A few weeks ago, Mr. Rogers came up at one of our production meetings, and Krista mentioned that she would have loved to interview him if he were still alive. I remember reading somewhere that Fred Rogers’s original intention in creating a television show was to try to find a space in TV broadcasting for grace.
Not a few days had passed when an episode of Mr. Rogers appeared on my family’s Tivo as a suggestion. I don’t know if PBS has just recently begun rebroadcasting the show, but I decided to see if my kids could connect with him, considering that they watch almost nothing but cartoons.
Having not watched the show myself in almost 30 years, I was surprised to realize how much I actually enjoyed it, especially the mini-documentaries about various factories (in this case, a sleeping bag factory). There’s something extraordinarily reassuring about watching one of the ordinary objects of our lives being constructed piece by piece.
My children were equally captivated, and within minutes my 3 year old was talking
back to the screen when Mr. Rogers asked her a question. Somehow, through the medium of television, he was able to make a genuine emotional connection to a girl that had been born a year after his death. In a CNN profile, Rogers said, “The whole idea is to look into the television camera and present as much love as you possibly could to a person who might feel that he or she needs it.”
Tom Stoppard’s new play “Rock-n-Roll” is getting mixed reviews here, but tickets are scarce, so I was thrilled when my friend Chris scored some for us. This is Stoppard’s chronicle of the intersection of pop culture and politics in then-Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution.
Stoppard, I learned from the program notes, was born in the Czech town of Zlin, where I — highly coincidentally — have a close friend, Hannah, who grew up there. Hannah, much younger than Stoppard, is a devout Catholic, for theological and political reasons (the Catholic Church was a staunch form of dissidence in parts of the East bloc).
I remember Hannah telling me about the day her father called her into the kitchen for an earnest, whispered confession. He apologized to her for not joining the Communist Party because he knew it would limit her chances, and he pleaded with her to stop going to Mass. Her teachers, the secret police, the Party, knew of it, and if she persisted, she would be sent to work at the shoe factory, and never be allowed an education.
Stoppard’s play is a history of the world many people alive today have never heard of. The Plastic People of the Universe, one of the world’s most obscure rock and roll bands, and Western rock, carry the zeitgeist of revolution and resistance, and their consequent cynicism and despair, in the final years of the Soviet Union. It’s a story that matters.
One of our several stops today was Beliefnet, perhaps the largest website devoted to topics of religion and spirituality, where we experimented with some video shooting for one of their features. That’s a “stay tuned” for now, but we enjoyed working with their crew, and while there we stopped by the office of Steve Waldman, the co-founder and CEO, who has known Krista for some time. His book, Founding Faith, will be out in March. Waldman was our guest for a couple of election year shows four years ago, notably, Beyond the God Gap, and he has an unusually balanced and insightful view of religion in the political scene.
Beliefnet recently published a poll of its Evangelical users that shows some interesting drift. Among other things, a larger percentage (38.7%) of self-described Evangelical participants named “reducing poverty” as their most important issue rather than those who said “ending abortion” (31.8%) was.
While it wasn’t a scientific poll, it was a large participating sample, and some interesting nuggets are found therein.
Responding to the Feedback on "Inside Mormon Faith"
Kate Moos, Managing Producer
As Krista and I hop from meeting to meeting here in New York, we’re overwhelmed by the tremendous amount of listener response to our program on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We’re receiving very positive responses from non-Mormons and Mormons alike, from those who know and have studied the church as well as those for whom this was an introduction; at the same time, some listeners have expressed concern that this program was not critical enough to be journalistically valid.
Speaking of Faith models a distinctive approach to journalism about religion. The ethic of the interview is informed by deep listening and informed questioning. That is purposeful, based on her sense that adversarial questioning simply puts the interviewer on the defensive and shuts down the possibility of authentic and genuinely revealing answers. There are many legitimate ways to approach the multitudes of subjects in the news. This approach works for matters as deep and sensitive as religion and what we believe.
In the case of this show, her questions drew out a great deal of information that was new to many listeners. Some drove to the substantive core of distinctions between Mormon thought and traditional orthodox Christianity. As we also stated throughout the script, there are numerous controversies surrounding this faith in historical, cultural, theological, and social terms.
We didn’t omit to mention these “hot button” topics, nor did we dismiss them. But we did and do feel they have been often reported and examined in the mainstream media. We wanted to cover some new ground. We wanted to explore the basic parts of this faith that make it distinctive, and that are little understood.
We had a journalistic goal — to provide a more basic theological and human context for non-Mormons to understand this faith of 13 million human beings globally — and a broad and basic human foundation on which they might navigate the controversies for themselves.
