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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Burnout on the God beat

Burnout on the God beat - second top religion writer calls it quits
November 15th, 2007, filed by Tom Heneghan
Reuters News Service

Covering religion may be harmful to your faith. Two leading religion journalists — one in Britain, one in the United States — have quit the beat in recent months, saying they had acquired such a close look at such scandalous behaviour by Christians that they lost their faith and had to leave.

Stephen Bates, who recently stepped down as religious affairs writer for the London Guardian, has just published an account of his seven years on the beat in an article entitled “Demob Happy” for the New Humanist magazine. Bates followed the crisis in the Anglican Communion for several years and even wrote a book on it, A Church At War: Anglicans and Homosexuality.

“Now I am moving on,” his article concludes. “It was time to go. What faith I had, I’ve lost, I am afraid – I’ve seen too much, too close. A young Methodist press officer once asked me earnestly whether I saw it as my job to spread the Good News of Jesus. No, I said, that’s the last thing I am here to do.”

Bates announced his move back in September in another interesting article, this time for the website Religious Intelligence. Writing from New Orleans, where he was covering the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops meeting with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, he said: “Writing this story has been too corrosive of what faith I had left: indeed watching the way the gay row has played out in the Anglican Communion has cost me my belief in the essential benignity of too many Christians. For the good of my soul, I need to do something else.”

Bates, who says he still regards himself as a Catholic, said he was turned off by the intolerance he saw towards gays and the self-righteousness of Christians who “pick and choose the sins that are acceptable and condemn those – always committed by other, lesser people – that are not.”

Shortly before Bates called it quits, William Lobdell, who gave the Los Angeles Times first-class coverage of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal in California, threw in the towel with a wrenching story of his own struggle with organised religion. His farewell story in July, “Religion beat became a test of faith“ was a moving testimony of a journalist who started off as a Presbyterian, was active with evangelicals and seriously considered becoming a Catholic.

But, during his eight years on the beat, the Catholic clerical sex abuse scandal put him off religion so badly that he lost his faith altogether. For an example of what he came across, take a look at Missionary’s Dark Legacy, a powerful story from 2005 about the trail of sexual abuse a Catholic missionary left behind after seven years among the Eskimos. Nearly every boy in the settlement was abused.

What do readers think? Can you understand how Bates and Lobdell reacted? Do you think a journalist has to be a believer to be a good religion reporter?


Mary Sue said...

For the love of the sweet baby Jesus, why is this news? Being human's a freakin' test of faith.

Rachel Stampul said...

Man, I get that. Boy do I. When I hear that people all over America (and perhaps the world) are leaving the church in order to save their faith, I slowly nod and understand. Yep. that's about how I feel.

MLK jr. wrote "But the judgment of God is upon the Church as never before. If the Church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early Church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I am meeting young people every dya whose dissapointment with the Church has risen to outrigth disgust." and that was in 1963 (Letter From Birmingham City Jail). Look how far we've come.

I find myself leaving the church even while I'm drawn to ministry. Not a comfortable place to be.

Grace said...

I don't feel that a journalist has to be a believer to be a good religious reporter. But, from my perspective, it's hard to understand why covering church news would cause someone to lose their faith in Jesus Christ.

Mother Kaeton, we are sinner's born, redeemed by the grace of God in Christ. Everyone is in the same boat. Instead of feeling disgust at the struggles, and sins of folks in the church, we need to feel compassion for each other.

And, ultimately, our faith is not in a denomination, but in Jesus.

Personally, I don't care if the whole institution looks like it's heading to Hell in a handbasket, my mind and heart are still set to follow Christ. It's His church.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

"Mother Kaeton, we are sinner's born, redeemed by the grace of God in Christ"

See? I don't believe this. I don't believe we are 'sinners born' but I do believe we are redeemed by the grace of God in Christ from falling to the temptations in the world.

And, I do beleive that I can serve God through Christ in The Episcopal Church. I beleive that this is where God has called me to be and, God help me, this is where I have made my home and this is where I will stay.

Mike in Texas said...

Grace, "covering church news" is not what caused these people to turn away from religion.

Desert Kat said...

I can understand. In the last year or so, I have seen more un-Christian behavior then in my whole life. People so worked up about what is going on in someone's bedroom that they cannot see their own flaws. And heaven forfend anyone who stands and says "this isn't right".

That said, I feel that this time has deepened what it means to me to be Christian. To have Christian beliefs. Being Christian is a set of choices, a set of actions. It is what I do that defines me as a Christian. By constantly having to speak out and defind my beliefs, they have become more rich. I do not appreciate these times and there are times my heart breaks for the church I choose and which I truely love. But I do appreciate what these times have done for me.

