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.
Girl With a Satchel