John T. Elson died on Sept. 7. John who, you ask? The New York Times' obit explains that Elson was the Time religion editor who wrote the magazine's famous 1966 cover story asking: "Is God dead?"
All journalists want to write a story that makes a big splash. John T. Elson, the religion editor at Time magazine, was no exception. But in 1966 he got more than he bargained for.
For more than a year, Mr. Elson had labored over an article examining radical new approaches to thinking about God that were gaining currency in seminaries and universities and spilling over to the public at large.
When finally completed, it became the cover story for the issue of April 8, as Easter and Passover approached. The cover itself was eye-catching, the first one in Time's 43-year history to appear without a photograph or an illustration. Giant blood-red letters against a black background spelled out the question "Is God Dead?"
The issue caused an uproar, equaled only by John Lennon's offhand remark, published in a magazine for teenagers a few months later, that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. The "Is God Dead?" issue gave Time its biggest newsstand sales in more than 20 years and elicited 3,500 letters to the editor, the most in its history to that point. It remains a signpost of the 1960s, testimony to the wrenching social changes transforming the United States.
I just re-read Elson's story. Its catchy opening rapidly dispels the notion, held by many then and now, that the article attacks theism:
Is God dead? It is a question that tantalizes both believers, who perhaps secretly fear that he is, and atheists, who possibly suspect that the answer is no.
Is God dead? The three words represent a summons to reflect on the meaning of existence. No longer is the question the taunting jest of skeptics for whom unbelief is the test of wisdom and for whom Nietzsche is the prophet who gave the right answer a century ago. Even within Christianity, now confidently renewing itself in spirit as well as form, a small band of radical theologians has seriously argued that the churches must accept the fact of God's death, and get along without him.
And its catchy conclusion is ultimately faith affirming:
Gabriel Vahanian suggests that there may well be no true faith without a measure of doubt, and thus contemporary Christian worry about God could be a necessary and healthy antidote to centuries in which faith was too confident and sure. Perhaps today, the Christian can do no better than echo the prayer of the worried father who pleaded with Christ to heal his spirit-possessed son: "I believe; help my unbelief."
In between the opening and closing were more than 5,000 words of solid, thoughtful religion journalism.
The Time article's timing makes it a prime example of the "Holy Day Massacre" tradition of religion journalism. How many of us who cover journalism for the mainstream media have released provocative stories at Christmas or Easter time? And how many people of faith have responded by not venturing out of their cocoons to read mainstream religion coverage at holiday time, or any time?
My own evidence-for-the-resurrection Easter stories generated negligible reader response, while Easter stories quoting the John Dominic Crossan and other Jesus Seminar members nearly led to my own crucifixion!
Elson's obituary also provides an opportunity to compare his media world to our own. There was poster circulated in some conservative Christian circles during the 60s and 70s that said:
"God is dead." - Nietzsche "Nietzsche is dead." - God
But what seems most dead now is the old world in which a major newsweekly like Time could devote so much space to an important theological debate and, in doing so, significantly impact national discourse. Today, I wish important national issues like war and health care reform generated a similarly thoughtful debate
I'm going to pull Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death off the shelf, read it, and weep.