Archive for February, 2009

Just as I am; I come, I come.

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

Remember you are dust; I come, I come.

By Allan Roy Andrews


Lent began this week with one of those denominational surprises. 

Episcopalians don’t bask in their memories of walking the altar-call path to repentance and forgiveness to the strains of “Just as I am, without one plea,” the 19th-century evangelistic hymn that has become an unofficial anthem of the Billy Graham Crusades (Text by Charlotte Elliott, 1789-1871, and music by  William B. Bradbury, 1816-1868) . 


Nevertheless, we sang all six stanzas of the hymn as the hundred or so Ash Wednesday evening parishioners sauntered down the aisle to the altar rail and knelt to have a cross of burnt palm branch residue streaked across our foreheads and be reminded: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Back in the pew as the music and the imposition of ashes continued, I read carefully the words of the hymn.  “I come, I come.”  The credo of “I believe,” is overwhelmed by the venio of movement—“I come”–toward the altar.  The verb come is  repeated 13 times in the singing of the six stanzas in The Hymnalof the Episcopal Church; the 13th sneaks in describing the bidding of the savior.

But the gracious wonder resides in how I come:  Just as I am.  No garments of morality; no sacrifice of doves or chocolate denial; no sackcloth; no swollen or scarred knees; no promises or pleas on my tongue; no because clauses; no self-assertions. 

Just as I am:  unemployed, underemployed, bought out by bonuses, crushed by balloon payments; fighting off the creditors; avoiding the turn to Chapter Nine; rescuing the resume; remembering unreturned favors; thinking seriously about ebay; mining for a family nest-egg.

Just as I am:  Joining others who recognize their dust-ness.  I come.  I come.

Reinhold Niebuhr–Journalist (and Obama’s Theologian)

Friday, February 13th, 2009


There’s much chat these days about the late Reinhold Niebuhr being the theologian whose thinking most influences President Barack Obama’s ideas, a suggestion with which the president concurs (hear Krista Tippett’s discussion with journalists David Brooks and E. J. Dionne on the NPR program, “Speaking of Faith”).  In that light, I’ve resurrected a column I wrote 13 years ago.

Reinhold Niebuhr–Journalist

By Allan R. Andrews


First published June 23, 1996, in Pacific  Stars and Stripes in Tokyo, Japan.  At that time, Andrews was Managing Editor of the newspaper and a weekly columnist.



Although he started a magazine and wrote for several others, few remember Reinhold Niebuhr as a journalist.

Niebuhr certainly rates as one of the most renowned American theologians of the 20th century.

Because of his German heritage, and probably because of his close association with German thinkers such as Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Niebuhr is often erroneously thought to have come out of the German theological academy.

He didn’t. He was born June 21, 1892, in Wright City, Mo., and attended the graduate school at Yale University, though he never finished because of boredom and the press of family needs.

(Writer’s note:  It has been called to my attention that Niebuhr did indeed complete BD and M.Div degrees at Yale but left before completing his doctoral program).

Nevertheless, more than any other philosopher or theologian writing in the first three quarters of the 20th century, Niebuhr is a politician’s–and a journalist’s–thinker.

One recent commentator claims Niebuhr is “one of the very few theologians to whom secular and humanist thinkers pay attention.”

Niebuhr, who died in 1971, never thought of himself as a theologian and lacked the usual credentials associated with the ivory tower. He thought of himself as a pastor, and much of his thinking came from his 13-year tenure as minister at Detroit’s Bethel Evangelical Church.

His incisive mind, however, put him on the faculty of New York’s Union Theological Seminary, where he lectured and wrote for 32 years.

As a thinker, Niebuhr stated his goal was “to establish the relevance of the Christian faith to contemporary problems.”

The magazine that Niebuhr founded to that end, Christianity and Crisis, folded in 1994. It was never a big seller, but it served as a philosophical editorial page, provoking many movers and shakers who read it.

Many think its collapse signaled a failure of liberal theology, but Niebuhr was admired and listened to by conservative thinkers as well. One of the most appreciative studies of Niebuhr was written by the late conservative evangelical philosopher at Fuller Theological Seminary, Edward J. Carnell.

Niebuhr’s major writings included two massive studies, one entitled The Nature and Destiny of Man, which is credited with dispelling the notion of the perfectibility of society, an idea that had persisted in liberal American thought through two world wars and continues to exert an influence on American social policy.

The other of his great works, Moral Man and Immoral Society, propounded Niebuhr’s conviction that one gets a clearer picture of what drives a human being not by studying the individual but by studying the groups in which that individual behaves. Groups–including those of organized religion–he thought often were influences of egoism and evil.

I can’t do justice to his thinking here, but several American politicians–knowingly or not– have built their philosophy of society and humanity out of exposure to Niebuhr’s thinking.

