Adam wears THAT figleaf

On how the professional virtues of journalism make it impossible to understand religion

This was written as a sermon for St Catharine’s College which had a Lenten series in 2018 on Religion and the Media. The readings were first, the story of Eve and the apple, and second, St Paul arguing that that snack had been the beginning of death

I had a look at the readings for the day and realised that they were perfect for talking about the intersection of faith and media because neither of them put forward stories that I could professionally accept as true. In fact, reflecting on them, I came to understand that the concept of truth that the media has to work with is fundamentally incompatible with religious truths, and that what makes facts sacred is the opposite of what makes things sacred, or ideas for that matter.

People say that the media is biased against religion and in important ways that’s absolutely true but what today’s readings make clear is that this bias is structural rather than ideological. Accept that some of us at least try very hard to establish what the truth is, and to communicate it as vividly and clearly as possible, and make the implications plain. So what exactly are we to do with these fragments?

One answer would be to give the whole thing the Mail Online treatment, though I can’t provide the pictures. You’ll just have to imagine what would go above these captions on the sidebar of shame:

Adam wears THAT figleaf and Eve goes makeup free as they leave the Garden of Eden after rumoured threesome with a SERPENT”

“No regrets, tweets Satan as social media feud erupts with God”

“Apostle Paul steps out in armour of righteousness WITHOUT Deaconess Phoebe”

But suppose you’re working somewhere that isn’t the Mail Online: Imagine that the Genesis story comes in as a piece of raw copy. And the first thing the newsdesk ask is “Who is the source for this?” “Are we meant to attribute these quotes to God? Have you got contemporary notes? Did you make a recording? Have you got a comment from the Devil?”

You can see where that’s going. These are all good questions. They are part of the who what where when why pentad that reporters were taught. And there are no answers that would satisfy the lawyers.

So you step back and apply the normal distancing treatment: the story is prefixed with “Christians believe that ...” – except of course we all know that they don’t. Someone pipes up that lots of Christians don’t believe it literally and never have. So the story becomes that “Christians tell the story that ...” and then the newsdesk asks why should we care, and you say, well, it’s the reason for something they did, and the desk says what is this? The LRB? Go find another intro.

The passage from Romans is even worse. In fact it is one of the very few passages in the New Testament which is directly weakened by enlightenment science rather than by the general assumption that miracles don’t happen. I owe this insight, by the way, to a Cambridge PhD in science, John Habgood, who went on to become Archbishop of York. The narrative in Romans presumes that there was a time before death, and before sin; also that there will come another time without either. This is simply incompatible with everything we know about the origin of life, and evolution. So for that matter is the idea of a literal Adam and Eve.

There is a way to make the passage in Romans potentially “true” – which is to say, to stop it from contradicting the known and obvious facts – but that is not one that any news organisation with a conscience can take. This hinges on the distinction between experience and the thing experienced, or between first-person and third-person reality.

The first person is what we experience; and the third person perspective describes what can be seen of our experience from the outside, which is almost, but not quite, nothing at all. Which is more real? The answer, of course, is whichever is more useful at the moment, unless, I suppose, you’re God.

But assertions about the resurrection, about eternal life, and even about miracles, can only be rescued by assuming that first person experience has primacy over third person perspectives – that it and not they are the ultimate reality, at least for humans

In that perspective, the talk about sin and death is not about the observable facts of sin and death, but about the experience of them, so that neither sin nor death are third person facts about the world, but first person experiences of realities in the world.

When language is used in this way it makes sense that must then have been someone who first sinned, which is to say, someone who first understood themselves as a sinner.

It is tempting to go even further and to say that there was someone who first died, of all the uncountable trillions of animals who died before them, in the sense that there must have been some creature who first understood the fact of death in the ways that we do: who could imagine, as we can’t help imagining, that they might not die. And once you admit the idea of an alternative to death it becomes almost irresistible. Being and death become opposites, and wholly incompatible.

If you take the first person perspective to its ultimate conclusion – you discover that life is almost by definition eternal: that although you will certainly die, you will never be dead. Only other people can be dead. That’s where the primacy of experience leads you.

Whatever those musings might be, they are not news, and they are nothing remotely printable. This isn’t just because they are tangled and of very limited interest. It is because journalism is premised on the idea that there is a third person reality that is more real than our ideas of it or our limited experience. That is the reality from which facts are supposed to be chipped, or quarried. Their facticity, their susceptibility to being tested, checked, and proved by third parties, is what makes them valuable – sacred, in the phrase of CP Scott.

