Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Getting Religion

A glance at the morning paper, a perusal of the evening news, a click on The Huffington Post will tell you the same thing: Religion’s big news.

Religious fervor has been suggested as a motive in the Boston Marathon bombing attack. Sectarian violence between Muslim Sunnis and Shiites is escalating in Iraq. The murder trial of Kermit Gosnell (the doctor who allegedly did some pretty horrific things in his Philadelphia abortion practice) is drawing belated national attention—a welcome sight for many Christians for whom abortion is a huge issue. A couple that relies on faith healing have now watched two of their children die from maladies that, ostensibly, modern medicine could've helped.

Yeah, faith has made headlines lately. But then again, it always does.

Like it or not, religion is a factor—often a huge factor—in today’s and every day’s news cycle. Religion filters into healthcare debates and budget battles. It informs how we react and respond to tragedy. Faith impacts how people think and vote and spend. The biggest questions of life (Why are we here? How did we get here? Why do we hurt? What’s after this?) are inherently questions of faith. And even if we choose to reject faith, we still must grapple with the concept. And how we answer those big questions can’t help but influence how we deal with the issues of our day.

Seven out of 10 Americans say they’re either “very” or “moderately” religious, according to Gallup. And the other three? Well, they gotta try to understand—and deal with—the rest of us. Religion in the news? I can’t think of a major news story that wouldn’t have a faith angle to explore.

And yet, some pundits believe that many reporters get religion all wrong.

I ran across a column by Carl M. Cannon of Real Clear Politics that bemoaned the lack of religious awareness in news organizations. He mentioned a New York Times piece that declared, "Easter is the celebration of the resurrection into heaven of Jesus" (instead of His resurrection from the dead; his ascension took place 40 days later), and a CBS Sunday Morning story that reported John the Baptist as having been at Jesus' crucifixion (when he had been beheaded sometime before). Obviously, the reporters weren’t trying to demean religion: They were honest mistakes. But really, shouldn’t any reporter writing about religion have at least a rudimentary understanding of the faith they’re covering? Writes Cannon:

Although the number fluctuates, some 40 percent of the American people describe themselves as evangelical Christians. Yet in traditional U.S. news organizations, print or broadcast, such believers are a rarity. The news coverage tends to reflect this disconnect. Evangelicals are often dismissed, particularly in political reporting, as exotic; or, worse, as a menace to civil society. Traditionally, the people covering religion knew what they were talking about, at least. And presumably, they exerted a leavening influence inside their newsrooms. But Biblical literacy isn’t necessarily a requirement for that beat anymore; meanwhile, newsroom budget cuts have decimated the ranks of the nation’s religion writers.

This bums me out. Not just because I'm a Christian and would like to see my faith represented fairly and accurately. Not just because I'm a former religion reporter who sees so many great stories that journalists rarely touch. It saddens me because religion is important. We can't hope to understand the stories of the day without some understanding of the spiritual and religious motivations behind them.

But there's an irony here—one pointed out, indirectly, by ReligionDispatches' Diane Winston in a written rebuttal to Cannon:

The real issue is not the lack of trained religion reporters, but rather Americans’ widespread ignorance about religion. Religion is absent from many high school curricula and university classrooms, and many of us barely know the religious history of our own country much less the role of religion worldwide. Religion is too important to be left to a few experts. … The historical, sociological, and theological basics of world religions need to be part of the American educational system. Once they are, coverage not just of religion but also of politics, culture, international affairs, and probably even sports, is bound to improve.

Most Americans claim to be religious. And yet most Americans don’t have a good understanding of their own faith, much less their neighbors’. And I’d agree that that’s a problem, too. I’d love to see religion taught in schools: Even for non-Christians, a working knowledge of Christianity is important to understand much of Western Civilization’s art, history and literature. A better understanding of other faiths will be increasingly important in our ever-growing multicultural society. Sure, it’d be tricky. But you can teach without evangelizing. In my time as a religion reporter, I learned a great deal about other faiths without anyone ever trying to convert me.

Yeah, religion is a big deal—not just spiritually, but pragmatically and empirically. It’s very often news. And we ignore it at our own peril.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

To the Wonder: Tough Love

Terrence Malick is pretty weird.

There's no way of getting around that, really. The director's a genius, I’m pretty sure. But geniuses can be a bit odd. Most moviemakers seem preoccupied with things like plot and tension and plausibility. Malick seems to work in a surreal, dreamlike landscape all of his own. Plot is there, of course—but his stories move like memory. Moments splash on the screen with extraordinary detail and power. But the explicit connections that join them fade in a transitory haze. If he was a novelist, Malicks books would be all  nouns and verbs—dumping modifiers and dependent clauses and, really, huge swaths of punctuation. His recent films make 2001: A Space Odyssey look like a Jason Statham flick.

