As most of you probably know, the New York Times has a Public Editor, Clark Hoyt. A veteran newsman, and only the third to serve in this position (created in 2003), Hoyt's job, in a nutshell, is to (re)present the voice of the New York Times reader. This past Sunday Hoyt took up a topic guaranteed to evoke strong feelings in many of his, and of our readers: how newspapers cover religious-themed art, especially when that art is controversial or deemed offensive.
The broader question? Should a self-avowed "secular" (subject matter: the world) newspaper consciously make room for faithful voices -- in this case, when chronicling the arts?
Clark's thoughtful and revealing column was prompted by the revival of a play that provoked a tempest of protest when it was produced ten years ago, Terrence McNally's "Corpus Christi."
With his lede, Hoyt sets the stage (as it were).
LATE last month, while the presidential election and the meltdown of the economy were dominating the news, a revival of a play portraying Jesus as a sexually active gay man opened with little notice for a two-week run at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in Greenwich Village.
When Terrence McNally's "Corpus Christi" was first produced in New York 10 years earlier, the Manhattan Theater Club said there were threats to burn down the theater, kill the staff and "exterminate" McNally. The play was canceled, but then reinstated after an outcry from other playwrights and the theater community. With protesters and counter-protesters in the street, the audience had to pass through metal detectors.
This time, there were no protesters and no metal detectors, but The Times's coverage of "Corpus Christi" -- a sympathetic review and an article linking the uproar a decade ago to the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Colorado -- hit a raw nerve with the group that organized the demonstrations against the play in 1998.
Here's the Jason Zinoman review that prompted Bill Donohue, President of the Catholic League for Religious and Rights, and more than 150 of its members to write Hoyt in protest.
Later in the commentary, Hoyt describes some of the subject matter covered by the play.
Set in Corpus Christi. Tex., where McNally grew up, it turns the story of Jesus and his disciples into a parable about the persecution of gays. Along the way, it pushes what have to be hot buttons for many Christians. Jesus is born in a shabby motel room; loud, abusive heterosexual sex takes place in the room next door; Joseph is a boorish, profane carpenter; Mary isn't much of a mother; Jesus discovers he is gay and has sex (not on stage) with the young men who become his disciples; he performs miracles, officiates at a gay wedding, is ultimately betrayed by Judas and is crucified.
Hoyt's assertion that the play "pushes what have to be hot buttons for many Christians" is a masterpiece of journalistic understatement. "Ultimately betrayed by Judas and crucified" may be the only part of that long sentence that many Christians would recognize as doctrinally correct at all.
Apparently some of the Catholics who wrote him said the New York Times "would never treat other religions the way it treats Catholicism."
Wanna bet? There are many other denominations and groups, including many conservative Christians, out there who probably feel the same way. That isn't say that they are correct -- or incorrect. It is to argue that while factual and doctrinal misunderstanding is rife, individuals and groups who feel misunderstood, persecuted even, are so also.
So what's a newspaper -- or a Public Editor -- to do?
Hoyt does a really nice job of discussing the conundrum with a wide spectrum of interested parties, including the Catholic League's Donohue, other Catholics, veteran religion journalist Peter Steinfels, and Zinoman himself.
It is tempting for a secular and culturally liberal newsroom like The Times's to dismiss such objections, especially because many appear to have come from people who neither saw the play nor read in full what The Times said about it. No self-respecting newspaper is going to avoid writing about a controversial work of art because it might offend some segment of the public. That would go against everything a newspaper stands for -- examination of anything that happens in the public square -- and Donohue told me he agreed that The Times should have covered the "Corpus Christi" revival. He just did not like what the newspaper said about it.
A number of Catholics I spoke to expressed outrage or embarrassment at Donohue's methods. "He overreacts; he caricatures the things he objects to," said Paul Baumann, editor of the independent Catholic magazine Commonweal, who himself gave "Corpus Christi" a negative review in 1998. "He raises the temperature in the room in a very unhelpful way."
I found Donohue's language overheated, but I wound up thinking that he had put his finger on an interesting issue: how a newspaper like The Times, which devotes great space and energy to covering the arts, should deal with the frequent collisions between art and religion. The argument, as it did with "Corpus Christi" 10 years ago, often gets framed as a First Amendment fight between those championing freedom of speech and those seeking to stifle speech they object to. But lost in all of that can be the deeper story of the spiritual and religious tensions that gave rise to the art in the first place and the sensibilities of religious readers who may be struggling with aspects of their own faith.
Bingo. The only thing I question in this last paragraph is Hoyt's implication that the main sensibilities to be acknowledged are those readers "struggling with aspects of their own faith." Readers quite secure in their faith may be just as offended.
Isn't that what Gregory Wolfe is saying in this quote near the end of the article?
Gregory Wolfe, the publisher and editor of Image, a journal devoted to art shaped by religion, said: "It is possible for a conscientious Catholic to protest the depiction of Jesus as a promiscuous gay man and not be homophobic. To think this way is perhaps to be in a complex and ambiguous position, but I would venture that millions of sincere Catholics find themselves in just such a position."
Hoyt's conclusion? In this case, allow that the play "could be disturbing or challenging to many Christians, even those who do not agree with the teachings of the Catholic Church."
Every time a journalist attempts to move beyond the "he said/she said" approach to controversial topics like religion and the arts, they deserve a hearing. Let's hope that someone at the Times is listening.