Entering Lent, secular and sacred

It was a just a coincidence that President Obama delivered his not-State-of-the-Union speech on Mardi Gras. Probably.
It was a just a coincidence that President Obama delivered his not-State-of-the-Union speech on Mardi Gras. Probably

All eyes were on Washington this week, when President Barack Obama spoke before Congress, mainly about the economy.

Surely it was a coincidence that his speech fell on Mardi Gras. I doubt the president scheduled the event with the Christian calendar in mind. Even so, the timing seems appropriate.

Our collective financial Mardi Gras is over. Now it’s time for some discipline. Figuratively speaking, the nation has entered a kind of secular Lenten season.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Now and then we need to be reminded that it’s not healthy to always get what we want, when we want it. Grown-ups understand the joys of delayed gratification.

The actual Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday,” is the day before Ash Wednesday, the start of that 40-day season of fasting known as Lent. Mardi Gras originated as a practical ritual of cleaning out cupboards before fasting began but, human nature being what it is, the day evolved into an excuse for a blow-out party. People are funny that way.

Ash Wednesday was established 15 centuries ago by Pope Gregory the Great. As repentant believers entered the cathedral, he would mark their foreheads with ashes and remind them of the biblical symbol of repentance, sackcloth and ashes, and of their mortality, quoting the book of Genesis: “You are dust, and to dust you will return.”

Irony is at work here. While Christians have their foreheads ritually smeared with soot, they might recall these words from Jesus himself: “When you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. … But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:16-18).

That’s why many Christians refuse to observe Ash Wednesday.

Someone must know a good explanation for a church practice that apparently flies in the face of Jesus’ teaching. I heard one minister explain it by saying the act is itself a reminder to Christians that they are imperfect even when they try to obey Christ. We’re laughing at ourselves, he said.

As with many other practices, not all Christians observe Lent or do so in the same way. It’s more common among the mainline denominations, such as the Roman Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran churches. But it’s an ancient Christian tradition, dating back at least to the second century.

Specific practices have changed over the centuries, but the purpose has remained constant: self-examination and repentance for sins, expressed by self-denial and other disciplines. It leads to Easter, so Lent also carries a strong sense of preparation and anticipation. (Lent began this week in the Western church calendar; the Eastern Orthodox season starts next week.)

The name, by the way, is derived from the same word as “lengthen” – that is, Lent comes when the days are getting longer. (Now there’s a good idea. If people want to change their lives, they probably stand a better chance when days grow brighter and warmer than in the depressing dead of winter, on New Year’s Day.)

The 40-day period recalls the length of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, but the number is associated with other dramatic (and traumatic) biblical events, such as the 40 days and nights of rain during Noah’s flood and 40 years of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness.

But Lent is not about punishment. It’s about discipline, about the shaping of souls. It is about facing up to the ways we’ve gone off track and doing what we can to recover what we’ve lost or repair what we’ve damaged. It’s about reflecting on what is really important and lasting.

In a word, observing Lent is about turning and returning to God.

And it’s about anticipation, knowing that self-discipline and sacrifice today can make tomorrow that much sweeter. Again, the joys of delayed gratification. Lent leads to Easter.

(Johnson City, Tenn., Press, 28 Feb 2009) 

Rocky Mountain News closes, digital train rolls on


Yesterday saw the last day for the Rocky Mountain News, which published in Denver for 150 years (149 years, 311 days to be precise). I wasn’t very familar with the paper except for the three years our family lived in Colorado Springs, but I know it as a unique and lively paper that built a solid reputation (multiple Pulitzer Prizes in the last decade) and enjoyed a colorful history, to put it mildly. It’s a paper that people will miss, and we should.

This is the latest casualty in the newspaper revolution, but it won’t be the last. More than 15,000 newspaper jobs were lost around the country in 2008. Denver is now a one-paper town (the Post survives), and other major cities have faced or are facing (San Francisco, Seattle) the same prospect. But the demise of the RMN seems to have struck a deep nerve among those who pay attention to the news business.

