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WSJ Resists Entropy, Finds Faith

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HANNAH: Is there anything in it?
VALENTINE: In what? We are all doomed? (Casually.) Oh yes, sure—it’s called the second law of thermodynamics.
HANNAH: Was it known about?
VALENTINE: By poets and lunatics from time immemorial.


Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard (1993)

Almost three years have passed since I took pen to paper in aid of the work of GetReligion and TMP. I welcome the opportunity to return to the team of writers led by TMatt who cover the coverage of religion reporting in the secular press.

Much has changed in my life these past few years. I have left the Church of England Newspaper after 18 years and have been engaged in the parish ministry in rural Florida as rector of Shepherd of the Hills Episcopal Church in Lecanto. I’ve gone up in the church world and now can claim the right to wear purple buttons on my cassock following my election as dean of Northwest Central Florida, and I remain active with two online ventures, Anglican.Ink and Anglican Unscripted.

The media world has not stood still either. The decline in professional standards -- clarity of language, honesty in reporting, balance and integrity in sourcing -- continues. We in the media are all doomed.
 
Rudolf Clausius’ 1865 maxim: "The energy of the universe is constant; the entropy of the universe tends to a maximum" -- from which he formulated the second law of thermodynamics  -- is true for journalism as well as physics. A race to the bottom is underway. 

We are now at a point where the Sun, a British redtop or tabloid, is a better source for religion reporting than the Independent (one of Britain’s national papers). Compare these reports on a Catholic abuse scandal in Italy published earlier this month.

The Sun’s story is entitled: “ROMPING IN THE PEWS: Randy Italian priest ‘with 30 lovers’ faces the sack for ‘organising wild S&M orgies on church property’.” The Independent’s piece has the less colorful headline: “Italian priest faces defrocking for ‘organising orgies on church property’.”

Naughty vicar stories are a staple of the British press. Though the influence of religion may have receded in the lives of many Europeans, they still enjoy a good story about sex, hypocrisy and the clergy. Both articles give details of the misconduct of Fr. Contin. (With that name like that, I was surprised not to see allusions to "incontinence." That might say more about me, but I digress.)

Both report the police raided Fr. Contin’s home, and noted the Bishop of Padua was awaiting the results of their criminal investigation, saying he will act once the law has run its course.

Yet only the Sun tells us why the law is at issue. Why are the police involved? Are the police called out in Padua every time there is an orgy, or just clerical orgies? I must say the Italians do things with style. When we Episcopal priests gather for a wild time, it means wearing Bermuda shorts on the golf course.

The Independent story works on a premise that sexual misconduct by clergy (not involving children) is subject to criminal investigation. While the Catholic Church does have its own “church police,” e.g., the Swiss Guard, they were not called out to investigate. It is left to the Sun to state the police became involved after allegations of “pimping” (criminal pandering and procurement) were leveled against the vicar.

All of which led me to think of Tom Stoppard’s play, Arcadia. Set in a country house in Derbyshire, it moves between 1809 and the present day, juxtaposing the lives of modern to past residents.

In 1809, Thomasina Coverly, the daughter of the house, is presented as a precocious teenager with ideas about mathematics, nature and physics well ahead of her time. Her character is based upon the historical figure Lady Caroline Lamb (who coined the phrase ‘bad, mad and dangerous to know’ about Lord Byron). Thomasina studies with her tutor Septimus Hodge, a friend of Lord Byron, who is an unseen guest in the house.

In the present, writer Hannah Jarvis and literature professor Bernard Nightingale converge on the house: she to investigate a hermit who once lived on the grounds, and he to research a mysterious chapter in the life of Byron. As their studies unfold with the help of Valentine Coverly, a post-graduate student in mathematical biology, the truth about what happened in Thomasina's time is revealed -- with Thomasina formulating the laws of entropy -- the second law of thermodynamics.