We tried to determine where to post a response like this — on the show’s reflection page, to each individual, in next week’s newsletter? — and then we had to check ourselves and ask: “Are we too defensive?” “Are we overreacting and should we just allow our listeners to air their grievances?”
I am a “faithful” reader of The New Yorker - for all the kinds of writing and reporting they do. They’ve also by the way had some brilliant pieces on religion in recent years, as the whole field of journalism catches up with this subject, its importance in human life, and the intellectual and spiritual content that has been missed by traditional journalism for too long. But this kind of list still puzzles and throws me - an announcement of a New Yorker conference on “the near future”, with:
Where are the theologians? Why this assumption that philosophers and ethicists can hold their own in pressing, intellectual conversation - and have relevant and essential insight to add to the mix - and not religious thinkers?
I spent many years absorbed in the world of comic books. Then, after a while, I got sick of the futility of the superhero genre, where nothing of significance ever happened to these heroes. We know that Superman is invulnerable, but most other characters have "character shields" too. You know this from Star Trek (which I also can’t stand): Kirk, Spock, Bones, and Ensign Smith descend onto a planet (you know what happens next). Nothing ever happened to Kirk or the others because they’re commercial properties, not dramatic ones. Commercial properties can’t die.
In any case, I do think the superhero genre — one slice of the medium but by far the most commercially successful — can have moments of superb storytelling, like the mythic Kingdom Come, or the postmodern Astro City, that take on comic books that was grounded in the stories of everyday people. The "Confession" storyline was a favorite of mine. I’m also immersed in the first season of Heroes on DVD (now don’t tell me what happens!).
Comic books are also a global phenomenon, huge in Japan for example as a serious art form. Now there’s even this apparently wildly popular Muslim comic (if I can call it that) called The 99. It’s a secular adventure/superhero comic about a group of 99 individuals who gain special powers through these special stones, each one of which reflects on the the Divine Names of God as found in Islamic theology.
I personally find enjoyment from art that starts out in a neutral place and ends up having this beautiful undertone to it that gives me something more to think about, whether it’s religious, spiritual, scientific, philosophical, sociological — the list goes on and on. The archetypal X-Men storyline, for example, is about minority rights, identity and engagement. Chris Claremont, the legendary X-Men writer, said:
The X-Men are hated, feared and despised collectively by humanity for no other reason than that they are mutants. So what we have here, intended or not, is a book that is about racism, bigotry and prejudice.
The everyday X-Men storyline, on the other hand, is often a bit more along the lines of a superpowered soap opera, or even Star Trek.
I’m not saying I’m going back to the superhero genre, because I think graphic novels are far more interesting (though I have no time to read them). Watchmen said all that can be said, I think, about the superhero genre, and is in my opinion the finest superhero comic (and possible comic, period) ever written. It plays with the genre and injects the kind of mise en scène we expect from high cinema like Citizen Kane or 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’m much more interested in work that is visual art proper, like Joe Sacco’s Palestine or Marjane Satrapi’sPersepolis.
Still, I’ve downloaded the preview of The 99 off the website and plan to read it. It’s a case of popular art drawing from an Islamic base, as opposed to, say, something like Indiana Jones or The Da Vinci Code, or what have you, that draw from exclusively Judeo-Christian bases.
I traveled this past weekend to the Guest House of St. John’s Abbey in central Minnesota. I’m about to head off on some travel for my book tour — part of me looks forward to this, part of me does not. It will be exciting and exhausting, and I have a speech to write. But really all that was an excuse to get back up to St. John’s, a place I visit periodically to get quiet inside. I did get a bit done on the speech, but more important than that I slept and read, prayed with the monks, and collected my thoughts.
Before I left Kate handed me a tiny book of poems by Freya Manfred. I’m nourished and kept alive by reading, and always have been. I came upon a couple of lines from Manfred that I’ll keep. The first is just half a line that puts fresh words to an underlying energy and tension of life that fascinates me — the concomitant separation and twining of what is personal and what is communal. Manfred refers to this as “our braided paths and solitary ways.”
I like this language. She also has a poem about fear, which I think about alot as a factor in our common life, religious and otherwise. Fear is the very human very powerful emotion that lashes out as anger, hatred, bigotry, violence. I try to hang on to this knowledge — difficult as it is in the face of real anger, hatred, bigotry, and violence — as a way to cultivate compassion as a primary virtue for moving through the world. Freya Manfred adds some poetic images to my cumulative store of intelligence:
Fear is a thirst for solid ground, a cave and a fire, with a way in, and a way out.
