For the second Saturday in a row, The New York Times surprises me with unpredictable (for the Times) and engaging religion journalism.
Last week Mark Oppenheimer profiled Eve Tushnet, a Catholic lesbian writer in Washington who is happily and openly gay, and happily and openly chaste. Excerpt:
But it is on her blog that a small but presumably learned readership finds her most ambitious writing: lengthy, often obscure, for gay love, against same-sex marriage, and serious about Scripture, saints and medieval philosophy. She writes about obscure Hungarian fiction (“Janos Nyiri’s ‘Battlefields and Playgrounds’ is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time.”) and struggles in print with St. Anselm’s “ontological proof” of the existence of God.
It is not simple to embrace both traditional Catholicism and unrepentant, if sex-free, gayness. For example, Ms. Tushnet finds it difficult to interest fellow Catholics in their church’s theology of friendship, as articulated in books like St. Aelred’s “On Spiritual Friendship.” She says that when she talks to people about the religious importance of same-sex closeness, “they look at you like you’re trying to get married in the church.” And few of her friends share both her theology and her predilections for Edmund White, Jean Genet and the Smiths.
She may befuddle others, but for her, life is joyful. She takes obvious pleasure in being an eccentric in a tradition with no shortage of odd heroes, visionaries and saints. “You can be really quite strange, and the Catholic church will canonize you eventually,” she says.
This really is a wonderful piece of journalism. I very much doubt Mark Oppenheimer agrees in the least with Eve Tushnet on the subject of homosexuality and religion, so what was so good about this piece is that he suspended judgment, and let Eve speak for herself. I’m so used to seeing in the Times pieces of cultural and religious journalism that take the position — either in subject matter of how the piece is framed — that would neither surprise nor challenge your average Manhattan secular liberal. But the actual world is far more diverse. Whether or not you agree with Eve’s take on life, it’s refreshing to learn about it from the newspaper, and to encounter a piece of religio-cultural journalism in the Times that one feels is not about trying to lead one to a particular conclusion, but rather simply to examine the world as it is.
The Times surprised me again this morning with Katherine Zoepf’s piece from Saudi Arabia, profiling a Saudi woman who is campaigning against expanded rights for women. [For some reason, on the website it's listed as having been published on May 31; it's in this morning's print version of the Times, however]. Excerpt:
Surprising, too, are the complexities turned up by the debate, which go far beyond what some Saudis see as the simplistic Western argument that women are simply entitled to more rights.
Take Ms. Yousef. She is a 39-year-old divorced mother of three (aged 13, 12 and 9) who volunteers as a mediator in domestic abuse cases. A tall, confident woman with a warm, effusive manner and sparkling stiletto-heeled sandals, her conversation, over Starbucks lattes, ranges from racism in the kingdom (Ms. Yousef has Somali heritage and calls herself a black Saudi) to her admiration for Hillary Rodham Clinton to the abuse she says she has suffered at the hands of Saudi liberals.
She believes firmly that most Saudis share her conservative values but insists that adherence to Shariah law and family custom need not restrict a woman seeking a say. Female campaigners in the reform camp, she says, are influenced by Westerners who do not understand the needs and beliefs of Saudi women.
“These human rights groups come, and they only listen to one side, those who are demanding liberty for women,” she said.
Set aside whether or not you agree with Ms. Yousef’s crusade. What makes this such a useful report is found in that line I quoted at the end. It’s not what people like me and thee (I’m betting) want to hear, but it’s what we need to hear, to remind ourselves that the world is more complex than we prefer to think. The story discusses how Saudi society is constituted, psychologically and culturally, and why the sort of thing that seems perfectly obvious to us in the West — that women should have more rights and liberties — is by no means obvious to Saudi men and women. Here’s the last graf from that report:
Yet Ms. Fahad conceded that most Saudi women cleave to tradition. “If you actually talk to ordinary people,” including in her circle, she said, “you’ll find that most people want things to stay the same.”
That’s true about human nature in general, isn’t it? People like Eve Tushnet and Rowdha Yousef aren’t supposed to exist. But they do. Readers of the Times need to know about them, and to take them seriously. I would rather have journalism that seeks to explain the world as it is, without cheerleading, implicitly or explicitly, for a culturally liberal or culturally conservative narrative. American newspapers, especially the Times, so often fail in this regard (for example!), so it’s important to praise them when they get it right.
Over to you, GR…