Thursday, 17 November 2016

How to write about Christianity - A guide for perplexed journalists

Thanks to our American friends, 'Faith' (as in Evangelical Christianity) is hitting the news media and being badly reported. Again. Trump is all our fault, you see.

Many journalists, social commentators and other cultural pundits spend a great deal of their time trying to produce instant pen-pictures of global shifts in opinion and events. You might even be one of them. It’s hard, really. Sometimes, Life is just one damned thing after another, the Editor wants it yesterday, so where do you start? In puzzlement, usually. The irritating tendency of world religions to not fade away (as predicted very frequently through the 20th century) has led many to wonder not only ‘What is going on?’ but also ‘How can I write this piece about religion when actually I know nothing about the subject since not going to Sunday School all those years ago?’ No journalist likes to feel awkward or uninformed.

But don't worry! This essay will be of vital assistance. By the end of it, you should be able to write an apparently-informed piece about anything to do with Christianity. No matter what your own belief-system, politics or your newspaper owner’s own opinions, this should do it!

So, to begin. Let's assume that you write either for the Guardian, the Daily Mail, or something in-between. The Guardian is basically, quite embarrassed by the existence of religion, would quite prefer it wasn’t there, but feels obliged to report on it. The Mail is not embarrassed by religion, but instead thinks that no religion is ever quite religious enough to fit the standards of the Daily Mail. 

So how should you write about Christianity? The safe option is always to talk about what notable people are saying or doing. By 'notable', we don’t mean members of congregations, the Reverend Sarah Smith and her hospital-visiting rota, or the people who run the food-banks. These do not count. Notable people are either those in the top jobs (The Pope, Archbishops, Bishops or chat-show presenters), committees (General Synod) or pressure groups (Christian Voice, Gay Christian Movement, Cats for Christ, that sort of thing.) Remember, it is the articulate axe-grinders who give you the best copy. Your piece is more likely to be recognised if it is controversial, whether or not the opinions voiced in it are representative of any real opinion.

Look for the scandals. Never pass up on any chance to write about the latest mistake that a notable Christian has made. Never mind the fact that that you ignored them before. The Bishop of Boodleshire may have led an exemplary life up to now, but a moment’s misjudgement with the budget or the verger’s wife will be enough for several weeks' worth of copy. With luck, you’ll have him or her out of office within a month.

Generally, the following phrases will be of use:

Guardian pieces:
Fundamentalist, evangelical, narrow-minded, bigoted, Conservative, right-wing, American, Republican, Ku Klux Klan, Donald Trump, Justin Welby.     

Daily Mail pieces:
Liberal, woolly, weak, trendy, happy-clappy, gay, lesbian, feminist, left-wing, falling Christian standards, divided, New Labour, Justin Welby.
Most of your pieces will either be about LGBT rights, sex scandals, or New Atheism. (Guardian writers please note: always ring up Richard Dawkins for a quote, whether he knows anything about the subject or not.) Daily Mail writers should remember to ask a bishop if they can remember what the seventh commandment is. If they do know, then don’t mention it in your piece. (Want a quote? Knock on Peter Hitchins' office door. He's always fun.)

In both cases, always assume that:
1)      The Church is dying.
2)      Nobody goes to Church anymore. (Well at least, nobody who matters.)
3)      Christianity has lost touch with its roots.
4)      The Bible is irrelevant and unread.
5)      What happens either in this country or the USA is the only field that matters. (Mail writers only)
6)      Christianity is all about being judgmental. (Guardian writers only)

1)      Talk to anyone who has recently become a Christian, to find out why.
2)      Go to a busy church yourself to find out what really happens, or visit a church-run food-bank, like the real one featured in 'I, Daniel Blake'.
3)      Ask yourself what Christianity’s roots actually were.
4)      Read the Bible for yourself, especially anything related to Jesus.
5)      Mention the ‘World Church’, or the troubling fact that Christianity is the world’s biggest religion in terms of geographical and ethnic spread, and is still growing fast particularly in places like the People’s Republic of China or Iran where it’s not particularly fashionable or easy.
6)      Mention how many thousands of Christians are running charitable enterprises for the good of others, both in their own communities, and all around the world.

This will only confuse people. Remember that what you think you know is the most important thing, because that is what will be published. So stick with that. Don’t rock the boat, and hey – if you’re lucky, you might get promoted to do something more interesting and important, one day. Like the fashion pages.

(One more thing...)
Have you seen 'I, Daniel Blake' yet? The food-bank volunteers in this key scene were playing themselves in the very church hall where they faithfully serve the local community. Their names are Kathy and Christine. Funnily enough, you won't see their names in the Mail or Guardian.

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Any requests of subjects for future posts in 2016? No idea too stupid for consideration. And yes, I know I am a bad writer, so don't bother saying that unless you can write something better. But maybe there's a topic buzzing around in your head that you'd like to see covered... because I've got a keyboard here, it's loaded with letters, and I ain't afraid to use it.