Magazine Writing: Journalism Faces Faith

By Jeff Sharlet


Abbreviated

In an era of culture war, holy war, and technological revolution, religion, in the true, broad sense, permeates at least half the stories in the news. Iraq, Iran, Israel — we know those are religion stories. George W. Bush is a religion story. Stem cell research and gay marriage and school vouchers are religion stories, although not at all limited to the narrow pro and con set of beliefs with which they are typically framed. The question of race in America is infused with God. News stories about sex are more often than not also stories about faith; stories about violence implicitly revolve around ideas of godlessness.

In “Journalism Faces Faith,” we’ll use the insights of media criticism combined with a study of a variety of approaches to magazine writing to inform our own production of several short pieces and a long narrative essay. Our beat will be “faith,” the vague term used by reporters embarrassed of words like “religion,” “doctrine,” and “dogma”; with apologies to the New Testament, “evidence of things not seen”; all that which we sometimes dismiss as supernatural, irrational, extra-rational. We’ll investigate the ways in which journalism confronts belief and the ways in which it makes the peculiarities of beliefs presentable in the public sphere. “Belief” itself — another term we’ll interrogate — is not required for this course.

Assignments:

1. Throughout the course, students will contribute short, bylined commentaries about religion in the news to The Revealer, a daily review of religion and the press published by NYU’s Center for Religion & Media, read by several thousand working journalists and editors. Through writing these commentaries, we’ll develop an understanding of the storylines with which religion is narrated by a media uncomfortable with its terms. Students may contribute as many as they like; but all students will be responsible for at least four.

2. During the first half of the course, students will write and present two short (600-1,500) word narrative nonfiction accounts of religion, broadly defined, in their daily lives. These need not be highly polished; the emphasis is on seeing, understanding, and writing regularly. Possible subjects include: a description of a religious service; a short profile of a religious (or deliberately irreligious) person; a beautifully-narrated account of a religiously revealing conversation; an observed scene; a solidly contextualized personal reflection; etc. Students engaged in larger projects, or those who enter the course with a well-thought out idea for their final paper, may submit pieces of the work-in-progress. All students will be required to read their work aloud.

3. A longer narrative report (5-10,000 words) that incorporates questions and ideas about faith, belief, or religion as a central concern. Students will begin thinking about possible topics immediately, and write 2-400 word proposals to be presented to the class on October 24. Thereafter, students will be required to present to the class updates on their work every other week. Our last several meetings will include significant workshop time; students must come prepared to read excerpts from their work-in-progress.

A note on the readings: Attentive students will notice that there is very little on Buddhism and Hinduism and absolutely nothing on Jainism. This syllabus reveals a shameful neglect of Jehovah’s Witnesses; Santeria makes an appearance of just one paragraph, and Sikhism wins not a word. Christianity, particularly its popular American forms, looms large. Likewise certain magazines, Harper’s and New Yorker foremost among them. What is one to make of these gross biases? Simply this: The readings reflect realities about religion in the U.S., where most of us will live and write – it’s mostly Christian, majority protestant – and about publishing – only a few magazines publish longform narrative journalism. Our goal is to work toward a literature of fact, informed by an understanding of faith. That’s a wide-open ambition. The shape you give to it is entirely up to you and your gods.

September 12: The Bible Is In Our Bones Before We Crack Its Binding

Please come to our first meeting prepared with some background reading:The four gospels, the Book of Revelation, and Song of Songs (aka, Song of Solomon). Any translation is acceptable, but I strongly recommend that you purchase an excellent annotated edition, such as the New Oxford Annotated Bible. King James is superior for language, however, and also much cheaper.

Why the Bible (as opposed to, say, the Koran)? Because it’s the central text of most of American religion.

Students will be divided into two sections at this meeting; thereafter, you’ll be expected to follow an alternation schedule of writing: short narratives one week, media crit the next.

