When I was working as a full-time religion-beat reporter, the phrase I most dreaded hearing my editor say was, "I think we've got to do a trend story on that." Well, that and the dreaded, "There's a call from a furious (insert denominational name here) minister on line one." You know what "trend story" means: That it's time to get out those words that journalists aren't supposed to use that much, words like "seems," "hopes" and (cue: drumroll) "is expected to." It makes me shudder just thinking about it.
There is a classic formula for these stories. You need a minimum of three local anecdotes, some kind of poll or impressive statistic and, finally, a quote from a respected academic leader. The larger the newspaper, the more likely it is that this quotation will be Dr. Martin Marty of the University of Chicago. If the story describes a progressive trend, you need an outraged quotation from a local fundamentalist leader. (To see this demonstrated perfectly, click here.) If it is a conservative trend, then this slot is filled by an Episcopal bishop, a Jewish community leader or your market's designated progressive Catholic priest.
If you reside in the United States of America, the odds are good that your local newspaper has published a story of this kind in the past two days. From sea to shining sea, journalists have been commanded by their editors to find out what kind of impact Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" will have on all of those quaint people who are celebrating Easter. This movie was supposed to bring waves of terror to our streets. But it does seem (insert big box-office statistic here) that a few people were in some strange way inspired by it.
Which leads to anecdotal leads such as this one, by Elizabeth Clarke of the Palm Beach Post:
Maida Boynton, a long-lapsed Catholic, began exploring her religious beliefs again last year. She visited churches, read books and watched religious leaders on television -- but she was taking just "baby steps" toward the Lord.
Until she saw The Passion of the Christ.
And right there in the Royal Palm Beach Regal Cinemas, Boynton, 55, turned over her life to God with a quiet prayer. She cried a bit during the movie -- and even screamed out "No more. Stop it!" during the whipping scene -- but what touched her most was Jesus' prayer on the cross for those who had killed him.
"That shook me to my very bones," she says. "I then realized, 'Yes, he did die to save me.' That day, I just went to the pastor to hug him, and I whispered in his ear: 'I would like for you to baptize me next Sunday.' "
On Feb. 29, at Berean Baptist Church in suburban West Palm Beach, Boynton was baptized.
That is the classic Wall Street Journal column-one approach -- tell us the story of one person who stands (it is assumed) for thousands of other people. Newspapers can also take a more sweeping approach, such as this lead and summary paragraph from Larry Stammer at the Los Angeles Times:
From Easter sunrise services on hilltops and beaches to joyous observances in packed cathedrals, evangelical mega-churches and humble storefront missions, the 2,000-year-old story of a Jewish holy man rising from the dead after a brutal crucifixion is expected to draw larger-than-usual crowds this year. ...
Why all the interest?
A confluence of events, pastors, priests and others say, is fueling interest among seekers. Mel Gibson's blockbuster motion picture, "The Passion of the Christ," renewed media interest in Jesus and other Bible personalities, and the publication of the latest book in the "Left Behind" series, in which a triumphant Jesus returns to Earth, seem all but certain to boost attendance at Easter services.
Yes, all kinds of newspapers are doing stories that reference the Passion movie and then figure out what it all means. * The Washington Times asks if this means that Easter, the most important Christian season, is somehow catching up with the most commercial season, which is Christmas.
* Many newspapers are trying to exegete the Passion to yield information about subjects that journalists really care about -- such as politics and media. The Miami Herald ranged all over the map on such a quest, including a gaggle of professors who predicted the rise of "another Jesus for the new millennium: Jesus the celebrity, whose disciples come to know him through film or other visual media." That's really going out on a limb.
* Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today also focused on the visual, probing a solid story linked to this film -- the fact that it's highly charged Catholic images are shaking Protestant viewers, who tend to focus on words while avoiding works of religious art.
"Many evangelicals today are unaware of the debates from the Reformation days and may not recognize the explicitly Catholic elements in Gibson's movie," says the Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.
"Evangelicals love to be moved. They are caught up in the imagery and its powerfully sentimental piety." But after the movie, they go back to churches without any representational art "to hear preaching and sing hymns -- the words that declare the resurrection of Christ," Mohler says.
Obviously, I could go on and on. And what, you ask, is my personal take? Ask me in a few years. But this much I know. Americans on the cultural left have all kinds of superstars to cheer for and embrace. Cultural conservatives have almost none, when it comes to A-list Hollywood. Mel Gibson has given them a big hug and they are hugging him back. You can take that to the bank.