Reporting On Religion

[25 September 2007]

By Jillian Burt

Cordero by Zatorski + Zatorski

Cordero by Zatorski + Zatorski

Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) by Francisco Zurbaran (1635 - 40)

Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) by Francisco Zurbaran (1635 - 40)

New Era, Renewed Symbols

“Cordero” is what the UK based artists Zatorski+Zatorski call a “video painting”. It’s a silent movie of a lamb that had died in an unusually cold snap on a farm near the cathedral in Durham where they were artists in residence. It only becomes apparent that you’ve been watching a movie rather than looking at a painting when a bird flies into view and alights on the body of the lamb. Zatorski+Zatorski bring the symbolism of the Christian Bible into a new context in a new time. “Cordero” makes reference to the famous 17th century sacrificial lamb painting by Francisco Zurbaran, which is the cover image of Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, the follow up to the Pulitzer Prize winning, God: A Biography, by former Los Angeles Times Literary Editor, Jack Miles. In last Sunday’s L.A. Times Book Review he reviewed Secular Age by Charles Taylor and The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West by Mark Lilla.

To a scientist, “secularization” means that God no longer explains nature; to an artist, that the Bible no longer provides subject matter; to a businessman, that the shop stays open on Sunday—and so forth. In “A Secular Age,” philosopher Charles Taylor takes on the broad phenomenon of secularization in its full complexity. In “The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West,” Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, asks only what secularization means to the prime minister.

Jack Miles. L.A. Times. Sept 26, 2007

Jack Miles might also have speculated upon what God (or the absence of God) means to the journalist. It seems that Jack Miles wasn’t a part of the Religion Section at the Los Angeles Times, but the newspaper has an deeply nuanced approach to reporting on religion, treating it as a branch of ethics, and looks at the cultural rituals that unite or divide peoples and places. The Los Angeles Times religion column links stories to the wider community and traces social and political implications of spiritual matters. In a memorable story, that’s not in its online archive, it discussed voodoo being declared the official religion of Haiti. But the religion section is also a city desk: there’s recent coverage of a muslim woman asked to remove her headscarf in jail in Anaheim, and a convent that will close in Santa Barbra, displacing elderly nuns, as a consequence of the site being sold to help pay a priest abuse settlement.

Stormy Times in the Anglican Church

TENSE times on the steamy streets of New Orleans. On the TV screens, the evening weather reports bring news of a gathering tropical storm in the Gulf of New Orleans and the population shivers at the thought of a repeat of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

In the private suites and meeting rooms of the InterContinental hotel, a different storm is gathering. Just a short walk from the muddy waters of the Mississippi, the Anglican bishops of the United States have convened to decide whether they will provoke the biggest schism in the Church of England since its foundation by Henry VIII.

At issue is the role of gays in the Anglican Communion and the status of Gene Robinson, a homosexual father of two daughters who was elevated three years ago to become the Bishop of New Hampshire.

Jonathan Wynne Jones. The Telegraph. September 24, 2007

Wynne reports that New Orleans is a city that’s considered as being ” so steeped in its reputation for sin and debauchery that the fire-and-brimstone wing of America’s Christian right attributed Hurricane Katrina to the cleansing wrath of God”. New Orleans, like Los Angeles, routinely has the kind of social upheaval and natural disasters that have reporters reaching for the Old Testament of the Christian Bible for metaphors and analogies? But how should religion be reported? As a branch of law with rules and abstracts and precedents. As a form of arts reporting, its numinous, inexpressible qualities falling into the kind of coverage poetry, classical music or dance invites? As sports reporting, with this team against that team, points scored, penalties awarded and players being sent off the field for fighting and gouging?

There are also curiosities that verge on the absurd to those outside the faiths. The Anglican Church, in the mid-1990’s re-defining hell and bringing it in line with John Milton’s heaven and hell within one’s own mind. Hell wasn’t a physical place any more but a a complete absence of God within one’s soul. In 1997 Gustav Neibur wrote a memorably nutty story about the Catholic Church closing the Office of the Devil’s Advocate.

