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Don’t mess with C.S. Lewis: Get Religion, November 15, 2013 November 16, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.

Dorothy Parker in her review of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (1957).

I cannot read Ayn Rand. I have tried. As a teenager, friends assured me I would love Atlas Shrugged. I didn’t.

In college and in my 20′s I was pressed to try again. I did, this time cracking open The Fountainhead. I detested it. Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal could not budge me either. I can’t stand Ayn Rand.

The inimitable Whitaker Chambers spoke for me when he wrote in The National Review in 1957:

Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal. In addition, the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. 2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber — go!”

Yet among my circle of acquaintances are serious thoughtful individuals who number Rand among the great thinkers and writers of the 20th century. Her economic and philosophical theories are on the tip of their tongues — and passages of her fiction are committed to memory. I have learned over the years to be certain of my references to her life and work when she pops up in a story — for if I make a mistake I will hear from her legions.

Rand is one of a select group of authors who have maintained a devoted following. Monty Python, Star Trek, Karl Marx, and the Aubrey-Maturin naval adventures in literature, Bob Dylan in music, for example, have spawned fans who have memorized the canon of their classics.

C.S. Lewis is one such figure. In this week’s Crossroads podcast I spoke with Lutheran Public Radio host Todd Wilken about the perils of C.S. Lewis reporting, citing my GetReligion post “C.S. Lewis the occultist and other rather obvious errors”.

In that post, I recounted a series of unfortunate errors about C.S. Lewis’ life — mistakes that had nothing to do with the issue at hand, but ones that cropped up in the filler — background material about Lewis’ life and work used to round out the story. I noted the claim that Lewis was involved in the occult was untrue, and cited a portion of his autobiography. I wrote:

While Lewis, like his friend and colleague J.R.R. Tolkein, was devoted to the Norse sagas and mythology, he was not an occultist. While some Christian groups have denounced Lewis’ work, saying it glorifies witchcraft and magic, the only evidence of a personal interest in magic comes in this passage in Surprised by Joy where he recounts how a matron at his prep school dabbled in the occult. (citation follows in the original.)

And irony of ironies, I was caught out by one of GetReligion’s readers on this point. My correction of the original story was incomplete, Lori Pieper wrote.

George, you really should have kept reading in Surprised by Joy. There more about Lewis’ interest in magic and the occult in it than you think. In a later chapter, about his life just before he went to Oxford, he describes the attraction to these things that arose from reading Yeats (his prose more than his poetry) and Maeterlinck. He says “If there had been in the neighborhood some elder person who dabbled in dirt of the Magical kind (such have a good nose for potential disciples) I might now be a Satanist or a maniac.”

So he did read about the occult, though the journalist’s description is simplistic and overstated. And by misstating when the reading occurred, the mythology and the magic are lumped together as one, something that Lewis would never buy. He saw the effects of the mythology as beneficial, as an appeal to the imagination and as a pointer toward genuinely spiritual hope (those he misunderstood this for a long time), while he always at least dimly perceived the occult as evil.

I should have taken my own advice and boned up on Lewis a bit more.

While I have never taken to Ayn Rand, I have devoured C.S. Lewis’ works — his Narnia books, science fiction and his Christian apologetic works. Yet, working from my own knowledge, rather than going back to the original sources, I made the same sort of error that I criticized.

And — this is what I like about new media — its ability to be self-correcting. I advanced the ball and Lori Pieper moved it down the field for a touchdown.

Thank you Lori, and the other readers of GetReligion, who have added their specialized knowledge to stories my colleagues and I have posted to this site. Well done.

First printed in Get Religion.

Interview: Issues Etc., November 15, 2013 November 15, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Interviews/Citations, Issues Etc, Press criticism.
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Here is an to an interview I gave to the Issues, Etc. show of Lutheran Public Radio broadcast on 15 November 2013.
Crossroads 11 14 13.mp3 Conger on religious liberty and CS Lewis

GetReligion contributor George Conger discusses an editorial by “The New York Times” on religious liberty and the Affordable Care Act and a Religion News Service story about C.S. Lewis

Direct download: Crossroads_11_14_13.mp3
Category:general — posted at: 5:49 PM

C.S. Lewis the occultist and other rather obvious errors: Get Religion, November 3, 2013 November 3, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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Here’s a dirty little secret that reporters don’t want you to know. When writing the back story or filler for a news item, we often rely on our knowledge of a topic to flesh out a story.

While some newspapers used to boast that they fact-checked every statement before releasing a story to a waiting world, that degree of rigor has disappeared. Budgets cuts have reduced editorial staff who were once tasked with cleaning up stories, while at the same time more copy is demanded of writers at a faster pace.

Factual errors happen for many reasons. Reporters mishear or misread things, sources are misinformed, story subjects lie and other reporters try to trip you up. I am not as familiar with American media culture as I am with the British — but I have been led astray by my peers and I in turn have been less than helpful to others. And I have produced howlers that still haunt my dreams.

Often a mistake will not be caught — allowing a graceful correction in the next issue buried beneath the candle ads. But there are some topics that most reporters know not to mess with  — items that are part of our collective memory, or items memorized by fanatics. Woe to he who mangles a Star Trek or Monty Python quote.