My appreciation of Niebuhr is more pedestrian and takes some extrapolation.

Just a year after Niebuhr left the church in Detroit, he published a little book of journal entries from his years in Michigan. The book was released in 1929 under the title Leaves From the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic.

Journalists frequently are accused of cynicism. Rather than deny such a label, I find comfort in Niebuhr’s notion of a “tamed cynic.”

In this book, Niebuhr addressed the church, but as I reread it last year it struck me he could just as easily have been talking to journalism.

Was Niebuhr thinking of columnists when he wrote of his preaching task, “I don’t know whether I can ever accustom myself to the task of bringing light and inspiration in regular weekly installments”?

Aren’t journalists as well as preachers taken to task with these words: “all these momentary simplifications of the complexities of life cannot be finally satisfying, because they do violence to life”?

If Niebuhr didn’t intend it when he wrote, I certainly thought of Washington, D.C., and other centers of power when I read: “I have to work in the twilight zone where superstition is inextricably mixed up with something that is–well, not superstition.”

“America worships success,” he wrote. “And the only kind of success the average man can understand is obvious success.”

We journalists major in reporting obvious success; it’s the not-so-obvious ones we miss.

A 1994 book listed 25 stories that journalism underplayed in the past decade. It includes the issues of labor law violations and environmental pollution and several political issues that were never tracked during presidential campaigns.

The Center for Diseases Control consistently argues that journalists should stop playing up bizarre medical stories such as cannibalistic bacteria and devote more time and energy to the less sensational, more boring but more important stories of medical research related to cancer or AIDS. Had he been a journalist, Niebuhr would have followed and investigated those kinds of stories.

Also in 1994, in an article entitled “Reinhold Niebuhr and the Evening News,” a Wisconsin Presbyterian minister, Randall K. Bush, wrote: “Given the changing complexities of the world, a voice like Niebuhr’s would be most welcome today–one able to speak with discernment about the state of affairs around us.”

What could be a better goal for journalists and commentators than this: to speak with discernment about the state of affairs around us?

Bush is convinced that Niebuhr’s relevance is related to his understanding of “the religious dimension inherent in all history.”

Far from being a cynic, Niebuhr is a pragmatic idealist. He wrote: “Without the ultrarational hopes and passions of religion no society will ever have the courage to conquer despair.”

Amid any despair related to economic stagnation, racial or ethnic hatred and random violence in the streets, America would do well to attend still to this “tamed cynic” whose birth anniversary passed last week 

(ed. note:  Niebuhr was born on June 21, 1892, and died on June 1, 1971).


My lectio divina: I

Friday, February 13th, 2009

November, 2008

My lectio divina: I

By Allan Roy Andrews

“. . . then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice (96:12; KJV) . . . The hills melted like wax at the presence of the Lord (97:5) . . . Let the floods clap hands (98:8). . . .”

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) designates Psalms 96, 97, and 98 as the psalms of the Christmas Propers.

As I grapple to make lectio divina a part of my being, I am learning that biblical commentaries don’t aid necessarily my listening.

Commentaries tell me about “enthronement” psalms, for instance, or “psalms of descriptive praise.” They may instruct me in how the RCL wonderfully “layers” the texts of the “Christmas Propers” so that Isaiah’s prophecy is juxtaposed with the Lukan birth narrative and lined up with a passage from Titus delineating Christ’s saving work. Each of the propers is filled out with the above-mentioned “Christmas Psalms,” something like a multi-media show, one liturgist has suggested.

The problem I see with these labels and structures is that they satisfy an anthropocentric need and bias. God gives us metaphors and deep poetry, and we see enthronement, descriptive praise, and multimedia salvation shows. What God’s words emphasize is something superhuman: Trees sing; mountains melt; floods clap hands!

God is not just a big guy; he (she or it) is more than the Big Kahuna. Yahweh, the one of the not-to-be-pronounced name and the vowel-less tetragrammaton, lies beyond our categories of comprehension and expression.

Perhaps the most appropriate delineation is that given to Moses: “I AM.”

Descartes’ cogito ergo sum is trumped by the One beyond our thinking! The great I AM speaks through sacred word—and beyond it. No baptistic limits can stifle God’s voice “in these days.” None can corral or limit “I AM.”

God may even speak in strange tongues that appear to be gibberish, but he more likely speaks in science—stem cells, evolution, viruses, immune deficiencies—or in the cries of undocumented immigrants, starving children, unwed mothers, and those with affections for the same gender. (Do words tell us truly how brotherly love differs from homosexuality?)

Speak, Lord, in the trees and mountains and floods and lightning and thunder—speak in the Son and the Spirit–for your servants listen and seek understanding, faith and love.