‘‘The devil’s advocate was a prosecutor,’’ said Msgr. Francis Maniscalco, spokesman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, whose role was ‘‘to make sure somebody unworthy’’ didn’t become sainted without a thorough examination.

Early church leaders accorded sainthood to martyrs and others deemed to have led particularly holy lives. Only gradually was that process centralized in Rome. In the 14th century, the church adopted a trial-like system in which the devil’s advocate tried to poke holes in cases brought by church lawyers representing candidates for sainthood. That lasted until Pope John Paul II revamped the system in 1983.

Gustav Neibur. New York Times. September 14, 1997

Buddha vs the Barrel of a Gun

The Asia Times headline, “Buddha vs the Barrel of a Gun” about the military junta in Burma beginning to crack down on the monks whose peaceful protests have been escalating, illustrates the complexity of reporting on religion. In a rare moment of freedom in 1996 Aung San Suu Kyi talked to Claudia Dreifus of The New York Times, who asked her why nations with large Buddhist populations have “so often had such terribly violent rulers”. Dreifus mentioned Cambodia, Burma and Tibet, but might also have added Nepal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Japan. “Sometimes I wonder if the countries that embraced Buddhism did so because they needed it: because there was something violent in their societies that needed to be controlled by Buddhism,” Aung San Suu Kyi replied. “But of course, violence is not limited to Buddhist countries. It is true: it is very difficult for us to explain why we should have violent governments in Buddhist countries because the governments themselves claim to be Buddhist! If you stay here long enough and you watch television, you will see the generals . . . donating things to monasteries, praying at pagodas and behaving very much like good Buddhists. So one wonders why such violence exists. And I think the conclusion one would have to come to is that perhaps they are not practicing Buddhism anything like enough.”

Transcendant Blogs and Podcasts

Speaking of Faith

“Hearing people talk from their experience, out of their story, is fundamentally different from hearing their conclusions and doctrines first. With Speaking of Faith, we are introducing a new way of talking about religion, one which will be both informative and illuminating as well as complementary to existing religion news coverage,” says Krista Tippett of her American Public Radio program, Speaking of Faith. “Journalistic reporting about religion often asks people to speak for a tradition, or for God. And for understandable reasons it favors guests — including religious leaders — who are willing, even bound, to do so. ...Speaking of Faith, however, doesn’t stop at the story. The first-person approach, after all, could be just another dead end if it didn’t move beyond personal confessional. That is where my role as a theologically-trained journalist is critical. I engage people at that personal level, but I also invite them to articulate the important ideas and the deep, relevant perspectives that faith can add to our private and public lives.”

Among her programs she’s spoken to journalists who frequently write on spiritual matters (all are linked to podcasts):

Pankaj Mishra on his book An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World.

Mariane Pearl, the widow of the Wall Street Journal correspondent, Daniel Pearl, who was murdered in Pakistan.

And Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic Nun, who has written several books and made many media appearances explaining the connections and common threads shared by the world’s religions. Her most recent book, The Great Transformation, looks back at what she calls “the axial age” when the seeds of the world’s great religions were sown, and why these traditions are still valuable and vital and speak to our own time.

Alongside the sectarianism that is growing, the fact that we are living cheek by jowl with people of other faiths, the fact that our world has shrunk to a global village, means that for a long time and in a most unsung way people have been spontaneously reaching out to other faiths. More Christians read Martin Buber than Jews. Jews read Paul Tillich and Harvey Cox. And Jesuits have long been learning meditation from Buddhist monks. Because there’s more information now than there was, I think people are doing it not in a principled way but spontaneously. Rumi, for example: People are reading him in droves in the West. Sufism is very popular. My little book on the Buddha was very popular. What we need in this world right now is a dose of the Buddha’s good sense, I think: low-key spirituality.

