On Being Blog
Photo by Bill Rogers / Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0
A few weeks ago, Mr. Rogers came up at one of our production meetings, and Krista mentioned that she would have loved to interview him if he were still alive. I remember reading somewhere that Fred Rogers’s original intention in creating a television show was to try to find a space in TV broadcasting for grace.
Not a few days had passed when an episode of Mr. Rogers appeared on my family’s Tivo as a suggestion. I don’t know if PBS has just recently begun rebroadcasting the show, but I decided to see if my kids could connect with him, considering that they watch almost nothing but cartoons.
Having not watched the show myself in almost 30 years, I was surprised to realize how much I actually enjoyed it, especially the mini-documentaries about various factories (in this case, a sleeping bag factory). There’s something extraordinarily reassuring about watching one of the ordinary objects of our lives being constructed piece by piece.
My children were equally captivated, and within minutes my 3 year old was talking back to the screen when Mr. Rogers asked her a question. Somehow, through the medium of television, he was able to make a genuine emotional connection to a girl that had been born a year after his death. In a CNN profile, Rogers said, “The whole idea is to look into the television camera and present as much love as you possibly could to a person who might feel that he or she needs it.”
Fred Rogers would have been 80 next month.
Tom Stoppard’s new play “Rock-n-Roll” is getting mixed reviews here, but tickets are scarce, so I was thrilled when my friend Chris scored some for us. This is Stoppard’s chronicle of the intersection of pop culture and politics in then-Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution.
Stoppard, I learned from the program notes, was born in the Czech town of Zlin, where I — highly coincidentally — have a close friend, Hannah, who grew up there. Hannah, much younger than Stoppard, is a devout Catholic, for theological and political reasons (the Catholic Church was a staunch form of dissidence in parts of the East bloc).
I remember Hannah telling me about the day her father called her into the kitchen for an earnest, whispered confession. He apologized to her for not joining the Communist Party because he knew it would limit her chances, and he pleaded with her to stop going to Mass. Her teachers, the secret police, the Party, knew of it, and if she persisted, she would be sent to work at the shoe factory, and never be allowed an education.
Stoppard’s play is a history of the world many people alive today have never heard of. The Plastic People of the Universe, one of the world’s most obscure rock and roll bands, and Western rock, carry the zeitgeist of revolution and resistance, and their consequent cynicism and despair, in the final years of the Soviet Union. It’s a story that matters.
One of our several stops today was Beliefnet, perhaps the largest website devoted to topics of religion and spirituality, where we experimented with some video shooting for one of their features. That’s a “stay tuned” for now, but we enjoyed working with their crew, and while there we stopped by the office of Steve Waldman, the co-founder and CEO, who has known Krista for some time. His book, Founding Faith, will be out in March. Waldman was our guest for a couple of election year shows four years ago, notably, Beyond the God Gap, and he has an unusually balanced and insightful view of religion in the political scene.
Beliefnet recently published a poll of its Evangelical users that shows some interesting drift. Among other things, a larger percentage (38.7%) of self-described Evangelical participants named “reducing poverty” as their most important issue rather than those who said “ending abortion” (31.8%) was.
While it wasn’t a scientific poll, it was a large participating sample, and some interesting nuggets are found therein.
As Krista and I hop from meeting to meeting here in New York, we’re overwhelmed by the tremendous amount of listener response to our program on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We’re receiving very positive responses from non-Mormons and Mormons alike, from those who know and have studied the church as well as those for whom this was an introduction; at the same time, some listeners have expressed concern that this program was not critical enough to be journalistically valid.
Speaking of Faith models a distinctive approach to journalism about religion. The ethic of the interview is informed by deep listening and informed questioning. That is purposeful, based on her sense that adversarial questioning simply puts the interviewer on the defensive and shuts down the possibility of authentic and genuinely revealing answers. There are many legitimate ways to approach the multitudes of subjects in the news. This approach works for matters as deep and sensitive as religion and what we believe.
In the case of this show, her questions drew out a great deal of information that was new to many listeners. Some drove to the substantive core of distinctions between Mormon thought and traditional orthodox Christianity. As we also stated throughout the script, there are numerous controversies surrounding this faith in historical, cultural, theological, and social terms.
