Friday, 7 August 2020  

God is not my Buddy

Kenneth L. Woodward has been responsible for Newsweek’s Religion section since 1964. He has reported from five continents, producing more than 40 cover stories as well as articles on a variety of subjects, including the family. He has written on the whole life cycle of Jesus in various cover stories: the birth, the death, the parables and the miracles — even the image of Jesus in other world religions.

A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Woodward graduated with honors from Notre Dame University in 1957. Over the years Woodward has lectured at over 40 colleges and universities. In 1993 he was Regents Visiting Professor in the Religious Studies Department at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Woodward has contributed numerous articles and book reviews to publications such as Commonweal, America, The Critic, McCall’s, GEO, Smithsonian, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Woodward is co-author, with child psychiatrist Arthur Kornhaber, M.D., of Grandparents/ Grandchildren: The Vital Connection (Doubleday, 1981), a study of the three-generation family. More recently, Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn’t, and Why (Touchstone, 1996) and The Book of Miracles: The Meaning of the Miracle Stories in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam (Simon & Schuster, 2000).

We got him on the phone while he inspected the bald patches of grass in his back yard at his home outside New York City.

Homiletics: Is the church becoming irrelevant, or does it still pack a wallop?

Woodward: I don’t think it packs a wallop, but I don’t think it’s irrelevant. The statistics that impress me most, the work done by a trio of political scientists (who happen to be evangelicals) came up with the best pie chart in all this. They try to define levels of religiosity if you will, which is a hard thing for a social scientist to do, but in any case, they said about 30 percent of the population have nothing to do with religion or are anti-religious, about 25 percent are religious, and the rest are sort of what Sen. Eugene McCarthy said of people of religion in Washington: “People with strong opinions vaguely worded and vague beliefs strongly affirmed.” So when you’re talking about 25 percent of Americans, that’s a lot of people!

But we’re not talking about Mother Teresas here. We’re talking about people who, depending upon the situation, go to church regularly or whatever the measure of commitment is. I think we need to keep that in mind. That’s why we can be very religious and very secular at the same time.

Homiletics: Who was the most devout president during your tenure at Newsweek?

Woodward: Jimmy Carter. He taught Sunday school while he was still president. So there’s no question about it. The Washington Post carried an interview with him and he said he was a born-again Christian and they thought he was a member of a cult of some kind. The phrase simply didn’t register on their radar screen.

Homiletics: Religion journalists don’t always seem to be biblically literate.

Woodward: It’s hard to say. I still talk to people who get asked idiot questions. They are asked questions that betray a set of cultural assumptions.

But having said that, there are probably a lot more thoughtful and competent religion reporters around today than there were 38 years ago when I went to Newsweek.

It seems to me that religion is never separated from culture. In those towns where you’ve got more Baptists than people, religion sets the tone of the culture, the environment there, right? To cover religion well you have to know more than religion. It certainly would help to know a little theology, but it can be very frustrating. “Say something theological to me, baby!” To talk about theology in a way that editors can understand — I think we can do that, but we’ve got to be cunning and wily about it.

So I think in the old days — to get back to your question — there were probably people, in fact I’ve run across people many times who thought of writing about religion as a “ministry.” Or, some people of an evangelical background will say to me, “You have a wonderful ministry, Ken.” I thought it was a job. There are more competent people, but there is a big, big difference between journalists who write for newspapers and those who write for magazines. There are a few national magazines, and that’s a whole separate culture. There’s a level of education and sophistication. The demand for that is much greater.

Homiletics: Let’s talk about sermons —

Woodward: Let me get back to your first question. What we’re seeing today is people turning to churches to help them raise their kids. Churches do focus groups or canvass the neighborhood to see what people want, and they give it to them. What they want are facilities for kids, a big parking lot, they don’t want the service to be too long, they certainly don’t want the sermon to be too long. And in one place we studied, they wanted the Bible to be short, and they touted a cut version. It was a Baptist church, and with that label they decided they were going downhill so they changed it to a community church, which is the fastest growing group of churches in the country.

Homiletics: So sermons have been getting shorter?

Woodward: I suppose they have. Go back to the first half of the 19th century. Sunday you go to church and you want to hear a good sermon and you felt cheated if you didn’t. Obviously there wasn’t much competition for that time slot, or for your entertainment hours. Let’s not forget that preaching is a performance art. I never forget it because I don’t like performances, but that’s what it is. To explain what I mean, let me tell you a story.

