Media misrepresentation


I was part of a Christian focus group, where clergy, scholars, and lay leaders gathered to watch and reflect on a documentary about Islam. I shuddered at the portrayal shown in the footage.

I have Muslim friends and work with Muslims students at GW. And if you were to ask me to describe Islam, I would probably focus on submission to God and regular prayer. I would also mention how much I have learned about caring for the environment from Imams in my area.

Yet, the film focused on some of the most radical aspects of Islamic fundamentalism. I shifted in my seat, frustrated by the gaping disconnect between what I saw and the Muslims with whom I work. For instance, there were clerics defending FGM in great length: a practice that most Muslims would adamantly oppose.

When the film ended and the discussion began, someone asked a constructive question: “Is there any way that the labeling could reflect where the cleric or scholar is coming from? I mean, when we watch the news and see that Jerry Falwell is representing the Christian perspective, everyone knows that Falwell is a fundamentalist and that’s not mainstream Christianity.”

I suddenly became even more uncomfortable as I thought: No they don’t.

The truth is, in a new generation, almost twenty percent of college students have never been to church, so they probably don’t understand the wide spectrum of Christianity.

In my denomination, we assume that everyone knows the difference between PCUSA, PCA and EPC, but many people I encounter don’t know the difference between Presbyterian and Pentecostal. And there is a good number of people who see a commentator with Rev. in front of his name and believe that one man stands for a monolithic Christianity.

I always assumed there was some sort of media conspiracy. You know, some plot to make all Christians come off as sexist and war-mongering as possible. We seem to always fight against poverty and want to destroy creation. And there’s no question about it, if you didn’t vote for W, then you’re going to hell.

But, recently, I spoke to a friend who works with the news, and he assured me that there is no media plot to portray Christianity as a group of whacky fundamentalists. He said, “Carol, those are just the people who are quick with sound bites and easily accessible.”

So, is any one else bothered by this? I know that Diana Butler Bass writes about it a lot. What can we do about it? Is there any way that we can begin training media-savvy progressives? Can someone start an on-line think tank for talking points? I’m not saying that we should start a Religious Left, but how about working for some balance in the way that Christians are covered by the media? Why haven’t mainliners been more active in pursuing media coverage?

The photo of Tinky Winky is by Amontillado 42. Unlike Christianity, Tinky Winky’s public image was greatly enhanced by Jerry Falwell.

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17 thoughts on “Media misrepresentation

  1. Carol,

    There is a new website, Progressive Revival, over at beliefnet that is trying to do just this (hosted by Paul Rashenbush). But we need to do as much as possible to make our voices heard. One of the characteristics of mainstream Christianity is to politely trust that deeds alone will alone will “speak” for our faith. As you rightly point out, we are well past the point where we need to speak up–and speak up without ceasing–explaining our theology, spirituality, and ethics in the public square.

    As an example, just yesterday, MSNBC had on two Christian “experts” to interpret Ephesians 5 (“wives submit to your husbands”) vis-a-vis Sarah Palin. Both were conservative Christians who interpreted the passage in ways not heard in a PCUSA or an Episcopal (my denomination) church for fifty years! Although one was for strict submission of all women to all men and the other for “submission to Christ,” neither one offered any sort of alternative to a literal reading of the text. The whole thing left the impression that these Christians offered the only two options of their faith–and that Christians are, by and large, theologically ignorant. It made me hopping mad. I had to turn off the TV.

    It isn’t that progressives aren’t pursuing the media, but that the supposedly-liberal media won’t pursue us–partly because they belong to a generation that believes the only kind of Christianity is the kind displayed yesterday AND partly because they don’t believe that progressive/mainstream Christianity constitutes any sort of audience worth attracting. Thus, we are caught in a media catch-22. I see no way out of this–except to respond as the Whos in “Horton Hears a Who,” to get every Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Congregationalist, moderate Baptist, RCAer, Disciple, and Methodist to start shouting “We are here! We are here!” at the top of our lungs.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post.

    I’m grateful for people like Jim Wallis and Shane Claiborne and Diana Butler Bass and even Brian McLaren — Christian voices who are offering different perspectives and are getting some traction. But I agree, we who serve in the small towns, suburbs, and urban centers of our country, who hear in Jesus’ message a call to take a progressive stance for the sake of the world, need to stand up and be counted and make ourselves more accessible to the media.

    I for one am glad join the chorus as a Who shouting up in New England, “We are here! We are here! We are here!”

  3. I think the challenge for moderate Christianity is not just that we’re reluctant to speak up. It’s that when we do speak, we have a tendency to speak in a way that is careful, thoughtful, and respectful of difference. Soundbites and zingers and glazed-eye ferocity don’t come easy for us…and so we’re ignored. We’re just not “interesting” enough for a society that is addicted to “oh-no-you-DIH-ent” reality tv conflict and adversarial, partisan media.

    I’m not quite sure how to fix that.

  4. There are also those of us who are Biblically centered moderates who are treated as if we are fundamentalists by Progressives. Ignorance and Prejudice works both ways.