Deep meaning in non-reading

Friday, February 13th, 2009

The deep meaning of non-reading

By Allan Roy Andrews

                It may be an apocryphal tale, but the story goes that the executors of the estate of philosopher-psychologist William James discovered when going through James’ library after his death in 1910 that his books were heavily marked, but only for the first 50-75 pages.  After that, the pages showed no signs of having been turned or read.  The great thinker didn’t finish most books he had started.

                In a similar vein, talk-show host Larry King often interviews authors of new books.  King has nonchalantly admitted that he rarely if ever prepares for the interview by reading a guest author’s book.  In his own defense, King claimed he wanted the author to tell him what the book said so he didn’t feel compelled to read beyond its dust jacket.

                These two stories bounced around my brain recently as I read Pierre Bayard’s fascinating volume called, How to Talk  About Books You Haven’t Read (Bloomsbury USA, 2007).  (In the spirit of full disclosure, I confess as of this writing I have read 125 of the 185 pages of Bayard’s book.)

                Bayard created a system of abbreviations that involves letters and plus or minus signs assigned to books.  Thus, he indicates books as UB, SB, HB, and FB, which are shorthand, respectively, for “book unknown to me,” “book I have skimmed,” “book I have heard about,” and “book I have forgotten.”  Each of these abbreviations can be augmented with one or two plus or minus signs indicating whether the reviewer’s opinion was positive or negative, and two additional designations, BR (book read) and BNR (book not read), Bayard dismisses as unessential.

                To my delight, I find Bayard unabashedly defending and encouraging what he calls “the rich category that is non-reading.”   Books we have skimmed, books we have heard about, and books we have forgotten fill this rich category.   Those unread and forgotten texts are crucial elements in our “collective library” and become part of our intellectual and social personae, Bayard argues.   Keep in mind, please; this is an argument from a man of letters, a professor of French literature at the University of Paris.

                Our educational enterprise, with its compulsive consumption of texts, needs a strong dose of this appreciation for non-reading.  Bayard says a book stops being unknown to me as soon as it enters my perceptual field, and once it enters my “cultural space” the question of whether or not I have read it  is unimportant.  In fact, Bayard argues, by distancing ourselves from our compulsions to read a particular book we may discover the text’s true meaning.  By having to talk about a book we have not read we are engaging in a creative act that is far more important than anything we might gain from having devoured a particular text, Bayard says.

                Permit me a paraphrase of Bayard’s thesis (which of course is a summary of my understanding of Bayard and that is the important creative act here).  He is teaching us to relax about our literary ignorance; in fact, he fondly quotes Oscar Wilde who felt 10 minutes was the required time he should devote to reading any single book.  I think the leisure of non-reading may lead us to greater meaning as we confront texts that enter our cultural space.

                Think for a moment what this implies for students and for overbearing instructors who decry the shortcuts of Cliff’s NotesSpark Notes, and Wikipedia!  Be at ease; there is deep meaning to be found in non-reading, in skimming, and in crib notes (based on someone else’s reading).

                Let me take Bayard out on a theological/devotional limb here and address what is often a Christian compulsion related to reading the Bible.  I posit two extensions of his argument that non-reading is a significant part of a person’s cultural space.

                First, our non-reading of the Bible may be important when we are put in a situation of having to talk about the book we have never read or perhaps merely skimmed.  I dare say that most Sunday School children have either never read or have merely skimmed (or as adults have forgotten) the Bible stories that lie at the foundation of their faith.  Nevertheless, the meaning of those unread stories has shaped to a great degree their understanding and image of God, the world, sin and salvation.

                Second, the wisdom and value of lectio divina, which encourages a leisurely, contemplative attending to a single word or phrase in a Bible passage as a path to spiritual understanding and growth, often resolves into what is called “praying the scriptures” and can be viewed as a deep and creative journey into non-reading.

                There used to be a recurring feature in literary magazines under the headline:  “Books that changed my mind.”  I wonder how many of those mind-altering treatises were actually unread.

                I’m not trying to denigrate or deny value in literacy, but there is no salvific power or inherent goodness in devotion to reading or in our compulsive consumption of texts.  I have read the New Testament story of Jesus and the rich, young ruler, and in none of the versions I’ve consulted does Jesus admonish, “Go, and read every book you can get your hands on.”

Journalists policing their ethics

Friday, February 13th, 2009
Good Journalists police their own ethics

By Allan Roy Andrews

Just before Christmas of the year I broke into journalism covering the courts and government offices of a county in Central Indiana, the county treasurer, an affable and very electable politician (the only Democrat to be re-elected in my rookie year of covering politics), handed me a small gift-wrapped package as I made my beat rounds.

Without realizing it, I’d been bought.

