Religion commentator’s 15th anniversary of rewards, risks
Vail Daily writers come and go faster than a summer storm pelting the mountains. Several editors have invited me to write during the past 15 years. First published July 20, 1991, I discovered the Vail Daily travels the globe like The New York Times. World travelers to the Vail Valley take copies with them.Andrew Hood served as my first editor. He went on to distinguish himself as an international reporter on the Tour de France circuit. Andy asked me if I could meet a rigorous weekly deadline. I haven’t missed it yet, although gremlins cause occasional lapses in publishing my commentaries. Like racers in the Tour de France who find glory wearing the yellow jacket and gore when crashing, I receive from readers accolades and literary acid thrown in my face. I wasn’t a newspaper rookie when I started writing for the Vail Daily. A few years into ordained Presbyterian ministry, when gas lines stretched miles and the Vietnam War casualties spiked, I started writing commentaries on the East Coast near Princeton.People smarter than I am warned me not to pick up the pen. They believed God would have done me a favor if he had broken every knuckle on my writing hand. Though I had much potential in ministry, my popularity would nosedive if I continued to write in the secular press. Some readers take their religion seriously. If their convictions are challenged, they strike back in print or with anonymous threats couched in Bible verses. Tend the vineyard where God has called you, advised my mentors. Stay in the pulpit. Stick to the sanctuary. Stay popular by avoiding controversy. Write as little as you can get away with. Then critics won’t take you to the woodshed. Early on in ministry, a veteran preacher shared his wisdom for success with me. He had effectively been pastor in his church for almost four decades. He took me out to lunch and related his recipe for his staying power without getting into trouble. Rule No. 1 is: Don’t write. He rarely even wrote notes in the church newsletter. He said parishioners interpret what preachers write in weirdly negative ways. Why give them a target? Cushy pulpits won’t open for clergy who write, taking stands that rile readers.Another ministerial buddy visited me when the secular press started publishing my commentaries in the 1970s. He told me how not to get fired. He confessed he rarely read controversial literature, never put his sermons in print and calmed down before Sunday worship by playing tennis just before the service began. He also regularly attended parishioners’ anniversaries and birthdays. Churches love a good clergy social director.Soon I learned how writing about religion and politics invites storms of criticism. Most of it has been fair. Occasionally, very reasoned and articulate. I appreciate feedback from readers who, when irked by my perspectives, are goaded to think more deeply about a hot topic because of what I write.Who are my loudest cheerleaders and nastiest critics? Clergy. Some ministers confess that I write what they have never dared to publicly say. Last month a bishop told me how, by depicting Jefferson, I voiced incendiary views he has suggested over 40 years to ignite among parishioners. My voice multiplies, becoming a sounding board for preachers who bite their tongues when controversy erupts.Other ministers dash off unsigned letters or work in clandestine ways to make a current commentary my last one. Their misgivings usually fall into two predictable categories. Some are embarrassed how I air church dirty laundry. They have made a career of looking the other way when what’s inane or sinful is paraded as truth in churches. I am too much of an insider. I spot religious hi-jinks camouflaged under pious malarkey. Other ministers get miffed because commentaries I write teach readers how to think about Christ, not what to think of him. These ministers reveal high mental insecurity. If I dare not think their way, I should hit the highway out of print.Still, a majority of readers who take time to reply to commentaries tell how a phrase here or an anecdote there helped them sort through complicated religious questions. If they do correct me, it’s using a soft glove rather than a steel fist. Such readers love to think, brood, muse and wrestle with truth. They find Christ appealing, as a helper along life’s rough ways, rather than a crutch propping up narrow, crabbed opinions.When religious leaders accosted Jesus, he asked, “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of their elders?” (Matthew 15:2). I test religious traditions, exposing how popular religion peddles what’s screwy rather than what’s spiritually healthy and true. Besides depending upon an orthodox Christian biblical perspective, I lean on Dr. Suess for wisdom. Children’s books offer nuggets of truth more than the dross of turgid, tired prose theologians pass off as divinely inspired. Observed Suess, “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”The span during which I have written in the secular press runs from the Vietnam War to the War in Iraq. Official religion has justified both wars with unjustifiable arguments. Consequently, I take Jesus seriously and not so seriously official religion church hierarchies endorse. I aim to correct what’s silly, simplistic, sappy, scurrilous, superstitious and sanctimonious in religion. I’ll never run out of material. Milton scholar Stan Wiersma, my Calvin College English literature professor noted, “When you are too sure about God and faith, you are sure of something other than God: of dogma, of the church, of a particular interpretation of the Bible. But God cannot be pigeonholed. We must press toward certainty, but be suspicious when it comes too glibly.” I comment on things of God, combating what’s religiously glib or grievously wrong. The Reverend Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the non-profit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.