Fear is not always old, but it’s always new. When old, it can be ignored,
like the midnight keening in the houses of the sane. When new, it’s nameless something about to happen —
not death, but all I can imagine. Fear leaves and returns.
There are no words to keep it away. If only there were words.
And yet, and yet — I persist in my faith that if we can at least name something — even the powerlessness of words in the face of the fearfulness in our world, we can begin to discern other ways together to approach and calm it.
While on vacation here in Oaxaca I was paging through a Lonely Planet guide on Mexico, trying to see about religious services and what the opportunities are for travelers. I was specifically interested in attending a Pentecostal service as it is the fastest growing denomination in Latin America, and I wanted to see how a service might be different from one in the U.S.
Aside from some general stats in the front of the book, there was nothing more than a museum-style treatment of old cathedrals, e.g. here is where you go to see this colonial-era cathedral, etc. Interesting that the editors would not think that travelers would want information of religious services, though, somebody (probably Zondervan) has that info covered in another guide. If not, there’s an opportunity there, I think.
When I have more time later, I will tell you the story of how our server at dinner last night just so happen to be studying to be a Pentecostal pastor, and he is planning to take us to his church on Sunday. What luck!
We occasionally receive press releases and program suggestions from listeners highlighting the many ways people are exploring the relationship between religion and art. It’s hard to translate visual art to radio, but we’re always talking about other arts programs, especially music, and our website opens up other options for us to consider. One recent alert came from the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore about their current exhibit: All Faiths Beautiful: From Atheism to Zoroastrianism, Respect for Diversity of Belief.
It features works from 50 artists on the subject of belief. They define visionary art as “art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself.” I asked for some examples of the work in the exhibit, and found beauty and mystery in “Untitled” by Edith Valentine Tenbrink and “Triptych (Mohammed, Jesus, Buddha)” by Christina Varga. Varga painted doors she found on a street in New York City. In trying to find an image of Muhammad to compare to her work, she learned about the Islamic tradition of not depicting his image. She chose to adapt it by using calligraphy she found in a Qur’an.
Images courtesy of the American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore
We’re currently wrapping up production on our upcoming show called Inside Mormon Faith, which will be available for download as of January 24. Our new shows are always available by the end of the day on Thursday (depending on how crazy it is here to get the show out the door).
We’re also in the midst of editing a show in which Krista interviewed Ed Husain, a British Muslim who wrote a hugely controversial book in the UK called The Islamist (which I’ll get to in a second, too, because that’s generated some interesting discussions among us).
The actual radio program for the “Mormon show” (as we refer to it) is done. That means that the process that begins with the research for Krista’s interview and ends with the final mixing of all the different audio elements, is all wrapped up. The website, another huge production, is nearing the final stages of completion.
The topic of Mormonism has already generated some response from listeners, before the show has even made it to air. What Krista looked for in her interview with Mormon scholar Robert Millet was a deeper understanding of the spirituality that draws people into the faith, rather than the controversies that keep the rest of the world from understanding the practitioners of that faith better. What lies beyond the controversy? What the media chooses to focus on, usually, is not what informs a person’s daily experience.
One of the touchstones in the interview was an experience she shared with Dr. Millet about her experiences in East Germany. As many of you may know, Krista lived in Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and had the chance to cover the opening of a Mormon temple.
The East German secret police, suspicious of everyone, had the temple under surveillance. Expecting to find some kind of anti-Communist sleeper cell, all they ultimately found there was a group of fairly ordinary, if religious, people.
Our discussions during the editing process were at times heated. We struggled to strike the right tone in our approach to a topic that has so many preconceptions attached to it already. This filtered into conversations from everything including what music to use to which of Krista’s questions to leave in and which to take out.
We’re naturally drawn to the human stories, the personal experiences. How much of that should be left in the final cut? Should it be trimmed at the expense of information that can radically change our view of a faith, but which can end up sounding dry without the lived reality of our guests? Do we have the right to question someone’s theology, when our own—taken out of the context of lived reality—can sound equally strange? The personal and the informational frame each other, but it’s never a clean 50/50 split.
Similar questions emerged in the editorial discussions around the Ed Husain show. Ed Husain spent six years in radical (though not directly violent) Islamist student groups in the UK in the mid-1990s. The memoir he wrote of those experiences has been debated and dissected in the UK, by every segment of the political spectrum, left, right, Muslim, non-Muslim, and everyone in between.
Immigration and integration have been problematic issues there for decades, and when the issue of so-called “homegrown terror” emerged after the July 7, 2005, bombings in London, the issue only became that much more pronounced. Issues of labels and semantics, the use of some words over others (Islamist, radical, etc.), are hugely important in Western Islamic intelligentsia today. That discussion, in turn, filters down to the mainstream that regularly sees itself portrayed, labelled and categorized by media reports and investigations.
