If you pay attention to sports, and I know that some GetReligion readers do, then you are probably familiar with the ESPN "C'Mon Man!" feature.
The whole idea is rather simple. When a player, referee or fan does something strange or inexplicable -- usually it's an embarrassing mistake -- this phrase is what you are allowed to shout at the field or television screen. When this happens in journalism today, people make references to spitting coffee on keyboards.
However, I do not drink coffee. So we are going with a "C'Mon Man!" reference when dealing with an interesting detail in that short Washington Post feature that ran the other day with this headline: "The Smithsonian now has its first religion curator since the 1890s."
Let me be clear: There is a lot of fun and fascinating material in this piece. I just have a question or two about the need for follow-up on one prominent detail right at the top. Let's see if you can spot it.
Peter Manseau was born for this job.
The son of a priest and a nun, Manseau was meant to be a scholar making sense of religion. Now his job, as the Smithsonian’s first curator of religion in more than a century, is to remind Americans of our nation’s religious history, in all its diversity, messiness, import and splendor.
“You can’t tell the story of America,” he said, “without the role of religion in it.”
Yes, I am talking about that phrase noting that Manseau is the "son of a priest and a nun."
It's safe to say that readers are supposed to assume we're talking about a former Catholic priest married to a former Catholic nun -- since Catholicism is the default religion for most mainstream news. I mean, there are Anglican nuns in this world (I've known several) and there are lots of Eastern Orthodox nuns, especially outside North America.
So perhaps there needed to be a bit more information attached to that phrase?
Now, I have met a few former Catholic priests who married former Catholic nuns during the changes -- some would say chaos -- right after Vatican II. There are some interesting stories in there, to be sure. Often, these couples ended up in the Episcopal Church or in Eastern Orthodoxy. Many ended up in the outer suburbs of the great city of Catholicism. Many hit the church exit doors -- period.
So reporting that Manseau is the "son of a priest and a nun" doesn't actually tell readers much about his background. It could mean that he was raised in a very religious, even Catholic, home. It could also mean precisely the opposite.
So what do we find out much, much later in the story (after all kinds of fascinating information about the wealth of religious artifacts and objects in the Smithsonian)?
Manseau has been studying and writing about America’s religious landscape throughout his career. His books include “One Nation Under Gods,” about the country’s long history of pluralism, and a memoir about his parents’ Catholic marriage.
He got his start at the Yiddish Book Center. Driving the center’s truck to elderly Jewish people’s homes to collect their books, Manseau had no personal stake in this Jewish history -- and yet, he said, it felt like his own heritage. He loved the American writers who were inspired by Yiddish literature, so much so that he eventually wrote his own novel about a Yiddish poet. Even as a born Catholic who is now a sometimes-attendee at a Presbyterian church, Jewish history felt in part like his own.
He was "a born Catholic"? That's an interesting way to say that.
So he was the product of a Catholic marriage, to one degree or another. I would think that fact might be worth a sentence or even two of explanation -- in light of the fact that Manseau ended up outside the faith. I would assume that the reference to his sort-of link to Presbyterianism is to the liberal doctrinal approach of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as opposed to the conservative doctrine of the Presbyterian Church in America.
One final detail: There is another book that would have been good to mention, in light of the fact that this interesting and productive writer is now in charge of Smithsonian activities linked to the role of religious faith in American life and history.
I am referring to "Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible," which Manseau wrote with media critic Jeff Sharlet. Publisher's Weekly described it this way:
The set-up goes like this: take two religiously flippant intellectuals (in this case, Manseau and Sharlet, the founding editors of the spiritually hip online magazine Killing the Buddha) and send them on a yearlong road trip to discover the underbelly of America's religious culture. Make sure they mingle with the most wild and weird of holy rollers-a philosophical stripper working out of a converted Baptist church in Nashville, a one-eyed rodeo preacher from the "Cowboy Church" of Texas, a clan of bloodthirsty Jesus freaks in Florida and a cross-dressing terrorist from North Carolina badly in need of an exorcism. Take all these "true" stories, turn them into the "Bible's Book of Psalms," and alternate them with 13 freshly imagined "books" of the Bible, written by iconic American writers such as Rick Moody, Peter Trachtenberg and Haven Kimmel -- and, voila, a heretic's Bible is born. .... This is some of the most original and insightful spiritual writing to come out of America since Jack Kerouac first hit the road.
Now, some Americans will think that this piece of Manseau's past is really good, good news and others, in light of his new Smithsonian role, may be inspired to spit their coffee. However, it's safe to say that this book is relevant, even in a short Post piece of this kind.