Journalists and faith have never had a comfortable relationship. Given the skeptical role of media in society, that isn’t surprising.
Neither is the awkward news that journalists are not typically very good with ideas. Yes, some are brilliant and most are okay with facts, great with controversial quotes (such as when John Lennon described the Beatles as bigger than Christ), and anything hypocritical. They are even okay when it comes to faith leaders such as the Pope or the Dalai Lama whom they understand to have political roles.
But when it comes to ideas—concepts that demand texture, nuance, and precision of thought—most journalists and their editors are lost. Too many have little memory of their social responsibilities, and they are unconscious as to how their suppositions undermine public confidence in the veracity of news and therefore their own credibility. Trust me on this: I have been directly involved in journalism for thirty years. I know. Too few of my colleagues understand that the stories they choose not to tell can be every bit as important as the ones they do tell. And they are.
This explains why stories about the role faith plays in people’s lives are commonly dismissed as irrelevant or insignificant. The accepted wisdom for most journalists is that a lot of comments (I’d like to thank God for blessing me with the hands to catch this touchdown pass, for instance) are just vacuous proselytizing. Fair enough, but there are times when this skepticism suppresses great, albeit inconvenient, truths.
At the Juno Awards dinner in Calgary this past April, for instance, the country singer Paul Brandt received the first Alan Waters award for humanitarian activities. Introduced by Laureen Harper, wife of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Brandt swept away an overwhelmingly secular room with a deeply moving account of faith, its pain, and its pleasure. The story was not trite, meaningless evangelism. It was honest and intimate and true. Not a word made it into the national broadcasts the next night, although you can, and should, find it on YouTube.
Nor is it common knowledge that U2’s beginnings were as a Christian band or that Bono’s preoccupation with helping the world’s poor is grounded in faith. Eric Clapton’s revelation in his autobiography that he prays “on his knees” twice a day “because it works” never made the cut. Perhaps these matters are considered private, although given media’s penchant for speculation on the private affairs of public personalities, this seems unlikely. After all, if Clapton’s drug and alcohol addictions were legitimate matters for the public domain, surely the source of the triumph over them might be touched upon. Maybe editors and journalists assume such talk makes people uncomfortable. Honesty, though, is supposed to make people uncomfortable or, as George Orwell wrote, “in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
The morning I write this, for instance, I am still pondering the performance of Josh Hamilton in the home run derby of Major League Baseball’s all-star week. Hamilton lit up Yankee Stadium (not an easy crowd) over and over and over again as ESPN told his story. A first round draft pick, Hamilton blew a multi-million dollar signing bonus on booze, heroin, and cocaine and left the game without getting past AA ball. He finally overcame his addictions through faith, and after three years completely out of baseball didn’t just return to the game, he released his God-given talent and made it all the way to the majors, the all-star game, and a stardust evening at Yankee Stadium. To its credit, and as an illustration of how much more comfortable Americans are with faith, ESPN proclaimed that based on the evidence before it, “this is not a good night to be an atheist.”
There is no mention of Hamilton’s remarkable journey in my (Canadian) morning paper though—confirming the incapacity of writers and editors to understand there are stories much bigger than those that involve hitting balls with sticks. Sports radio ran with the tale later in the day but somehow while expressing excitement over the wonder of the story carefully avoided the postmodern F word: Faith.
But quite possibly the most profound example of a story left untold involves what John Lennon really intended forty years ago when he elevated himself and his music beyond Christ. Few of you will recall, but way back when the world was still in the industrial age and music was available only on vinyl and AM radio, the Beatles were as big as it gets when it comes to cultural impact and influence on youth. Lennon, the most outspoken of the Fab Four, commented on the extent of the mania by boasting that the band was more popular than Jesus Christ. While fire-and-brimstone evangelicals embarrassed themselves and confirmed suspicions of theocratic inclinations by burning Beatles records, the Baby Boom poured itself another round of self indulgence and embarked on a forty-year journey of pretentious rhetoric overwhelmed by excessive self-interest that history, I am convinced, will not judge kindly.
But it turns out (and what a turning point this might have been) that the world did not know Lennon’s full views on Christ—at least until earlier this month when a never-before-broadcast interview first recorded in Montreal in 1969 by Ken Seymour of the CBC was played on BBC Radio 4 in Britain, July 13th 2008:
It’s just an expression meaning the Beatles seem to me to have more influence over youth than Christ,” the Telegraph quotes Lennon as saying in the tapes. “Now I wasn’t saying that was a good idea, ‘cos I’m one of Christ’s biggest fans. And if I can turn the focus on the Beatles on to Christ’s message, then that’s what we’re here to do.
If the Beatles get on the side of Christ, which they always were, and let people know that, then maybe the churches won’t be full, but there’ll be a lot of Christians dancing in the dance halls. Whatever they celebrate, God and Christ, I don’t think it matters as long as they’re aware of Him and His message.
In the interview, Lennon described a fairly common contempt for the pretentious and meaningless social trappings of religious institutions (“the hat-wearing and the socializing and the tea parties”) and being banned from a church at fourteen by a vicar after he and friends succumbed to a fit of “the giggles.”
I wasn’t convinced of the vicar’s sincerity anyway. But I knew it was the house of God. So I went along for that and the atmosphere always made me feel emotional and religious or whatever you call it.
Lennon regrets, according to the tape, that he couldn’t marry Yoko Ono in a church “but they (Church of England) wouldn’t marry divorcées.”
As for heaven, according to the Telegraph, Lennon said:
I haven’t got any sort of dream of a physical heaven where there’s lots of chocolate and pretty women in nightgowns, playing harps. I believe you can make heaven within your own mind. The kingdom of heaven is within you, Christ said, and I believe that.
Then, in a stroke of wonderfully British understatement, the Telegraph quotes author Paul Du Noyer saying, “These comments would have been a great boost for churches if they had come out at the time.”
Gee. Do you think?
I have no idea—only suspicions regarding ingrained predispositions—why this interview with Lennon was cut or simply filed away without airing until now. The reporter may have had “better stuff.” He may have included it in his report only to have it edited out by a superior or it may have been simply lost in internal misunderstandings. It might have been consciously or unconsciously intentional. It most certainly was tragic that it never made the news of the day.
How much of a difference it would have made in the formation of the Baby Boom’s worldview, I don’t know. But it’s not hard to imagine. In fact, it’s easy if you try.