by Cathy G.

#FFWgr2018: Am I a writer or an advocate — or both?

Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

1 John 3:18 (New International Version)

That Bible verse came to my mind Saturday night at the Festival of Faith & Writing after listening to author Jen Hatmaker and environmental activist and author Bill McKibben. (Only at Calvin could you hear both of those people on the same day — one of the many reasons I adore my alma mater!)

During her talk, Hatmaker praised writers as “word-builders,” saying they are needed to counteract “this world of deconstructionists, tearing down common ground that we used to share” by “building communities and onroads to faith with words.”

She encouraged the audience to be advocates through their writing, especially in light of current political and social issues in the U.S.

“The world is so full of garbage words right now. We are part of the resistance to the garbage,” Hatmaker said. “Words matter. When hateful words turn into policy, that matters.”

Although writers tend to be a solitary bunch, she said they need to overcome that, for other people’s sake.

“We’re not just a bunch of weirdos in our writing caves,” Hatmaker said. “We don’t get to opt out. It is our responsibility to speak out for our maligned neighbors.”

For her, that has meant being “an ally” of LGBTQ people and people of color, taking some theological and political stances that caused “tension with white Christian America.” When it comes to her writing, “I’m not speaking on [other people’s] behalf. I’m just their friend.”

As I listened to Hatmaker (and laughed a lot — she is incredibly funny), I wondered whether I needed to be an advocate in my writing as well — something I have usually shied away from. Since my background is in news journalism, I’ve sought to be as neutral as possible unless I’m writing an opinion piece. Washington Post religion reporter Sarah Pulliam Bailey said during a panel discussion Saturday on civil discourse that journalists “don’t have to give answers.” Instead, she just listens and asks questions — and that suffices.

I do think Hatmaker is right about the power of words to shape reality and the necessity of using them for constructive purposes. (The Book of Proverbs agrees, and folk musicians such as Festival performer Carrie Newcomer represent another great tradition of words that can bring about change.) But, as the writer of 1 John notes, words on their own may not always be sufficient. In his talk, McKibben said that when he saw the very human consequences of Western pollution in Bangladesh, “it felt obscene to just write about it.” And since the books he had written about climate change and other environmental threats didn’t seem to be convincing people, he turned to nonviolent movements and organizing, although he continues to write.

Ultimately, I think the trick for a writer is to find balance — know when to be an advocate, when to let other people speak, when to speak up yourself and when to act. Together, words and actions are a powerful combination — and when they’re used in truth, the world can’t help but benefit.

 

#FFWgr2018: In Trump era, is “evangelical” worth saving?

Good question.

When I was stuck in Grand Rapids on Sunday after the Festival of Faith & Writing due to snow and ice, I met up with a friend and joked to him that this year’s event could’ve been called the “Festival of Faith & Writing & Trump,” based on how often the president – and his relationship with religious groups – was mentioned.

In one session, Emma Green of The Atlantic said she’s come across stories “16,000 times” asking how 81% of white evangelical Christian voters – the number reported by exit polls after the 2016 election — could support Donald Trump, given his apparent contradiction with their personal and political beliefs. “I think we need to move past that story line,” she said.

However, based on other sessions I attended, she seemed to be the only one feeling that way. Evangelicals of various races and sexes wanted to discuss how the election affected them, whether their community was being unfairly characterized and where they might go from here.

“The worst part was when the number 81% was published,” Korean-American writer Kathy Khang said at the “Still Evangelical in the Age of #MeToo?” forum. “I couldn’t be around my white evangelical friends,” including white women who were outraged by Trump’s bragging about sexual assault but stayed silent on his previous racist comments. People of color “kept raising the alarm over and over,” but she said it made no difference.

Sandra Maria Van Opstal, a pastor and daughter of Latin American immigrants, agreed. “I’m not going to pat you [white women] on the back – you’re late,” she said. She felt a “deeper and deeper sense of betrayal” on Election Night. Now, “this nightmare is really true. This year, not only is it that bad, but it is so much worse. Trump supporters continue to back him,” and she fears for the immigrant women her church serves.

The one woman on the panel who did not identify as evangelical, African-American author Deidra Riggs, said she wanted the 81% to explain their reasoning. “Why won’t you tell us how you got there?” she asked. “As long as you stay silent, it says we don’t really matter.”

Looking ahead, Van Opstal and Karen Swallow Prior, a white woman who teaches at Liberty University and has written multiple books, said evangelicalism needs drastic change.

“I think it’s going to take death and resurrection,” Van Opstal said. “I am not interested in trying to resuscitate a corpse. I’m just hoping someone will listen to the fact that we are dead.”

