One of my guilty pleasures used to be indulging in End-of-the-Year wrap-ups on network news. I’m not exactly sure why and it’s been decades since I’ve enjoyed what has become a sterile exercise in hindsight spin doctoring. There are still specialized areas, though, where the judgments of the cognoscenti are still interesting to me. One of them is religion. What do religion journalists consider the big stories of the past year? A comparison of the “Top Ten Stories” in 2005, 2006 and 2007 according to Christianity Today presents a picture that is, dare I say it, Enlightening. (NB: The Top Ten are the “events, people, and debates of the past year that Christianity Today’s editors believe have shaped, or will significantly shape, evangelical life, thought, or mission.”).
Let’s go back to the Dark Ages (2005).
- The top story was Katrina: Storm prompts local churches, denominations, and ministries to deliver unprecedented aid response. Translation: Religion is a Force for Good in the secular world.
- The number two story was also how churches were a Force for Good: “Christians quickly mobilize financial assistance after massive tsunami devastates parts of Southeast Asia in late 2004.”
- Number three? The new Pope looks like the old Pope.
- Number four? The Schiavo case draws attention to end-of-life decisions.
- Five: Debate over Supreme Court slots. More on the religious Right’s power in the secular world.
- Six: Rock stars and Christian activists lobby for G-8 debt relief, another Force for Good story.
- Seven: The power of “values voters” in the 2004 elections and the interest of the media in religion.
- Eight: Billy Graham hangs up his spurs.
- Nine: Uncertain opinions on stem cells amongst the faithful.
- And bringing up the rear at number ten: Narnia hits theaters and tries to cash in on “Passion” box-office.
Except for the Schiavo case, whose poisoned legacy for the evangelical movement was not yet clear, and the confusion over stem cells, these are positive stories, emphasizing the power of religion in the secular sphere.
But Pride Goeth Before the Fall. 2006 presents a far different picture.
- Story Number One, Ted Haggard (remember him?): “Shocking admissions of immorality from New Life Church pastor shake evangelical world. Debate ensues over direction of nae and the temptations of high-profile ministry.”
- This is followed by a story that most definitely doesn’t highlight religion as a Force for Good in the world: the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. “Christian voices from Lebanon plead for prayers and protest.”
- Number three is about the secular power of religion but of a highly divisive nature — the successful defense of “traditional marriage” in the courts.
- Four: the new Pope provokes riots in the Muslim world (the “Regensburg speech”).
- Five: the religious Right gets creamed in the 2006 election, even among the faithful. “Democrats ride gains among frequent churchgoers and Catholics to take control of House and Senate.”
- Six: The Iraq debacle decimates the Iraqi Christian community.
- Number seven: Southern Baptists crack down on charismatic practices (no more speaking in tongues. Who cares?).
- Eight, disarray on immigration amongst the faithful: “Advocates swap proof texts on welcoming the stranger and obeying civil authorities as Congress debates illegal immigration.” I resist the impulse to laugh.
- Nine, whistling past the graveyard: Some evangelicals launch a “climate initiative” in the hope of recapturing a shrinking public sympathy for religionin the public sphere.
- Ten, no more Narnia or Passion: “Christians Flock to See The Da Vinci Code. Engagement trumps boycott as phenomenon peaks with boffo box office.” Heh, heh.
What a difference a year makes. And this year?
- Number One: Taliban abduct Korean Missionaries, killing two. The Infidels take The Infidels hostage, forcing The Infidels out of the Land of the Infidels. Warring Religions as a Force for Evil.
- Coming in at Number Two!”Atheism tops the bestseller charts”
- Three: Dems speak glibly about their religious views, Republicans sound like cranks appealing to the fringe (my translation).
- Number four: Billy Graham’s wife “promoted to glory.” Are you kidding? This is number four? Who even remembers who Ruth Graham is?
- Number five (this coms after Ruth Graham?): The Anglican Church starts to crumble — “Global South leaders issued an ultimatum for the U.S. Episcopal Church to return to orthodox interpretation of Scripture, four U.S. dioceses took steps to exit the church, and the basis for a conservative new Anglican province in the U.S.was laid.”
- Six: Three Christians tortured and killed in Eastern Turkey. Not exactly a “feel good” story.
- Seven: Godfathers of the Religious Right croak (Fallwell, D. James Kennedy). I’m not in mourning.
- Eight: The President of the Episcopal Theological Seminary becomes a Catholic. My question: How can you tell?
- Nine: The religious Right can’t depose the vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals because he is concerned about Global Warming. Why couldn’t he be a normal pervert like the rest of them?
- Ten, probably the most significant for everyone else: Supreme Court upholds first limits on abortion since Roe v. Wade.
What is striking to me about this most recent summing up is how insular it is. Except for Number Ten, it is about internecine struggle, doctrinal dispute and the fear of The Other (that includes us at Number Two). If these are truly the “events, people, and debates of the past year that Christianity Today’s editors believe have shaped, or will significantly shape, evangelical life, thought, or mission” in 2008, it promises to be a Year of Enlightenment for The Rest of Us.
Happy New Year!