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At the crossroads of Christianity and journalism

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Todd Culbertson, editor of the Editorial Pages, delivered the following at Christ Episcopal Church in Glen Allen on Dec. 7 as part of the congregation's Advent series Living Faith in the Real World.

Let me begin with a story that may or may not qualify as a parable: Some months ago the phone rang and I answered, as always, "This is Todd Culbertson." The caller had been transferred to me with a technical question about letters or columns or something similar. As we finished our pleasant chat he said, "I did not catch your name." "Todd Culbertson." "Ah, the Episcopalian."

I thanked him for the compliment.

Some personal background might be helpful. I was born in Southern California and grew up in Hollywood. It was an era when children enjoyed great independence. As a youngster I rode the bus with friends from Beverly Hills to the beaches at Santa Monica. Parents were not in sight.

My family moved to Denver in 1965, and my brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew still live in Colorado. I reversed Horace Greeley's advice, and as a young man went east. I attended college in Illinois and after graduation was sent by VISTA to Virginia.

Later I worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, first with Colorado Sen. Peter Dominick, then with New York Sen. James Buckley. In 1976, I accepted an offer to join the Editorial Page staff of The News Leader, the afternoon paper that merged with The Times-Dispatch in 1992. The invitation to apply for the position came through the grapevine. Ross Mackenzie, my editor, subjected my wayward sentences to diagramming, and I thanked my elementary school teachers for drilling into me a procedure that can result in grammatical art.

My ancestral blood is Yankee, not Mayflower but Massachusetts Pilgrim nevertheless. The Sons of Confederate Veterans does not need to know this.

 

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A 1990s trip to London proved formative. I awoke one Sunday with nothing to do. Reading the paper while sipping coffee may be an enjoyable experience at home. It proves less so in a hotel room. I decided to go to St. Paul's but had forgotten that the cathedral is not only a tourist attraction but an active congregation.

A kind gentlemen greeted sightseers at the door and said the church was open for worship but please come back later for tours. I decided to pray. The service resembled Chesterton's twitch upon the thread, and I found myself recalled to a home I had not realized was my own.

During the following years, I frequently attended services while out of town. It occurred to me that if I could go to church in New York, then I could go to church in Richmond. I drove by St. Stephen's every day, and decided to give it a try. A bond was forged. I became editor of the Editorial Pages in 2007 and was baptized in 2008. A connection? This month I marked my 35th milestone with Richmond Newspapers. You do not have to go to the Museum of Natural History to see a dinosaur.

My job puts me in charge of the daily Editorial and Op/Ed pages as well as the Sunday Commentary section. A team of excellent colleagues lightens my burden and pleases our readers, except when we annoy them. My principal responsibility is to write editorials.

Gene Fowler described writing as a simple chore. Just scroll paper into the typewriter and stare at the sheet until blood oozes out of your forehead. Hack work is not literature. But a blank computer screen is as blank as Fowler's typewriter paper. Journalists fill space.

Mr. Mason, an English teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School in Denver, scrawled at the end of my last paper as a senior, "Todd, you ought to write professionally." He saw something I am not sure I see. Still, I love what I do. Grub Street is a more exalted address than River Road. In Faulkner's Sanctuary, Horace Benbow says, "Folly, as well as poverty, cares for its own."

 

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We publish diverse views. I get a kick out of reading articles with which I disagree. Debate hones argument. The Times-Dispatch promotes civility not only in our opinion pages but in our Public Squares. Civility does not mean that prose must be milquetoast, however. Cayenne pepper is good. From time to time habañero can be fine.

In "Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World," Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, writes: "Being civil does not mean we cannot criticize what goes on around us. Civility does not require us to approve of what other people believe and do."

And: "Christian civility does not mean refusing to make judgments about what is good and true. For one thing, it isn't really possible to be completely nonjudgmental. Even telling someone else that she is being judgmental is a rather judgmental thing to do!"

A reader once called and advised, "Todd, it is time you poped." "Poped?" "Joined the Catholic Church." "I am unchurched, but my sentiments are Episcopal, Anglican, C of E." "That's obvious," he exclaimed. "The editorials sometimes sound like the Prayer Book."

The Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible inspire in all dimensions, including literary style. Both were composed to be read aloud, and that sets a goal for expository writing. Reaching that goal can be difficult when the subject is the timing of street lights on West Broad.

In the spring of 2009, I took my rector's advice and embarked on a companioned retreat at the Cambridge monastery of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist. I arrived wearing a blazer and a bowtie. Those of you who have been there recognize the dress code as casual. I switched to polo shirts and madras shorts.

