Saturday, September 17, 2011

Does GR Really "Get Religion"?

That's the question Joanna Brooks asks over at Religion Dispatches. They're having a spat over gay Mormons; Brooks said that the LDS community is starting to accept them, and GR honcho Terry Mattingly said that it's not.

In the latest exchange, Brooks chides Mattingly for beating up on a reporter who says that Roman Catholics "worship" Mary, rather than "venerating" her. Ah, yes: dulia versus latreia. It's an important theological distinction, to be sure; but as Brooks says, it is often lost on the faithful. She even has an example:

... Mattingly’s piece reminded me of the day I sat in the back pew of a Catholic church on the eastside of Austin, Texas, with my friend Rose, who is Tejana and Catholic. Pointing to a gorgeous mural of a dark-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe that spanned the cathedral chancel, Rose smiled at me conspiratorially and said, “I bring my kids here to see God as a big, brown-skinned woman.”

Don’t tell Rose that she doesn’t worship Mary, or that she doesn’t “get” Catholicism, as heretical as her feminist Tejana take on it might be.

Of course, it is perfectly cogent to argue that a "heretic" doesn't get her own religion. That's a loose definition of heresy. But Brooks has a point as well. This is the old academic distinction between "official" and "popular" religion which is rarely drawn as sharply as in Roman Catholicism. Frankly, if Johann Tetzel had restricted himself to the official teaching on indulgences, the Reformation might never have happened.

Longtime readers know that we find Get Religion both indispensable and infuriating. It provides a much-needed running critique of the confused, ignorant and sensationalistic stories too often served up by reporters on the "God-beat." (Just like you, we get sick of hearing Pentecostals described as "Evangelicals," and anybody with a conviction as "fundamentalist.") On the other hand, GR has two biases of which readers need to be aware.

The first is a mild preference for the traditionalist wing of any Christian church that has one. All told, it's pretty mild, and we think that Brooks is overreaching to call GR a "conservative watchdog." It's notably less doctrinaire than, say, Religion Dispatches. But the preference is pretty clear in the stories that the team chooses to examine, and in many of the conclusions they draw.

The second, about which we have written (and to which Mattingly has happily copped) is a preference for reporting about official doctrine over the way adherents experience their faith.

Both of these biases -- or, if you prefer, editorial preferences -- make a lot of sense. The vast majority of religious communities seek to sustain and pass on a particular vision of reality, one which was passed on to them. This the definition of tradition, and it is inherently conservative. Likewise, in a world full of opinions, it is important to recognize that official statements of a community, in its canons and so forth, have a generalized descriptive power which the remarks of a single priest or parishioner (or theologian) can't. Lutheranism is, in fact, defined by the Book of Concord, rather than by the peculiar folkways of Lake Wobegon.

But still. The imaginary people of Lake Wobegon -- or the real ones in Minneapolis, Stockholm or Harare -- may be shaky on, say, the duplex versus triplex usus legis, but they still call themselves "Lutheran," and mean something by it. While sorting it all out may be work better suited for an anthropologist than a reporter, it still seems to us that reporters can legitimately be allowed to write about popular religion, and to do it in layman's language. While we warmly approve of GR's call for clarity of thought and expression, we worry that it sometimes turns into an expectation that reporters will become amateur theologians, and make distinctions somewhat above (or, really, below) their pay-grade.

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