At least that’s what I concluded after my opened gift–a pen-and-pencil set engraved with the treasurer’s name along with a message of “Season’s Greetings”–still sitting in its Christmas wrapping on my desk spurred questions and discussion among my newsroom colleagues.  My news editor, my city editor, and eventually my managing editor entered into the sporadic but persistent discussions with me and one or two other reporters on the ethics of accepting gifts from those we were covering and potentially criticizing.

My bosses in that tiny newsroom were excellent teachers.  At least two of them were graduates of fine journalism programs at Northwestern U. and the U. of Indiana.  But they’d also been on the beat and faced the same ethical test I had failed.  They played down, of course, the significance of the “bribe” I’d brought back to show around the newsroom, but their gentle and persuasive discussions implanted an attitude and conviction that became a guide for my professional life in newspapers.

With perhaps the exception of allowing some politicians to give me rides around the city during campaigns (some of my best interviews were had while riding to or from airports), I practiced the vow I took that evening as a rookie.  For the length of my career as a reporter and editor, I never accepted even a token gift from anyone who was a possible subject of my reporting and writing.  It just made perfect sense to me that a journalist must be, as the Hoosiers I learned from might have put it, “beholden to no one.”

In this era of civic journalism, entertainment journalism, highlighting infotainment and blustering TV commentators, and with the praised biases of “talk show” hosts and ranting bloggers, we need reminders of the ethical principles upon which modern American journalism has been built.

When I hear so often in our political discourse of “liberal media” or “right-wing media” being castigated by citizens who apparently have never been encouraged toward critical thinking, I want to interrupt them and say, “That’s not how most of us play the game.”  Instead of hating the media, citizens must learn to respect journalism; the converse, of course, is that journalists must earn that respect by adhering to high ethical standards.

To put this in perspective, I invite you to revisit with me a four-year-old booklet that probably only a few hundred people have ever  read.  It underscores the principles that I learned from foolishly accepting a kindly politician’s Christmas gift.  The booklet—47 pages plus an index—is called Ethical Journalism, an internal publication of The New York Times. The 2004 tract is subtitled, “A Handbook of Values and Practices for the News and Editorial Departments.”

The Times’ proscriptions are unlike other journalistic codes of ethics that arose in the 1990s following a wave of incidents in which well-known journalists lied about their reports and sources.  Those ethics codes, in the words of Marianne Jennings, an ethics professor at Arizona State University, “err by focusing less on journalists’ conduct than on the ‘public’s right to know.’  In other words, they say a lot about the rights and very little about the press’ responsibilities.”

The Times’ handbook, in contrast, goes right to the details.

For example, in a section that spoke to my sin of taking a gift called “Accepting Hospitality from Sources,” the handbook reads:

“A simple buffet of muffins and coffee at a news conference . . . is harmless but a staff member should not attend a breakfast or lunch held periodically for the press by a ‘newsmaker’ unless the Times pays for the staff member’s meals.”

(In my opinion, incidentally, this constraint also applies to such innocuous events as a Presidential Prayer Breakfast.)  
The handbook goes on to list complimentary tickets to artistic and athletic performances as being out of bounds for a serious, ethical journalist.

Here is another proscription that might surprise the devotees of televised news forums:

“No staff member who takes part in a broadcast, Webcast, public forum or panel discussion may write or edit news articles about that event.”

This may bring up short those who specialize in interviewing colleagues in front of the camera and get little more than interpretive pap or those who write reports about what politicians and other officials say while engaging in televised and sponsored discussions.

Citizens who are prone to castigating the media need to understand more clearly the efforts professional journalists impose upon themselves and their colleagues in order to avoid biased delivery of the news.  Many citizens are simply too cavalier in their dismissal of the press.  I think a browsing of the Times handbook on ethics could do much to educate the public and help them hold journalism to its stated ethical stance.

New York Times staff members are ethically prohibited from participating in contests or competitions sponsored by groups that “have a direct interest in the tenor of Times coverage.”

The handbook makes specific reference to some popular competitions.  Times staffers are advised not to take part in competitions that ask them to vote on the outcome.  Listed as prohibited are voting for winners of the Tony Awards, the Heisman Trophy and other awards picked by members of the press such as most valuable player, rookie-of-the-year awards and entrance into various halls of fame.

When it comes to politics, the handbook states flatly:  “Journalists have no place on the playing fields of politics.”  Wearing campaign buttons or insignia is prohibited, as is the display of bumper stickers or lawn signs endorsing a particular candidate.  Times staff members are flatly barred from seeking public office anywhere.

There is a trove of educating tidbits in this handbook about how the press expects its members to operate.  What I have highlighted is just a taste of the handbook’s riches.  The document is posted on the New York Times company Web site.

Recently, with the rise of blogs and other freelance material appearing in print media, the Times has initiated a program of having freelancers sign a statement that they have read and are familiar with the Times’ ethical provisions as spelled out in the handbook.

I think it a fine idea for every blogger to peruse this important document.