On Sunday I returned to a bowtie; certain habits are hard to break. When the cone of silence lifted during the noon meal, a fellow sitting across from me in the rectory asked, "What's with the bowtie?" "Let me put it this way," I explained. "I live in Virginia. Not only that, I live in Richmond. I am an ink-stained wretch. And I am an Episcopalian. The bowtie probably results from genetic predisposition."

 

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The SSJE retreat also helps to describe the relationship of my faith as a Christian to my trade as a journalist.

As the sessions started, my spiritual adviser asked what I hoped to accomplish. "To learn how to pray without ceasing," I said, "but without starving to death."

Last November I would discover in a monastery in South Africa that unceasing prayer is addressed in "The Way of the Pilgrim," a lovely account of the spiritual trek of an anonymous Russian wanderer. The SSJE monk and I spent a morning hour in a room, small but comfortable. Our talk traveled through many topics.

As we concluded, he pulled out a note card and wrote down some Scriptural verses. The main ones recounted the incident when Jesus asks the disciples who the people say he is. When they answer John the Baptist, Elijah or Jeremiah, Jesus turns to them: "Who do you say I am?" Peter replies, "The Messiah, the Son of the Living God."

My counselor instructed me to return to my room and to meditate on the passages and to look up and ask Jesus — and he will be there, the brother assured me — who he says you are. I felt like a human torch.

I cannot give you a comprehensive conclusion to the SSJE exercise, but I can say that as a child of God, I am seamless. Life cannot be compartmentalized. There is no such thing as a work life and a private life and a political life and a religious life. All things flow into one.

 

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We have grown uncomfortable talking civilly about religion. The separation of church and state has been translated to mean the ostracism of religion from the public square. Faith cannot be checked at the church door. It cannot be used as a club, either.

"I believe in God, the Father almighty." "Jesus Christ is Lord." These verities inform all that I do, or at least I strive to make them inform my total experience. This does not mean the Editorial Pages proselytize, or seek to impose a specific Christian agenda on politics.

Such an agenda does not exist. The Bible does not spell out definitive solutions to the dilemmas of public policy. Religion provides perspective, not prescription.

Paul's letters do not tell us how to reform the schools. The Gospels do not outline proper procedures to regulate global trade. Reflexive opposition to climate change mocks mankind's earthly stewardship, but neither the Old Testament nor the New endorses a specific approach to global warming.

Theologians debate concepts of just wars, yet Scripture does not, I think, propose strategy and tactics suitable to combating mortal threats. Only the dead have seen an end to war, although that does not absolve us of the obligation to pray for peace. The most difficult passages in the Bible report bloodshed and genocide.

What is to be done? What then must we do? Regarding Scripture, the temptation is to pick and choose. We honor what we like and find excuses for troubling entries or ignore them. In biblical interpretation the difference between an explanation and an evasion can be minute.

God's existence preceded man's discovery of Him; the Bible remains a sufficient guide, but the great mystery of the incarnation continues to unfold. I cherish the first epistle of John, chapter three: "Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God; therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is."

 

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The Times-Dispatch does not take positions on the nature of the elements in the Eucharist, on the existence of Purgatory, on the Trinity or on other denominational contentions. Divinely authorized dietary laws are not for us to proclaim.

We endorse the commitment to global religious liberty made by Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia's 10th District. The Religious Literacy series on the Op/Ed page is ecumenical, and has included a column in defense of atheism. Muslims have explained their traditions. Jews have discussed their theology and their holy days. Many Christians do not realize that "I know my redeemer liveth" comes from neither the gospels nor the epistles but from Job.

Anglicanism's three pillars — Scripture, reason and tradition — apply not only to dogma but to politics. In a secular world, reason and tradition play obvious roles. Scripture's influence provokes resistance. That some might cite Scripture in support of their broader platforms ought to cause neither automatic acceptance nor automatic rejection. Content, regardless of source, ought to be subject to pragmatic analysis and adjudication.

To vote for a candidate because he publicly iterates his faith is as inappropriate as voting against a candidate for the same reason. If the Times-Dispatch does not endorse Mitt Romney next year, it will not be because he is a Mormon.

Sidney Hook, one of the past century's pre-eminent social philosophers, wrote of "Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life." Christians should understand the insight of a man who rejected religion. Our Lord died upon the cross. He went "not up to joy but first he suffered pain and not into glory before he was crucified." Yet on the third day he rose again. He ascended into Heaven. Hope abides.

 

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Harold Macmillan, prime minister of the UK in the late 1950s and early 1960s, identified the greatest influences on his government as "events, dear boy, events." Although Jesus embodied universals, he applied absolutes to the situation at hand.

When the rich man bragged about his economic and social standing while asking what it would take for him — a certified master of the universe, a resident of his world's West End — to gain entry into Heaven, Jesus told him to dispose of his wealth, to get rid of everything. The man left, crying. The Bible does not tell us what he did. If we assume he did not obey Jesus, then that may be because we would not surrender our flashy trinkets. Does the Every Member Canvas always raise what it should?

