Thursday, December 28, 2006

Scandal in SLO: The Outing of a Journalist Who Believes

Some of my interest in the intersection of religion and public life got a lot less theoretical this month when a local radio host blasted my good friend, Ryan Miller, editor of the New Times, a widely read alternative newsweekly here in San Luis Obispo. Ryan was taken to the cleaners for his supposed mixing of his faith with his journalism and, because he has been publically seen with me, a confirmed, fully-outed, religious guy (see below).
Congalton has long had the biggest radio audience in the county, and is a major opinion-shaper. Ryan is a Christian (a member of my church, actually), and recently took the helm of the second largest paper in town. One of Ryan's editorial strengths is his general unwilingness to publish "hit pieces," stories that do not allow a person who is criticized to give his or her own response to other's charges. While this would seem to be just journalistic fair-play, many alternative weeklys avoid such scruples. While this certainly gives such papers scintillating content, it usually comes at the expense of fairness. As Ryan once explained it to me, in some alternative newspapers, in any hypothetical story that might discuss a dispute between a landord and a tenant, the landlord will always be the bad guy, and the tenant will always be painted as unfairly oppressed. But Ryan, who says he learned this lesson directly from Steve Moss, New Times' revered founder, assumes that sometimes the tenants might actually be the bad guys, and if so, the story should be written that way.
So, both Steve Moss and Ryan Miller have had this thing about fairness, and believed (Moss has since died) that it is more important for a paper to be fair than to make a story scintillating. I didn't know Steve Moss, and so I don't know where his ideas about fairness found their ultimate grounding, but for Ryan, a Christian, values like fairness, honesty, and thoroughness flow, quite naturally, from his religious convictions. So here's the question: if Ryan's journalistic ethics flow from his specifically Christian faith, is he Christianizing the New Times by operating with those ethics? Is he (rightly or wrongly) making the paper into an Evangelical rag by doing so? Dave Congalton thinks so. Here's what he said:

Sunday, December 17, 2006

New Times Gets Religion

I suspect some dramatic editorial changes are underway at what has been the Alternative Paper of Record in this community for 20 years. New Times has had a pretty rocky period these last 18 months, starting with the sad death of founder Steve Moss, the uncertainty surrounding possible new owners, the whole controversy involving the meth story, the departure of King Harris as Managing Editor, declining circulation, etc.

Now it seems there is a staff revolt simmering under the surface and it just may boil over in the next few weeks as key members of the newsroom decide to move on.

The problem seems to be twofold. First, publisher Bob Rucker wants New Times to be more upbeat, softer in tone and less controversial, a vision shared by Ryan Miller, the wet-behind-the-ears editor who is still finding his editorial voice with the paper.

Apparently the voice Ryan is listening to most belongs to God. No kidding. A devout Christian, Miller is apparently being guided by a higher authority in putting out the newspaper week after week. Stories alleging a serial rapist on the loose in San Luis Obispo and reports of major FEMA violations by Atascadero are being scrapped in favor of this Thursday's cover story . . . .wait for it . . . . .A COMPARISON BETWEEN 'THE NATIVITY STORY" AND "PASSION OF THE CHRIST."

I'm not kidding! That's the cover story scheduled for this week by the weekly alternative paper.

Look, I believe in religious tolerance and support the right of anyone to follow the god of their choice -- or not. But leave it at the door, pal. Ryan apparently has trouble doing that, often openly consulting his pastor for advice in running the newspaper.

There are a few points of fact I'd dispute about this story, such as my role as Ryan's consultant, the main thrust of the cover-story he mentions, Ryan's level of experience (five years editing the Santa Maria Sun), etc. But the main question is this: while Congalton believes in "religious tolerance", does that include tolerance for religions (such as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, to name a few) that cannot be "left at the door" without denying their central precepts? Most religions advocate a non-compartmentalized life, that is, to purposefully ignore their teachings when you go to work would really be to fundamentally deny the religion. To say to a religious person, "I tolerate you as long as you don't act religious from 9 to 5" is not really tolerance. This is not to say that Congalton or anyone should tolerate every religious impulse a person might have. If a newspaper editor said, "My religion requires me to sacrifice one of my reporters every day at noon before a statue of Molech," or, "my religion requires me to maliciously misquote all politicians," then well, it's probably OK not to tolerate the practice of that religion in a newspaper editor while he's on the job.

So, I'd make the case that we ought to be more tolerant than Congalton, but not tolerant of every form of religion that someone might want to practice in the workplace. Just how much tolerance is the right amount? That's a hard question, but shouldn't we at least say that an editor like Ryan Miller should be allowed to follow his religiously grounded ethics, especially when those ethics match up to commonly agreed upon journalistic standards that others might hold to because of a different fundamental philosophy? Remember, Miller and Moss agreed on their ethics, though would probably describe their ultimate reasons for such beliefs differently. This doesn't completely solve the tough question about the proper place of religious reasoning in a religiously pluralistic society, but it should be enough to show that telling someone to leave his Christianity at the door is not necessary or desirable, nor a mark of the kind of tolerance that we're all hoping to achieve.