Prior hearkened back to evangelicalism’s better days, noting its tradition of social activism. “Right now, evangelicalism is broken,” she said. “We need you [people of color] to bring those things back to us. We need you to evangelize us.”

The history of evangelicalism – and the very meaning of the word itself – also figured into a discussion between editor John Wilson, historian Heath Carter and writer Macy Halford, all white evangelicals.

“I am appalled every day that we have the president we have,” and that evangelicals contributed to that fact, Wilson said.

Although some in the audience questioned whether the 81% figure was accurate or whether it mostly included less-educated rural voters, Carter said that Trump found a great deal of support in suburban churches and that white evangelicals tend to vote as a political bloc. He said the word “evangelical” has a historic theological definition in David Bebbington’s quadrilateral but also has sociological and political connotations. And even though many black American Christians may have similar personal piety and theology to that of whites, they don’t often use the term “evangelical” to describe themselves.

Looking ahead, “evangelical elite folks [are] worried about the future of the movement,” he said. In fact, just after the Festival, a group of about 50 leaders (including Festival participant Katelyn Beaty) held a meeting at Wheaton College in Illinois to discuss that.

Still, Halford said that evangelicalism will still have an influence, due to its impact on American history and culture. “We’re all partly evangelical,” she said.

I suspect she’s right, even though I’ve been debating whether the word still has any meaning at all – and whether a word that encompasses such divergent viewpoints is even useful anymore. For the record, I grew up in an evangelical family and church, although I hesitate to use the word now to describe myself, since I hate having to explain it. As a white woman who was firmly anti-Trump (and still is), I was guilty of what Khang criticized, being more vocal about Trump’s misogyny than his racism. As a Christian, I know I have to do better, and I apologize to those who were hurt by that.

For a good primer on white evangelicals and Trump, Michael Gerson’s recent cover story for The Atlantic, which several Festival speakers mentioned, is a great place to start. I plan to read “Still Evangelical?” which features contributions from Prior and Van Opstal, and see what comes out of the meeting at Wheaton. Hopefully, this year’s Festival will lead to some much-needed conversations – and new story lines – for the next few years.

Postscript, April 18: Religion News Service’s Emily McFarlan Miller highlights another important part of the discussion: evangelicalism’s problem with sexual assault, harassment and abuse, which sadly makes it no different than the rest of American society:

The reason more than 80 percent of white evangelicals didn’t listen to the people of color alongside them in the pews on Trump, several panelists said, is the same reason some struggle to believe women who have come forward with their experiences of sexual misconduct and abuse: misplaced trust in powerful men and institutions. Congregations, they noted, applauded Pastors Bill Hybels and Andy Savage as they responded to allegations made against them before resigning.

Festival 2018 checks all my boxes

Jen Hatmaker and Kwame Alexander aren’t journalists, but I like them anyway.

I’ve stopped keeping track of how many times I’ve been to the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College (my undergraduate alma mater), but I’m expecting another great one this week.

I’m looking forward to several sessions pertaining to gender, especially a lunch forum called “Still Evangelical in the Age of #MeToo?” featuring several prominent Christian women (including fellow Calvin grad Katelyn Beaty, whose work I admire). The word “evangelical” has become even more loaded since November 2016, and since I’m a woman, an editor who cares about using words accurately and a Christian, I’m curious to see what the panel members think. I’m also intrigued by a session titled “Why Don’t Men Read Women Writers? Closing the Gender Gap in Christian Publishing” because I would like to write a book someday, and I want men — and women, and maybe even children — to read it. And, since I love journalism, I’m excited for sessions by Emma Green, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Tony Norman (another Calvin grad!), Jonathan Merritt and Sarah Pulliam Bailey. Green and Bailey will be discussing how women have become prominent in religion journalism, which I can’t wait to hear. The best session title by far, though, in my opinion, is “Focus off the Family,” featuring none other than Gina Dalfonzo (whose book “One by One” I reviewed back in October). She and others will discuss how to write about “the struggles and joys of lives that don’t have marriage and/or children as their focus,” another subject that’s one of my pet soapboxes.

Of course, there will be plenty of great speakers/writers outside of my own professional and personal interests — Kate Bowler, Fleming Rutledge, Kwame Alexander and Jen Hatmaker, just to name a few. But I think the biggest temptation I’ll face this year won’t be buying too many books, but feeling compelled to unnecessarily compare myself to others. One of the things I love about the Calvin community is its humility, which shines through in the college’s willingness to host so many people from so many religious backgrounds and learn from them. I will try to model that quality myself and not be jealous as I catch up with old friends and make new ones. If you’ll be there, let me know, and hopefully we can meet in person!