We didn’t omit to mention these “hot button” topics, nor did we dismiss them. But we did and do feel they have been often reported and examined in the mainstream media. We wanted to cover some new ground. We wanted to explore the basic parts of this faith that make it distinctive, and that are little understood.
We had a journalistic goal — to provide a more basic theological and human context for non-Mormons to understand this faith of 13 million human beings globally — and a broad and basic human foundation on which they might navigate the controversies for themselves.
We tried to determine where to post a response like this — on the show’s reflection page, to each individual, in next week’s newsletter? — and then we had to check ourselves and ask: “Are we too defensive?” “Are we overreacting and should we just allow our listeners to air their grievances?”
What do you think?
I am a “faithful” reader of The New Yorker - for all the kinds of writing and reporting they do. They’ve also by the way had some brilliant pieces on religion in recent years, as the whole field of journalism catches up with this subject, its importance in human life, and the intellectual and spiritual content that has been missed by traditional journalism for too long. But this kind of list still puzzles and throws me - an announcement of a New Yorker conference on “the near future”, with:
“theorists, designers, economists, philosophers, ethicists, animators, inventors, musicians, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, scientists, artists, politicians, engineers, financiers.”
Where are the theologians? Why this assumption that philosophers and ethicists can hold their own in pressing, intellectual conversation - and have relevant and essential insight to add to the mix - and not religious thinkers?
On a lighter note, I love this spiritually profound and true cartoon.
Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer
I spent many years absorbed in the world of comic books. Then, after a while, I got sick of the futility of the superhero genre, where nothing of significance ever happened to these heroes. We know that Superman is invulnerable, but most other characters have “character shields” too. You know this from Star Trek (which I also can’t stand): Kirk, Spock, Bones, and Ensign Smith descend onto a planet (you know what happens next). Nothing ever happened to Kirk or the others because they’re commercial properties, not dramatic ones. Commercial properties can’t die.
In any case, I do think the superhero genre — one slice of the medium but by far the most commercially successful — can have moments of superb storytelling, like the mythic Kingdom Come, or the postmodern Astro City, that take on comic books that was grounded in the stories of everyday people. The “Confession” storyline was a favorite of mine. I’m also immersed in the first season of Heroes on DVD (now don’t tell me what happens!).
Comic books are also a global phenomenon, huge in Japan for example as a serious art form. Now there’s even this apparently wildly popular Muslim comic (if I can call it that) called The 99. It’s a secular adventure/superhero comic about a group of 99 individuals who gain special powers through these special stones, each one of which reflects on the the Divine Names of God as found in Islamic theology.
As it turns out, Forbes recently mentioned The 99 as one of the biggest trends of 2008.
I personally find enjoyment from art that starts out in a neutral place and ends up having this beautiful undertone to it that gives me something more to think about, whether it’s religious, spiritual, scientific, philosophical, sociological — the list goes on and on. The archetypal X-Men storyline, for example, is about minority rights, identity and engagement. Chris Claremont, the legendary X-Men writer, said:
The X-Men are hated, feared and despised collectively by humanity for no other reason than that they are mutants. So what we have here, intended or not, is a book that is about racism, bigotry and prejudice.
The everyday X-Men storyline, on the other hand, is often a bit more along the lines of a superpowered soap opera, or even Star Trek.
I’m not saying I’m going back to the superhero genre, because I think graphic novels are far more interesting (though I have no time to read them). Watchmen said all that can be said, I think, about the superhero genre, and is in my opinion the finest superhero comic (and possible comic, period) ever written. It plays with the genre and injects the kind of mise en scène we expect from high cinema like Citizen Kane or 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’m much more interested in work that is visual art proper, like Joe Sacco’s Palestine or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.
Still, I’ve downloaded the preview of The 99 off the website and plan to read it. It’s a case of popular art drawing from an Islamic base, as opposed to, say, something like Indiana Jones or The Da Vinci Code, or what have you, that draw from exclusively Judeo-Christian bases.