Stoppard’s play argues that in some sense, we have always known about these physical laws of inevitable decay and decline. Writing (in real life) in exile in Switzerland in 1816, Lord Byron speaks to their implications in his poem, Darkness. It begins:

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air

The later Victorian poets, such as Tennyson’s In Memoriam or Arnold’s Dover Beach, dwelt upon this sense of loss. Tennyson’s poem, his response to the death of Arthur Henry Hallam and the loss that entailed for him, grew in its hundred pages to a reflection on the anxieties wrought by the changing social, economic, political, familial and social relationships of the day. By Arnold’s time this change focused on the death of the numinous. All was decay, all was misery, all was loss.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Depressed are you? For those who care about writing and reporting, is it too late? When tabloids are the model of proper reporting, are we doomed? The “fake news”, crudity, silliness, and ignorance that have overwhelmed the quality press may seem to be unstoppable forces of nature.

Yet, there are signs that all is not lost. There are some reporters whose work gives voice to what Dylan Thomas wrote:

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

One of the best pieces of writing I have seen in the newspapers lately was in holiday weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal. It featured an article on the front page of its "Review" section looking at "a burgeoning movement among traditional Christians" to create "their own small communities."

The article by Ian Lovett entitled “Wary of Modern Society, Some Christians Choose a Life Apart” examines the community that has arisen round the Benedictines at Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma.

There is much to recommend in this article. The author’s use of language is clean, precise yet also lyric. There is an intelligence behind the words that speaks to a wide reading. Simply put, the author knows what he is talking about. It begins:

"When the first few monks arrived in Hulbert, Okla., in 1999, there wasn't much around but tough soil, a creek and an old cabin where they slept as they began to build a Benedictine monastery in the Ozark foothills. Dozens of families from California, Texas and Kansas have since followed, drawn by the abbey's traditional Latin Mass -- conducted as it was more than 1,000 years ago -- and by the desire to live in one of the few communities in the U.S. composed almost exclusively of traditional Catholics."

N.b: The website Rorate Caeli stated Cardinal Raymond Burke recently visited Clear Creek Abbey, a bastion of traditional Roman Catholicism.

The article offers the views of some of those who have moved from across the United States to rural Oklahoma to live near the abbey as part of its wider community. The vignettes offered are balanced, thoughtful. They treat the subjects not as freaks or loonies who have left the city life for the hills, nor does it adopt the National Geographic approach of reporting on the curious views of the quaint natives. The subjects of the interviews come across as modern Americans, seeking through their faith to address the same issues raised by Tennyson and Arnold -- but through the lens of traditional Catholic witness and practice.

A friend of this website, Rod Dreher, receives mention as does his thinking on the “Benedict option” for Christians seeking to live in a hostile world. The article stated:

“We’re living in a post-Christian world,” Mr. Dreher said. “There needs to be some conscious separation from the mainstream to be able to hold on to the Christian faith.”

His words are juxtaposed against those who decry the call to withdrawal.

Many Christians, however, resist the idea of such stark separation, seeing it as an abandonment of their religious mission. “We have a mandate to spread the gospel,” said Adam Janke, vice president of St. Paul Street Evangelization, a Catholic group based in Indiana. “If we isolate ourselves to the extent that we’re no longer fulfilling that missionary mandate, that’s a problem.”

“We wanted our children to grow up in a community of people that really value family, and value the Catholic faith and tradition,” said Mr. Pudewa. “That’s getting harder and harder to find.”

Life here, Mr. Pudewa said, isn’t “about running away from something. It’s about running to something.” To “inculcate wisdom and virtue in children,” he added, “you surround them with goodness and beauty.”

The author does not choose sides, we do not hear his voice. This silence allows the subjects to speak for themselves. The good and bad of life outside the world and outside the cloister are discussed, while the philosophical underpinnings of the advocates is presented fairly and cleanly. The residents may believe American culture has been corrupted, but they do not think of themselves as doomed.

Those who have opted for small Christian communities say that the point is not to retreat into the wilderness but to provide a place to build a stronger faith for themselves and their families. ...

The families in Clear Creek see themselves as fundamentally different from breakaway religious groups like the Amish. There is no ban on technology or suspicion of outsiders….

This article is a model of good reporting. It “gets religion.” It "gets" its subject and explains it fairly and cleanly to those who come to the story without knowledge. If there were more writers working today like Ian Lovett, then I can say without hesitation, “we are all not doomed.”

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