Monday, February 22, 2010

God, Elton John, and Other Facts

Some of the scripture readings for Lent are intended to nag. So it was no big deal when I imagined myself standing on a pinnacle, and at my side a devil offering infinity if only I would hug word processors and embrace Merriam-Webster’s Third Unabridged.

This is only one way journalists are formed, and most of the others are quite respectable. The devil who tried to entice me was too late. I’m a born journalist, and I thank the Lord for providing the ink-stained genes.

The art of journalism developed slowly. Galleries and museums and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel were alive centuries before journalists chronicled the lives, loves and talents of the artists. History has no beginning, but recorded history is recent. And it gets rewritten.

The Bible’s sense of history may be more secure in the Old Testament than in the New. If only The Associated Press had been there to verify the names and occupations and ages. If only The New York Times Magazine had interviewed Jesus about his childhood, while the New England Journal of Medicine annotated his healings. There might not be 2,000 Christian denominations if journalists had recorded all the facts, and they had been assured by The New Yorker’s fact-checkers.

If Peter Jennings and the Pulitzers had talked with founders of the great religions, discussions today would be on a different level.

Journalism has never changed more swiftly than it changes now, almost with every word that’s written. Where will the words be read? Maybe on a computer screen, maybe on the apparatus of an e-book, maybe on paper. What a surprise it is to the folks who a few years ago worried that a new generation of non-readers was at hand. People now will read anything. They read telephones, laptops, Blackberries, emails and games, and at least one political star reads her hands. People have fun with words. Goodbye scrabbled brains, hello Scrabble brains.

When I write about religion I’m still a journalist, but I’m working in a largely fact-free zone. No almanac tells me what Jesus weighed, the color of his eyes or what he crafted in carpentry. Of the millions of words he spoke, all too few are known. The shortage of facts kindles the imagination, as it did for Elton John, the singer and songwriter, who claimed to know about the private life of the crucified Christ. It is said that faith is a gift from God, while some laboratory-inclined thinkers are looking for it in genes. It is as mysterious as any talent, for music, painting, religion, writing or hitting home runs.

I thank the religion professionals and volunteers who keep the churches going, and the synagogues, mosques, temples and universities. One reason their work stirs awe is that it is accomplished with few facts held in common. God is a fact I was born with, like fingers reaching for a keyboard, and not a fact like the alphabet on the keyboard, which I had to learn. I forget God at times, even as I forget that God reclaims my memory a few drops at a time.

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