Far too many members of the establishment media seem to wish for a world where it is always winter but never Christmas.
Fans of C.S. Lewis’ “Narnia” series will immediately recognize that phrase — “always winter but never Christmas” — as the situation that prevailed in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (henceforth LWW) before the return to the land of Narnia of Aslan, the great lion-Christ. But consider the phrase more broadly and metaphorically. The establishment media continues to give copious evidence of ignorance of, and often outright hostility to, Western religion and to the moral values shaped by it. Their ignorance and hostility is unprofessional, and it is despicable. A reader could be excused for often getting the impression that, like the White Witch, the establishment media would love to turn all believers to stone and keep us from ever celebrating Christmas — or Easter, or (for that matter) any Jewish observance, either, unless treated as merely a cultural observance rather than a true religious celebration.
This column topic suggested itself when the December 14 Washington Post contained not one but two cultural articles at least somewhat offensive to traditionalist sensibilities. The first was a glowing book review called “Saving C.S. Lewis.” Written by foreign desk editor Elizabeth Ward, also described in the byline as “a longtime reviewer of children’s books,” the review assessed a new literary endeavor by a woman named Laura Miller called The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia.
According to Ward, Miller was an especially devoted Narnia fan as a child, but felt a “sense of betrayal” when she realized in her early teens that the Narnia series contained not only wonderful fairy tales but also “really just the doctrines of the Church in disguise.” Raised a Catholic but turned off by what she considered the church’s “guilt-mongering,” Miller was so upset by what she now considered to be “appallingly transfigured” stories that she then wanted nothing to do with the books. That decision changed again, though, when a reading assignment as an adult helped her discover that Lewis’s series remained radiant apart from its subtext as Christian apologetics.
Oh, the joy! The sheer joy to find out that Narnia wasn’t utterly ruined by its Christianity! Miller responded by writing this learned, 311-page discourse on all things Narnia and their roots in other literature and other realms of culture — or at least all things not polluted by their Christian context.
Not having read Miller’s book itself, one might be accused of snarkiness for noting, first, that Miller must not have been terribly sharp as a Catholic child if it took her until her teens to realize that Narnia involved Christian allegory. (I once read LWW to a six-year-old who, two minutes after hearing the resurrection scene, smiled and pointed to the sky and said Aslan was “like Jesus.”) Or for noting, second, that it seems almost a psychological deficiency among so many literati when they find faith not just unconvincing or unimportant personally, but actually an affront even when in the form of a relatively gentle faith allegory. It is a peculiar mindset that takes umbrage at something that brings joy to others but demands no tribute from the unbeliever. After all, we do not see Miller or the establishment media take offense at The Iliad and The Odyssey because Greek gods play huge roles in those stories — do we?
NEVERTHELESS, THE PROBLEM HERE is not Miller, who is of course entitled to her views. The problem is with the reviewer, Ward. Ward, as a reviewer in a “mainstream” journal, embraces wholeheartedly the decidedly anti-Christian bias she describes in Miller’s book. It is Ward, not Miller, who blasts LWW co-producer Disney because its “unsubtle blockbuster movie in 2005 left the whole series more or less hijacked by Christian fundamentalists.” One can almost see the scorn for “Christian fundamentalists” dripping, like rancid buttermilk, from Ward’s pen. And her over-sensitivity to the Christian element of the movie itself is remarkable; literally at random, I googled Los Angeles Times reviewer Carina Chocano’s contemporary reaction to the movie, which far more accurately noted as follows: “The Christian allegory embedded at its chewy center serves less as evangelical cudgel than a primer on morality and the myths we create to explain it…. If it weren’t for Lewis’ stated intention to write a fantastical story to make the dogma go down, it might even come across as a liberal humanist parable about myth and its function in society, especially during times of trouble.”
That sure doesn’t sound like a movie “hijacked by fundamentalists.”
But Ward doesn’t stop there. The whole tone of her review in the Post is that of agreeing that the Christian elements of Narnia are decidedly disagreeable. The last paragraph approvingly asserts that “Miller largely succeeds in rescuing the Narnia series from the narrow Christian box into which it has been crammed.” Note the language: rescued. And narrow Christian box.
Yes, that’s it: Lewis’s storytelling was so good that it rescues his tales from their obnoxious Christian undertones. Right. That’s like saying that Jefferson’s prose was so inspirational that it rescued the Declaration of Independence from its obnoxious themes celebrating liberty and life. And wasn’t it a shame, too, that Martin Luther King had to pollute his quest for racial equality with his narrow Christian superstructure?
If the Washington Post‘s editors can’t understand how insulting Ward’s review is to anybody of traditional faith, their ignorance is astonishing.