I think this is in the zeitgeist now; people are doing it. Since 9/11, Americans in particular have become aware that now it’s not just a nice thing to do; it’s imperative to learn. And we’ve got to bring up our children to know about other religions. Everybody, not just the West. When I go to mosques or synagogues, I’ll say the same thing. We’ve got to know more about each other’s religions so we don’t harbor distorted, inaccurate images. It’s too dangerous.

Karen Armstrong. From an interview on

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Prada ad “Thunder Perfect Mind”

Thunder Perfect Mind

Wry and entertaining blog on religious matters, Ralph the Sacred River, sometimes touches on religion in popular culture, for instance this column on Jordan and Ridley Scott using the Gnostic scripture, “Thunder Perfect Mind” as the basis for their short movie advertising Prada’s perfume. “Thunder Perfect Mind” is one of a number of gospels discovered in Egypt in the 1940’s that show a more complex view of Christianity than the one that came down to us within the gospels selected to be a part of Christian Bible.

God is in the Roses

Rosanne Cash is one of a number of contemporary artists asked by the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art in New York to put on a performance linked to an exibit that’s a tribute to the Dalai Lama. She performed with Elvis Costello. Variety reported that “Cash opened the evening with a dissertation on the importance of “magic numbers” in the practice of Buddhism before launching into a sultry, torch song-like rendition of Harry Nilsson’s “One.” Her slightly downcast manner was tempered by the appearance of a surprisingly avuncular Elvis Costello, who announced his presence with a surprisingly swinging, grit-laced take on the soul classic “99 and a Half.” “

In her own blog she asks What if God has evolved out of the need for religion?

I cannot pretend to KNOW the mind of God, or even if there IS a God. There are ‘holy’ books in this world – the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Torah– all written by people. No, let me be more specific: all written by MEN, who comprise only half of the total genders in the world. Doesn’t this all seem just a little…. provincial, if nothing else?

I’ll go out on a limb even further here. I think the same divine intelligence that inspired these holy texts also inspired Harry Potter and Mozart and Georgia O’Keefe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. As my friend John Stewart says, ‘God gives us all different radio signals, hoping we’ll talk to each other’. I would add, ‘IF God is still in a phase of evolution where He/She/It indulges in such a prosaic occupation as hope’. What is beyond hope? Maybe Divine Indifference?

John Lennon said that God was a concept by which we measured our pain. I am beginning to think that currently God is a concept by which we measure our self-hatred. I am getting off that particular boat.

Please join me in some ritualistic worship of my own chosen trinity, if you will, or devise your own. See you at a museum or a concert, and keep your ears open for those stupefying jewels of wisdom which small children are apt to drop on you at any moment.

Rosanne Cash. August 12, 2007

“Cordero” is from “Human, all too Human” an exhibition of video, sculpture, sound, and text investigating the notions of mortality and faith by Zatorski+Zatorski that was held at the Reg Vardy Gallery.

“Personifying metaphors of martyrdom and ascension, canaries filled Zatorski and Zatorski’s cathedral studio throughout their residency. The artists used these birds to compose extraordinary rich videos that flutter with a touch of avian eccentricity. Ringing with the missionary like intention of William Tyndale, who translated the King James Bible into colloquial English in the 16th century, the artists completed a three year-long project to render this sacred text from common English to the increasingly common language of SMS text.

Influenced by the Baroque masters Carravaggio and Zurbaran, Zatorski + Zatorski have transformed the gallery into cloisters of light and shadow through which works pregnant with iconic symbolism and luminosity are found. The exhibition culminates with a humble servant of God. Brother Pascal in Prayer is an unyielding video portrait of a Franciscan monk’s physically and emotionally exhausting daily spiritual exercise. Human, all too Human also includes works created in collaboration with the University of Sunderland’s Glass Department at the National Glass Centre and the Durham Cathedral Boy’s Choir.” Exhibition catalog notes.





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