Syndicated columnist Terry Mattingly explores news coverage, shares personal journey

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Terry Mattingly’s syndicated column, “On Religion,” appears in more than 200 newspapers. He is the author of Pop Goes Religion: Faith in Popular Culture (2012, Thomas Nelson).

In an April interview — with the Board of Directors of Nurturing Faith Journal in attendance — Mattingly explained the bridge he crossed from rock ‘n’ roll to religion coverage in his long journalistic and teaching career.

A preacher’s kid from Port Arthur, Texas, Mattingly would help bands set up for their gigs at the Port Arthur Teen Club. If he’d danced instead, he joked, “the deacons’ kids would turn you in.”

So he set up equipment for local bands including “a little band called ZZ Top, which some of you all might have heard of; they’re in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.”

That interest — along with a bent toward writing that was nurtured at Baylor University — led Mattingly to cover the popular musical genre. In the late ’70s, he had the chance to interview the then-highly successful ZZ Top trio in Urbana-Champaign, Ill., where Mattingly had moved for graduate studies.

However, Mattingly’s interest in religion pulled him into what would be the hallmark of his career — starting as a reporter and religion columnist for the Rocky Mountain News.

That transition, he said, was most clearly noted during a happenstance encounter with a rock star.

“In the mid ’80s I was in Denver, waiting in a corner of the lobby to land the first interview with the new Roman Catholic Archbishop of Denver,” he said. “I’d arranged a private interview, and I am sitting there watching the three elevator doors — ready to get to this man before anybody else in the press does, so I can get him around the corner and get an exclusive interview. Journalists do this all the time.

“I’m standing at those elevators watching and I hear this deep Southern voice behind me go, ‘Port Arthur Teen Club, right?’ And I turned around and it’s Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top.”

In addition to his signature long beard and sunglasses, the rocker was wearing a red satin tour jacket with “ZZ Top” on it, Mattingly noted. And “at that exact moment, the doors open and out comes the new Archbishop of Denver — also wearing red satin, but for a completely different reason. The two halves of my life met.”

The transition from covering rock ‘n’ roll to religion was noted by Gibbons, when he asked Mattingly: “You went from interviewing people like me to interviewing people like him?”

The two subject matters are more inter-related than some might think, said Mattingly.

“I was always interested in music, but I was very interested in the role that religion plays in American popular music,” he said. “But I didn’t think I had the stuff to be a national level music writer. I’ve thought about that a lot since then, but I think I made the right choice going into religion.”

Mattingly traces his religion-writing career to his undergraduate days when he volunteered to cover “Foreign Missions Week” at the Baptist university for The Baylor Lariat.

“I went to this event and nobody showed up,” he recalled.

However, Mattingly found that to be newsworthy — describing it as a reflection of “the beginning of Baylor’s materialistic era with the business school quadrupling in size and everything else.”

“I went back to The Baylor Lariat meeting and said, ‘This is a huge story; I went to missions week and hardly anybody showed up.’ They said, ‘Well, if nobody showed up it’s not a story.'”

But Mattingly countered: “You don’t understand. This is Baylor. We should have people who want to be medical missionaries lined up around the block. It means something that nobody showed up at missions week.”

Mattingly said the rest of the news-paper staff “just couldn’t see it.”

However, he said “the great” journalism professor David McHam summoned him and said: “I’m convinced religion is the worst-covered subject in the entire world of American journalism.”

Then, after a long pause, McHam added: “You want to do something about that?”

McHam introduced Mattingly to other religion-focused journalists including Walker Knight, the founding editor of this newsjournal.

“Two years later, I did a masters degree in Baylor’s Department of Church and State,” said Mattingly. “I had made the decision that I was going to become a religion writer.”

Religion is sometimes mistakenly considered to be a separately defined category of news when in fact it permeates almost all the news we hear today, said Mattingly.

“Journalists basically worship politics,” he said. “The religion of the typical American newsroom is that politics is the only thing that’s real. The only way that things actually happen is either, I guess, business or politics, which means anything that claims to be religion is actually just politics.”

Mattingly argues for a different perspective: that religion permeates the many headlines that are categorized as politics or culture.