SCREENING: Holy Ghost People

September 19: Far Away, So Close: The Critical Distance 1. Revealer reading packet 2. James Baldwin, Go Tell It On the Mountain 4. Doniger, Wendy, The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth (Columbia U. Press, 1998) –pp. 1-26

Recommended: John Jeremiah Sullivan, “Upon This Rock,” GQ

September 26: Behind Fundamentalism

1. Roy Mottahedeh, The Mantle of the Prophet: Religion and Politics in Iran (Pantheon, 1985)

2. Lawrence Wright, “The Man Behind Bin Laden,” New Yorker, Sept. 16, 2002

Recommended: George Plimpton, ”Cassius Clay and Malcolm X,“ Harper’s

October 3: Beneath Fundamentalism

1. Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis II (Pantheon, 2005)

3. Wendy Ewald, “All Kinds of Veils: Women in Saudi Arabia,” DoubleTake, 1998

4. Andrea Elliott, “Nourishing a Far-Flung Culture: Halal Slaughterhouse in Newark Sustains Spiritual and Commercial Needs,” NYT, March 9, 2005

5. Yossi Klein Halevi, At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden (Morrow, 2001), Chapter 7

6. Mahmood Mamdani, Chapter 2, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror (Pantheon, 2004).

October 17:

1. Peter Manseau, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son (Free Press, 2005) – EXCERPT: three chapters 2. Manseau, “Souls on Ice,” “The Hazards of Holocaust Theology,”

FIELD TRIP: We’ll meet at 6:20 SHARP at the McNally Robinson Bookstore at Prince and Lafayette, where we’ll meet with Manseau for 50 minutes. We’ll stay for a reading and return to our class room for writing workshop time.

October 24: Hearing is Believing

1. Susan Friend Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics (Princeton, 2000)

2. Preacher Reader: Features on Aimee Semple McPherson, Oral Roberts, Creflo Dollar, Jesse Jackson, Ole Anthony, Brother Will, Ted Haggard, and others from Harper’s, New Yorker, Life, Christianity Today, Saturday Evening Review, Time.

October 31: Magical Realism

1. Tomas Eloy Martinez, Santa Evita (Vintage reprint, 1997)

2. Eduardo Galeano, Century of Wind (Norton, 1988), EXCERPTS

SCREENING: Hell House

Recommended: Hector Becerra, “Mother’s faith battered by death of Marine son / She’s still a believer but no longer talking to God,” Los Angeles Times

November 7: Sex and Fear and the Material World

1. JoAnn Wypijewski, “Sin, A Story of Life” (Paul Shanley and the Boston Catholic sex scandal). Excerpted in Legal Affairs

2. –, “Living in an Age of Fire” (The Lackawanna Six and Al Qaeda), Mother Jones, Mar/April 2003

3. –, “A Boy’s Life” (the Matthew Shepard murder), Harper’s, September, 1999

4. Susan Faludi, “Where Am I In the Kingdom?” in Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (Morrow, 1999)

5. Andrew Kopkind, “Culture Clash: America’s New Right,” in The Thirty Years War (Verso, 1995).

6. Ayelish McGarvey, “Dr. Hager’s Family Values,” The Nation, May 11, 2005

November 14: Old

1. Barbara Myerhoff, Number Our Days (Plume, 1994)

SCREENING: Trembling Before G-D

Recommended: “Dreams Incorporated: Living the Delayed Life With Amway,” The Baffler

November 21: New

1. Samuel G. Freedman, Upon This Rock (Harper Perennial, 1994)

Recommended: Matthew Power, ”The Lost Buddhas of Bamiyan, “ Harper’s, April, 2005

November 28: Lands of Enchantment

1. Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (Ticknor & Fields, 1993)

2. Jack Hitt, “A Gospel According to the Earth,” Harper’s, July, 2003

3. John Vaillant, “The Golden Bough,” New Yorker, Nov. 4, 2002

4. –, “A Threshold Between Worlds,” in The Golden Spruce (Norton, 2005)

Recommended: Hampton Sides, “This Is Not the Place,” DoubleTake, 1999

December 5: Hard Times

1. Daniel Bergner, God of the Rodeo

2. Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer, excerpts