Mags: Writing on faith

While preparing to talk to Christian Kerr earlier this week for his Spectator piece, 'I say unto you, it is time for journalists to start doing God', I pulled my 'spirituality' file to see if the clippings could turn out anything of interest.

Using PM Rudd's declarations of faith to War Cry magazine as his hook, Kerr wanted to talk about journalists' general reluctance to report on faith. Pulling together sources to back his angle, Kerr picked up on my post, Rudd Priming For Heaven?, and thought I might have something say about the matter. And thus I became a "media commentator" by default – apparently there are slim pickings when it comes to faith talkers outside church leaders and authors, at least in the 'secular' media world, which is itself testimony to Kerr's hypothesis.

Shuffling through my rather thin spirituality file (which itself speaks volumes: my file on Sex and the City is bigger than a phone book!), I found:

- Reviews of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love, where Sex and the City meets spirituality, including 'Instant karma: cry on the bathroom floor, find God' by Brigid Delaney (Sydney Morning Herald) and 'From Hardcover to Paper, How a Blockbuster Was Born' from The Wall Street Journal;

- A column by Michael Duffy called 'Boom time for Christianity as its message falls on fertile ground', published around the time of World Youth Day last year, which discusses the burgeoning influence of Christianity, predominantly thought of as a "white person's religion" in the Third World, as well as how higher fertility rates amongst traditionalists and conservatives will ensure Christianity's survival in the Western world;

- 'Mobilizing the Religious Left' by Alan Wolfe from The New York Times, published in 2007, 100 years after Walter Rauschenbusch of the 'social gospel movement' published Christianity and the Social Crisis.

- A feature from Sunday Life by "ex-Catholic" Helen Hawkes discussing the Pope's new list of deadly sins, which uses the sort of mocking humour we've come to associate with anything penned about the Catholic church (it's the George Bush of organised religion). Hawkes confesses to snagging off-limits parking spaces and long showers, and there's a breakout column asking people what they believe should be mortal sins including Alex Perry's "Women not wearing high heels - straight to hell!".

- 'God Rocks', published in Sunday magazine in 2004, which says it's "hip to be Christian" (Daniel Bedingfield, Guy Sebastian, Beyonce Knowles, Jessica Simpson = a Christian pop trend);

- Jemimah's Khan's story, 'Leap of Faith' for British Vogue, in which she discussed the Islamic conversion of three high-profile women (though she doesn't talk much about her own faith);

- 'That's Hot', a four-page feature profiling celebrity spiritual "quick fixes" (think Kabbalah, Shamanism) by Kerrie Davies published in Madison magazine;

- 'Spirit Level' by Cathrin Schaer, published in Vogue Australia which looks at the trend towards people identifying with the term 'Spiritual Not Religious' (or SBNR).

- And a bunch of 'Inner Life' columns by Good Weekend's Stephanie Dowrick.

By far the most comprehensive and illuminating feature addressing modern faith comes via The Gold Coast Bulletin's Michael Jacobson who penned 'A matter of faith' in March 2008. Confident in its appraisal of religion versus faith, the story draws on the expert knowledge of Dr John Dickson, opens with a reference to novelist Anne Rice's conversion to Christianity, explores scientific theory and the shortcomings of organised religion and concludes that the most fascinating aspect of faith is its pursuit by everyone from "the simplest of souls" to "brilliant minds...gifted with enormous powers of reason and logic". Jacobson turns a complex social issue into an extremely strong, palatable and commendable piece of journalism, with none of the 'awkwardness' Kerr refers to in his Spectator column.

More recently, young women's magazines Cleo and Cosmopolitan have run faith-based features. July Cosmo's 'Would you convert for love?' is accompanied by pictures of Sex And The City character Charlotte York, who converted to Judaism before marrying her lawyer suitor. The same issue features the story of practising Catholic Katherine Lam who had a baby aged 20 to her boyfriend but is encouraging of her sister's chastity. Meanwhile, Cleo has run 'Like a prayer', which profiles three young people who are committed to their respective faiths.

