Wind Sprints: On blasphemy and brisket (editor column)
June 24, 2016
He was an older gentleman. I didn't get his name. I did not get his forgiveness; at least not on that day.
Last week, a colleague came into my office to tell me a man was here who wanted to talk. "He doesn't seem happy," she told me as a warning. I walked out to meet him. "Let's go out here," he said, waving me into the building lobby.
With a pointed finger jabbing just inches of my face, he told me he could forgive misspelled words, errors of fact. They were just mistakes — everyone makes them. But this…
He then unfolded a crumpled article clipped from our paper. "Is that your picture?" he asked, his voice quavering. He was upset, and I knew where this was going. He had underlined a passage that he found deeply offensive, one drawing an analogy between Texans bellying up to a barbecue counter and Christians taking communion. "This is unforgivable. This is shameful," he said, raising his voice.
He was clearly hurt. I tried to offer an apology, but he declined to hear it. He got in his car and drove off. I wish I could have explained to him who I am and what I believe — that I got carried away and didn't intend to offend anyone, except maybe Texans.
You see, the fact is, I'm a Christian — a struggling one, a weak one, but a Christian nonetheless. I grew up Southern Baptist and went to the kind of churches that hold altar calls, submerge you fully in a tub of water for baptism, frown on dancing (I still like this one) and drinking (this one, not so much), and send young people door-to-door to witness to unbelievers. Eventually, I gravitated to more ancient forms of Christianity, the ones trumpeted by G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and Thomas Merton. I fell in love with the poetic language of Thomas Cranmer's "Book of Common Prayer" (I was an English major, so of course I did.) Though I've gone through intense periods of doubt, I've always ended up back in the pews of a church.
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Like politics, this subject is not something I talk about with many people — friends, neighbors or coworkers. It's personal, and I am ashamed to admit, a little embarrassing in this secular age.
Moreover, I want to maintain my objectivity as a journalist. My religion and my politics shouldn't impact my ability to cover the news.
My silence is a problem, though. Because I'm withholding about who I am, people are left to guess at it. Usually, I like it that way. But sometimes it backfires.
Maybe because of the way I look, or maybe because I'm a newspaper editor (who are typically to left of V.I. Lenin politically), people typically assume they know my deepest held convictions and beliefs.
Former sheriff John Minor, who is one of the funniest people in Summit County, once told me at an office-warming party for SDN headquarters that I was "becoming a full-blown herbivore" when he saw how long my hair had grown since he first met me. "Get a haircut hippie."
It was a funny line, but the clean-cut, Republican lawman no doubt predicated his remark on his assumption that I was on the left of the political and cultural spectrum. (For the record, I don't consume marijuana, though I know our readers think we cover the subject too often.)
At least three other readers who were hurt by the barbecue-communion line sent me emails. Because they didn't know my religious affiliation (how could they?) they could only guess I was taking a shot at their faith.
One reader wrote:
"While I understand your desire to find a humorous analogy to elevate the joys of the Frisco BBQ challenge, your attempt to relate it to a "religious" experience in your editorial on Saturday, "Smoke gets in your soul…," was unnecessarily offensive to the billions of Christians, particularly Catholics, who hold the many elements of their faith you mock to be sacred. … An apology is certainly in order."
Those readers were right. I wrote back to all of them, offering my apologies and some context. They were quick to forgive me once they understood where I was coming from. Here's a paraphrase of what I told them:
For the record, I believe Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world. I believe that communion is a holy sacrament. I hold fast to the Nicene Creed. I should have thought more about how my column might be perceived by other devout Christians who may not have an inkling of my own faith. To be honest, I was exaggerating for comic effect in my column. The idea was that Texans take barbecue more seriously than anything else, even religion. My intention was to make fun of Texans, not Christians. I'm very sorry that I was insensitive in making that point.
The upside of all this is it creates an opportunity for me to introduce you to someone who writes beautifully — and sensitively — about religion each week for the Summit Daily. For the past several months, we've run Suzanne Elizabeth Anderson's "Walking our faith" column in our Saturday religion section (turn to A29 to read it in today's paper). The Breckenridge resident discusses her faith with a passion, candor and originality that I couldn't ever hope to match. Even attempting to do so would make me deeply uncomfortable.
Maybe that's why so much religious imagery invaded a simple column about barbecue. I have to speak in code and come at things sideways. Maybe it's time I was a little more plainspoken. I'm not an herbivore, but I do enjoy a stiff drink. The next beer's on me. Politics, religion, maybe even barbecue — no subject is off-limits.
Ben Trollinger is the managing editor of the Summit Daily News. Contact him at (970) 668-4618 or at email@example.com.
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