BUT THE POST‘S OFFENSIVENESS didn’t stop there. That same day, the Sunday Washington Post Magazine contained a curious essay by an “M. Lynn Miller,” supposedly her “first published piece,” charmingly called “My Mom, the Adulteress.” It’s all about her mother’s 35-year, on-again, off-again romance (through the course of two of her mother’s own marriages) with a married man. The tenor of the essay is captured in a few sentences of the last paragraph: “I am happy for her. There are a few great loves out there, and my mom found one. He says that he’ll leave his wife this time.…”
Okay, maybe from a certain angle this strange little essay can be seen to be, uh, touching, almost sweet: a daughter writing about her concern for her mother’s happiness. But what the heck is it doing in a daily newspaper? What’s the news value, or the point? Seen objectively, the piece offends the basic standards of decency still adhered to by most Americans. Somehow, it’s just not right for a daughter to write touchingly, indeed somewhat approvingly, in a general forum, about her mother’s adultery. There’s both an immorality factor and, well, an ick factor. Perhaps the essay might be worthwhile in a literary magazine, but not a broad-circulation daily deliberately written to be accessible to teenagers as well. Indeed, the Sunday magazine is one of the sections most accessible, most attractive, to younger readers. This particular Sunday magazine was especially a lure to teens; its cover illustration, with two figures drawn like comic-book heroes, advertised the lead story about “the brutal odds of making it in the comic book business!”
With such a cover, even an 8-year-old would be likely to pick up the magazine, start thumbing through it… and find himself reading a story whose first paragraph reads: “My mother is a really, really good person…. And she’s having sex with a married man.”
While this weird essay contains no direct insult to any particular faith by name, its whole subject matter, in such a forum, amounts to a deliberate flouting of the morals important to just about every faith tradition on earth. How a newspaper editor approved it is beyond belief. The deliberate nose-thumbing at social and religious mores is astonishing.
But, as has been shown by a spate of post-election columns even by nominal “conservatives” blasting the “religious right” without even evincing the slightest understanding of who the religious right’s adherents are or what they actually believe, this sort of thing is par for the course in the establishment media. When the media isn’t obliviously offending traditionalists, it is outright sneering at them, insulting them, or even describing them in terms usually reserved for evildoers like the Red Brigades or the Gestapo.
NINE DAYS AFTER the Post‘s one-two punch, the Wall Street Journal ran a book review by Vincent Carroll of the Rocky Mountain News of a book called Blind Spot, a collection of essays well described by the book’s subtitle: “When Journalists Don’t Get Religion.” Carroll cites a number of the book’s examples of journalists treating faith and religion with about the same level of understanding as an ordinary American would show for Egyptian hieroglyphics. When jihadist terrorists, for example, target Jewish centers or kill Christian hostages while sparing Muslim ones, news outlets such as the New York Times or CNN International proclaim that the terrorists’ motives were unclear.
As an example of missing the obvious, that’s akin to reporting that it is unclear why Red Sox fans boo when a Yankee star steps to the plate. But for the establishment media, it’s a common occurrence. The media not only fails to understand basic things about religions and the motives of various religiously driven newsmakers, but doesn’t even appear to want to understand.
As Carroll concludes in his review, the result isn’t merely a snubbing of the faithful, but a failure of basic standards of journalistic competence. Failure at least to understand religion and to take it seriously means, Carroll writes, that “the news media will continue to miss a vast dimension of mankind’s story.”
This state of affairs is nothing new, of course, but the problem seems to have become even worse, if possible, than it was in 1993 when the Post infamously described Evangelicals as being overwhelmingly “poor, uneducated and easy to command.” It was in the same year, I believe (my files have gotten misplaced, but the quotation is seared in my memory), that one of the major new magazines (I think Newsweek) featured a lengthy article well summed up by its subtitle: “The Surprising Unsecularity of the American Public.” Note that “secularity” is seen as the norm (despite the fact that 90 percent or so of Americans continually call themselves at least somewhat religious), so that the magazine felt compelled to invent the ungainly word “unsecularity” rather than use a perfectly good, and more accurate, word such as “faithfulness” or even “religiosity.”
And for anybody who has spent more than about three months in these United States to find our level of faith “surprising” is for that person not just to be so unobservant as to be wholly unsuited for reporting, but to be almost willfully blind and deaf to the religious dimension of the lives most Americans lead.
Such willful blindness amounts either to a fundamental dishonesty or to a fundamental failure of both the imagination and the empirical skill-set any journalist should boast — or to a combination of all three of those fundamental flaws.
Such flaws amount to failures of character or training, or both. On the training side, the establishment media today increasingly reserves its jobs for highly degreed graduates of famous colleges. Indeed, in Deborah Howell’s farewell column as the Washington Post‘s ombudsman last Sunday, she acknowledged a growing problem: “Now journalists are highly trained, mobile and, especially in Washington, more elite. We make a lot more money, drive better cars and have nicer homes. Some of us think we’re just a little more special than some of the folks we want to buy the paper or read us online.”
That superciliousness, that false feeling of superiority, ought not be what is produced by a liberal education. And it raises a deceptively probing question. It was a question asked several times in LWW by the old professor who was amazed that some of the Pevensie children refused to believe the reality of magic occurring almost under their noses.
“Bless me,” said the Professor, “what do they teach them at these schools?”