Visit the RMN site to read and view the coverage of its own death. Watch the online video on the front page. It’s a 21-minute primer on the current upheaval in the news business, focused through the story of the RMN’s final months. Slightly self-serving, maybe, but when someone’s going down for the last time, we can cut some slack. Mostly, the video presents an informative and sometimes poignant story.

Coincidentally (or not), Hearst Publishing announced on the same day that it’s developing a digital reader for periodicals — like Amazon’s Kindle device, but for magazines instead of books. Note how this particular digital train is moving from less periodicity to more: books … magazines … next stop: newspapers?

What movies can do

Jamal (Dev Patel, left) rises
Slumdog Jamal (Dev Patel, left) rises


Five years ago the big news in movies was The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s ambitious, gory, controversial and hugely successful portrayal of Jesus’ last 12 hours before his crucifixion. That project was the talk of the town.

Gibson has since slipped off the movie-business radar. His next project after Passion was Apocalypto, an ambitious, gory, controversial and mildly successful portrayal of the passing of ancient South America. After that? Not a lot.

 The Passion of the Christ has followed the typical movie route into DVD rentals, except that some churches, in the weeks before Easter, pull their copy off the library shelf for special showings. But the bold predictions when it first appeared – dire warnings of how the film would fuel anti-Semitism with its portrayal of Jewish complicity in Jesus’ execution, as well as glowing promises among some Christians that the movie would lead people to embrace their faith – did not come to pass.

Is there a lesson here? Maybe just that while well-made movies can move us to think or prompt us to talk about the most important issues in our lives, by themselves they don’t have the power to convert individuals or shift society. Mass media are powerful but not all powerful.

The story line and expectations aren’t so grand for this year’s leading contenders for Best Picture award, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire. Yet, these fables have still set people talking about Big Questions.

Button is the sprawling epic of a New Orleans man born with an old man’s body who ages backwards. As his body “youthens” and his mind (and spirit?) matures, we follow his life through his adventures, some of them literally sea-going, and his one great love.

Slumdog follows Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a barely educated chai wallah, or tea server, at a customer service call center who has a shot at winning the grand jackpot on the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” Through flashbacks, we discover that he can answer the questions because of his harrowing upbringing in the Mumbai slums.

They are very different movies, of course: set on different continents, in different times, with entirely different approaches to the storytelling. But they also share much. At their core they are touching love stories, portraying relationships in which “love endures all things,” to use a biblical phrase.

Both also deal with the role of fate or destiny, but their answers are sharply different and surprising.

Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) youthens
Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) youthens

The destiny of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) is sealed by a biological quirk, and a clock is literally ticking in this story. We watch to see what Mr. Button does with his time. Despite happy interludes, high adventure and passionate love, his story turns out to be ultimately tragic.

By contrast, Slumdog Millionaire is a story of choices and possibilities, even though Jamal’s destiny seems to be written from the start. Despite the squalor, heartache and brutality played out on the screen, this movie is actually a comedy in the classic sense. As a few reviewers have noted, underneath the skin of this Bollywood-inspired tale beats the heart of a classic rags-to-riches, feel-good – some say, American Hollywood – story.

Here’s the paradox: Who would have expected that the movie set in bright, exciting 20th century America would turn out to be the sadder story in the end? Slumdog Millionaire hits the moviegoer from the first scene with searing pain and seemingly endless despair. Modern India’s tensions serve both as backdrop and as focal point. The contrast between terrible poverty and unimaginable wealth is only the start. (It’s no accident that the main characters are Muslims making their way in a Hindu-dominated society.)

Yet it is Slumdog that ends with triumph, optimism and a very cool dance number. In fact, that joyful release at the end (memories of college dredge up the word “catharsis”) wouldn’t feel nearly as powerful or even make sense without the high-stakes story of loss and struggle that came before. Tears stay for a time, the movie says, but joy comes in the morning.

A trip to the multiplex probably isn’t going change anyone’s life, but as far as movies go, that’s not a bad idea to walk out with. It’s worth an eight-buck ticket.

