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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Religion and the media: Why it doesn't pay to be just plain vindictive

Last night, the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. offered a panel discussion on the theme of the book, edited by Paul Marshall, pictured here, Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion.

This subject is more complex than some realize because, as I have discussed elsewhere, modern media people have often seen their role as essentially replacing, marginalizing, or at best patronizing religion. In such cases, not understanding becomes a point of pride. That is, they wouldn't even want to be the person who knew what, say, the "apophatic tradition of mystical language"* is.

For example, Terry Mattingly quotes Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a premier center for media studies:
I don't know the difference between evangelical and charismatic, but I can argue about who has sluttier videos, Britney or Christina. (P. 5)
Remarkably, Clark is a Catholic who attends Mass most Sundays. While he tells us that he recognizes that he has a problem, I don't get the feeling from his comments that he understands how big a problem it is or - and this is the critical point - that at this point it is only his problem, not the religious community's.

That is because, as it happens, media that celebrate ignorance often have the opposite effect from what they intend. In the chapter "Jesus Christ Superstar: The Passion of the Press," Jeremy Lott discusses the curious case of Mel Gibson's 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. Media people were determined to hate the film, and gave a ready ear to any dirt about it:

With a few notable exceptions - Peter Boyer's profile in the New Yorker being one - news coverage of the movie was bad, the opinion writing was clich├ęd, and the movie criticism was worse.
But, he notes, it was all so bad that the audience decided to give the movie a chance. Which turned out to be just the ticket for producer Gibson:

Evangelicals might have had serious theological difficulties with this film: the focus on the suffering of Jesus was too intense and unrelenting; the identification of bread and wine with body and blood was so very transubstantial; and the movie drew heavily on the traditions of the Church, rather than relying only on the bare text of the gospels, to determine the content and structure of the story. ... By repeatedly reporting concerns over the movie's literalism, the press did yeomen's work to put these concerns to rest.
Yes indeed, media hatchetmen would have loved to set the Protestant cat among the Catholic pigeons, but they knew so little about the true theological and cultural differences between the two groups that they had no idea that their frantic accusations were reassuring the Protestants that the film was literal enough to be suitable viewing for Protestants.

In the same way, the media-driven uproar over the film's supposed anti-Semitism caused Christians to renew efforts to scrub anti-Semitism away. Thus, when Mel Gibson actually did make anti-Semitic statements (while drunk and under arrest) in 2006, the incident sank without a trace.

That, I believe, is because the accusations of anti-Semitism - not supported by the film as released - sounded pretty stale - and now the film now stood apart from its creator.

Lott sums up:

In one sense, the story of the success of The Passion of the Christ is really about the press's failure to honestly grapple with broader questions of religion. In another sense, the story is about the estrangement of American journalists from their audience. The movie did not lead to the rise in anti-Semitic sentiment that the critics had predicted. The fact that the predictions were broadcast as widely and loudly as they were (see the "anti-Semitism" chart above) bespeaks a troubling willingness by journalists to believe the worst of religious would-be moviegoers.
In my view, as noted above, the main thing to see at this point is that the estrangement isn't hurting the religious moviegoers; it is hurting the media.

But then, as Aunt Marge has always told us, people who are just plain vindictive end up wishing they had two noses to cut off to spite their face with - but they don't even have that.

*The apophatic tradition? Defining by negatives, as in "no eye has seen, no ear has heard no mind has conceived ... " A form of speech sometimes used by mystics, because of the difficulty of describing experiences involving altered consciousness.

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