Muthah+ said...

Having to report on the rants of the church must be hard work. Having to minister to those who are ranting is difficult too. But as my novice mistress said 40 years ago, "God did not call me to this life because it would be easy." But I do agree with Sr. M.Hasta: life is a test of faith and the best way to live it is with a sense of humor.

In the Episcopal Church we have lost our sense of humor in the face of all the sturm und drang. It is part of the reason I keep reading your blog, Elizabeth. You keep reminding me to laugh.


Grace said...

(((Mike))). But, why allow someone else's sin and hypocrisy to keep us from a relationship with Christ? It's like being controlled by oppression.

Mother Kaeton,

I want to share more with you. It seems to me that there really is a tension in our faith, a kind of paradox, here. It's totally true that we are all created in the very image of God, fearfully and wonderfully made, and yet at the sametime have become broken and marred by sin, not able to just "fix ourselves."

I want so much to live by the golden rule, love my enemies, reflect Christ in everything I do and say.

Yet, here I am, falling flat on my face on the time. I was sharing on another site that there are days when I can have a tough time loving my own husband, let alone my enemies. Despite all my best intentions, I can end up hurting those I love the most. In my own strength, I fall pretty short.

But, believe it or not, there was a definite time in my life, Elizabeth+, as a young person, when I couldn't see this at all.

Why I thought I was this good, righteous, respectable person, and that we could all "pull ourselves up by our own bootstaps" maybe with a little help from God, if there was really a God.

Naturally I had very little genuine concern for the poor, or compassion for those struggling with something like alcohol or drug addiction. Afterall, these problems were pretty much their own fault, and could be overcome if they did the right things, and tried harder.

In terms of my own spiritual life, I pretty much trusted in what Lutherans would call, "works righteousness," and struggled greatly with every line of the Nicene Creed.

Mother Kaeton, if you read the parable of the poor publican, who could not even lift his eyes to heaven, and the pharisee. I was sadly the epitome of that pharisee, outwardly leading a very moral and righteous life, involved in the church.

Then I heard the gospel, at the time preached by Dr. Billy Graham. Now this was really nothing that I hadn't heard before in the Lutheran church, for heaven's sake. But, you see, on that day, I really and truly heard. My mind and heart were opened by God's spirit.

I felt devestated to understand, and to see the reality of my own brokenness, and for the first time ever the depth and the neccesity of the cross of Christ. Why Jesus died, and why I desperately needed a Savior. It was like a knife to my heart, and I felt anguish and joy all at the sametime. God brought me to faith in spite of myself.

The liturgy of the church came alive for me, Elizabeth+, Words that were recited just from habit, that could have meant anything, came alive with new, joyful meaning.

And, overtime, the grace of God in Christ has changed me. Although, I certainly have far to go, I'm a more sensitive, compassionate, less likely to take offense at the drop of a hat kind of person, more patient with the short comings of others.

I don't know if you're familar with the ministry of Fr. Malcolm Smith, an Episcopal priest. But, his insights have also made a huge impact in my life.

This statement totally hits home for me, and has been a real encouragement when I feel as if I'm struggling in my spiritual life.

The Christian life is not living in our strength and resources, but from the infinite Christ who lives within all who believe. All human strength will come to an end sooner or later.. But, His strength knows no end.

We realize that He is not only our past tense Savior from sin, but also the one who now lives within us in the present tense, our life and breath. Christianity is not a formula, but the person of Jesus, Himself.

Never think that Christianity is a matter of adjusting behavior, but rather, of letting Christ live through us in His own strength and power...

((Elizabeth+)) I've definitely gone on here< I know. But, I've read and have been blessed by your site for so long, that I've wanted to share something of my own faith and spiritual journey with you, too.

God bless!

Grace (Becky)

Huw Richardson said...

Seems perfectly logical that exposure to the toxic interactions of Christians would damage someone's faith. That has happened to me several times in two denominations.

Although one needn't be a journalist - the online world will expose you to enough. The way we bicker, the way we fail to "love one another" and justify it by saying, in effect, "well they are not *really* Christian".

To be certain, the online world will show you that Christians are not alone in this problem.

It's enough to make one want to be an atheist.

Bill said...

To be a good reporter you have to be able to maintain your objectivity. It sounds like he was a little too close to his subject matter.

The problem of “burn-out” happens in many professions. You see it all the time in police officers. They get paranoid. They think it’s them against the rest of the world. Because they are forced to deal with the dregs of society, it begins to rub off on them. They become hardened to human suffering. They get cynical and believe that everybody not in a uniform is a criminal. Some fall into the same anti-social behaviors that they are there to protect against and others find solace in drugs and alcohol. Alcoholism is a well documented problem in the ranks of the police.