This week I’m working on …


… a column just in time for the Academy Awards. I’m playing with the idea of fate, particularly as that notion is portrayed in two of the leading Best Picture contenders: Slumdog Millionaire and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Both are modern fables, both deal with Big Topics, including fate or destiny. There’s the interesting contrast, too, that comes from one being set in 20th century Western culture and the other in early 21st century Indian (Eastern) culture. Religion isn’t explicit, but it’s there in the cultural backgrounds, especially with SM. (What my friend Terry Mattingly calls a religion “ghost” in what seems to be a nonreligious story.)

Any thoughts?

Multimedia gets religion … or vice versa: A Poynter-eye view

Imagine a pair of American teenage girls talking about what to wear on their first day in high school. Nothing unusual there, except they are Muslims and are debating whether to wear traditional head coverings.


Or maybe it’s another group of teens from various religious groups who are on the brink of rejecting their family’s faith.


Or a middle-aged minister struggling over his disagreement with his denomination’s official stance about abortion. Or a priest who must announce to church members next week that the denomination is closing their small, tight-knit parish.


Now imagine watching any of these scenes through a camera lens.


Those kinds of stories – high in human interest and rich in meaning – seem tailor-made for the quickly evolving media mix appearing every day on the Internet as text, video, sound, graphics and photographs.


So says Kelly McBride, leader of the Ethics Group at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a school for journalists based in St. Petersburg, Fla.


“I can see kick-ass religion stories using multimedia tools,” McBride told me on Wednesday. “Religion as a topic should fare well if someone leads the way.”


I was attending a Poynter seminar designed to help college educators use and teach multimedia journalism more effectively, and that gave me an opportunity to sit down with McBride and talk about the connection of multimedia and religion reporting.


McBride, who covered religion for eight years before joining the Poynter faculty, thinks the new technology allows journalists to add layers of understanding to complex issues since it can present both compelling human stories and immense amounts of information and data.


“For instance, in a trend story, good storytelling will find people who play out the issues,” she explained. “A journalist could highlight theologies in different denominations or tell the tale of someone who is gay and Christian. A journalist can look for people at varying points of their journeys.”


A reporter can then use computer-based tools, she said, to produce dynamic images that illustrate a trend’s regional impact, for example, or create a data map to track, say, changing seminary enrollment.


But she rarely sees such in-depth coverage on the religion beat. One reason is money. Reporting is expensive work, and newsrooms around the nation are trimming (sometimes slashing) budgets and reporting staffs, and religion is often first to the chopping block. Even the Dallas Morning News, which produced what many observers considered the nation’s best religion news section, carved its treatment to the bone last year.


 “Newspapers can’t even cover the school board,” McBride said, “and religion is the low man on the totem pole.”


But tough financial decisions, McBride said, are made easier by readers’ lack of interest in religion as a news topic.


“I don’t hear anyone complaining anymore about lack of religion in the news or about the media who don’t understand religion,” she said. “For instance, religion was one of the subtexts of the election, covered badly and sporadically, but very few people complained.”


Some specialists keep their eyes on mainstream media’s religion coverage, such as the Get Religion Web site and a new book critiquing religion news, “Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion” (Oxford, 2008). But McBride thinks they are the exception.


 “Nobody seems to care anymore,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s because so many newspapers can’t do it, but religion is not clearing the expectation bar.”


 Just a decade ago audiences wanted robust religion coverage. What happened?


“Clearly an engine in the 1990s was the sense that people of faith felt alienated from the mainstream,” McBride said. “But as a society we got over that. I don’t believe they feel alienated, not more than 30 percent of the population. Now anyone can find a forum and can be heard.”


But a more immediate problem, she said, is that religion stories can be … well, boring.


“No one reads them,” she said. “Text can allow you to get away with a lame story. Not every story is worth telling.”


That’s where multimedia comes in, since it requires telling a real story to work well. Few readers will thrill to policy reports or announcements, but most will attend to the narrative of a person’s life.


“Religion lends itself to multimedia,” McBride said. “But you can’t sit at the desk and talk to wonks all day. You have to ask, ‘What does our audience want?’ They have so many choices. It’s a brutal reality for editors to deal with.”


First published 14 Feb 2009 in the Johnson City Press.