I remember many years ago going to a Southern Baptist convention that was in Dallas, I think. The main speaker was Billy [Graham] himself. Billy was really “off” that day. I was waiting for the big punch line, “Come forward,” and when it came I went forward myself to see what they would do. I looked around and there were a lot of high-school and college kids holding hands, walking down together, bowing their heads and all of that. It was the biggest emotional letdown. It was very bureaucratic. I went down. I gave them my name. They had a form in triplicate for me to fill out. And that was it. I thought they were going to huddle and do something, but they didn’t do anything.

In any case, that wasn’t what I learned. There were people who were back from the mission [field] for R & R, and they hadn’t heard a good sermon preached for a long time. Something was missing in their lives. That’s what I would call living in the throat of an aural/oral culture which is what Protestant, especially evangelical, Christianity is.

One time when I interviewed Billy, he was cutting tapes of a crusade he’d done at the University of Tennessee during the first Nixon administration. It was the only state university that Nixon visited in his first four years, other than one in South Dakota. The Baptists and other churches rented the stadium, and they invited Billy, and Billy in turn invited the president, and the president in turn invited senators and representatives, including Democrats who were playing ball with him politically. There was a lot of anti-war sentiment, of course, and some of the foot soldiers got up and beat up the protesters for Jesus. Garry Wills wrote about it in Esquire.

Anyway, we were watching the tapes of this in Los Angeles at a studio. He hadn’t been to church that Sunday — preachers don’t go to church on Sunday (the cooks eat their own soup) — so I asked him, “Billy, what do you see when you watch yourself on television?”

He said, “Well, I don’t see myself. I see Jesus speaking through me.” That was my first clue, coming from a Catholic background, that really these [sermons] are verbal sacraments. This is the way Christ is made present. The whole [Protestant] culture is like that. You can give them bread and wine until the wee hours of the morning and they wouldn’t feel like they’d been to church if they hadn’t heard a sermon.

I come from the opposite tradition. I could certainly dispense with the sermon. I’m well-tutored in the liturgy, and I know what the liturgy is supposed to do, even if it’s the God-forsaken contemporary liturgy that we’ve got.

Homiletics: You said once that sermons make you cranky.

Woodward: Well, I’m cranky about sermons because I’d rather not have to listen to them, to be honest with you. I recognize the ministry of the Word, but I have so seldom heard a decent sermon that I’d just as soon get rid of it. When my kids were young, I’d pinch them during the sermon. They’d scream and I would take them out of church.

Homiletics: Are there any sermons you remember?

Woodward: I don’t remember Broadway musicals either, so it’s not a fair question. I don’t remember a sermon that really moved me.

Homiletics: Given the fact that preachers are likely to continue preaching, is it possible to reach a curmudgeon like you?

Woodward: I suppose the masses I like the best are the Trappist monastery ones. There are some lines in Yeats about “speech after long silence.” It seems to me that church life, either Protestant or Catholic is a) too busy, b) too noisy, c) too chummy. I really like majestic sounds coming out of silence.

So the Protestant worship service is essentially oral, and that includes hymns. That’s why you can muck with my theology, but don’t mess with my hymnal. You’ve seen the problems, like with the UCC hymnal changes. I mean, how can you be a biblical people and say “We’re so trendy, we don’t want God as king. We don’t have one in the United States.” Well, so what?

Anyway, your audience, as I understand it, would miss it if there weren’t a sermon. Catholics go to mass during the week, and one of the best parts of that is there was no sermon. Now they’ve decided to chat it up for five minutes. You know, not that many people have that much to say. They really, really don’t.

Homiletics: Is the problem that preachers aren’t culturally aware?

Woodward: First of all, I don’t want to be robbed. Pentecostals go to Catholic mass, and they say, “I’ve haven’t been to church because I ain’t got moved.” Well, I don’t want that. I get moved all the time. I would rather not be moved. Or, if it’s going to be, it’s going to be liturgical. I’m not there for my personal thing. I can stay home and pray by myself. I think of church as a place where you go to be with people you’d rather not be with the rest of the week. What I like is this: Look at the Bible. Any old, ancient, sacred text folds in on itself. It’s an echo chamber of recurrent themes. That’s why you get the rabbis studying Torah. It’s a separate world. Same is true of the sutras. So what you want is an insight into that, and an insight that you don’t already have. Or a connecting of insights.