“I would argue that … in American politics all of our most divisive issues center on religion, morality and culture.”

Since Roe v. Wade, control of the U.S. Supreme Court has dominated presidential elections, he noted. “That’s because we’ve become so divided on moral and social issues that we can no longer compromise on anything.”

Journalists who understand the role of religion in these larger issues are needed, said Mattingly, because many in media consider religion to be “an imaginary world,” and religious beliefs to be just “political beliefs in disguise.”

Journalists too often ignore the history and factual moorings of religion by assuming it all to be opinion, he noted. As a result, they miss important elements of a story.

“I could give you the next hour just telling you very important religion stories in sports that people blew in national coverage.”

Mattingly gave one example: The signing of basketball star Kevin Durant by the Golden State Warriors in 2016, although it meant less money than he could have made elsewhere and sharing the ball with other star players.

Most reports, however, missed the relationship Durant had with those new teammates, he noted. And others downplayed it.

“One news agency had the crucial fact, but put it 26 paragraphs into their main story,” said Mattingly. “Oh, just by coincidence, those were the four guys in the same Bible study and prayer group on the U.S. Olympic Basketball Team.”

[Editor’s note: Durant recently left the Warriors to sign with the Brooklyn Nets.]

“I could go on and on and on, but the basic rule here is politics is real, religion is well, you know,” said Mattingly. “That’s how most of the American press view religion.”

Religion news coverage took a hit a decade or so ago when “the bottom fell out of the advertising market” and newspapers began shrinking significantly, said Mattingly.

“The basic equation here is that news is expensive because you have to pay real people to do real work to produce copy that has attribution and facts and all that,” he noted. “Opinion is cheap. Just get people to write outlandish things, highly opinionated things, people will click forward to make other people mad and you only have to pay them a freelance stipend.”

“So news is expensive, opinion is cheap,” he continued. “Well, you can see what that does to religion. They already thought religion was opinion and feeling and emotion, … so why not save more money?”

The number of religion writers in America has fallen tremendously, said Mattingly, and the “signature agency to cover religion, the [now] non-profit group, Religion News Service,” is increasingly opinion-focused.

“I’m afraid the economics has pushed us even further into the world of opinion.”

“Mainline churches have been committing demographic suicide for about the last 40 years,” said Mattingly. “The question is why is that?”

Recently, he was asked by Catholic News Agency to speak with staff and directors about the four or five biggest issues affecting Catholic life in America.

“You expect the sexual abuse crisis to be issue number one, but I actually got to that one last,” said Mattingly. “I wanted them to see all the other stuff.”

The first two, he said, apply to moderate Baptists and mainline denominations as well.

“Number one is demographics, and by that I primarily mean birthright.” He encouraged congregations to find the ratio between active members and those under age 15 in the church.

“There’s no set number you’re looking for here, but in the mainline world there are hardly any children under that age,” he said.

“Whereas, I go to an Eastern Orthodox congregation in Oak Ridge, Tenn., which is probably 90 percent converts. We have about 120 in typical Sunday morning attendance and we have 75 children under the age of 15. Whatever that means, something is going on there that has to do with family life, an embracing of what I would consider counter-cultural family life.”

Second, said Mattingly, is to ask how many people did you baptize last year over the age of 21?

“If you’re not at least in the neighborhood of five to 10, you functionally have decided that infant baptism is the norm for your church and that you’re only going to bring people into your church at the age of 4, 5, 6. It’s amazing to me how young Baptists now think children can make their own decisions.”

The basic question here, said Mattingly, is whether families or adults in general are being brought into the faith.

Mattingly said there are three doctrinal questions he asks when covering controversies within Christian groups.

“Number one is did the resurrection actually happen? … Number two, the universalism question, is salvation found through Jesus alone? … And question number three — I wish this wasn’t it, but this is the question of our age — Is sex outside of marriage a sin? Notice, I didn’t say gay or straight. I didn’t say illegal or anything like that. I just asked the doctrinal question: Is sex outside of marriage a sin?”

