Ch-ch-ch-changes (and that Polanski ghost)

GhostsNEWI've been out on the road for several days -- my usual gig with the National College Media conference, among other things -- and I let Nov. 1 sneak up on me. We have some GetReligion business to discuss.

As you can see from the early posts, the Rev. Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans decided that she needed to go back to her work as a pastor, plus freelance journalism, rather than attempting to continue her work as a pastor, plus freelance journalism and the constant barrage of emails and blogging-related chatter that comes with GetReligionista status. We wish her well and, most of all, I am glad that she has decided to do some more personal form of blogging on her own and here is that "Irreverent" link again. Bookmark it.

I hope that, every now and then, she still veers into GetReligion territory and then lets us know about it. We'll point you that way when she does.

And Sarah "Yes, I'm his sister and what about it?" Pulliam Bailey is joining us as the Rev. EEE leaves. Sarah will emphasize news in the great mainline heartland, roughly Texas to the Canadian border. We have agreed that she will strive to avoid extended stays in evangelical Protestant territory that might conflict with her online news work at Christianity Today, which has a high profile in the blogging world already.

We will roll on with our work here, thankful as always that there are mainstream journalists who care about religion news who want to help us dish out praise, criticism and the occasional ghost alert.

This brings me to a very interesting -- and highly critical letter -- that I fielded the other day from a website written by a "Mourner of God" that strives to draw a bright line between discussions of religion and morality. Here's the letter, which challenges the very concept behind this blog and the whole "ghost" image.

The letter was linked -- sort of -- to my recent post entitled "America, morality, Polanski, yada, yada." Here's the heart of the matter:

The metaphor of a religion ghost is only apt if the story would actually be illuminated by looking at it from a religious angle. For this to be the case, religion must be germane and relevant to what is being reported. When religion is not relevant, then forcing the religious angle does not only fail to illuminate, it actively distorts the story. It does violence to the portrayal of lives that are not importantly motivated by (traditional) religion.

The metaphor thus becomes a license to insert a particular partisan viewpoint into any and all stories. Nothing outside of a conservative-cum-religious orthodoxy should ever be allowed to stand alone, on its own terms. Every story must be referenced back and reinserted into the orthodoxy, even if it fails to be relevant to the particular people and events being reported on. That to me has no longer anything to do with journalistic honesty; it becomes a struggle for cultural hegemony, pure and simple.

In other words, I concerned about your religious ghost metaphor turning into a cynical weapon in the culture war. With a potential to darken and obscure, rather than illuminate.

Needless to say, I disagree, in part because there are plenty of stories out there in which a non-traditional or simply alternative approach to faith needed to be covered and was not. Since the day we opened the door, your GetReligionistas have argued that the religious left deserved much more coverage than it gets, which means there are liberal ghosts and conservative ghosts and pagan ghosts and whatever.

Most of all, there are factual ghosts. There are stories in which, if you do not consider the religion angle, you simply can't grasp why certain stories are so powerful. It's like Bill Moyers once told me: Some journalists are simply tone deaf to the power of religion in ordinary life.

Now, the Polanski post centered on a Los Angeles Times feature story that, in gripping style, tried to explore the "why" in the who, what, when, where, why and how of the testimony behind the controversy swirling around movie director Roman Polanski. Why are some people so driven to "scrub" away the horrible details in the testimony of young Samantha Gailey, while others have tried to stress those details in order to punish Polanski? What caused this moral and cultural divide? Why does it linger?

I argued that it is very hard, if not impossible, to address this conflict in the context of American culture -- in terms of facts and statistics, in terms of why people do what they do -- without some discussion or morality and faith. I also think it is hard to discuss the wider subject of conflicts between Hollywood and middle America without getting into religion.

You can agree with me or disagree with me, if you wish. However, I was not arguing that this story had to include a specific, narrow, doctrinal point of view. I was saying that there is a moral tension in the Polanski story and that it's hard -- in the American context -- to explore the nature of that tension without some reference to religion. Are only evangelicals, Orthodox Jews, traditional Catholics, etc., upset about the case? I think not. Yet are people saying that Polanski is being "pursued," in part, because Americans have moral hang-ups about his actions? Yes. What is the nature of those hang-ups? You decide.

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