But we have to get past all that, or try to, and mine the personal experience once again. If we can find and share a compelling human story, that is something anyone can relate to regardless of their cultural background.
As is the case with the Mormon show, it’s become an issue of balancing not just Ed Husain’s personal story and the information we can draw out of that, but the (pre)conceptions we bring with us after reading his book, which we got from the UK as it’s not yet available to US booksellers.
His story makes for a compelling read. For some, though, the book creates expectations for how the final show should sound. For others, the book is a fine starting point, but something that needs to be moved beyond in our hour of radio. For others still, not having read the book leaves questions that might not have been addressed in the initial interview or the later edits.
What we aim to do is address these concerns in the narration Krista writes and reads between interview segments. Is the narration providing the right context or is it giving too much tangential information? Do we need a reading from the book? Do we just want to get back to the guest, already?
These two shows touch upon charged themes in our public discourse that we ourselves—as participants in that discourse—can’t help but get caught up in. What we struggle with is maintaining journalistic fairness (as opposed to strict objectivity) and the balance between one person’s tale and the larger story they themselves are part of. I think most people are surprised to know that it takes 8 people to put out a one-hour weekly program. Maybe it’s because we’re so busy wrestling with these issues day after day. Even after nearly four years of weekly production, the production is anything but cut-and-dried.
As reported by Chris McGreal in The Guardian: “A decade of fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo is continuing to kill about 45,000 people each month - half of them small children - in the deadliest conflict since the second world war, according to a new survey.”
I…I don’t know how to react to this. I just don’t know.
I just don’t know.
It makes the show we want to do on the ethics of international aid as pressing as, well, as it’s ever been. Our attempts to contact a potentially great guest in Uganda have been marred by technical difficulties.
I’m confused. An immense amount of media coverage has been dedicated this past year to philanthropic organizations associated with high-power people and companies doing charitable work in a different way. Bill Clinton has argued that pharmaceutical companies can even make a fair margin off of cheap drugs to developing countries in Africa.
Does corporate social responsibility lead to greater profitability for a company’s shareholders? An article in The Harvard Business Review debunks the idea and determines that there is “a very small correlation between corporate behavior and good financial results.”
And now Larry Brilliant of the internet juggernaut’s philanthropic arm, Google.org, has announced its targeted strategy — focusing on climate change, economic development, and early-warning systems for major disasters. Sergey Brin and Larry Page will be committing “1% of Google’s equity and profits in some form, as well as employee time.” Do Google’s founders and shareholders expect to profit from their well-intentioned philanthropy, or is it a matter of morality in the face of so much success?
Altmuslim’s Wajahat Ali tracks down a “surly” Seymour Hersh and manages to get a fair interview out of him. (Seymour Hersh is a highly regarded correspondent for The New Yorker and writes about the Middle East and US foreign policy.) The story behind the interview, and his attempts to track down Mr. Hersh, are more compelling even than what Mr. Hersh has to say. Well worth the read for any fellow journalist or media producer.
In a recent Sightings newsletter, the regular distribution from the Martin Marty Center at University of Chicago divinity school, Marty wrote about the religion statistics as reported by the World Christian Database. Among their findings are the following figures on Christians across the world.
"Roman Catholics" claim 1,130,401,000…The 422,659,000 "Independents" outnumber 386,644,000 "Protestants" and 252,891,000 "Orthodox" and the rest.
The quantifying of the faithful has lately been of interest to me as I consider the method that one might use to actually count a person as a member of one denomination or strain, and not another. This came home to me recently while playing, of all things, an online game of Scrabble. I had just discovered the Scrabulous online community last Saturday and quickly found it to be very addicting. After a night on the town I settled down for a quick game around 1AM. Most of these games are between two people and the interface includes a chat screen next to the game board. Though in the screen of the games I had played earlier that day the comments were limited to, “hi and gl”, gl meaning “good luck.” In this game my opponent asked me the city in which I was playing, and after my reply I learned that this woman was placing her tiles in the Phillipines.
Well, a long conversation ensued, which, at times, was much more interesting than the game. How we got on the topic of her personal religion I cannot remember, but what was fascinating to me were all of the details around her faith life. She considers herself to be, in her words, Roman Catholic, Charismatic, Renewed, and yet she attends a Methodist church because she likes the way they worship, e.g. dance, sing, praise, etc., and she says she has the gift of speaking in tongues which makes me wonder if she might also blur the lines of Pentecostalism, though I think charismatic and renewal Catholics also speak in tongues. So, I guess I can’t help but wonder if the figures reported by the WCD above, can necessarily be all that accurate. Though, I do not know what their accounting methods are, I certainly am not questioning the integrity of their data.
