Who Says Faith Isn't A Story?

Glen Burnie Writer Works To Explain Believers, Journalists To Each Other

July 19, 2009|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

It was the kind of story that cried out to be told. Or so Terry Mattingly thought.

It was 1982, and a little-known punk band from Ireland was touring U.S. colleges for the first time, rattling from town to town in an old panel truck.

Mattingly, then a music writer for a small Illinois paper, was intrigued by the chorus from a song on their new album. The lyrics were, of all things, in Latin - gloria in te domine, gloria exultate - and appeared to have been taken from an ancient Mass.

In two days he spent with the band, Mattingly, a journalist who now lives in Glen Burnie, persuaded the lead singer to speak about his faith. It was the first time Paul David Hewson, better known today as Bono, went on the record about religion and the rise of U2.

The experience was telling, and not just because Mattingly learned Bono wrote "Gloria" in a "charismatic Pentecostalist frenzy," or that the band met frequently to discuss the Bible - the sort of nuggets that have made Mattingly, a columnist and blogger, one of America's most widely read religion writers.

No, when he pitched the article to Rolling Stone, the editors decided he must be making it up and took a pass. The piece ran only in the Champaign, Ill., News-Gazette and, later, in a Christian music magazine.

Religion, Mattingly says, "is the worst-covered major subject in American journalism," and he has built a uniquely robust career addressing that belief.

A former religion editor and writer at the Charlotte Observer and Rocky Mountain News, Mattingly writes a weekly column, "On Religion," that deals with religious issues, including pop culture, and that Scripps and the Newspaper Enterprise Association make available to more than 900 newspapers.

His blog, "Get Religion," which critiques the media's coverage of the subject, gets 40,000 hits a week from readers around the world, and he recently got back from a trip to Asia in support of Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion, a book released last spring for which he wrote a chapter.

"Around the world in seven days," he says with a weary shrug.

Mattingly lives with his wife, Debra, a librarian, in a bungalow in Glen Burnie's leafy Ferndale section. He commutes daily by MARC train to Washington, where he directs the Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities in Washington, a program in which students from Christian schools around the country learn the business in the classroom and through internships.

"Terry has been extraordinarily creative in perceiving a real need and doing something smart about it," says Dave Van Biema, who has been writing about religion for Time magazine for years. "His approach was unusual, new and effective, and he deserves his props."

Speaking over burritos at a Mexican chain restaurant - a member of the Eastern Orthodox church, he vets his diet carefully, and the place lets you build your own - he says the media and religion have long been at odds, each viewing the other, at best, with a wary eye.

"Here you have these two powerful forces in American life, each protected by the First Amendment," he says. "They don't talk to each other. They don't respect each other. Sometimes they don't like each other. I live in both. And that has been my life."

He's one of a handful of people to have grown up in both camps, with an equal passion for both. The son of a father who was a Southern Baptist preacher and a mother who taught language arts, Mattingly grew up fascinated by writing, politics and the ways in which faith influences human behavior - including music, sports and the visual arts.

A voracious reader, he always wanted to be a newspaper reporter.

As a student at Baylor University's journalism school, he sensed early on that he might have a niche. In 1976, the same year Mattingly was campaigning for Jimmy Carter, the first openly "born-again" presidential candidate, an editor at the student paper asked him to cover a campus foreign missions conference.

"I went there, and saw all the [recruiting] booths and everything, but to my amazement, almost nobody showed up," he says.

He told the editor, who decided it wasn't a story. Mattingly disagreed. "At the largest Southern Baptist university in the world, a missions conference is a huge event," he says. "When nobody shows, that's a big deal. We were looking at the rise of the materialism that would dominate" the late 1970s and the 1980s.

Over the years, he experienced similar reactions from editors as he pitched stories on matters that to him seemed self-evidently important: the lavish lifestyle and rumored sexual peccadilloes of Rev. Jim Bakker, head of PTL ministries in North Carolina; anti-abortion rallies in Washington that attracted thousands more marchers than their pro-choice counterparts; and the arrival in Colorado of Focus on the Family, the ministry of James Dobson, then the second-most popular radio personality in the U.S.

In each case, editors either assigned a brief article or skipped the story altogether.

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