Here's how I responded to Dave Congalton, and then his words back to me.

I'm the pastor of the church that Ryan attends -- I'm not sure who your sources were, Dave, but since Ryan took the helm at the New Times, I've never met with him to talk about the paper. We used to meet for lunch when he edited the Santa Maria Sun, and occassionally we'd talk about his work, but to call it a "consulting" relationship would be more than a stretch.

Even still, the requirement that someone like Ryan leave his faith "at the door" is easily overplayed. While I can understand your concern that a newspaper editor might covertly import his religious beliefs in illegitimate ways, there are many ways that one's ultimate beliefs can increase the quality of work, especially in a field like journalism. If someone's religous beliefs ground his convictions about justice, truth-telling, honesty, etc., -- all of which are New Testament values as well as journalistic values, I'm sure we'd all hope those are not jettisoned merely because they were born out of religious conviction. In fact, unless we were to ask all newspaper editors to only ground the ethics that we expect of them in a specifically a-religious philosophical pragmatism, we need to allow that privatley held religious beliefs can properly inform public ethics. Of course, there are plenty of examples of misappropriation of religious beliefs in the public square -- no argument there -- but there's not much evidence that Ryan has done so, Christmas cover-story notwithstanding. In fact, here's one piece of counter-evidence that the New Times is some kind of vehicle for softy Christian sappiness (something I loathe myself): earlier this month we saw an opinion piece making fun of heterosexual soccer moms and the downtown Christmas parade. At least two f-bombs were dropped in the process. Whatever changes Ryan has brought, he's certainly not forcing his staff to get religion.

To Brian Kay,

Though we are honored to have a pastor join the discussion on the blog, I stand by what I wrote originally and have taken it a step further in a new posting.

New Times is going soft, backing away from investigative reporting, playing up arts and events coverage. More and more religion will creep into these pages because of Ryan.

Oh, well. At least we got the conversation started.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Jansenists: Reformed and Roman Catholic?

I'm biting off more than I can chew with this post, since it's about time for bed, on a Saturday night no less, and Jansenism has a complex history that I'm just getting my head around. Let's suffice it to say that in the mid-1600's a Roman Catholic movement developed based on the ideas of a Dutch bishop named Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638). After reading a ton of St. Augustine, Jansen came to believe that the Roman Catholic Church, and espeicially the Jesuits who were so active in his own day, had departed from the radical nature of grace and sin for which Augustine had argued against Pelagius. By ditching Augustine and instead following the ideas of Molina, the Jesuits had functionally become semi-Pelagian: fallen humanity was only sick in sin, not dead, and that by cooperating with a dose of God's grace, we can cooperate in our eventual acceptance by God. Jansen's seminal work, the Augustinus rapidly spread through Holland,Belgium, and France, and was actually endorsed by ten professors at the Sorbonne in Paris, the old bastion of Catholic orthodoxy. The party didn't last long. Pope Innocent X, after thirty-six long discussions with advocates and detractors, over two years, finally condemned five representative statemements from the Augustinus in 1653. But here's my point: look at the five condemned statements and notice how close they were to the Reformed views on the same topics. Here are the five condemned statements as they appear in the somewhat clunky wording of the old Catholic Encylcopedia ( Following that are my five, easier-to-read versions of the same points:

1. Some of God's commandments are impossible to just men who wish and strive (to keep them) considermg the powers they actually have, the grace by which these precepts may become possible is also wanting;
2. In the state of fallen nature no one ever resists interior grace;
3. To merit, or demerit, in the state of fallen nature we must be free from all external constraint, but not from interior necessity,
4. The Semipelagians admitted the necessity of interior preventing grace for all acts, even for the beginning of faith; but they fell into heresy in pretending that this grace is such that man may either follow or resist it;
5. To say that Christ died or shed His blood for all men, is Semipelagianism.

Now, to put this in updated and slightly expanded language:
1. No one can follow all of God's laws, no matter how hard they strive, for no one now has the moral power to do so. God does not even grant this power to everyone.
2. An unregenerate person can only be saved by an irresistible act of God's grace.
3. The idea of an unregenerate person eventually "choosing" God is not a contradiction of God's irresistible grace that ennables such a choice. This irresistible grace does not externally constrain the will, but ennables it, from the inside, to really be free.
4. Semipelagians admitted that ennabling grace was necessary, but fell into heresy when they said such grace must be cooperated with by a non-ennabled choice of the free will.
5. To say that Christ atoned for all people's sins is Semipelagian, because, since all people are not finally saved by God, then they must have resisted what is merely an open offer of his grace.