What’s more, I can’t help but consider the words of Harvey Cox who, on a recent program, said,
"even inside the most ardent fundamentalist, who, of any — who, in the dark of night or early morning hours, might begin to doubt his or her utter and complete assurance about this or that, or the skeptic who, equally in the dark of night, begins to wonder whether his or her skepticism or agnosticism is really something he can live with."
So, in a world of 6,691,484,000 people, perhaps there are really 6,691,484,000 believers, and just as many non-believers?
*Qis is the plural of Qi, meaning life force, in Chinese medicine. Now, go get that Scrabble board!
SOF Playlist Track: Cepia, Hoarse Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer
Some of the music choices for next week’s show on Mormonism represented, for me, another angle of consideration of this young religion. As I layered in the track above (“Hoarse”) from Cepia, an electronic group from Minneapolis, I considered the rather traditional school of thought that feels electronic, or “computer” music, to be anything but music.
If I had to guess as to why one might feel this way it is perhaps that the sounds in this genre are not generated in the same way as, for example, the “true” sounds of a violin, the rich, pure notes physically scraped off of metal strands which are held taut across a wooden frame, an age-old tradition dating back hundreds of years. Perhaps. However, what of the feelings that this music generates in someone — the joy, the ecstasy, the wonderment — that are a direct result of these sounds, these computer-generated sounds? Does the catalyst really matter, whether it be a 300-year-old violin, or a 2-month-old Mac, if the sounds move the spirit?
I’m guessing since we’re a public radio program a good number of you probably heard Sylvia Poggioli’s piece (I just love her style of reporting) on the brouhaha at Rome University. There’s a healthy debate going on within the Roman Catholic Church about the pope’s current proclamations and his former papers as Cardinal Ratzinger. But, I have to applaud the graciousness of the crowd. Would students at a U.S. university have reacted in the same way?
Cary Tennis, the smart, poetic, intelligent advice columnist for Salon, dispenses some of his usual brilliance to a teenager who seems to be outgrowing(subscription required, or free to view after ads) the faith and/or views of her parents.
The danger of teaching a child only one absolute and inviolable set of rules is that when the child meets contradictions she has no way to integrate those contradictions into her world. Integrating your direct experiences into your world of faith requires nuance. When your experience seems to contradict what you have been taught, you have to move beyond the literal and toward the metaphorical and the subjective. In a world of absolutes, those words may sound like the devil’s words. But they represent experience as we know it, not as we wish it were so. Meeting apparent contradiction also spurs growth. But grow carefully.
The List Universe assembles all types of “top 15” lists. Well, they’ve started a series on religious and atheist thinkers. I couldn’t help note the contrast in quotes from the great 13th-century philosopher Thomas Aquinas:
I take a lot of pleasure in reading blogs and newsfeeds, especially when I receive a Google alert notifying me that something’s been posted about SOF. Not only do I get to see what they’re saying about the program or a particular show, I get to learn something more about our own content or be exposed to a new band or idea. With that, I’m giving a little link-love to a listener in the UK who spotted Mitch Hanley’s SOF Best of 2007 music list and added to it.
Some of us have been ranting and tearing our hair over the incredibly moronic and unhelpful horse race coverage of the presidential campaigns, especially leading up to the Iowa caucuses and then the New Hampshire primaries. While it’s gratifying to hear the pollsters and pundits be a little contrite in the wake of New Hampshire’s so-called “upset”, it’s the nature of the coverage itself — the daily calibrations in the largely fictional “who’s up and who’s down” meter — that leads to the kinds of over-predictions and hyperbolic buzz that offends me. Meanwhile, is anyone bothering to inform us what the policy differences are among the candidates? What their records actually look like? Slate gets at the problem of polling today. Thanks to Krista for sharing.
The online photography magazine Lens Culture has compiled a fabulous group of images (over 300 now) of the Buddha in the far reaches of Asia to the grounds of the Golden Bears in Berkeley. A fair number of photography, design, architectural magazines and blogs — the ones I read — usually focus on the aesthetic, the theory, the economics, and so on of an object. It’s reassuring to read how a magazine’s editors spend time on a project like this for the sake of preservation, and, as they put it:
"Images of Buddha can remind us to take a breath, to look around, to feel calm and compassionate, to be here now. You can notice Buddha almost anywhere — laundromats, store windows, barbershops, farmers’ markets, souvenir stands, tucked away on someone’s night table."