The Revealer, writes Bob, focuses on “critiquing the big religion stories, but also miss the small ones.” As evidence of just such a small one — “religion stories that fly beneath the radar” — Bob offers up this obituary from The Chicago Tribune. It’s long been a cliche that the best stories in any paper are to be found on the obituary page, but it’s only rarely true. This is one of those instances.
“Through nearly constant prayer–furrowed-brow, white- knuckled, tight-chested prayer,” writes Rex W. Huppke, Jean Flynn‘s Catholic school students tried to help their teacher beat cancer. “…[T]hey held on to Ms. Flynn. Little fingers clutched wooden rosary beads; the initials “JF” were scrawled in black marker on arms; a football game was played, and won, in her honor.
“For a year this went on, the collective, concentrated faith of 46 8th graders taking on the unrelenting disease that was gradually slowing down the tough math and social studies teacher they loved. But, eventually, the cold, clinical reality of life prevailed.
“Ms. Flynn, 58, died in her parents’ home in Lake Forest late on Jan. 20.”
Sentimental? Sure. Revealing? Absolutely. Huppke’s brief tale of a lesson in prayer tells us nothing about the big picture concerning the Catholic church, or parochial education, or, for that matter, the theology behind such prayer. Rather, it’s simply a lovely portrait of a group of kids learning about death, responding with their faith, and finding that faith transformed.
Huppke leaves questions unanswered, such as whether any children lost their faith through the experience. But as an example of the kind of small-scale religion writing The Revealer would like to see more of, this can hardly be beat.
Meanwhile, as an example of the big-scale religion writing The Revealer sees too much of, one need only turn to this past Sunday’s New York Times, and the lead arts feature by Franklin Foer, the associate editor of The New Republic who led the charge against Howard Deanwith a December cover story on the candidate’s “religion problem.”
Under guise of objectivity, Foer seems to be stumping for neocon platitudes about religion, the kind of small thinking that neatly packages the morass of American religion into “red states” and “blue states.” “This is,” wrote Foer in December, “for better or worse, an openly religious country that prefers its politicians to be openly religious, too.”
Say it’s so, make it so. Not long before that feature, The Revealer attended a conference at which Foer made his agenda clear, repeatedly raising the question of how the evangelical vote could be used to “stop Dean.” One answer: Convince non-evangelicals that there’s such a clearly-defined thing as an “evangelical vote,” and that it intends to — Stop Dean, of course.
Which brings us around to Foer’s seemingly straightforward account of the 1979 Jesus film, in which he takes the claims of missionaries about miraculous conversions at face value and reports on the movie as if it were an apolitical tool of the gospel. Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade and the man who put the movie to greatest use in spreading the Word and fighting political radicalism, must be smiling in his grave.
So how could Foer have done a better job? Perhaps by following Rex Huppke’s example. That is, by telling just a few small stories of the Jesus film in action — winning souls, offending souls, boring souls, flickering in church basements and living rooms and, on the sly, perhaps even in mosques and synagogues — small snapshots of the big picture, fragments that don’t make a monolith out of religion but instead reveal the most-viewed movie in history (several billion “exposures,’ its advocates claim) in all its particularist glory.