In another story, a centurion sent emissaries to Jesus, beseeching him to come to his home to heal his ill servant. As Jesus approached the place, the centurion hastened out to say he was not worthy that Christ should enter under his roof. The centurion said he was a commander and what he said was done. Jesus, too, commanded, and his orders similarly were to be obeyed. Jesus told the crowd that he had not found so great a faith in Israel. The centurion returned to find his servant whole. Jesus did not tell him to resign his commission.

One size does not fit all. The eye of the needle also proves an apt metaphor. The editorial implications are many.

Faith offers a frame of reference. The Magnificat issues a compelling call. While in Nazareth during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I perceived in an instant many years in the making that God chose Mary for a reason. Surely she was not the only virtuous young woman in Galilee. Her song suggests she understood her vocation. Before the Bethlehem birth the Mother of God outlined the ministry of the Son of God. As she said in the Angelus, so let us daily repeat, "Be it unto us according to His Word."

In recent years millions heeded the wrong words; they sought not to be delivered from temptation but to have their temptations sated. Economic collapse followed. The wrong values took precedence. Wall Street's most important institution is not the New York Stock Exchange but Trinity Church, which likely received its share of tithes and offerings from bonuses and real estate bubbles. We do our best.

"Feed my sheep" means what it says. We may differ on the ways to provide nourishment to the hungry but the command is imperative. One certainly does not have to be a Christian to understand that human beings have a right to sustenance. The Jewish commitment to service sets standards for all.

 

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The Bible reminds us that we inhabit a community. God does not announce, Hear O Todd, but Hear O Israel. Human beings have unalienable rights, yet by him- or herself each person is incomplete. We rely on qualities others possess. Indeed, our individuality flourishes within a greater context.

I support limited government and prefer market economics to central planning. I also know France has a welfare state, from the cradle to the grave. Although they may be in worse financial shape than we, the French are not walking around in chains, as a socialist once rebutted the ignorant. American political rhetoric is comical and deficient.

The late Lionel Trilling — a public intellectual, a category that no longer exists — spoke of the moral obligation to be intelligent. The culture instead gleefully pursues perpetual adolescence.

To say we live in a community is not to say we are anonymous members of a collective. God spoke to Samuel personally. Mozart converted me with music. The Marriage of Figaro closes with an ensemble in which every voice is district yet each contributes to unity. We receive the blessed sacraments as individuals, yet even in contentious times there is no division at the rail. The rite is called communion for many reasons. Let love's redeeming work proceed.

The individual possesses inherent dignity. Absolute libertarianism is a conceit. An alternative is found in Archbishop Desmond Tutu's theology of Umbutu, which brings into harmony East and West, North and South. We descend from faithful Abraham and are not alone. Tutu says that if we Christians took our faith seriously, we would not merely offer greetings but would genuflect upon meeting other human beings. At SSJE, the Eucharistic invitation goes, "Behold what you are. May we become what we receive."

 

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The University of Virginia's James Davison Hunter argues, perceptively, that Christians do not accomplish good by deliberately setting out to do so. Goodness, rather, comes as a consequence of worship. "For now Christians of many traditions can agree with the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism when it declares that the chief end in life — in all of life — is to 'glorify God and enjoy Him forever,' " Hunter writes in "To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World." Hunter adds, "When the rule is established in the hearts, minds, and souls of believers, and in their daily lives and sphere of influence, God is indeed present and He is glorified."

In its entry for Aug. 14, the book of "Holy Women, Holy Men," celebrates the martyrdom of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a graduate of VMI, whose Easter conversion at Boston's Church of the Advent propelled him into a life of sacrifice for civil rights. He went to Selma and died there when taking a bullet fired by a white supremacist at a 16-year-old African-American girl.

Daniels had written, "The doctrine of the creeds, the enacted faith of the sacraments were the essential preconditions of the experience itself." Think of that: The "enacted faith of the sacraments." Communion is not a passive ritual but an active affirmation of what the rite's name means. When reading the liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer, communicants arrive at the moment they no longer recite the words but say them as though they are their own.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.

The chip on the shoulder does not become the Christian, or anyone else for that matter. Others will judge us by our behavior and by our deportment. One day I was driving down Monument, weaving in and out of traffic, tailgating and muttering coarse things. Then I remembered the Episcopal shield sticker on the rear bumper. What message am I sending about my church? I wondered in despair. So, I pulled over and tore off the sticker… Don't worry. It is still there.

The summons is clear, and can be practiced at a newspaper, in a law firm, at a construction site, in a classroom, in a grocery store, at an auto dealership, in our neighborhoods and in our homes, in our congregations: Imitate Christ. Come let us adore him!

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