Religion News Service dropped a brick (several in fact) in its article entitled “Fifty years later, C.S. Lewis’ legacy shines in US, not his homeland”, making mistakes of fact that fans of Lewis would spot in an instant.

The article begins:

When he died on Nov. 22, 1963 hardly a soul blinked in Northern Ireland where he was born or in England where he spent most of his working life as one of the world’s greatest Christian apologists.

Clive Staples Lewis was a week short of 65 when he suffered a heart attack at his home in Oxford. The obituary writers barely noticed his demise, in part because he died on the same day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

British indifference to Lewis half a century ago will be examined at a one-day seminar at Wheaton College on Nov. 1, co-sponsored by the Marion E. Wade Center, the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals and Wheaton College’s Faith and Learning program.

Not much to worry about so far — save for the fact the conference was not about “British indifference to Lewis.” The circular for the conference states it will examine the “Oxford don’s influential presence within American culture. ” In other words, the conference will discuss not why Lewis has not caught on in the UK, but why he is so popular in America. There is a difference.

Dropping into the filler of this piece — where RNS gives a biography of Lewis — we see these statements.

Shattered by [his mother's] death, Lewis abandoned his inherited faith at the age of 15 and threw himself into a study of mythology and the occult.

His conversion to Christianity was slow and laborious. Reluctantly, he fell under the influence of Oxford colleague and friend J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton, who met every Tuesday morning at a local public house in Oxford and formed a debating club called ”Inklings.”

Tolkien and Chesterton were disappointed that their new convert turned towards the Church of England, not Rome.

C.S. Lewis went on to write acclaimed books about Christianity — “The Screwtape Letters,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Space Trilogy,” “Mere Christianity,” “Miracles and The Problem of Pain” — the latter written after he watched his American Jewish wife, Joy Davidman Gresham, die of bone cancer in 1960.

Working back to front with this list, The Problem of Pain was written in 1940, before Lewis met his wife. The book he wrote after his wife’s death was A Grief Observed.

Chesterton was not one of the “Inklings”. In his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis acknowledges Chesterton’s influence upon his life.

I had never heard of [Chesterton] and had no idea of what he stood for; nor can I quite understand why he made such an immediate conquest of me. It might have been expected that my pessimism, my atheism, and my hatred of sentiment would have made him to me the least congenial of all authors. It would almost seem that Providence, or some “second cause” of a very obscure kind, quite over-rules our previous tastes when It decides to bring two minds together. Liking an author may be as involuntary and improbable as falling in love. I was by now a sufficiently experienced reader to distinguish liking from agreement. I did not need to accept what Chesterton said in order to enjoy it.

Chesterton, it could be said, baptized Lewis’ intellect the way that George MacDonald baptized his imagination, preparing the ground for his conversion to Christianity. In Surprised by Joy he writes:

In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere — “Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,” as Herbert says, “fine nets and stratagems.” God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”

While Lewis, like his friend and colleague J.R.R. Tolkein, was devoted to the Norse sagas and mythology, he was not an occultist. While some Christian groups have denounced Lewis’ work, saying it glorifies witchcraft and magic, the only evidence of a personal interest in magic comes in this passage in Surprised by Joy where he recounts how a matron at his prep school dabbled in the occult.

And that [the Matron's influence] started in me something with which, on and off, I have had plenty of trouble since – the desire for the preternatural…. it is a spiritual lust; and like the lust of the body is has the fatal power of making everything else in the world seem uninteresting while it lasts… The whole thing became a matter of speculation: I was soon (in the famous words) “altering ‘I believe’ to ‘one does feel…’” I passed into the cool evening of Higher Thought, where there was nothing to be obeyed, and nothing to be believed except what was either comforting or exciting. I do not mean that Miss C. did this; better say that the Enemy did this in me, taking occasion from things she innocently said. One reason why the Enemy found this so easy was that, without knowing it, I was already desperately anxious to get rid of my religion; and that for a reason worth recording.

This RNS piece would have benefited from fact-checking. My sense is that the back story was written from memories past — a press release in hand, a deadline approaching and off we go. These are not fatal flaws, but the article is incorrect as it stands. Not the best job from RNS I’m afraid.

First printed in Get Religion.

Rape and religion in Israel: Get Religion, February 6, 2014 February 6, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Religion Reporting.
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Here’s a proposition for GetReligion readers: The quality of a news article should be measured not by how well it is written, but by how well it is read. The reporter’s task is to provide facts, context, and balanced interpretation of an event. However, if the reader is not able to grasp the meaning or context of a story the work, while being technically proficient, is unsuccessful as journalism.

The reader, then, is as important as the writer in the evaluation of merit. Unless the reader is able to bring a level of knowledge to the encounter to make the story intelligible, the article can be said to have failed. But where does the fault lie for this failure? In the reader or the writer?

