As the foreclosures and stock market roller-coasters shake global markets, journalists here and abroad continue to pay attention to how the ongoing economic crisis is affecting our spiritual lives --and how clergy are grappling to find meaning in the midst of uncertainty. One richly resonant story takes a panoramic view of a Connecticut town built upon the wealth of captains of finance and asks whether the crisis has prompted a spiritual renewal.
Across the Atlantic in England, another writer skims the surface -- and it's not even clear whether he gets it right or not.
On this side of the Pond, Washington Post writer David Segal had a wonderful story about how the collapse of the credit markets has affected the magicians behind the curtains -- the hedge-fund managers who bet fortunes and lost them.
Segal traveled to Greenwich, Conn., where "some 28,000 millionaires resided the last time anybody counted." His conclusion? "...if there is dakrness here in Greenwich, it's not visible, at least not yet."
The reporter begins his tale with the Rev. Chuck Davis, the head of Stamwich Church, "here in the hedge-fund capital of the world."
Segal quotes from a recent sermon by Davis.
C'mon, let's us talk about it, right now," he said from the pulpit. "There's fear. I've never seen this kind of fear in people. There's concern. Our world has been rocked in some ways. I think we've come to realize that we've lived an illusion for a little while, haven't we?"
This isn't an "Amen!" kind of place, but listeners were rapt.
"And we've been shocked," he continued, "even though it was an illusion and it wasn't a reality, coming back to reality, we still want to know that God's in the midst of it. Because darkness would seem to drown out our hope and sense of well-being."
Remember this quote -- and contrast it with the words of the Bishop of Lewes a few paragraphs later. It's interesting to ponder whether the two are really that different in substance -- or in tone.
Segal is able to find indications that all is not well in Greenwich -- but not a town on in the midst of soul-searching.
So we decided to poll the religious leaders of this town and spend a little time in the pews. Maybe the losses haven't yet caused a lot of overt damage. But how about interior struggles? Are people in Greenwich searching their souls? How about rethinking their priorities? Is anyone here -- and this might be too much to ask -- talking about regrets?
Not many, it turns out. The Rev. James Lemler of Christ Church says he has counseled a few members who are looking for a spiritual life after years of focusing almost exclusively on the material. "It's as though the market has let them down," he says, "and now they would like something a little firmer to believe in."
At Temple Sholom, a mere parking lot away, attendance is up a bit, and there has been some talk, from former Wall Street mega-millionaires, about a search for deeper meaning. But Rabbi Mitch Hurvitz says he hasn't exactly witnessed a Great Awakening.
"I have seen a few of what I call recovering secularists," he says. "People who say, 'Wait, there must be something more out there,' and that's a good thing. But we're not talking about a deluge of people."
Actually, it's fair to say that here in the suburban symbol for all that has gone haywire in our financial system, it's pretty hard to find signs of contrition. That's right. If you were holding your breath for an apology from someone in the private sector -- "Dear Nation, Our bad. Love, the Suits" -- you should exhale. If Greenwich is any indication, the finance titans have little on their minds except winning back their losses.
Segal does the right things for a reporter tracking a story about religion -- visits houses of worships, listens to sermons, attends support groups, talks to clergy, hits the shops and even an open house - a bargain at only $5.9 million. Yes, he's got a clear slant (the Greenwich aristocracy aren't yet wearing dust and ashes, in public at least) but he backs it up with quotes and facts.
It would be a real service to readers to get more stories like this -- reported from the diverse towns where you or I live (assuming most of us don't live in towns like Greenwich).
Now for the "Bishop's Tale".
The Telegraph website had a story, written by Richard Savill, about the ruckus that followed comments made by Wallace Benn, Anglican Bishop of Lewes.
"Credit crunch is 'God's punishment' for nations "consumed with materialism," says Bishop," screams the headline.
Oddly enough, the words "God's punishment," certainly an attention-getting phrase, can be found nowhere else in the article.
Here's how Savill quotes the Bishop's words from his November 2008 newsletter:
We have found our security in 'securities' and have failed to grasp that nothing is permanent other than God.
"Our confidence has been misplaced. Something was needed to shake that and that is what we are experiencing.
"If this shakes our confidence in mammon (money) and forces us back to our creator and redeemer it will have been worth it!"
"That should be our prayers as Christians. We may all have to suffer a bit, but God is an expert at bringing good out of sad, difficult, even evil situations."
There's nothing particularly radical about that statement -- the last bit could have been taken from St. Paul.
But it drew a negative response from Eamonn Butler, director of the Adam Smith Institute.
Many people, who have not worshipped money or materialism, have seen their savings disappear and their lives made poorer.
"I find little comfort in this. The spiritual world may be important to people, but they also need to feed and shelter themselves and their families."
I haven't been able to find out, on my foray into cyberspace, whether the Bishop actually called the credit crunch "God's punishment." It is possible that Savill and others (the Bishop's words caused a furor in a few other British media outlets) confused the idea that God allows something and that God caused it.
It's not clear whether this is a case of a Bishop with a debatable tin ear, or one of the "God's punishment" rows we seem to go through here in the U.S. now and again. It's harder to explain the idea that God might allow something to happen -- and subtlety can get sacrificed to controversy.
Sadly, one cannot assume that the basic vocabulary of faith is still a vital part of a reporter's stock-in-trade. It's much easier to have a row than to have an in-depth analysis.