Orthodoxy in Dialogue is pleased to introduce Jacob McNair of Toronto to our readers around the world. He is a young Orthodox Christian in the final stage of his Master of Journalism.


Jacob McNair

Mary Hynes sits with a cup of tea in a cozy, burgundy-walled studio at CBC’s Toronto offices. She’s interviewing Paul Bramadat, a professor at the University of Victoria, about his study of the spiritual demographics of Cascadia, the Pacific Northwest region encompassing British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. It’s a segment for her radio show Tapestry, where she talks to Canadians about religion, spirituality, philosophy, psychology, and all other aspects of the “messy business of being human.” Even though Bramadat is phoning in from across the continent, Hynes keeps the tone personal—as if he’s sitting right there with her. While Bramadat’s initial answers revolve around mechanics and data, Hynes’s informal, caring tone and questions pry him away from his prepared answers. When asked about the area’s distinctive spiritual trends, he notes, “the influence of what I call ‘reverential naturalism,’ which is to say, that being out in nature is not just a place where one does a spirituality or religion, but it is a medium through which [spirituality or religion] is done.”

Hynes asks for an example, commenting, “I guess the image that’s coming to my mind is, you have everything! You have the ocean, you have the mountains. You know, this part of the world is pretty spectacular in terms of natural beauty. So how does that shape a sense of spirituality?”

“I moved here about 10 years ago, and most professors teach, and were taught, that everything is a social construction—”

“Sorry, where did you move from?” interrupts Hynes.

“I moved from Winnipeg, where I spent about 30 years of my life, but I’ve lived also in Quebec, and in the Hamilton area.” Bramadat goes on to describe how, on moving to B.C., he noticed a number of drivers unironically using a B.C. licence plate with the motto, “The Best Place on Earth,” which was offered by the government from 2007 to 2011. He believes it “does really capture the way in which people think about this place, and so it just led me to think, ‘Well, is there anything about this place which might be distinctive from the various other places I’ve lived?’ I love the prairies, I love that landscape, but it’s a place of horizontal and somewhat elusive beauty. It requires your attention. In Cascadia, the beauty doesn’t really require your attention—it reaches in and kind of grabs it.”

“I know your focus is the historical and political context,” says Hynes, taking an even more personal tack, “but that’s exactly what I’m going to ask you to step away from for a couple of minutes, because I’m wondering about a time you might have felt being taken out of yourself. Having a moment that was so arresting, so sublime … so kick the prof to the curb for a second and just be Paul: tell me about a time when you were just gobsmacked by the geographical place you were in.”

“Well, one of the real challenges to this question,” Bramadat replies, “is not just that you’re asking me to not be a religious studies professor; the bigger challenge is how frequently it happens. So when I used to run, I’d be running with my son who would be, say, eight years old, and we’d be running along the oceanside, and there would be Mount Baker in the distance, and seagulls and seals and maybe a whale, and the pounding of the surf, and I would actually stop him, and I would say,”—Bramadat’s voice drops to a whisper—“‘Max. Look at this. Pay attention. This is not normal.’ And he had been here for three or four years at this point, and he would just shrug his shoulders and say, ‘Dad, this is just Saturday.’

“Having those moments as a parent, where you’re trying to pass on this sense of majesty and the sublime to somebody for whom this is just what his neighbourhood looks like,” Bramadat continues, “that’s tricky, but certainly, when I’m on my own, there are moments when I just stop, get off my bike and stand there, and just think, not just, ‘My goodness, am I ever lucky,’ but ‘What is happening here? How am I being challenged to see myself not simply as a consumer of this moment, but rather as something that is transformed, transfixed by that experience?’”

Spiritual encounters like this—whether or not they involve a distinguishable God—are part of the lives of millions of Canadians, even in British Columbia, where about 44 percent of the population is non-religious, nearly double the overall Canadian average according to the 2011 National Household Survey. Yet all too often, the statement, “We don’t get religion,” made by The New York Times’s executive editor Dean Baquet to NPR in 2016, seems to hold true in Canada as well. “We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives. And I think we can do much, much better.”

A recent Angus Reid survey, for example, found that a majority of Canadians in seven provinces (except B.C., Ontario, and Quebec) believe religion should have at least “some influence” on public life, and 48 percent believe religious communities are at least “as relevant as ever” in addressing social issues like poverty and homelessness. But in a country where religious diversity is being driven upward by newcomers from around the world, the number of survey respondents who said they “didn’t know anything/understand very little” about a particular religion increased sharply for non-Judeo-Christian religions: 67 percent of respondents knew little or nothing about Hinduism, and 74 percent about Sikhism. Forty-six percent of respondents said they knew nothing or understood very little about Islam, and about the same percentage said the same about Judaism. But while only 12 percent believed Judaism was damaging Canadian society, 46 percent believed Islam was, and nearly two-thirds believed Islam’s influence to be growing in Canada.

Despite all this, there are few Canadian journalists assigned to religion beats who have developed the expertise to discuss religion and spirituality in depth.

The modern religion beat is messy and diverse, not institutional enough to cover using older methods. I’ve spoken to some of Canada’s remaining religion reporters—both newcomers and old hands—to find out how they’ve learned to cover the spiritual journeys of modern Canadians.

Much of Canada’s remaining religion reporting comes from the denominational press, who are, in some ways, closer to the complexity of lived religion than any other news publication: from The Anglican Journal to The United Church Observer, from Muslim Canadian News toTestimony Magazine of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, reporters at religious news organizations know the tension between the doctrinally-unified identity of the religious body they’re reporting for and the diverse on-the-ground lives of the members they’re reporting on.

