Puff the Maverick Dragons

David Mills on Religious News That’s Not

Christian mavericks find affirmation in ancient heresies,” declared the Christian Science Monitor headline, in an article the newspaper’s PR department seems to have sent to the editors of religious publications. Gosh, what a surprise. The story was, as you might guess, about this year’s major media choice for The New Insight That Knocks Down Christianity Forever, the Gospel of Judas, though it took off from there.

For those who don’t know about Christian Science, the “Christian” in the newspaper’s title has nothing to do with Christianity, but is simply half the name of the gnostic religion invented by that crackpot and conwoman Mary Baker Eddy at the end of the nineteenth century. Which may, now that I think of it, partly explain the newspaper’s interest in a story about the Gospel of Judas.

The alleged Insight—promoted, to the regret of many of us who had devoured its articles in our childhood, by National Geographic, whose editors ought to be ashamed of themselves—gave newspapers, magazines, and weblogs, always desperate for copy, a subject for a week or two, but faded quickly, as these things do. The Gospel of Judas was not much of a document upon which to build a challenge to orthodox Christianity, and this seems eventually to have dawned on those disposed to accept such challenges at face value.

Clichéd Journalism
The article, however, is a nice example of clichéd journalism, of a sort for which there seems to be an enduring appetite, and perhaps worth looking at for that reason. Let me start with the obvious cliché: A fuss is made over people who are not actually very interesting, except that they’re not traditional Christians. (You and I yawn, but there must be a market for this.)

However, crucially, they are in their religious life close enough to traditional Christianity (at least from the reporter’s point of view) to create the drama of a conflict with the tradition, upon which the news value of the story rests. That’s what makes them “mavericks” and not “weirdos.” That’s what tells the reader, “Here’s a fight you’ll want to watch.”

You have to think them Christians, or the reporter does not have a story. “Marxist denies Incarnation” is not a story. “Buddhist denies Incarnation” is not a story. “Christian affirms Incarnation” is not a story. “Christian denies Incarnation”isa story.

But the subject can’t be any old Christian. There’s no drama in picking up some skeptic from off the street. No one cares if Mortimer P. Daffodil, the third person interviewed coming out of the grocery store, calls himself a Christian but says he thinks Jesus was just a really great guy.

No one cares if Cassandra Witherington-Smythe, caught on her cell phone while eating lunch at the club with the ladies from the Episcopal Church’s ladies’ book forum, explains that Christianity is a religion of encouragement but that one has to understand all its doctrine symbolically. No one cares if the prestigious professor of zoology at the local university, a life-long Methodist, explains that no man of his learning could believe all those myths and legends.

No, the subject has to be someone the reader will expect to swallow the whole thing, hook, line, and sinker. To work, the story has to announce that “Official Christian denies Incarnation.” That’s a story.

You and I yawn at this one too, but as I say, there must be a market for stories about heretics in official positions. The success of the story depends upon the average reader’s persistence, despite the evidence of decades, in believing that someone with “the Rev.” in front of his (or her) name really does believe it all.

Why anyone wants to read about the slide into heresy of someone who has the kind of tenure the higher clerics have and gets a book contract for giving up the thing he once swore to protect, I’m not quite sure. It’s like writing a story on a corporate CEO who wants to make money. But I’m getting off the subject.

The main subjects — the story’s good guys — are a Unitarian minister, the dean of the Episcopal cathedral in Boston, the pastor of a homosexual church, and the Episcopal Church’s “social justice” officer (which means, in this case, promoter of great income redistribution, a near-pacifist foreign policy, and legal abortion). These are the daring mavericks who find affirmation in ancient heresies.

Denying Mavericks
In this kind of story, the official Christian “mavericks” must be seen to be doing something Christian in denying whatever doctrine they’re denying. (“Official Christian loses his faith” is another kind of story, also popular, though less common than before, now that Official Christians can lose their faith and keep their jobs.) They have to be mavericks in a good, indeed a truly Christian, cause. They can’t just be rebels, they must be idealists and reformers.

In this case, the “mavericks” are pursuing their “modern mission to update what defines faithfulness.” Please note that mission and updating are both good things. You are supposed to think well of these people, even if you disagree with them. They mean well. They want to do good. They are (this is the implication of “updating”) specially sensitive to the nature of things today.

It’s another cliché that makes me roll my eyes and snort. That “maverick” in the title gives away the problem with this cliché, or would if the average reader thought about it: not one of the “mavericks” is the least bit maverick. Every one of them lives and works in a world in which he is the plainest of conformists. He’s Mr. White Bread. He is to dissent what cheesewhiz is to real cheese.

A Unitarian likes the Gospel of Judas! Gadzooks! An Episcopal cathedral takes out of the Scripture readings and the liturgy all the un-p.c. bits! Shocking! The pastor of a homosexual church rejects the Atonement! Well, knock me down with a spoon! The Episcopal Church’s social justice officer thinks the idea of one truth oppressive! Oh, will such horrors never cease!

