December 17, 2014

Allah Guides to His Light Whomever He Wishes

In Guernica’s special issue on religion in America, NDSP grantee Peter Manseau examines “the evolving place of Islam in America” through the story of Kenny Irwin, Jr. and his annual “Robolights” display.

As one might expect from a man who owns more than 8 million plastic bulbs attached to miles of rubber cording, Kenny has a lot to say about light. He can speak with authority about the amps involved in putting on his display, and he knows that since he switched from incandescents to LEDs a few years ago, he can safely run forty strings of lights together from a single source, instead of only four or five. Yet one word he often uses to discuss light will not be found in any electrician’s handbook: nur.

“I call it a celebration of nur,” he says of Robolights. “A celebration of the fact that God not only created the universe, he shone light into it.”

Read the full story here.

June 5, 2013

When Jesus Saves

The Sunday after tornadoes ravaged Texas, killing six, The Dallas Morning News front page, five-column, lead headline read “Faith seeing them through.” Newspapers don’t traditionally banner such affirmations of religion; seeing this newspaper do so caused a tumble of contradictory feelings in me. I winced at the parochial look of it. And then I sighed. Faith probably did get the little town of Granbury, Texas, through the disaster. What was my problem?

I had been part of The Dallas Morning News team in the 1990s that pioneered new openness to religion among journalists. One of our goals was to eliminate the various ways that journalists covertly sneered at certain manifestations of faith. 

Readers sometimes mistook our even-handedness for advocacy. I was often accused of holding and furthering beliefs that were not mine at all. So now I was a reader instead of a reporter. I read on, and I didn’t have to read far before I found the prayer story I’d been expecting.

A family hidden in a closet, called out to God, “Jesus, save us. Jesus, save us.” Minutes later they opened the door “to a world of splintered wood, jagged metal and naked, broken tress. Everything was gone except for the closet they were standing in,” the story read.

Their pastor, who was relating the story, then finished it: “Somebody standing in a closet calls out to God to save them, and everything is destroyed except their closet,” the pastor said. “That’s no coincidence.”

I smiled to think of how happy the reporter must have been to get such a quote. I imagined that he had kept his head down writing the quote, as I would have. I wondered if he’d looked up then and nodded encouragement. I wondered if he’d been thinking at the same time about the six people dead and the scores more maimed and injured. I wondered whether or not he wanted to ask, “Did they die because they didn’t call out to Jesus?”

I hoped the reporter had thought of that. I was sure he hadn’t asked. And I am sure that he shouldn’t have asked.

He’d played it straight. Just as he should have.

And I had come full circle. I was now a reader, bridling just a bit, wondering if the reporter was really reporting or feeding me his own beliefs.

Which is fine. Just as it should be.

Reporting is relaying. Faithfully. Honestly. Making a record of a time and a place and a people. Playing it straight.

June 4, 2013

The Ivory Tower in Cyberspace

When I went back to graduate school in my 40s, I took with me years of having produced films, network TV programs, and a mass-market book. I thought the theological faculty would be impressed. They were not, except for my advisor who saw the potential for mass-media religious education. My qualifications and publishing record was enough to get me into a Master of Arts program at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, but I quickly discovered that academia and mass-media didn’t relate very well with each other.

Also against me was that I was “a believer.” I soon learned that the worship department stood on its own; it didn’t interface much with the academic lines. I found that odd. I still don’t understand why departments of religion and divinity schools separate faith and analytics. Is faith and worship too soft? Certainly a subject for some research.

Then again, everyone I knew at the time warned me not to go to graduate school to study theology. As a matter of fact, the founder of a major mass-market spirituality magazine told me bluntly, “don’t study religion or you’ll lose your faith!” I actually had the opposite experience.  Studying ancient writings in asceticism, and in doctrine, and mystical practices served to increase my faith. Now, I’m able to add what I learned in historical-critical context.