At church, is one still the loneliest number?

This post is for all my fellow unmarried Christians out there. You know who you are, and you know life can be difficult, both inside and outside the church. That’s why I’m glad the good people at the Englewood Review of Books gave me the chance to review Gina Dalfonzo’s new book, “One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church.” I enjoyed it and hope it reaches a wide audience.

For a lighter look at what it’s like to be single in the church, check out Jon Acuff‘s classic “Surviving Church as a Single” scorecard. Thankfully, I only scored a five. How about you?

(Addendum, Nov. 15: The satirical site The Babylon Bee has a hilarious but all too true take on this issue. I’d be thrilled if the “Marriage is the only thing that can make you a better Christian!” heresy was never preached again!)

Thoughts for my 5th “Jeop-iversary”

At the Northern Virginia History Bee and Bowl at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in February.

This Tuesday, March 21, marks five years since my first “Jeopardy!” episode aired.

At the time, I had only lived in the D.C. area for a couple of months, was still getting used to my new job and was excited for my family and friends to see how I did.

Today, I’ve got the same job, many more great friends (thanks in large part to my church) and still like living here, despite all the political and other upheaval.

I don’t usually bring up “Jeopardy!” when I meet someone for the first time. Often, they can figure it out by looking at my Facebook profile picture, which is still the one of me with Alex Trebek (although, as you can see above, I now have shorter hair and different glasses). But I’m still happy to talk about the experience.

One of the biggest upsides from being a contestant was getting to join a cool community of other smart, trivia-minded people — many of whom have been on “Jeopardy!” and other game shows, but some of whom haven’t. Whether I see them in person when we get together for bar trivia in D.C., Virginia or Maryland, or whether I only know them through several Facebook groups, I’m grateful to have people who can relate to this particular aspect of my life. Even when tragic things happen, such as the untimely death of six-time “Jeopardy!” champion Cindy Stowell last year, it’s comforting and inspiring to see the community rally to show support.

Another benefit for me was getting involved with the National History Bee & Bowl and the US Academic Bee & Bowl, started by 19-time “Jeopardy!” champion David Madden. I’ve been a reader and scorekeeper at two tournaments so far, and I love interacting with the middle and high school students who compete and seeing how much they know (and finding out what I should learn about). I hope some of them make it to “Jeopardy!” someday.

People often ask me if I want to be on another TV game show. My answer is no — although I would love to try NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” since I think its questions are pretty similar to the ones on “Jeopardy!” But otherwise, I’m content — thankful for the totally undeserved opportunity I believe God gave me five years ago and what I was able to do with the money and exposure it provided. I look forward to seeing what else comes of my three days of fame in the future.

(P.S.: I am attending the American Copy Editors Society’s annual convention this week in St. Petersburg, Fla. It’s my first time at ACES, and if you’ll be there, I’d love to meet you!)

Lent 2017: Forty days of Facebook — and Instagram, and email

Extra, extra!

Happy almost-March! I’ve been enjoying the summer-like weather the past few days in Arlington — hope it lasts.

Lent starts next week, and I wrote an article for Religion News Service about how more churches and other Christian organizations are using social media to help people mark the season. Let me know what you think. If you are observing Lent, I hope it is meaningful for you.

Go, Cubs, go! Here’s why

Another World Series has begun, and sadly, once again my Nationals and Orioles failed to make it, although they did get to the postseason. I take back all the nice things I said about the Toronto Blue Jays last year, although I do accept their fans’ apologies for one person’s particularly egregious behavior (and I appreciate Canadians’ nice thoughts about America leading up to our wild and crazy presidential election). I was also happy to see Nats fans getting more into the playoff games and telling our beleaguered transit system to get its act together if the District ever wants to entertain the thought of hosting a World Series.

But if I can’t have a Beltway Series, I’m at least glad that this year features the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians, the teams that beat the teams that beat my teams (a “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” sort of thing). The Cubs may be down one game so far, but I’m rooting for them to come back and win it all, for several reasons:

  1. I went to grad school in the Chicago area, spent a lot of time on the North Side and loved going to Wrigley Field and seeing it from the Purple and Red Lines as I rode the El back and forth between Chicago and Evanston.
  2. My friend Matt Paolelli and his brothers, lifelong Cubs fans, made the awesome video at the top of this post.
  3. I really, really don’t like Chief Wahoo or other offensive Native American-related names, songs, etc. etc. (It’s good to see Cleveland also using the letter “C” logo, but I wish they’d go even further.)
  4. Bill Murray.
  5. A Cubs win would be a greater boost for baseball fans as a whole, who’ve had kind of a depressing year, what with the retirements of Vin Scully and David Ortiz, and especially with the tragic death of José Fernández.