I also hate lectionaries. The reason I do — I understand why we have them — is that they chop the gospels into little pieces, and sometimes you can’t make the connection between what went before and what comes after. You simply can’t get a sense of the gospel as a whole. Most sermons don’t do that.

Sometimes there’s no preparation. I have a hard time criticizing because people say, “Well, you know all of this stuff.” Well, maybe. But insight is a different kind of thing.

We had some kids murdered in the village I lived in and we had priests coming in on Sundays and this one guy didn’t allude to it at all. You have to know when to allude to stuff and when not to, because I don’t want to hear preachers talking about contemporary affairs. I don’t need to be told what I should think about this stuff. You can’t avoid 9/11, but what are you going to say? People say, “Well where was God?” Well, where is God in the Sudan? Or Eritrea where more people are dying of starvation, more cases of God-neglect than this terrorist act of war? So I normally don’t want preachers to get too topical.

The other thing is that clerics are not always in the best position to talk about things. Like economics. They don’t realize what they don’t know.

Homiletics: But that seems to be what a lot of churches do these days — comment on every social and political issue from school vouchers, foreign policy, Chief Wahoo —

Woodward: I will be happy to comment on Chief Wahoo. These are people who don’t have anything to do or talk about who take on issues like that. Denominational statements make these sorts of pronouncements, but I’m not sure about churches. Albert Outler went to Vatican II as an observer. So years ago I wanted to do a cover story on Methodism. So I called Al. He said to me, “Ken, you gotta understand something, Ken. Deep down, even the most liberal Catholics, the Holy Mother Church is still — doggone it! — the Holy Mother Church. Protestants, on the other hand, distrust the structures they’ve created.” I didn’t know that. I’d read Zwingli and so forth. What happens in the UCC, for example, no one pays attention to that stuff. That’s just the way it is. We are, as Americans, congregational. And that includes Catholics (“What parish are you from?”). That’s the map of Chicago. It’s the map of Cleveland where I grew up. And that’s okay.

Homiletics: Does theology matter? That is, at the grass-roots level do Methodists care what Presbyterians believe?

Woodward: I’m afraid the colors of the rainbow are gone, disappeared. The denominational label used to be the scotch in the drink; now it’s the ice cube. Look, the ecumenical movement began as an intra-Protestant movement, and it was well under way in 1964 when I went to Newsweek. It must have been really exciting for the people who participated in this. I mean a guy like Eugene Carson Blake skinnied up the ladder of Presbyterianism. There was this new thing called the National Council of Churches, and the World Council of Churches. We’ve got to remember that Methodists distanced themselves from Presbyterians and certainly Lutherans from Methodists and Presbyterians. We all grew up in enclaves. Today everybody’s embarrassed to acknowledge that. I’m not. I think it’s a terrific way to grow up. But those divisions had to be overcome. “Unity in the essentials” and all that stuff.

I’ll tell you the story. I swear to God I heard this. It was a Sunday preacher on the radio (we were driving from Pennsylvania to Ohio). The guy — a Presbyterian — was talking about the great ecumenical movement, the great hymns, you know, that we played on God’s organ, and “we Presbyterians,” he said, “are just one pull on God’s organ.” I swear he said that. He probably said “stop,” but I heard “pull.”

So when you say you’re one pull on God’s organ, when you say “We are the way, the truth and the life,” when you’re exclusivist, you’re going to go farther. You may bloody a few noses. The Catholic Church is caught in a terrible bind right now with the pope and Ratzinger, saying “What is our attitude toward Hinduism and Buddhism?” Or for that matter, what about Jews and proselytizing in that direction? To put it crudely, you better believe at some level you’re the one, true church, or it’s going to be hard to sustain growth other than through sentimentality and family ties. And that’s what happening.

Homiletics: Yet the church is moving away from some its core beliefs. We’ve lost a sense of sin, for example.

Woodward: I think I’ve said that a lot of places. They don’t want to hear that, you know. They want to hear “God is love. God loves you.” I’m going to retch the next time I hear that. I really am. Dorothy Day used to quote Dostoevsky: “The love of God is a harsh and dangerous love.” We are so accustomed to “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and God as our Buddy — it’s a kind of intimacy I’m not sure is earned. In trying to catechize the young, they’ve allowed a lot of that stuff to overflow from the catechizing of the young to talking to adults that way.

