Faith interest media; do media interest faith?

By on December 1, 1998

THERE’S A QUIET revolution going on in the media these days. Journalists are beginning to reappraise the role of faith in people’s lives.

A faith and media conference in Ottawa earlier this year drew representatives from both faith and secular media, as well as leaders from many faiths.

Senior newspaper and magazine editors from some of the country’s largest news organizations were among secular media representatives and the CBC broadcast portions of the meeting on both radio and television prime-time shows.

Professional magazines for journalists have also carried articles about faith and media, including what the different constituents think about mainstream media coverage of issues. But it goes deeper.

Journalists have long been regarded as the cynics of the world. Dubbed the Fourth Estate, they have relished in challenging the other “estates” of society (clergy were the First Estate under the late medieval arrangement – the vestiges are the bishops of the Church of England who sit in the House of Lords).

Twenty-five years ago, the stereotypical journalist was the gruff, foul-mouthed, hard-drinking male newspaper reporter or editor. Today, it’s the smart-dressed, young woman or man; still tough but less hampered by the baggage of being against everything in society. They’re also interested in the same things the rest of the society they mirror is, and spirituality and faith are right up there.

This isn’t to be confused with a wholesale return to institutional religion, but the church ought to be taking notes. This is on the record. A recent writers’ conference in Halifax will illustrate.

The print and broadcast media event was put on by the Canadian Association of Journalists. It’s a group with voluntary membership that attracts some of the best journalists in the country and rewards their hard-hitting investigative work with coveted annual awards.

Bishops have been off their breakfast menu for years, replaced by police and prime ministers (pass the pepper-spray). As with most conferences, corridors and parties are where the real work is done and religion popped up several times.

One was particularly instructive for church leaders. A conversation at a party involving two under-40 journalists, one print, one radio, centred on the question of homosexuality and the Bible. Verses were cited, context discussed, morality, the purpose of marriage, relationships in general, sexuality and procreation all mixed with ginger ale and real ale.

After more than an hour of intense discussion, Cape Breton fiddle music and Gordon Lightfoot only a few feet away, the younger participant observed sadly that people aren’t interested in religion anymore.

So what was the discussion about? Institutional religion is in decline; has been for the past three or four decades. Interest in faith and spirituality declined too for a while.

It’s resurfacing. It is misleading to think that wars in the name of religion have nothing to do with religion. Institutional religion is just the formal expression of what people believe.

And what people believe is always more powerful than what they merely think, rationalize. The battles and upheavals in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Sudan, Pakistan and the Middle East are about religion because religion and politics are the same in those regions.

Church leaders in Canada sometimes deplore our public debates on current issues (such as homosexuality). The fact is that Canadians are thinking about these issues and the debates are a good thing.

The real problem is that debates in the church are often long on emotion and towing the party line (whether Right or Left) and short on substance. Most people want substance.

If the church is to have any credibility, if it is to challenge people, it must present clear, intelligent arguments. It must engage people at every level. Ironically, the voices heard most in the media – usually the ones that shout most – are the voices of the extremes.

Yet members of the media are probably as fair a reflection of society as anyone, and few of them are extremists. It is likely that most people in Canada still think about morals in some sort of religious framework.

Faith groups, such as the Anglican Church, have much to offer from their rich traditions and history of theological debates.

They need to communicate that to the rest of society. Journalists are waiting to see if they deliver. Live, on air now.

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