When I saw The Tree of Life, it took me a good two days before I figured out I loved it. I saw Malick's latest film, To the Wonder, three weeks ago … and I'm still not sure.

But even if the movie left me a bit conflicted, the message is pretty awesome. You can see my review here to get the basics, but in this space I'd like to drill a bit deeper.

The plot of To the Wonder is pretty basic: Neil and Marina dig each other, but they struggle to preserve the spark over the long term. In a parallel story, Father Quintana wonders why he's lost his feel for God.

The two stories together become a rumination on love and faith, and how hard both can be at times.

In a way, love and faith are so linked as to be almost indistinguishable from one another—something Malick understands. Relationship—the bond we share with one another and with God, too—demands a bit of both. We trust that our partners will be faithful to us, that our friends will not betray our trust. We believe they love us, just as we love them. Love is what we give. Faith is what we keep—the trust we have, the hope we cling to.

But offering love and holding onto faith can be tricky. We’re finite beings grasping at infinite truth and depth. It’s easy to get discouraged.

And that’s what we see in To the Wonder. Marina complains about how distant Neil is, even as Father Quintana struggles with how to relate to an invisible God. Marina and Quintana struggle with their own human weakness and frailty. They grow discouraged and angry. Marina is gravely tempted. “My God, what a cruel war,” she says. “I find two women inside of me. One, full of love for you. The other pulls me down to the earth.” It can be so hard to patiently listen for God when the world all around us chatters so insistently.

The story ends on a tragically pragmatic note. And yet, there’s still a stubborn insistence that our love and faith is not in vain.

I love Quintana’s sermon on love:

Love is not only a feeling. It is a duty. You show love. Love is a command. And you say I can’t command my emotions. They come and go like clouds. To that, Christ says you shall love whether you like it or not. You fear your love has died? Perhaps it’s waiting to be transformed into something higher.

It seems as though Quintana waits. And in the midst of waiting, we see tantalizing hints of the “something higher” that is, perhaps, waiting on him.

In the midst of his own spiritual struggles, Quintana talks with a janitor at his church. The man holds his hand up to a stained glass window and says, "I can feel the warmth of the light, brother. That's spiritual. I'm feeling more than just natural light. Felling the spiritual light. Almost touching the light from the sky."

It's telling that, in the movie's most spiritual moments, the sun and sky are powerful forces on screen—sometimes overwhelming the characters there. Again and again, Malick draws distinction between the earth and sky, our earthbound desires and spiritual inclinations. Sometimes they reach their hands in the air to feel the warmth on their skin. And at least one character shies away from the sun: A prisoner tells Father Quintana that he can't help his bad behavior—then, squinting, admits he "can't stand the sun."

In the end, Malick seems to suggest that God is like the sun—frustratingly out of reach sometimes, obscured often in our worst moments by cloud and fog. And yet, we feel Him in our lives. His presence is all around us.

In the end, we see hands reached to the heavens, feeling for the sun, as Father Quintana's voice offers a prayer to God.

We thirst.
Flood our souls with your spirit and life
So completely
That our loves may truly be a reflection of yours.
Shine through us.
Show us how to see you.
We were made to seek you.

We were made for love, for faith. It’s tough sometimes. But Malick leaves little doubt of his hope that the struggle is worth it. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Running on Faith: Terror

I thought about the runners in Boston this morning.

Long before I heard about exploding bombs or injuries or death, I thought about the people running today—the 27,000 people fast enough and disciplined enough to qualify for the United States’ most prestigious race.

It’s a big deal to run in the Boston Marathon—out of reach for a plodder like me. Those who were finishing up when the bomb went off were slower, by Boston’s lofty standards: For many of them, merely lining up at the start would’ve been the pinnacle of their running careers. To finish—well, after being on their feet for more than 26 miles, the elation (weary as they might’ve been) would’ve gone beyond description.

And then for some, it was all torn away.

I’ve written about my marathon training a time or two on this blog—drawing a few tenuous parallels between running and a life of faith. Both require discipline. Both can be incredibly hard and even painful. But both offer rewards, both tangible and transcendent.

But I didn’t think that a marathon would run headlong into that sort of unexplainable horror we sometimes suffer in life—the kind of cataclysm that can make some question the mercy of God.

“Where was God?” Goes the question. “Where was He in …” and then the blank is filled with pain. In Aurora? In Sandy Hook? In Boston?

If you’re Christian, it’s a hard question to answer. If God is who He says He is, then He was there—there in some capacity. But why, then, did He seem to do nothing? And there’s no answer, none at all, that can satisfy.

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him,” Paul writes in Romans 8:28. And yet he died at the hands of a Roman executioner.

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care,” Jesus says in Matthew 10:29. And yet the blood of Jesus fell to the ground as He was crucified.

