Fire and brimstone? Wait for it.
I have a few odds and ends for you, on this strange Friday in between New Year's and the weekend that comes before, for many people, the Monday (Boo!) that marks the start of the new working year. Is there anyone out there near a computer?
As always, there have been many end of the religion-news year pieces to read. I thought two deserved a bit of attention here because they offered some interesting comments -- implied or direct -- on mainstream press coverage of this topic.
For example, the omnipresent John L. Allen, Jr., turned his usual "Vatican stories that were overlooked" theme on its head this year, for the simple reason that very few things get overlooked in the age of Pope Francis (other than his statements against, oh, abortion and in favor of religious freedom). More on that Crux list in a moment.
The simple fact of the matter, Allen noted, is that this pope's relationship to the press has become a force field that changes almost everything, including the public perception of this statements. Consider, for example, that "fake sugar coating" speech about Christmas and materialism, his annual address to the Curia and his Urbi et Orbi message on Christmas Day. Allen summarizes what happened in this manner:
... Francis took the mandarins of the Curia to the woodshed, ticking off a catalog of 15 spiritual diseases with which he believes they’re at times infected, including the “terrorism of gossip” and “spiritual Alzheimer’s.”
Granted, Francis wasn’t entirely negative. He thanked people for their hard work, and at one point joked that priests are like airplanes -- they only make news when they fall, but most are still flying. He also tried to show concern for his staff by scheduling a separate session with employees of the Vatican City State and their families, something popes haven’t done in the past. Still, the overall thrust was rightly taken as a fairly stinging indictment.
On Christmas Day Francis turned his ire to the world, blasting it for “complicit silence” and a “globalization of indifference” to a whole laundry list of ills, beginning with the abuse and exploitation of children and the “brutal persecution” currently underway in Iraq and Syria. The pope became visibly emotional discussing the suffering of children, saying, “Truly there are so many tears this Christmas, which join the tears of the child Jesus.”
Try to imagine, mused Allen, what would have happened if Pope Benedict XVI had delivered similar "fire and brimstone" remarks at this time of year. The content of these remarks were strong, but what Francis was saying was consistent with earlier statements by Benedict. Would journalists have been as enthusiastic about the same works from the older, "conservative" pope?
Had it been Benedict XVI, there’s a good chance the take-away might have been, “What a downer!” Images of a tired, isolated, and defensive pope offering an increasingly bleak and hopeless diagnosis might have been framed, and it’s not much of a leap to imagine words such as “apocalyptic” and “pessimistic” featuring prominently in much commentary.
Yet because few people are inclined to see Francis in those terms, even his harsh rhetoric somehow comes off as uplifting and inspiring.
To put the point differently, Pope Francis now occupies a fairly unique spot on the global landscape as a high-profile public figure who can deliver bad news without it being written off as sour grapes.
With that in mind, consider Allen's list of the Vatican stories that were overblown, starting, of course, with the whole "pets in heaven" media storm. Ditto for his supposedly revolutionary remarks on evolution, which were actually old news, indeed. And what about that alleged attack by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput on the pope after the synod on the family? And Cardinal Walter Kasper of Germany and his attack on African Catholics?
Here is Allen's take on what happened in those stories:
After the synod ended, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who hadn’t taken part, said press coverage had created “confusion” that was “of the devil.” Because Chaput is known as a conservative, it was taken as a blast at Francis.
In reality, Kasper meant that different regions should find their own solutions, and Chaput was talking about the media rather than the pope. The hype over each comment had more to do with the over-heated atmosphere than what either man intended. Moral of the story: Beware of narratives that take shape amid a perceived crisis.
Also take a look at Godbeat veteran Cathy Lynn Grossman's list of 10 interesting religion-news numbers from the previous year. There are some basic culture-wars stats in the list, but the number that jumped out at me was this one -- since I think that many journalists don't do enough to cover worship trends at the pew level.
* Choral laments. Since 1998, there has been a 23 percentage point drop among white conservative evangelicals who heard a choir at worship and a 28 percentage point drop for members of liberal and moderate Protestant congregations.
Now, few would be shocked to know that megachurch Protestants are into the whole "worship band" pop-rock thing these days. But who would have thought that the choir collapse would be just as bad, or worse, in the choir lofts in those shrinking, aging oldline churches? There is much to think about in those numbers.
Finally, let me note that the folks at this here weblog have certainly -- early and often -- heard the glad tidings that former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey will be joining The Washington Post, after her fine service at Religion News Service. The official Post announcement noted:
Sarah Pulliam Bailey will be joining us in early February as a religion blogger and writer. Sarah, along with religion reporter Michelle Boorstein, will be anchoring a new religion and spirituality blog. Sarah comes to The Post from the Religion News Service in New York, where she is national correspondent. She is among the best known religion writers in the country for her deep understanding of people’s drive for spiritual meaning and a keen ability to translate that into stories and blog posts. While Sarah’s portfolio shows a great range of stories and posts about the intersection of faith and politics and faith and culture, she is a particular expert on the evangelical community. Sarah also understands social media and how to use it and has a large following of her own. Before joining Religion News Service, Sarah worked at Odyssey Networks and Christianity Today. She is a graduate of Wheaton College in Illinois. When she’s not writing about religion, Sarah plays the viola and cooks.
Sigh. I do wish they had noted her tenure here, as part of her social-media portfolio. For those interested in a flashback to Sarah's stay here (and she was, of course, the second Pulliam GetReligionista, following her brother Daniel), simply click here. Of course, I can always dream that there might be a third in the future. Can't I?