Thanks to the historic box-office bonanza of Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ" ($330 million and rising), the topic of religion is "hot" right now. Still, you get a sinking feeling that for the press, it's just another raging fad like the Tickle Me Elmo doll or the Atkins diet.
The other night, ABC's Peter Jennings took three entire hours of prime-time television to explore the relationship between Jesus and St. Paul -- and that's two more hours than ABC gave Britney Spears a few months ago. Airing this subject matter -- and this much of it, too -- was a radical departure from the norm. But what about the quality? Wouldn't you know it, ABC had to put a negative spin on Paul; he isn't really to be trusted as a writer of the New Testament, and that he can be a force for what Peter Jennings calls "puritanical intolerance." He is somehow a human failure, and the Holy Spirit is nowhere to be found in the Word of God.
This sad paradox -- more religion news, with less religious context -- comes through in a Media Research Center study of 12 months of religion coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC from March 2003 to February 2004. Counting all the morning, evening and prime-time shows together, the amount of stories has more than doubled from a similar study of 1993 -- from 336 stories 10 years ago to 699 last year.
Some of that increase can be attributed to the passion over "The Passion," although the movie stories came in at about one-tenth of the total. In recent months, a number of other dramatic religious news stories have unfolded, from religious freedom in Iraq, to the installation of an openly gay Episcopal bishop, to the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's pontificate. Is this a trend that will last? It largely depends on what stories unfold, since the media don't usually go searching far and wide for religion stories.
News, with its focus on the shocking things at the expense of everyday happenings, still accentuates the negative with religion. For example, almost half of the evening-news stories on the Catholic church in the 12-month study period still focused on the problem of clerical sexual abuse. The quiet work of the faithful goes on, and the vast majority of Catholic bishops and priests go about serving their communities and leading souls to Christ without the slightest hiccup of media interest.