For some readers, this translates into a "conservative bias," although that's a little unfair. (To the writers. The endless stream of off-topic commenters are another matter.) The problem isn't the questions so much as the annoyance -- or, really, the insistence that a religion story has to be reported in one particular way. Which way? Read on.
  • GR often emphasizes doctrine as a means of understanding religious communities. This seems logical enough, since most American believers take for granted that their communities are held together by shared doctrine. We suspect that it is a red herring, which results in a tendency to overlook other factors which are just as important in American religious life. Ethnicity, law, and money come immediately to mind. The issues facing many churches, not to mention mosques and synagogues, often grow far more directly from these things than from questions of belief.
  • As a result, GR often seems to push for journalists to become better-informed about what a church (or whatever) teaches, something that for many of them requires a virtual re-education, but rarely suggests that reporters do in Godbeat reporting what they are trained to do in, say, political reporting: follow the money. Or the delicate ethnic questions. Or the legal ones. When pushed, they will readily acknowledge that this makes for good reporting; but we don't remember ever seeing them ask for it.
  • Part of the problem is that GR defines "newsworthy" largely according to what the pack reports on -- rather than according to what the pack should report on. (Apart from "ghosts," of course.) They want religion reporting to be better, but not necessarily different. So if, for example, we suggest that stories are inherently flawed if they treat the public statements of a church with hierarchical polity just like those of one with congregational polity, GR will respond, in effect, "But that's what all the stories do." True enough, but wrongly so. For example, the authority of a papal encyclical and the authority of The Baptist Faith and Message are different in nature, and congregations which disregard them stand in quite different positions relative to their parent bodies.
  • At its very worst, all this means that GR sometimes shares the signal flaw of journalism in the internet-and-cable age, which is the tacit belief that "news" is principally, or even significantly, the sharing of opinions, rather than the revealing of hidden facts.
  • Bottom line: GR does outstanding work, but it could up its game by broadening its understanding of religion's connection's to the rest of human activity.
Even writing all this, we feel a bit guilty. So we'll say it again: Good website. Smart people. We like it so much, we just want it to be a tiny bit better.

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