But then, I think to the prayer that same Jesus taught us to pray: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, you kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

That line suggests, to me, that God’s will is not always done here on earth. Sometimes, people with evil in their hearts and weapons in their hands get in the way. We were given free will—to love and obey or go our own way. And sometimes, we use that will badly.

We don’t have to like all that happens in this world. We should hate it, in fact. That free will, so destructive at times, is the very thing that can spur us on to correct and curb such destruction. We can pursue evil. We can care for the wounded. We can be the hands and feet of God.

“If you are losing faith in human nature today, watch what happens in the aftermath of an attack on the Boston Marathon,” writes The New York Times’ Ezra Klein. “The flood of donations crashed the Red Cross’s Web site. The organization tweeted that its blood supplies are already full. People are lining up outside of Tufts Medical Center to try and help. Runners are already vowing to be at marathons in the coming weeks and months. This won’t be the last time the squeakers run Boston. This won’t be the last time we gather at the finish line to marvel how much more we can take than anyone ever thought possible.”

Distance running is, in some ways, an exercise in dealing with pain. It requires those who participate to push through fatigue and hurt and boredom. Yes, the tragedy in Boston makes those standard-issue running trials feel pretty lame. And yet, the principles are still in place: When it seems outlandish to imagine going on, we do.

And so it is with faith sometimes. Sometimes, God’s will is not done on earth. Sometimes, evil walks with us. Runs with us. It hurts us and threatens to break us—and at the most heartbreaking times. And yet we go on. We go on.

A few hours after I heard the news, I drove to the local Y. I laced up my shoes, the soles still crusted with dust and mud from the previous weekend’s long run. I filled up my water bottle, flipped on my iPod and listened to Philip Yancey’s book, Prayer.

And then I began to run. I’ve got a marathon to do in a month. And I plan to do it.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Matthew Warren and Space to Grieve

It's been an extended weekend of loss, it seems. We lost a great many people who impacted many of us—Roger Ebert (whom I wrote about here), Annette Funicello, Margaret Thatcher.

But the loss I most keenly felt this morning wasn't a celebrity or politician, but a 27-year-old pastor's son who succumbed, apparently, to depression in the worst way possible.

Matthew Warren, son of Pastor Rick Warren (author of The Purpose Driven Life and senior pastor for California's Saddleback Church), died early Friday after spending the previous evening with his mother, Kay, and father. It sounds like he had struggled with depression for most of his life.

Warren wrote a letter to the Saddleback staff, asking for prayers. In it, he wrote:

Kay and I often marveled at his courage to keep moving in spite of relentless pain. I'll never forget how, many years ago, after another approach had failed to give relief, Matthew said " Dad, I know I'm going to heaven. Why can't I just die and end this pain?" but he kept going for another decade.

In his letter, Warren writes that “no words can express” the anguish he and Kay feel. For those of us who’ve never lost a child, the loss is truly inconceivable.

The subject of suicide has always been a tricky thing in the Christian community. We’ve struggled with how to deal with the topic. Before I left my gig at The Gazette, I had the difficult honor of talking with parents still grieving over the suicides of their children. They talked to me of the heartbreak, the loss and, sometimes, the lack of support they received from their churches--where mental illness was treated as an unspeakable secret, suicide an irredeemable evil. And they talked of the pain. Years later, they talked of the pain that never goes away.

But yet in most manifestations of Christianity today, there is a thread of hope in even the midst of the greatest pain. I hope the Warrens find a hint of solace in the hope that Matthew is home now, waiting for a glorious reunification. Thoughts of heaven are surely little comfort in this moment, but a little comfort is better than none.

It amazes me that there are those who would try to strip away that small bit of comfort in this period of unimaginable grief. Some are Christians that believe suicide amounts to an unforgivable sin—overlooking God’s boundless love and mercy. Others are atheists, almost gleefully trying to destroy faith in this moment of grief and anguish. Writes Cathy Lynn Grossman for USA Today:

You can find, among hundreds of comments on USA TODAY's news story on Matthew's death, comments such as the Cincinnati poster who says, "Either there is no God, or God doesn't listen to Rick Warren, despite all the money Rick has made off of selling false hope to desperate people." In another comment, the same poster counsels Warren to "abandon primitive superstitions and accept the universe for what it is — a place that is utterly indifferent to us."

The Internet is a wonderful tool, but there are times when the unfettered communication it provides can be a bitter thing. In ages gone by, families grieving could’ve found space to mourn in their own way. They would’ve been given time to heal, time to make sense of it all. Now, it seems, there is no time—no time at all before an unfeeling cacophony fills every place of peace.

There are atheists who declare that the Internet is god—our collective minds wired together forming an all-seeing, all-knowing web of consciousness. There are those who even say it answers prayer.

But as amazing and transforming as the Internet has been, there are times when it reveals itself for what it truly is: A hive made of broken, sometimes petty people, all needing the only real Hope there is.