If this reminds anyone of the classically Protestant Canons of Dort, also completed in Holland a few decades earlier, you couldn't be blamed! To me, this is an amazing example of how some within the Roman Catholic Church were able to advocate for, at least for a few years, a return to Augustinian (dare I say, Pauline!) views about sin and grace, and with several highly-situated advocates. To bad Jansen's views were outlawed-- they probably wouldn't have been as controversial three-hundred years earlier, but the Reformatin/Counter-Reformation lines were drawn pretty firmly by the 1650's.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Some Thoughts on Bart Ehrman

I've had a few thoughts bubbling since Bart Ehrman released his book, Misquoting Jesus, last year. After hearing an interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross I finally thought I'd better write them down, and now, at last, post them here. Ehrman teaches New Testament at the University of North Carolina, is an ex-Evangelical, and, overall, makes the case that our present English Bibles cover-up hopelessly contradictory stories about Jesus in the existing Greek manuscripts. Here are a couple of his summary thoughts, mosty from the NPR interview, and some of my responses.

Ehrman says that the story in John 8 of the woman caught in adultery is only attested by late manuscripts, and thus is not likely original to John's own composition. This example functions as kind of a locus classicus for Ehrman's overall point that our English Bible, which contains this story, is fraught with arbitrary privileging of one text's reading over other ancient manuscripts that might have a contradictory reading. I.e. the presence of the woman caught in adultery story in most English Bible's proves that Jesus must be routinely "misquoted" in the N.T.
Problem: Ehrman is right that this story from John 8 is very unstable, but most English translations alert the reader to this fact in a footnote, so the instability of this partiuclar story is very transparent to the reader. More problematically, Ehrman implies by this example that all or many other stories is the New Testament are as equally instable as John 8. But there is no such textual instability for the vast majority of N.T. stories. That is, John 8 is not generally representative or an example of a coomon problem, it is, rather, an extreme outlier on the spectrum of textual stability (the only other comparable example might be the long ending of Mark's Gospel). To leverage John 8 to make a general point about widespread and damning textual discrepancies is like pointing to someone's hangnail and saying, "See, I told you he was dying."

Ehrman also says, "If the original text is authoritative, we have a problem, because we don't have the original text." By this, Ehrman is trying undercut the basis for the orthodox Christian claim that the Bible is our ultimate authority, since God inspired the apostles to write what they wrote. Ehrman is saying that if we don't even possess their original manuscripts, and if the manuscipts we do have contradict each other, then there's no sense pointing at any current Bible verse and saying, "This is God's authoritative word."

A few thoughts:
1. Not having the original manuscripts does not mean we have a substantial disconnect from the original in the texts that we do have. Like I've said above, this would be the mistake of concluding that the presence of a few conflciting texts, or even the presence of many insignificant variances between texts (i.e. those that have little impact on the final meaning of a verse) means that the original N.T. is basically unrecoverable or it's meaning basically obscure. Of course, if I had it my way we'd have access to the original manuscripts, but, failing that, what we do have is pretty good, even considering the text variances.

2. Ehrman seems to act as if textual criticism, the task of determining which of the two or more conflicting readings most likely represents the original, is a task unknown to orthdox Christians, or that they somehow turn a blind eye to how textual criticism makes their submission to scritpure as God's Word unreasonable or naive. But everyone have always known we don't have the original manuscripts. Apart from the King-James-Only crowd who believes that God surpernaturally inspired the 17th century English translators to make a newly inerrant Bible, Christians have always had to do the hard, disciplined, principled work (science? art?) of text criticism, that is, determining which of a number of contradictory readings might be closest to the original. This is not arbitrary or hopeless work, it has a fairy established and uncontroversial methodology, and most conclusions that text critics make are quite defensible.

3. In short, Ehrman overplays (a) the number of scribal changes, (b) the significance of the changes - i.e. even the variant texts have very little doctrinal signficance, (c) the final overall judgment against the N.T.'s stability, which is far greater that any other ancient text that I know of.

4. A final word on the definsibility of recognizing the present N.T. as divinely authoritative: Even though a text like the English Bible has the possibility, even liklihood, of some minor textual or translation errors, it makes sense for people who believe that the original N.T. was God's authoritative word to treat our present N.T. texts authoritatively as well (more particulalry, it is a good critical text like the Nestle-Aland 27th edition that is the safest to treat authoritatively, since it is the product of lot of careful textual criticism). Until counter-evidence appears that might cause us to ammend our text (and the end of Jn.8 should probably be deemed non-authoritative for this very reason), it is intellectually defesible to treat the N.T. as if the apostles and their associates really wrote it. In other words, if my secretary left me a note saying, "Your wife called to ask you to pick up three tomatoes on the way home," I might name many reasons why the note might not be letter-accurate to my wife's original words (maybe my secretary wasn't listening closely, maybe she accidentally wrote "three" instead of "two", etc.) but I would not be wrong to treat the note "authoriatively" even with those possibilities facing me, in fact, it would be more unreasonable and risky not to act on it and come home empty-handed, pleading "how could I have been sure?" No, treating a text with authority does not require claiming infallibility of the present text nor even our own interpretation of it. That's just the way texts work, and the Bible, in this regard, is not so different.

Ehrman has defeated the King James Only folks with his observations, but not really any historically mainstream view of Christian scripture, and not even that of conseravtive mainstream American Evangelicalism.