No matter who wins, the Cubs’ season will be one to remember. And come next month, I’ll get my baseball fix by watching “Pitch” until spring training rolls around.

#FFWgr16, Part 2: “Media work that’s missional”

The perfect glassware for journalists' favorite beverages.

Some more souvenirs from this year’s FFW.

As I mentioned in my last post, journalism was a major topic at this year’s Festival of Faith and Writing. In fact, for the first time in all the Festivals I’ve been to, there were so many journalism-related sessions that I couldn’t make it to all of them — and even the ones that weren’t explicitly about journalism still touched upon it. (I appreciated Sarah Pulliam Bailey of The Washington Post and my fellow Medill grad Kate Shellnutt of Christianity Today explaining in their session on how to pitch to online editors how the realities of the digital age shape how they respond to inquiries from writers.)

Religion journalism was a big topic, as it has been at previous Festivals, but the future of the industry as a whole was also discussed. As I reflected on my past journalism jobs and experience in journalism school, I took note of the following:

  • Jaweed Kaleem said coverage of Islam by the U.S. media vastly increased after 9/11. (He was in high school at the time, only 20 minutes from the Pentagon, and wrote for his school newspaper.) “We have to cover bad news, but also be accurate and balanced” and “proportional,” he said. He likes to report positive stories, such as interfaith dialogue and “positive solutions to the world’s problems.” Kaleem noted that “It’s not just Islam that has coverage problems,” and “there should be more people of all kinds in the media,” although they don’t necessarily need to share the faith of the people they report on. In fact, he noted that as a Muslim, he learned a lot about Catholicism by covering it. (I found that to be true for me as well, as a Christian who did stories on Islam and Buddhism in graduate school.) He also wanted journalists to pay attention to diversity among American Muslims regarding race and their level of observance.
  • Patton Dodd and Bob Smietana shared how Facebook and blogs have changed how people consume and create news and also emphasized the need for neutral mainstream coverage of religion (as opposed to publications affiliated with particular religious groups). Dodd called Facebook “our front page,” where audiences see stories selected by algorithms as well as curators. Smietana said Facebook is “a great sharing mechanism,” and he noted that the Internet and blogs make information on religious scandals much more available to journalists and the public now than in previous decades.
  • Maria Ebrahimji said she did not tell her newsroom colleagues about her Muslim faith until after 9/11, and that others also didn’t discuss their own beliefs until she started doing so. Since “religion intersects so many aspects of life,” she wants to “make faith part of the conversation” and believes “people want to talk about their faith.” I’ve found that to be true when I’ve interviewed people of various religious backgrounds. And although I’m younger than Ebrahimji, I usually felt relatively comfortable discussing my own faith with my colleagues and classmates, and many of them were not shy about mentioning theirs as well.
  • It’s no secret that the news business is in dire straits financially and has been for some time. (Who knows how the latest news will play out?) That affects what gets covered, and how. Dodd made a strong case that nonprofits such as ProPublica could be part of the solution by encouraging “media work that’s missional,” protecting not just “the integrity of journalism” but the role of journalists as “curators of the attentional commons, what people give their time and minds to.” He did note that there is sometimes “a challenging exercise to keep independence” with nonprofits, and that “great journalism should be the goal.” He cited sports journalism as one area that could benefit from a nonprofit approach that puts more distance between news outlets and the major college and professional leagues.

Looking ahead to FFW 2018, I hope there is even more fruitful discussion of journalism. No matter what happens in the industry in the next two years, there should be plenty to talk about.

#FFWgr16, Part 1: Anglicans, Muslims and social media

When you're Anglican, "reader" has multiple meanings.

When you’re Anglican, “reader” has multiple meanings.

When I was telling a friend who’s never been to the Festival of Faith and Writing about this year’s lineup, she replied, “What kind of conference is this?!”

After reflecting (and sleeping) for a few days, I have an answer: “Crowded, challenging, beautiful, funny, spiritual, sad, exhausting, diverse, overwhelming — and above all, awesome!”