“Ask those three questions and you will hear some of the most amazing attempts not to answer…,” Mattingly continued. “You’ll find out some very interesting information listening to people try not to answer those three questions.”

Functionally, he said, he sees the mainline Protestant world as essentially universalist and sterile now.

“That’s not a way to have a decent plan for church membership and survival,” he said. “Sorry to be blunt but — anybody want to argue?”

Mattingly tells his editors that the columns getting the most attention are ones about worship, such as changes in hymnals and worship styles.

“There’s a very interesting battle right now going on among conservative Lutherans in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church between what basically is the whole rock band and dry ice world of mega-church worship and a bunch of other people who have gone back to a reformed Catholic, very liturgical approach to worship.”

After speaking at a Missouri Synod Conference a year-and-a-half ago, Mattingly said he stayed afterwards for vespers and was surprised to hear an entire congregation of American Missouri Synod Lutherans singing the songs according to simplified Gregorian chant.

“It was beautiful,” he said, adding: “Of course I say that. I’m Eastern Orthodox, right? … In my congregation, new music is something from the last 600 years.”

There are also cultural war issues that get a lot of attention when he writes about them, he said, “anything related to religion and politics.”

However, Mattingly said the most interesting responses he receives are about church life — such as a recent column on pastors wrestling with the issues of smartphones and technology in their churches.

With the loss of advertising revenues, religion news relies largely on support from those who value and fund such coverage now. Lilly Foundation recently made a multi-million-dollar gift for this purpose that brings together the resources of Associated Press, Religion News Service and another communications organization.

“By definition, you’re talking about nonprofit news,” Mattingly said of this grant-funded venture. “You’re talking about news that is basically existing off of donations, which means people have a reason to support it, which means they want to see a certain viewpoint represented, right?”

Mattingly said his primary concern is the continual growth of opinion and advocacy journalism.

“I can’t imagine anything worse for American religion writing than having more of it and that all of it basically be opinion-based,” he said. “That, to me, would solidify the conviction in American editors that religion is not really news. It’s just another form of politics and is opinion.”

Regarding the particular funding of this new RNS/AP effort, he added: “I’m hopeful but extremely cautious after this announcement.”

When asked how one goes from being a Baylor-educated Baptist preacher’s kid to a practicing Eastern Orthodox Christian, Mattingly spoke favorably of his fuller faith journey.

Following the example of his “spiritual father” — the late Father Gordon Walker, a former Southern Baptist missionary who became an Antiochian Archpriest but never said a “single negative word about his Baptist heritage” — Mattingly expressed appreciation for this spiritual upbringing.

“And ironically, Walker Knight [founding editor of SBC Today, now Nurturing Faith Journal] published the piece in which I started my journey,” he added. “He published it as anonymous because he didn’t want my family hurt by people that would know the last name.”

Mattingly noted: “My brother is Don Mattingly who created Centrifuge and that entire kingdom within Baptist life. One of the only people who built anything that both the left and the right liked in the last 40 years is my brother.

“My sister, Deana, is well known in Baptist circles in Texas. Her husband, Bill Blackburn, used to work for the Christian Life Commission and was a prominent Baptist pastor. He’s now the mayor of Kerrville, Texas.”

Mattingly said he basically affirmed two things in his piece titled, “Why I can no longer be a Baptist.”

“I don’t believe in sola scriptura,” he said. “I don’t care what modern people think the Bible means. Luther said he wanted the view of the Bible of the typical person of their age; that is the last thing I want.… I want to know what the people who gave us the New Testament think it means.”

He quoted G.K. Chesterton saying, “Tradition is a democracy of the dead. You’re allowing the saints to vote.”

“That would sum up why I went to the Ancient Church.”

“The second thing is just simply a matter of beauty,” Mattingly added. “We live in an astonishingly ugly era of American culture, popular life, media, et cetera.

“Worship in the Eastern Orthodox Church is beautiful, and I sang in classical choirs from the age of 6 years old on up,” he said. “C.S. Lewis would say that my imagination was baptized by that music early on.”

“Beauty and a yearning,” said Mattingly, shape his spiritual experiences. NFJ

By John D. Pierce

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