Yoni Goldstein, the editor of the Canadian Jewish News (CJN)—the country’s only national Jewish paper—has a lot of experience with the messiness of the religion beat. The CJNmandates the representation of Canadian Judaism’s diversity. As Goldstein points out, “different Jews approach their Judaism in very different ways. For some, it’s a deep-seated religious belief; for many others, it’s cultural connections; and for a large swath of both of those people, there’s a middle area where there’s some religion and also a lot of cultural interest and connections.”

In terms of representation, this has meant abolishing unsigned editorials so that all opinions in the CJN come from a distinct source, including, for a time, political editorials by Mira Sucharov, a writer known for being critical of Israeli policy. Religion, however, has been the chief way in which the CJN encapsulates its readers’ diversity. Every weekly issue of the paper includes “Rabbi to Rabbi,” a dialogue between rabbis of different denominations (and genders) on issues from cremation to mental illness to the Super Bowl. The back of each issue also includes multiple commentaries on the week’s Torah readings. Even if the CJN isn’t read outside the Canadian Jewish community, it allows different parts of that community to engage with each other’s understandings of faith.

Where the CJN caters to any level of religious devotion, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation has one foot past the line between news and outright evangelism. You realize this immediately on walking into the office, where Jesus and the saints watch over you from virtually every shelf, wall, and cabinet. Founded in 2003 by Father Thomas Rosica—a Roman Catholic priest—and financed entirely by donors (including the Gagliano, Longo, and Weston families), Salt and Light pitches its video, magazine, and radio content as primarily for teaching non-Catholics about the faith, as well as for continuing the education of its Catholic audience. After walking through Salt and Light’s quiet, spacious new offices in Toronto, past the boardroom from which the chapel is always visible through a glass wall, I meet Rosica in his office, together with Emilie Callan, Salt and Light’s community outreach ambassador.

Rosica intends Salt and Light as a rebuttal to accusations that Catholic media has an inward-focused, “ship-is-going-down” outlook, that it has given up on the wider world. Instead, while Salt and Light does cover Catholic news like current events in the Vatican or canonizations, its real goal is to report on the work of people in the Church that are doing and saying things right now that will capture the world’s attention, especially the work of young people. ‘They would be the torchbearers because people will listen to young people who speak about the faith better than they’ll listen to [older nuns and priests],” he says, sliding a stack of Salt and Light magazines across the table. Although most of the articles are written by people of different ages (with content written in Cantonese, Mandarin, French, and Italian), the latest issue is a “youth edition” written almost entirely by young adults, and the articles are about everything from the importance of giving young laypeople the opportunity to get involved in their parishes to the experiences of a young Catholic lesbian.

Rosica and Callan also see Salt and Light’s role as helping to improve the secular news coverage of the Church. “That’s a real responsibility for Catholic media,” Callan says, “because Catholic language is not part of our culture, necessarily. It’s not as well known.”

Rosica adds, “One of the goals here is that we’re training young Catholics to speak for the faith.”

Rosica isn’t one to heap criticism on the secular media. He frequently acts as an official source—including a four-year stint as English language media attaché during the Benedict-Francis transition—and has never felt prevented from getting a Catholic message across. However, he says that he does find himself pushing for reporters to dig deeper and do more research in stories about Catholicism. “My role with the media is to say, ‘I want you to be a good journalist.’ One of the things I do is when a journalist gets the story right is I call them. No matter how complex, how difficult the story is, ‘You did a good job at this,’’’ he says, “and if they don’t, I’ll say, ‘Hey, look, why’d you do this?’ ‘Well, I had to get it done right away,’ or whatever. One of my roles is providing names for people when there’s a story and coaching media on how to go about things so they don’t hang up the phone on you.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that reporters outside the field of religious journalism aren’t as comfortable diving into these communities—even to dig up less evangelistic stories than those produced by Salt and Light. Religion scholars like Joyce Smith, a journalism professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, have theories about why religion journalists have increasingly struggled to wrap their heads around Canada’s changing religious landscape.

“Religion seldom gets covered on its own terms, and by that I mean that it’s generally in a hyphenated context with something else,” Smith comments. “It’s religion and education; or religion and bioethics; or religion and Middle-Eastern-conflict. It’s always religion-and, and there’s not a lot of coverage of the religion. So, what happens in religious communities? What are people’s beliefs and how are they evolving?”

A big reason for the decline of religion reporting over the past few decades is that religion reporting of the mid-20th century was overwhelmingly institution-based: in fact, in the 1960s and 1970s, the ultimately unsuccessful progress of unification talks between Canada’s Anglican and United churches was covered by many prominent publications, including The New York Times, made some front pages, while smaller papers often reported on Sunday sermons in local churches. Smith notes that the United States saw a temporary increase in the number of dedicated religion reporters after the beginning of the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 and the police siege of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas in 1993.

Canada, however, lacked comparable events that stirred newsrooms to reconsider the place religion occupies, and only the biggest papers maintained it as a beat….

Continue reading at the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

This article appeared on June 22, 2018 on the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

Jacob McNair is near the completion of his MJ (Master of Journalism) at Ryerson University in Toronto. He holds a BA in Political Science and Government from the University of Toronto, with minors in history and religion. As a student he produced the Canada Day 2017 special for Because News on CBC Radio One. His main journalistic interests focus on the intersections of religion and politics. He is also interested in civil rights and social action, disaster and humanitarian relief, economic empowerment, and human rights. He attends Holy Myrrhbearers mission parish (OCA) in Toronto.

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