  5. We must live in relationship with people in ways that exhibit the convictions we holds as progressive lovers of Jesus the Christ.
    I think culture today sensationalizes everything. There is no drama or bang in something that does not produce a strong reaction.
    I say we walk the road to deep and meaningful relationship that transform our communities one person at a time.

    BTW, I am Biblically centered. I wonder if fundamentalism is becoming the centrist agenda? Indeed ignorance and prejudice works in many ways the least of these is conviction of ownership of the truth.

  6. carol – this has been the center of my thoughts for weeks now…the inability of the media to provide a wide spectrum of thought…i have even been upset by the “soundbites” of the left as they are recaptured by the media – then interpreted – then re-interpreted – only for it to rest on the “left” rebuttal with a sometimes less than satifying critique…

    i agree with your statements about the “careful” language of the left…maybe it’s time we not be careful anymore…and you notice i am even careful with the word “maybe”…besides blogging, i have no idea how to approach the disconnect with the unheard voices…possibly bombarding some media source with our opinions? all five of us commenting here? i have to admit that i feel powerless within the very powerful realm of the media…i don’t have the money that could possibly demand their attention…

    but i am with you…and others here…and the millions of others who feel the way we do…

  7. i don’t know if you watched craig ferguson last night…but i thought he portrayed a lovely version of what is happening in the media… not from a fundy christian point of view but just in general…youtube it – i think you might enjoy his rhetoric…

  8. *“Carol, those are just the people who are quick with sound bites and easily accessible.”*

    I think that this gets to the heart of it all. I’m reminded of some comments I heard after the Saddleback forum. McCain was praised for “clear, concise answers” while Obama was criticized for “avoiding the question,” when much of the time, Obama was simply providing a more nuanced response.

    People WANT sound bites. And non-conservatives (I don’t think that’s the best term, but I don’t have a better one right now) tend to acknowledge nuance. Nuance and “sound bites” don’t go together well.

  9. Well…then you would be wrong. That would be impossible since the scriptures were not compiled, so he couldn’t have believed in inerrancy. And I don’t see the words “dispensational” or “premillennialism” in any of his teachings.

    The five fundamentals of the faith did not exist until 1910. Well after Jesus’ ascension.

    And we’re not talking about mainstream society. That should be something that we should always question and challenge. We’re talking about mainstream Christianity.

  10. Based on a cursory scan of other postings I can see you are propogating an extremely liberal strain of “Christianity.” Tell me how one can call themself a follower of Christ and pull the lever for a presidential candidate who supports infanticide and gay marriage. I find the two positions irreconcilable.

  11. Reazonable1~

    I find someone purporting to be a follower of Christ questioning another followers faith irreconcilable, but then I take the passages on unity literally. Was Jesus a liberal or fundamentalist? I think he was the former.

  12. There’s nothing irreconcilable about questioning one’s faith when their actions, teachings and or comments belie Biblical precepts. So when you say that Jesus was a liberal, does that mean you believe He would support killing babies and gay marriage?

  13. In Leviticus, when a person kills a pregnant women, he is punished for killing one person, not two.

    Jesus never said anything about abortion or same-sex marriage. But there are many things that Jesus is explicit about.

    I am a liberal Christian because I believe that our country’s war-mongering goes against the Prince of Peace.

    I am a liberal Christian because I do not believe that fighting for gun rights when we know that children can be killed is what Jesus would have us do.

    I am a liberal Christian because Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor.” Not, “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.”

    I am a liberal Christian because I believe that drilling for more and more oil, instead of working to curb our dependence, is destroying God’s creation, and therefore we are breaking one of the first commandments that God gave to us.

    I am a liberal Christian because I am horrified by our country’s use of torture. I worship a Savior who was tortured, and I dare say that he would not be pleased by the way that our country has acted in Abu Ghraib.

    We have some grave sins that our country needs to repent of. We have done horrible things while the religious right nods their heads in agreement and sends more money to maintain their seats of power. We need to turn around. We need to change.

  14. Not sure what the Scripture from Lev has do to do with my simple question but is not one of God’s commandments: Thou shalt not murder? Is abortion not murder? All your other issues are temporal and earthly issues related to the U.S. Republican Party. We’re talking about an issue that has eternal consequences, are we not?

  15. The Leviticus passage gives us a clue about when life begins. According to the OT laws, the termination of a pregnancy was not considered murder, even when it was due to a violent act against the mother.

    Torture and gun control and war and poverty and caring for God’s creation are not issues with eternal consequences? Are you serious? Doesn’t our Savior tell us to love one another? Love God and love your neighbor–all the laws boil down to that.

    I don’t really see that we have any common ground, and I don’t see this conversation going anywhere constructive.

    I’ve got to sign out. Because of the tone, and your questioning my faith, I’m going to have to turn off your comments while I go to bed.

  16. Reazonable1~

    I am sorry that I have wasted both of our time. I was feeling a little snarky. I would rather burn in hell than spend my time trying to convince you about something that I know is a waste of time. I will pray for us both. I believe that you are a sincere follower of Christ because my faith is liberal enough to include you.

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