If facts can’t be checked, they can’t be sacred. And when a media organisation puts the experience of the readers ahead of the checkable facts, and arranges its picture of the world entirely to gratify their prejudices, as in their different ways the Daily Express and the Canary both do, it stops being concerned with truth.

You might leap from here to the conclusion that the best and most truthful reporting is to be found in scientific papers. They are written so far as possible as if the author did not exist, and the conclusions had been reached by a disembodied and disinterested intelligence. But we all know this is a terrible mistake. Even when scientific reporting lives up to its own ideals of disinterest and accuracy, there are important things it can’t begin to tell us. We are not disinterested and disembodied beings and many of the problems which most urgently concern us arise from having interests and bodies, indeed from living inside them.

Even in newspapers, the ideal of factual sacredness is tempered and so it ought to be. The facts are seen and arranged from a recognisable perspective. There is something that it is like to be a bat, as Thomas Nagel said, and in a similar way there is something it is like to be a Daily Mail reader, or a Guardian one. The best papers balance like bicyclists between the pull of first person perspectives and those of third person ones. When I read George Orwell, I trust him to tell me the truth, but also to do so in George Orwell’s voice, which makes the unchanging facts sound entirely different.

To return to the readings of the day: the only way they can make sense, and the only way they can be incorporated into the reader’s life, is to assert the primacy of experience over everything else.

All this is to say that the professional virtues of a journalist are antithetical to the virtues and the habits of mind which you need to read and profit from scriptures. The problem is not that we’re wicked, dissolute, drunken, slipshod, biased, or smug. Very few of us exemplify all those vices all the time. The problem is that journalism works with an ideal of facts that are communicable: impersonal and so far as possible independent of context or tone of voice. Scripture works with stuff that literally cannot be communicated, but has to be experienced.

We have two quite incompatible definitions of the sacred here. The highest values of the profession of journalism actually work against what are considered the highest values of life outside. As a writer and professional journalist I sometimes regret that I can’t spend all my life inside the cage of work but this turns out to be impossible.

What is to be done?

My own practice is to avoid, wherever possible, writing about real goodness or whatever holiness might be because I don’t think they can be translated into newspaper language, and a fake version is worse than nothing at all. This is slightly more difficult than you might think. There are plenty of supposed saints who tackle journalists with both clay feet flying, studs first: Mother Theresa, when I met her, clasped my hand in both hers, gazed into my eyes, and said “Tell your readers that contraception murders love.”

But there are other instances of real, surprising goodness and sacrificial love which come without any coating of sentimentality at all. And as soon as you try to write about them there is a constant pressure to sprinkle on the fairy dust and to change the half-glimpsed and perspective dependent truths of experience into the sharp-edged concrete of facts. Consider – again – the story of Mother Theresa of Calcutta, who became world famous after a journalist named Malcolm Muggeridge, himself looking for salvation after a life of drunken infidelities, made a television programme about her work. One of the claims about this programme was that, when they came to film an interview with her, there wasn’t enough light for the cameras to work; yet, miraculously (and Muggeridge used the term without irony) the film, when developed, came out perfectly and she could be seen properly illuminated.

Fast forward thirty or forty years and another drunken shagger with a gift for bullshit turns his attention to the story: Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens pointed out all sorts of ghastly people to whom Mother Theresa sucked up for money; he claimed that she refused the dying pain relief beyond aspirin, and tracked down the account of the miraculous interview given by the cameraman on Muggeridge’s documentary. He hadn’t noticed it. He had been using an experimental film supplied by Kodak which was meant to work well in low light, and, as it turned out, actually did. So much for the attempt to translate one sort of sacredness into another.

As for the other charges brought by Hitchens, I just don’t know. I am prepared to believe them, just as I believe that Mother Theresa did comfort the dying she found on the streets, and did supply them with care that was better than anything they might otherwise have had. There’s no shame, and nothing puzzling, in the fact that she was not perfect, only a saint and. As the first reading reminds us, we live in a fallen world. A journalist has to worry at the story we’re given, and to ask whether the biblical fall really happened. But we should never lose sight of the most obvious thing about the landscape around us, which is that however we got here, turfed out of Eden is where we are, and where history has always taken place.