A palatable, comfortable Christianity?

I don't watch MSNBC much but quite a few readers and friends sent along this video of host Martin Bashir interviewing Pastor Rob Bell. This one interview has turned into a kind of media event in and of itself. Bell, of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, recently wrote Love Wins. The marketing campaign for the book led some folks to believe it might espouse universalism. That led to some of the hottest pre-publication date discussions we've seen for a religious book. The debate among competing camps of evangelicals even made the New York Times.

Once the book was published, criticisms intensified. Since the critique was coming from those who retained more traditional beliefs, you might figure that media coverage might be favorable toward the author and his book. And much of it was.

But not the short video embedded above. (A loose transcript available here.) Bashir is known for his tough interviews. Here's an example of a brutal chat with P. Diddy from Nightline. If you think celebrities should be handled with kid gloves, you would hate the interview. If you don't, you might like it better.

As soon as I saw the interview with Bell, I realized it was one of the more interesting interviews I'd seen of a religious figure. But I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. On the one hand, some of the questions indicated an understanding of theology that is unmatched among many journalists, much less broadcast journalists. On the other, the tone was very aggressive, perhaps unfairly so. If you didn't know that this was Bashir's style, you'd definitely think it's unfair.

One reader who submitted it to us wrote:

Yeah, I was pretty impressed by how Bashir did his homework in this interview with Rob Bell. It was a confrontational interview, which gives me pause. On the other hand, I doubt any other mainstream journalist would have asked the pointed questions Bashir does.

Bell's media tour went from stories using the typical template (general support for anything disagreeing with traditional Christianity, a livechat with Newsweek religion editor Lisa Miller that takes Bell to task for not being inclusive enough, etc.) to discussion of how much he flailed during the Bashir interview. And then that became a discussion of whether Bashir's questions (or Bashir himself, in some cases) should be the focal point of discussion.

One Christian radio program interviewed Bashir about his questions, and you can listen to that here. If you're a typical GetReligion reader, you'll likely find the interview interesting. Bashir begins, for instance, by pointing out that most people who do interviews such as this haven't even read the book. He says he did read the book, also went to two academic libraries, and interviewed three scholars (including two with no religious affiliation) and found the book to be evasive, disingenuous and ahistorical. Much of the interview gets into discussions of theology, history, the challenges with the type of evangelicalism Bell was raised in, etc. The questions aren't the most interesting but Bashir's answers do give lots to think about journalism and how it is practiced.

It also brings to mind the questions in that old tmatt trio (three questions that can help reporters explore the differences between competing versions of Christianity), with an obvious emphasis on question No. 2:

(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

Tmatt has written extensively about how much information can be gleaned from someone by how they answer these questions. In that light, it's interesting to compare Bashir's interview and his own radio interview with Lisa Miller's chat. Bashir was Muslim but is now married to a Christian and is himself a Christian. Miller is Jewish and says she finds the idea that Jesus is central to salvation offensive.

Perhaps we're used to seeing so many softball interviews of Harry Emerson Fosdick-like figures because of how reporters themselves answer these questions. And perhaps we're completely unused to seeing more skeptical interviews such as Bashir's.

So what type of interview would you like to see more of? What are your criticisms of the various styles? What would be a better way to discuss these issues journalistically?

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