A story in Tuesday’s English-language edition of Israel Today entitled “Rabbis suspected of hampering child rape case investigation” prompted these thoughts. Israel Today or Israel HaYom is Israel’s largest daily circulation newspaper. Written from a conservative perspective, it has about a quarter of the Israeli daily newspaper market share. Owned by American billionaire Sheldon Adelson the newspaper has an online edition that competes with the Jerusalem Post for the English-language Israel-centered news niche.

(Self-disclosure: I was a London correspondent for the JPost for a number of years, but have not written for them in sometime.) (N.b., the article in question is on the top right of the page above.)

The article begins:

Judea and Samaria District Police suspect their investigation into the rape of a 5-year-old girl in the ultra-Orthodox city of Modiin Illit is being deliberately hampered by rabbis who ordered all involved parties, including the victim’s parents, not to cooperate with police. As a result, police have still not identified a suspect.

The article describes what the police have learned so far about the rape of the girl by a “haredi youth, apparently from an established family in the city,” and states the child’s school teacher alerted the parents and took her to a hospital. However, the rape has not been reported to the police, who only learned of the attack after a reporter contacted them for details.

We then have these statements:

neither the school nor the parents filed a complaint with police out of fear that the city’s rabbis would ostracise them.

And …

When investigators began looking into the incident, they were met with a wall of silence. Those few who did agree to speak told police that the girl had been taken to the emergency room of a hospital in central Israel, but refused to divulge her details. The law requires hospitals to report sexual assaults, and investigators sought a court order to force the hospital to give them the victim’s details. But the presiding judge denied the request and ordered the investigators to find the parents and get permission from them first. However, police cannot contact the parents as they do not know the identity of the victim.

The article closes with a paragraph describing the frustration of the police.

Police in Modiin Illit have compiled enough information to deduce the neighborhood in which they believe the incident took place. They have questioned numerous people in the community, but those questioned claimed to not know anything about the event.

From a reporter’s perspective, this is a nicely done story. He has been able to unearth cover up of a sex crime ostensibly committed by the son of one of the town’s leading citizens. But I suspect most GetReligion readers will be unsatisfied with the story, asking themselves, “why would rabbis cover us such a crime?”

The New York Times has run several stories on this issue, focusing on the ostracization parents of abuse victims face from their communities. Unlike this Israel Today story, the Times addresses the religion ghost — the religious roots of the cover up — in this 2012 article.

Their communities, headed by dynastic leaders called rebbes, strive to preserve their centuries-old customs by resisting the contaminating influences of the outside world. While some ultra-Orthodox rabbis now argue that a child molester should be reported to the police, others strictly adhere to an ancient prohibition against mesirah, the turning in of a Jew to non-Jewish authorities, and consider publicly airing allegations against fellow Jews to be chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name.

This may be the situation in Brooklyn, but do the ultra-Orthodox of Israel consider their government to be non-Jewish? The question why the haredi do not cooperate with the police is not asked in this story. But, would not the original audience, an Israeli audience, know the answer to that question based upon the context of their culture and country?

Is this a failure, then of the writer or the reader? In today’s Morning Jolt newsletter, National Review Online’s Jim Geraghty raises the issue of reader/audience response in a discussion of political satire. He argues that satire works only with an informed audience, with readers who have a common intellectual culture. “Tying this back to my earlier point about satire,” he writes:

think of the times we’ve seen Jay Leno make a joke about some story that’s big on the political blogs or back in Washington, and the studio audience just titters nervously. They didn’t hear about the story, and so they don’t get the joke; Leno usually pivots back to “boy, Americans are getting so fat” jokes.

Is the joke bad, or is the audience ignorant? Geraghty criticizes Leno earlier in his piece for the quality of his work, comparing it unfavorably to his earlier work — as well as noting the decline of political humor from its heights twenty years ago.

Looking back to the 1980s and early 1990s, this meant Saturday Night Live, particularly Dennis Miller behind the anchor desk. Spy magazine. Jay Leno’s monologue when he was guest-hosting for Johnny Carson – believe it or not, kids, there was a time when Leno was funny and very, very news-oriented, instead of the increasingly-chubby guy phoning in fat jokes. …  To get the jokes, you had to know what they were about – which spurred me to look at what was going on in the news.

Just as Geraghty had to prepare to understand Dennis Miller or Jay Leno to “get the joke”, more should be expected of a reader to “get the news”. This is not to excuse poor quality, biased or unintelligent writing — but to say that the reader must bring something to the text in order to make it work as a news article.

In his 1961 book, An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis applies this argument to literature, arguing there are no bad books, only bad readers. He writes that rather than judging a book, and then defining bad taste as a liking for a bad book:

Let us make our distinction between readers or types of reading the basis, and our distinction between books the corollary. Let us try to discover how far it might be plausible to define a good book as a book which is read in one way, and a bad book as a book which is read in another.

Tell me, GetReligion readers, should this standard Lewis brought to literature be brought to your newspaper? For Lewis reading is an important aspect of our humanity.

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and I am never more myself than when I do.

Is it too much to expect that the best journalism act upon the soul in the same way as “great literature”? If so, does that not impose upon us, the reader, the same obligation?  What say you?

First printed at GetReligion.

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