More tellingly, perhaps, is the 'Horoscope Special' that runs in the July issue of marie claire Australia. Titled 'Sex and the Stars', the seven-page feature promises to tell us what the next six months have in store, with a celebrity encapsulating the essence of the star sign to which we belong. Astrology, as a guiding philosophy, is the accepted 'religion' of most glossies (along with materialism and the pursuit of eternal youth, sexiness and slimness), while celebrities, fashion designers, gurus and editors themselves are God-like figureheads.

Gwyneth's incessant GOOPing may elicit eye rolling, but you can bet it's well subscribed. By the same token, people tune into Oprah, buy up self-help books and magazines, attend life seminars and escape to spiritual health retreats for guidance, connection and self discovery (practising Christians attend church for the same reason). The pursuit of happiness, health, wealth and beauty (i.e. personal gain) has largely replaced the pursuit of God and the idea of living life in service to others; of serving a greater purpose than self-fulfillment.

The atheism and cynicism about religion that pervades the media, I think, is representative of society at large, which has come to view the church as nothing but a bunch of child-molesting, misogynistic hypocrites and religion as a terribly anachronistic inconvenience. Many people have simply become faith-less, if not atheist, whether through upbringing (the Boomers abandoned the church in droves), personal disillusionment or an intellectual alignment with another more suitable ideology.

What's more, the generally accepted post-modern theory that we (not God) are in control of our own lives is what drives the media – we are constantly looking for ways to improve ourselves and our circumstances, aided and abetted by products and information, with entertainment being escapism from this constant striving.

Religious content that does sell almost always involves its involvement in controversial social issues such as abortion and same sex marriage, thus it is tainted with the negativity stick. In Australia, the church has also been associated with a role in the Stolen Generation. But no one can ignore the fact that with the decline in faith and church attendance has come a decline in moral decency.

As Kerr concludes in his Spectator piece, "Religion matters...rather than shying away from religion and politics, journalists should talk about it more." As my clippings suggest, some journalists are tackling religion and faith matters, if only in sarcastic tones (we tend to do this when we are uncomfortable or unsure of the subject matter) or through trend-based stories straight off the Hollywood production line accompanied by images of celebrities. I should note here that when Gen-X poster girl and feminist Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, announced her belief in God in 2006, it was largely ignored by the media (her epiphany thereby garnering an aura of mythology).

We're not entirely comfortable with the notion of our leaders relying on God for direction, yet as sales of the Bible would suggest and the faltering economy has shown us, there's no firmer ground to stand on than faith. And that's definitely worthy of discussion.

Yours truly,
Girl With a Satchel


Jhoanna said...

An excellent piece on a very sensitive subject - it is a hard topic to write about when so many people find the mere mention of "God" or "faith" offensive. You hit the nail on the head when you said that religion/faith was primarily addressed in the magazines in either a sarcastic tone or tied to celebrity trends. Here's hoping (with you and Kerr) that there will be a more balanced/intelligent discussion of religion and faith in the glossies.

Katrina Fox said...

With all due respect to your religious faith, Erica, the combination of religion and politics in the western world hasn't been a particularly positive one in recent times. We've seen the damage done by Bush in withdrawing HIV aid to certain programs unless they promote abstinence. The shameful same-sex marriage debacle in the US and Australia, based on religious exclusivity, is another odious example and something that impacts on me as a person and as a writer. The separation of church and state is a great idea, but unfortunately not put into practice.

I recently interviewed Sandra Turnbull, one of the world's few openly lesbian Pentecostal pastors. She was a lovely woman, does some excellent work in places like South Africa, helping women who've been raped and homeless kids. But while she could accept that everyone could be on different spiritual journeys, even Paganism, she couldn't accept atheism ie that someone didn't have some kind of religious faith.

If your faith in Jesus, Buddha or whoever helps you get through the day, fantastic, but honestly the only reason I would care to read about a politician's religious proclivities are when they impact on policies and laws that negatively effect groups of people - and then I'd expect a critical account.

Writing about faith as a topic in its own right is fair enough - Mindfood magazine ran an interesting piece recently on faith in general, not just religious faith - but for my liking the further religion stays away from politics and lawmaking, the better.

Anonymous said...

long time follower, first time commenter!

