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A need for literacy

A Jewish rabbi has a word for a secular age

A need for literacy

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks at a press conference in London (Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)

So a rabbi walks into a room full of journalists, turns a light on—and it’s no joke.

Lord Jonathan Sacks, for 22 years the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, was the keynote speaker for London’s 2019 Religion Media Festival this spring, one of those unheralded events that signifies more than it advertises. 

Sacks, a distinguished philosopher and member of the House of Lords, is a popular speaker on both sides of the Atlantic for his pungent take on religion in the 21st century. The 71-year-old rabbi hosted a BBC series on morality and has a TED talk on the meaning of worship with 1.8 million views. He’s not shy about confronting politicians or championing the cause of persecuted Christians. 

To the journalists in London he said, “We have been living for some time in an age of de-secularization—the one thing that no Enlightenment thinker or post-Enlightenment thinker thought was possible.” He was speaking after Muslim worshippers came under attack in New Zealand this spring, followed by Christian worshippers in Sri Lanka and Jews at a synagogue in Southern California.

The headlines increasingly reflect religious conflict, including violence of the worst kind, yet journalists and others miss the cues, Sacks said. In 1989 with focus on the fall of the Berlin Wall, most of us failed to grasp the significance of two other events: the fatwa issued by Iranian clerics against author Salman Rushdie and Russia’s pullout from Afghanistan. “Osama bin Laden saw a handful of mujahedeen could defeat one of the two great superpowers of the world,” said Sacks, “and thus began the thought that became 9/11.” 

Such events show “religion is a global phenomenon whereas governments are only national phenomenon,” Sacks said. Yet the pundits were “not reading the religious map or hearing the religious music.”

It’s important that journalists are getting a wake-up on the importance of faith. “Our aim was to explore the challenges in reporting and reflecting religious belief and life in the UK,” said Ruth Peacock of the Religion Media Centre, the group hosting the festival. It’s only the second year for such an event, and each has been well attended by top media leaders, she told me. 

Besides “a worrying rise” in anti-Semitism in the UK and other headline stories, Peacock said there’s new interest in how local churches are helping refugees, running food banks, and other community-based efforts. She said, “There is an acknowledged need for greater religious literacy in the media and in fact, in all of society.”

In the United States promoting religious literacy among journalists has been the work of the Faith Angle Forum—a program of the Ethics & Public Policy Center—for much longer, since 1999. When Rabbi Sacks spoke to that group in 2015, the session went long because so many journalists, including legendary ones like Washington Post commentator E.J. Dionne, had questions. 

At WORLD, as we commence our 21st annual World Journalism Institute college course, sharpening our skills at reporting and communicating from a Biblical perspective is a daily—often hourly—discipline. We remain apprentices, not experts.

This is a welcome challenge. Religious tension feeds national rancor. Our deeply held values feel under threat. Yet Christians, feeling besieged, can become known for their lack of love instead of their love, a love that makes a positive case for Christianity’s merits. We live inside a great story of redemption!

The popularity of a Lord Sacks or a Jordan Peterson rightly encourages and chastises us. They outside the Christian faith are tapping into the desperation of our age, asking the right questions. As did the “devout men from every nation under heaven” gathered in Jerusalem at Pentecost (Acts 2), they say, simply and profoundly, “What does this mean?”

For all the conflict and violence running under the banner of religion, what a time to be alive—reading the religious map and hearing the religious music; exploring the connections between thought, belief, and practice; and seeing those who do not believe in God report as though He exists, because the stories of our time and the hunger in our souls demand it.


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  • John Kloosterman
    Posted: Mon, 06/03/2019 02:53 am

    Jonathon Sacks is an amazing speaker with many excellent insights.  This info about the UK media's new interest in religion is heartening to me for many reasons.

  •  phillipW's picture
    Posted: Mon, 06/03/2019 09:03 am

    I'd be happy with religious literacy within the church, let alone literacy with the media.  Ignorance and apathy of their own religion is a Christian trademark in most churches I have attended.  And sadly, it's getting worse and worse, as people simply do not even read anything anymore, let alone a Bible, or anything religious.