I don’t see why everybody is getting so upset with the state of things in the Anglican Church. There’s a right and a left. People are talking and discussing. There is change and even progress. Comparing that to where I came from, the Roman Church, things sound pretty good. In the Roman Church there was never discussion. We had directives and threats. In the Episcopal Church, if you were homosexual and were having a problem with your particular church, you could look around for a more progressive church. In the Roman Church, you had best just stay in the closet. If you did come out, they expected you to refrain from taking communion. You were really treated as a leper. They probably chose to forget that Christ had a soft spot for lepers.

Religious differences aren’t something new, and will never go away. Even before Christ entered the picture, the Pharisees and Sadducees were at each others throats over theological perspective. The Nicene Creed is the most widely accepted and used statements of the Christian Faith and it took the early Christians a couple of hundred years to reach a consensus and even then, it was a compromise.

What we have today in the Anglican Communion is politics and politics moves at its own pace. I know that some of us don’t particularly like how slow things are progressing, myself included, but at least there is discussion. It’s in the nature of our system of government that things move along at a very slow pace. This was intentional. These systems were put in place to prevent radical change. Another word for radical change is revolution. Our Church, the Episcopal Church, has the same form of government. Resistance to change is both a pro and a con, but it is changing. As I said, I would like to see things move a little more quickly but I am at least happy to see the discussions which are taking place. Someone once said that once a thing is being discussed, it is the beginning of the end for that particular problem.

Huw Richardson said...

Grace - "why allow someone else's sin and hypocrisy to keep us from a relationship with Christ?"

The way Christians treat each other calls into doubt the Truth of the the faith. Because we are supposed to be different and yet - largely - we're not. The world will look at his disciples and say "see how they love each other".

What they say, in reality, is "Wow, it's better than pro wrestling!"

Or else you can judge such people to be "not real Christians" but you can only use that excuse so many times before you're left with no one except maybe the late Mother Theresa.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...


I appreciate your post - and many of your posts - for its gentle tone and clarity of thought.

If your experience leads you to believe that "we are sinners born" and your further life experience only serves to reconfirm that for you, far be it from me to try and change your thinking.

I would only suggest to you than you consider changing your words.

Instead of "we are sinners born", why not say, "I believe I am a sinner from my birth."

That says what you believe and does not impose your belief on me.

I do appreciate your posting here and I want you to know that I was deeply moved by your story. It's beautiful and it's clearly the way God works in our lives.

I, too, have had moments when I have felt "a worm and no man". At that time, it was so easy to believe everything others had said about my wretchedness because of who I happen to love.

I have also had moments when God's grace lifted me from that pit and the glory I felt in my soul is still available to me today, even as I write this.

But, I came away from that experience differently than you did yours. I came away not saying I am a sinner saved by God's grace, but I am a child of God who lives in a sinful world who is saved by God's grace.

Either way, we are both saved by God's grace, and isn't that a wonderful thing in which to rejoice?

Thanks again for writing, my dear. God bless you and your spouse and your family this day and every day.

Mike in Texas said...

Grace, I think it's quite possible to have a relationship with Christ without also having one with a religion. That relationship does stays the same regardless of the name on the church one happens to be in or if one is simply marveling at God's creation in the garden while tending and nourishing it.

I tend to think that these gentlemen (who are just the very tip of the iceberg, BTW) have simply removed themselves from the toxic atmosphere so common wherever religionists gather these days.

Now I'm going to mention a name that usually seems to raise your hackles, but there's no way to avoid it. I suspect that these gentlemen are now part of a group Bishop Spong refers to as the Christians in Exile.

MarkBrunson said...

Again, saying someone "let" someone else turn them from Christ is an irresponsible spirituality. We are all responsible for one another. If someone turns from God in disgust because of the church, we all are responsible. We are what represents Christ, and we don't seem to representing Him very well.

Grace said...

Thank you, Mother Kaeton.

Just don't you become part of the church's "alumni association." Mike, we need you and love you.

Curious George said...

While it would be a mistake to conflate Jesus and his church, it's a mistake to treat them as entirely separate, too, seems to me. Otherwise, Communion doesn't really mean much of anything, now does it? And the people who seem to be most attracted to joining the church are clearly no less prone to bigotry than the general non-church-going populace, but more prone to self-righteously proclaim that bigotry in the open. By contrast, most of the least bigoted folks I've met are quite unlikely to go to church or to give a damn about it. I doubt anyone with his or head head not completely in the sand could fail to struggle with whatever faith remains in the face of the incredibly scandalous behavior of the most prominent spokespersons for Christianity. Why do we bother holding on to a religion that seems to have so little positive effect on its adherents?