If you're looking to beef up your spirituality file may I suggest bookmarking

while many posts are academic/theological in nature, there often will be posts that have a crossover between faith and culture. plus boyd has been in the media a wee bit (CNN doco, Charlie Rose and the like)

perhaps a little outside of the box in terms of glossy/media resources but maybe one day it will be handy!

KATE GUEST said...

It was Naomi Klein who wrote No Logo. Feminist Naomi Wolf wrote The Beauty Myth.

Apart from this little mistake, I really appreciated this piece. I don't share your religious views but I do agree with your analysis of the way religion is represented in the media. One thing I absolutely disagree with however is your assertion that with the decay of religion and faith there's been a decay of moral decency too. I think that takes a very short view of history, maybe only as far back as the 1950s, the decade that is consistently painted in sepia tones as the peak of morality! For thousands of years there have been outrageous, and what we today would call totally immoral, things done in the name of religion. Burning witches, crusades, forced conversions, etc. I think our views of what is decent change with every generation - perhaps we progress, perhaps we regress.

Beryl said...

I share similar views with you Erica, and think you've tackled it well. As a Christian I am often interested whenever I see articles in mags about people and their faith, but just as you described your religion file as being 'thin' - I guess we don't see enough of religion being discussed in the media. This I find hard to understand since so many people belong to some sort of faith or another. Maybe people are ashamed? Maybe people are trying to avoid stirring up controversy? I don't know - but to me politics is just as dangerous territory.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post!!! Very thought provoking!!! xx

Ryan said...

I think a decline in morals comes with a decline in having a proper education system. A system which includes in Queensland, where religious education for primary school students. When I opted out back in the day, my only option was to sit in a classroom doing work from a Maths textbook. So most kids are still learning about this stuff - they just aren't paying attention.

As for having someone/something to turn to, as someone who doesn't have religious beliefs, I find this a bit offensive. I don't care about consumerism, I shop at second hand stores and I donate 20 hours a week of my time to not for profit organizations. Please don't stereotype those without religious beliefs, and maybe said community will stop stereotyping the religious as archaic and occult. Two wrongs don't make a right :)

That said, I agree that we do need to improve on morals in society, and that a more open, articulate dialogue about religion with constructive ideas both ways (Atheism/religious apathy is not an excuse to have no morals and not care about others. Christianity is not an excuse to discriminate) then we could all move forward together as a better society.

Erica Bartle (nee Holburn) said...

Thanks for the comments, guys.

Katrina - I'll have to hunt down a copy of the Mindfood issue you talk about. I think you're right in suggesting that a politician's religious leanings should be kept out of journalism covering political issues. Like Therese Rein's weight, is it really relevant? However, how can a person's faith not affect their actions? I find comfort in the thought that Rudd at least tries to adhere to the precepts of Christianity.

Sahara, now I've had a chance to think, I believe I do agree with your assertion about the decline of morality. Even the Bible is evidence that man has always been corrupted by sin. And I believe that there is a sort of moral awakening happening, particularly in a post-GFC sense. And the fact that there is still conflict in the Middle East is evidence that organised religion (as apposed to a person's personal faith), when used to justify questionable acts of morality, can do more harm than good.

And Ryan - as a former lapsed Catholic cum 'new' Christian, brought up by a non-practising Catholic and non-practising Protestant (who each claimed superiority in their faith) who largely ignored what was said in her religious education classes, I can see where you're coming from. But perhaps there needs to be a spiritual element to education, regardless of denomination. Humanities studies or something, which examine the concepts of right and wrong, look at questionable characters and tragic (and uplifting) events through history, etc. I absolutely believe that everyone has the right to choose how they live their lives, I just happen to have found that a life lived by the Christian values espoused in the Bible and by Jesus, while no less challenging than a life lived in any other way, is what I believe is best. And I do take comfort in the knowledge that my sins are forgiven every day as I strive to be a better, more Christ-like person. Like Kevin Rudd, I assume.

There are good people in the world who don't identify with a particular faith, you're right, of course. Some of those people do better, greater and more worthy things than people who claim to be religious. When used for a means for personal gain or ego boosting or to disguise one's shortcomings, religion can be a vice.

I do think we need to keep discussing the issue, and giving it as much time as the stockmarket... or Therese Rein's weight.

Anonymous said...

is that true?