Comments on Context

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the editorial opinion of The Christian Post or its editors.

"December wars": Do we need, and would you want, one more op-ed about them? Already fifty years ago, when I began to moonlight in journalism, we were worrying about the secularization and commercialization of Christmas. Now the debate revolves around its politicization. Listen carefully: It is less about religion than about politics, about who "belongs" and who sets the terms in America. Enough.

In my remaining space, let me instead take up a non-newsworthy topic. It has been on my mind ever since two members of the Religion Newswriters Association, picking up on a recent Sightings comment, told me of some conversations going on in the RNA, and asked me for more specific elaboration.

In that earlier Sightings column, I spoke of an RNA reporter and columnist who could be "cucumber cool" about her reporting and warm and view-pointed in her columns ("Bishops and Budgets," November 7). The question: Does she not thus do a disservice to the profession, most of whose members take care to be, and be seen as, if not "objective," then at least trustworthily "fair-minded" in their reporting? Might writing as a religiously "outed" Mormon, evangelical, Catholic, Lutheran, etc. sabotage the trust?

Let me weigh in by saying: not necessarily. In my dual profession we worry about analogues to this problem. I can give a public lecture to town-and-gown communities, and teach a class (or write a book) in which my "faith commitment" does not show -- and then stride into chapel and preach my version of a "faith-based" Christian sermon. How to pull that off, or try to?

For years I have cited British philosopher Michael Oakeshott on how, in different professions and specialties, we use different "modes" or speak in different "voices," yet see that they can come from a personal center that, one hopes, has integrity. The philosophy is complicated and my space here short, so let me use a homely illustration from the religious world. Consider the words "dearly beloved" in four modes or voices, all spoken by a person of integrity.

A preacher may refer to his or her "dearly beloved old King James Bible," and that's that. The same preacher turns to the "children's sermon," and may begin with, "Dearly beloved!" Very often the preacher will open a homily or sermon to a congregation, "Dearly beloved ...." And at day's end the same person can whisper "dearly beloved" to his or her spouse in an intimate moment. That preacher had better be clear that these four contexts, intentions, and audiences are extremely different from each other. The kids, the congregation, and the spouse also had better understand what is being said to them and why.

Theoretically, these differences might imply some contradictions, and yet people with passion and finesse negotiate the modes and voices. So, it is, I argue, with a person who, as a scholar, brings a set of covenants to a classroom, and brings that same set outside it, as an activist -- or with a reporter on the news pages and the same person when writing opinion pieces. I know why RNA members are sensitive. They complain that they are often asked by potential interviewees to declare whether they are believers, born again, etc., and they rightly resent it.

Enough avoidance of the over-treated December wars topic. Let's move on from the battle scene with a hearty "Merry Christmas," or whatever.

[Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 12, 2005.]

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at