There was so much good stuff this year, in fact, that I’ve decided to do a separate blog post later just on the discussion around journalism. Meanwhile, here are my other highlights:

  • Zadie Smith gave a brilliant plenary lecture on the nature of creativity and the difference between product and art. “It’s possible to both be skeptical and to possess knowledge,” she said, adding, “The art of writing remains one of the key ways of stating our human capacity” and “Books are not just well-designed products; they’re experiences.”
  • Nadia Bolz-Weber was just as hilarious and inspiring as I had hoped. Several lines from her lecture (sermon?) hit home with me and will influence how I write in the future: “I try to preach from my scars and not my wounds” and “The things we say in church are true, but rarely honest.” She also insisted she’s not really a writer, just “a talker with a laptop,” but I would beg to differ.
  • Social media has transformed the FFW, both in terms of the sessions offered and the way people discuss them. Since I couldn’t possibly make it to everything I wanted to go to, I appreciated reading other people’s tweets to see what I missed. Social media was also a predominant topic of several sessions and factored into other ones. I was fascinated by Jaweed Kaleem‘s examples of how he uses Facebook and Twitter in his work as a reporter to identify stories to cover (he cited #MuslimApologies — example: “Sorry for trigonometry, aerodynamics and astronomy!”) and to ensure he’s being fair. And, Sarah Bessey made us all laugh when she said, “Nobody needs to talk to me about Snapchat — I’m too old for that crap.”
  • Speaking of Islam, that was also a huge topic at this FFW, which I appreciated. I counted at least five Muslim speakers on the schedule, who discussed both their own faith and how it intersects with others. I was disheartened listening to Bob Smietana and Maria Ebrahimji describe their experiences covering hate crimes and other bigotry against Muslims in the U.S., but I was encouraged by how many people at Kaleem’s individual session sought to learn more about Islam and wanted to educate others about it, and by Dennis Covington‘s appeal for understanding as he recounted his time alongside Muslims — and secular European aid workers — in Syria helping those who’ve suffered horribly during the conflict in that country.
    While I was chatting with Doug Kindschi, who introduced Kaleem, I found out that Grand Rapids now has five mosques. I’m glad my old church is making an effort to reach out to that community, and I hope other Christians do the same.
  • I made a point of attending sessions by Tish Harrison Warren and the hilarious Preston Yancey because we all belong to the same denomination: the Anglican Church in North America. Considering the ACNA is only seven years old and still relatively small, it was remarkable to me to have that big a contingent. (I laughed a little when I got my FFW name tag saying “Reader,” since that’s a role I sometimes play at my church: reading Scripture out loud during the service.) I’m sorry I missed Laura Turner, who is not Anglican, but who wrote a great article about someone who is. I also have quite a few friends at my church who are Calvin grads, which isn’t surprising: I think the Reformed and Anglican traditions both appeal to intellectual-type Christians, of which I hope I am one.
  • There’s something special about hearing writers read their own work aloud. Covington’s Southern accent perfectly matched his accounts of snake handling, and Joshua Max Feldman cracked me up with his reading of the encounter between Jonah and a Hasidic Jew on the subway in “The Book of Jonah.” I’d also listen to Chigozie Obioma read just about anything in his beautiful Nigerian accent.
  • There’s also something special about print books as opposed to e-readers. No. 1, you can have authors sign them, as I did several times. And No. 2, you can see what other people are reading. I overheard a young woman tell Bessey that she likes to read “Jesus Feminist” on airplanes because it sparks discussions — which I think all good writing should do.

For more takes on the FFW, check out The Twelve, The Post CalvinSick Pilgrim and Aleteia.

It’s Festival time!

books

Some of my pre-Festival reading. I recommend both.

If it’s April in an even-numbered year, that means it’s time for the Festival of Faith and Writing at my undergraduate alma mater, Calvin College. I attended my first Festival as a freshman, way back in 2000. I loved it so much that I served on the event’s student committee my junior year, in 2002, and I’ve been to most of the Festivals ever since. I’m always excited for three days of seeing old friends and professors, hearing authors I love and discovering new favorites, and being re-inspired to write and read.

However, I know this year’s event will be a little sad for me because it’s the first one since Dale Brown, one of my favorite Calvin professors — and the co-creator and longtime director of the Festival — died in 2014. The event really wouldn’t be what it is today without him, and even amid my sadness, I’m happy to see his work continue. I’m especially excited for the launch of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing — one of those things that when I heard about it, I thought, “Why didn’t we have this already?” But, now we do — and I can’t wait to see what comes out of it.

This year, besides Joshua Max Feldman and Nadia Bolz-Weber (whose books are pictured above), I’m particularly looking forward to hearing the following folks:

Those last five are all journalists (past and/or present), which, if you know me, shouldn’t be a surprise. But, I expect all these speakers to be great, regardless of genre — and to come home with an even longer reading list.

If you’ll be at the Festival too, drop me a line! I’d love to meet up with you.