#FFWgr2018: By the numbers: Oprah, exorcisms and Dutch licorice

Children’s books are the best!

I had a really great time at this year’s Festival of Faith & Writing. It’s hard to believe the Festival will be turning 30 at the next one in 2020!

Keeping with the numbers theme, here’s a lighthearted final breakdown of my time in Grand Rapids:

  • 3: Number of references to Oprah made by speakers
  • 2: Number of references to exorcisms (Fleming Rutledge describing the sacrament of baptism as “a rite of exorcism” and Anbara Salam describing a cult leader who performed exorcisms on her and other women)
  • 2: Number of references to C.S. Lewis
  • 3: Number of references to Anne Lamott (who I heard at my very first Festival, way back in 2000)
  • 13: Number of books I bought
  • 1: Number of those that were for me
  • 4: Number of books I got autographed by authors
  • 2: Number of advance copies of books I got (Jonathan Merritt’s “Learning to Speak God from Scratch” and John Hendrix’s “The Faithful Spy” – about Dietrich Bonhoeffer!)
  • 2: Bags of Dutch licorice I bought and ate
  • 2: Number of times I rode the Grand Rapids bus
  • 3: Number of great Grand Rapids cafes/restaurants I went to (the Wealthy Street Bakery, Squibb and The Sparrows)
  • 2: Number of fellow copy editors I met
  • 2: Number of podcasts I’ve started listening to since the Festival (Jonathan Merritt’s “The Faith Angle” and Kate Bowler’s “Everything Happens”)

Here’s to two more years of reading!

#FFWgr2018: How to do good journalism amid layoffs and fake news

“No matter where you are in your career, have a servant’s heart,” said Barbara Bradley Hagerty (left).

I haven’t worked as a full-time journalist for over six years, but I still care about the field – and my friends who remain in it – a lot.

Amid the political and financial turmoil that news outlets, particularly local newspapers and TV stations, are suffering, it can be hard to see signs of hope for the industry.

In light of these realities, journalists who spoke at the Festival of Faith & Writing had some insights for both those who produce news content and those who consume it. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, a former longtime religion reporter for NPR and the author of two books, and Tony Norman, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, shared their thoughts in a joint session. (Full disclosure: Hagerty and I attend the same church, and Norman is also a Calvin graduate like me.)

“We have an administration that has demonized the press,” Norman said. “‘Fake news’ used to mean ‘stuff made up out of thin air,’” but is now used derogatorily toward respected news outlets.

Hagerty agreed. “I think this is a really scary time,” she said. “If our credibility is attacked long enough, it will be eroded. All you can do at this time is be bulletproof” regarding accuracy. “The standard is so much higher in this climate.”

Norman said he has remained in journalism because “I want to be part of the conversation, a more robust civic conversation.” That conversation has expanded with social media, as “you’re on so many more platforms now,” and people follow him on Twitter who don’t even read the print edition of his newspaper.

Although many people will also never be interviewed by a journalist, those who are care “that they are portrayed accurately,” Hagerty said. “I try to actually get in their shoes. Everyone has a cogent reason for believing what they believe.”

She also noted that audiences can turn to podcasts and online sources of news as local newspapers die off, and reporters can get bylines in other places.

Still, Norman said that to an extent, newspapers will always be a good way to convey information: “It’s going to be like vinyl records,” not completely going away even as new forms of media emerge.

At another joint session, Emma Green of The Atlantic and Sarah Pulliam Bailey of The Washington Post also noted the effect of President Donald Trump on journalists, particularly regarding religion coverage.

“The media has in some way woken up to the religion world again,” Green said, noting that New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet and others recognized there’s “a force at work here that we didn’t have our pulse on.” She’s seen “more good journalism in more places about religion” that wouldn’t have run such stories before.

Bailey said that after the 2016 election, it was “almost like confession” for a short while for journalists, until more significant attacks on the media began and journalists began “hunkering down.”

“It’s been really hard to break through Trump noise,” since he “drives the narrative,” she said. “You can only write so many Trump stories before you get bored.”

Bailey and Green, who are both white, noted the need for diversity — religious, racial and otherwise — in newsrooms. (Norman, who is African-American, made a similar case in his session, noting that recruiting more journalists of color would improve representation in news coverage.)

Many prominent national religion reporters are women, partly because “religion is seen as a soft beat,” although it’s not, Green said. But no matter one’s background, “every journalist needs to write about people who are not like them.”

Earlier, Hagerty and Norman said the fact that more people have subscribed to larger national newspapers in the past two years is encouraging.

“That’s how you strike a blow for freedom,” Norman said.

My biggest takeaway from both sessions was that American journalism as a whole isn’t dead. But, it will continue to change rapidly, and those who want to get the fewer and fewer jobs available in the field need to have the skills, right attitude and perseverance necessary to seek out opportunities wherever they can. To build on Green’s statement, reporters shouldn’t just cover people not like them, but their bosses should hire people not like them. The American public — and American democracy — will all benefit as a result of having stronger, more representative media that takes religion, among other subjects, seriously.

#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.

Postscript, April 22: Thyra VanKeeken, a pastor in Canada, has some good thoughts on the power of words at the Christian Reformed Church’s Do Justice blog. (The CRC is the denomination Calvin is affiliated with.)

#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. I realized 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.