The story rests, in other words, on an illusion. It pretends to a dramatic value it does not have. We are supposed to feel that these people—people who do not in fact care for traditional Christianity at all — didn’t the reporter wonder what “Unitarian” and “Trinitarian” mean and whether the two might just contradict each other? — are challenging the tradition from within, that the foundations are shaking and the walls crumbling, that the mavericks might win. As I say, one rolls one’s eyes and snorts.

Imagine a story about ex-Communists who became libertarians and founded successful businesses. You could get an interesting story out of their conversion to free-market economics, but it would be a conversion story. You would have them saying, “We once were blind but now we see” and their ex-comrades saying, “They once could see but now they’re blind.”

You would not think of writing the story as if they were still Communists and call them “mavericks.” The first to protest would be the Communists, who would explain to you that they had certain scriptures and doctrines that these men had rejected. The second would be the men themselves, for the same reason. Only in religion, apparently, are apostates taken as believers, at least for the purposes of such articles as the one we are discussing.

The Cliché Scholar
That is not the story’s only cliché, of course. It includes that reliable technique, which I think we can call a cliché: the appeal to the authority of an undefined group of “scholars” as if they represented the unquestionable consensus. (The media’s new favorite skeptic Bart Ehrman is, of course, quoted.) “Scholar” in this kind of story means “truth-teller” and is implicitly opposed to “religious people sticking desperately to their now-disproved faith.”

The story tells us early, speaking of the mavericks’ using theGospel of Judasto update their mission, that “it’s an approach that’s winning approval from scholars, who say Christianity has always attracted diverse beliefs.” What scholars, and how many, and what do they believe, and are they biased, and how many scholars disagree with them, and what “diverse beliefs” in early Christianity actually meant then, and what difference it makes anyway, if it actually makes any difference at all, are all questions you are not supposed to think of asking.

This old reliable technique has a second stage: the subtle criticism of the traditional or conservative. In this article, the next sentence reads: “But others worry that this revisionism misrepresents time-tested truths.” The others who oppose the scholars, you note, are apparently not scholars themselves, else the sentence would begin “Other scholars.” They are just “others,” which is not a group one is inclined to take seriously. And notice that they “worry,” not think or argue or even just “say.” They are scared — which implies timid, defensive, blinkered, etc. — not thoughtful— which implies bold, engaged, open, etc.

The story offers other clichés as well, especially in the way the story is told. The typical writer quotes some orthodox Christians, of course—though this story quotes only one, the Southern Baptist Richard Land—but he only tells stories about the “mavericks” and every story he tells makes them look good. There is a reason for this. A story makes the reader sympathize with its subjects. You feel you know them, in a way. The effect of such writing is to make you think well of the “mavericks,” even if you don’t agree with them, and feel that the conservatives are just cold-hearted jerks with short, easy answers.

In fact, even when the figures on both sides are quoted, the “mavericks” are usually quoted speaking a good news, of an evangel, of sorts. The traditional Christians are usually quoted giving definitions and setting limits. The Episcopal dean is said to do what he does to show respect for Muslims and “to reflect in practice who Jesus is and what he represents,” and the homosexual pastor is quoted as saying he does what he does to encourage his people “to have closer contact with God.” Dr. Land is quoted as declaring people who deny the Resurrection “beyond the pale.”

The Structuring Cliché
The most important cliché, the cliché that structures the whole story, is the way the article depends upon a simple but effective anti-Christian idea, continually re-presented in different ways.

In this case, the governing idea is that early Christianity was diverse so modern Christians can be diverse — which, judging from the examples of “mavericks” the writer chose, means agnostic, homosexual, p.c. — as well. The writer makes the first claim (the diversity of early Christianity) but lets his subjects make the second (the way this diversity justifies diversity today), which keeps an illusion of objectivity.

The best ideas of this sort are not those that prove Christianity wrong. The best ideas are those the reporter can present as undermining Christianity’s foundations: not those that challenge the faith but those that tell the world that the faith actually isn’t everything traditional Christians thought it was. It’s all right to present the reader with an external challenge to Christianity, but even better to present him with an internal one.

The Christian churches, after all, retain extraordinary social and economic power. One who wishes to see the world working as the “mavericks” want it to work will not want the churches to lose that power, but to direct it to the creation of that new world. He will want to make readers think, “This, at last, is true Christianity, the faith our earliest fathers tried to pass on to us, hidden and repressed by the so-called orthodox, a faith that liberates us from all we find restrictive and oppressive.”

It is a cliché the secular media are happy to convey.

David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. “Puff the Maverick Dragons” appeared in the September 2006 issue of Touchstone.

The Christian Science Monitor article can be found at www.csmonitor.com/2006/0414/p01s02-lire.html.