Writing in tongues

blank-canvas1If great religion journalism is going to survive, it is going to be because of the writing and not because of the pictures, graphics, videos or even blogs. That was driven home to me today when I read Andrew Rice's masterful piece in the New York Times Magazine on the Redeemed Christian Church of God, one of the African missionary churches that the Times says is transforming Western Christianity. To make my point, I am not adding a picture with this blog post. Let the words carry me.

This is the second vividly written religion piece in the Times Magazine in so many weeks. My colleague Doug LeBlanc praised Zev Chafetz's story on "Obama's Rabbi" last week. Like Chafetz, Rice had the daunting challenge of making a devotional scene come to life. Here is one snippet:

Even by the passionate standards of Africa, the Redeemed are renowned for the intensity of their prayer. In Nigeria, it has been called "the weeping church." During services, members of the congregation will clap, whoop and break into glossolalia -- speaking in tongues -- which Pentecostals believe to be the verbal expression of the Holy Spirit. They will collapse to the floor, burying their faces in the carpet, and writhe in the throes of divine communion.

And another begins with the preacher asking, "You want to talk to God?"

In response, his congregants dropped to their knees and began to speak in tongues, which to the uninitiated sounds like a babble of sharp syllables. Above the din, Ajayi-Adeniran voiced a series of petitions to God, seizing certain phrases and repeating them, almost as if he were chanting an incantation. "Father, restore the old glory back to our nation," the pastor said. "The old glory. The old glory." Ajayi-Adeniran jabbed a finger toward heaven, his sermon crescendoing in a high-pitched, swooping cry: "Churches are in pain. Children of God are in pain. People are losing their jobs. Many are losing their jobs. Marriages are breaking up. God -- God almighty -- come and heal our land. Come and heal our land! Come and intervene. Move! Move! Move!"

And the crescendo of the piece, which takes place in a Baltimore arena with 13,000 seats, is purposefully understated:

"In Africa, we get excited when people give their lives to Jesus," Adeboye instructed his flock. "Go ahead," he said, "talk to the almighty." And then it came, in a roar like a wave, thousands of voices raised in the unknowable language of heaven.

While the writing brought me into the frenzy and passion of the moment, the one thing the article lacked was any personal interaction between the writer and his subject, something that Chafetz did so deftly in his piece on "Obama's Rabbi." As any religion writer who has covered Pentecostals knows, they want your soul more than they want your story. To be fair to Rice, he might have included such an interaction and the editors could have taken it out. I am all too aware of the Times' heavyhanded editing style. But since this blog is not being edited by the Times (or anyone else) I can conclude with my own story about recently interviewing a Pentecostal minster who was hellbent on converting me.

The pastor seemed okay with the fact that I am Jewish but added, "You do believe Jesus Christ in your Lord and Savior?"

"No," I told him.

"But the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New Testament," he said. "It depends how your read it," I answered. "And how do you read it?" he asked me.

"In Hebrew," I said. Photo: An empty canvas, added by an ironic editor.

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