Homiletics: Who is the most interesting person you’ve interviewed?

Woodward: The two most interesting people that I’ve gotten to know as well as interviewed are Rabbi Abraham Heschel and the Dalai Lama. Heschel I met when I was in my early 30s and he became a sort of mentor for things Jewish — and much more. I took so much from him in a short time. It’s just amazing. He confirmed for me that those who are deeply immersed in one tradition can pass over to other traditions and see them from the inside with genuine empathy. Heschel told me one time just before he died that he and Dr. Christiaan Barnard of South Africa had gone to a conference in Italy to talk about death. He called me, all upset, “My friend, you have to do something.” He was deeply disturbed that in Italy they were selling their statues. Now here’s a guy from a tradition in which there are no graven images. Yet, this told him something.

Now, when your tuning fork is that refined and it matters to you, I thought it was extraordinary. When you’ve experienced that kind of person, your whole sense of the world changes.

The Dalai Lama because he’s the most candid man of religion I’ve ever met in my life. When you consider that if he makes a false statement, the Chinese are going to have his butt — I’d like to hear some bishops be as candid as he is. I have a feeling that if we had more bishops who were also monks — I mean, one of the most effective bishops, cardinals, is Basil Hume of England, who almost single-handedly changed the attitude toward the Catholic Church in England. And he went to be a monk when he was 12. And we think, “Man, we’ve got to have a preacher who understands the world and who understands me.” Not necessarily at all. One of the best books I ever read on marriage was written by a Catholic priest.

Homiletics: Vatican II?

Woodward: People don’t realize what a change that event was for the coverage of religion. In order to write about what was going on in Rome you had to do history, and know how to talk about theology. You couldn’t just put Tillich on the cover of Time, or Reinhold Neibuhr on Newsweek. You had to be able to discuss why what they were talking about — mattered. That required a level of sophistication that had been absent before.

Right after the council, I did a story about the “protesting Protestants.” The church — the rock — moved. And that changed Protestantism in a lot of ways. You put Robert McAfee Brown on the cover, and in those days you’d see the cover editor who handled the pictures on the way to O’Reilly’s bar. Pass him on the street. We didn’t use memos in those days. “This guy — McAfee Brown, I didn’t know his name,” the guy says. And I told him. Well, it was misspelled on the cover of Newsweek. First time we’d ever misspelled something on the cover of Newsweek. Of course, Brown, St. Hereticus, wrote something about it. Then, 10 years later, the business section is doing a story, and they quoted him, and they looked up his name in the files, and they misspelled his name again.

Homiletics: You get hate mail?

Woodward: Well, I wrote a piece in Commonweal about and against the ordination of women in 1998. Essentially, I argued that the church is full of women, and it’s the men we can’t reach. It’s all about power. They want the power. You don’t see women lobbying to get into the International Brotherhood of Ushers. Anyway, people wrote, “He’s been around too long. Get rid of him.”

Homiletics: What do you think of the Jesus Seminar?

Woodward: I don’t think much of it. I’ve met those guys. So much of that stuff is autobiographical. It’s not at all surprising that Crossan followed up his books with an autobiography. I’ve met Funk. Look, some of the saddest people I’ve come across — I think of Bishop Spong of Newark — are people who were in full flight from a fundamentalist background, Funk’s another one, and they become fundamentalists of the left! It’s really a shame. There’s no balance there. Spong, he picked up every bad idea he could like a blotter. It’s sad, really too bad. He says, “If the church doesn’t do what I think they should do” — which is jettison just about everything they believe in — “it won’t survive.” Well, maybe that’s true of the Episcopal church because it’s hard to know what the Episcopal church stands for, apart from a wonderful liturgy. But it’s precisely the wrong formula.

Homiletics: You wrote a book called Saint Making. Is there one you admire the most?

Woodward: No, but I’d like to talk about that a bit. It’s only recently in Western history that lots of people read books, including the Bible. You talk a lot about Gutenberg, and the Bible, and getting the Bible in the hands of people. But people didn’t know how to read! They were catechised by stained-glass windows, music, and above all, the stories of the saints.

Now I was disappointed that there wasn’t one Protestant publication that touched this book. They saw it, I suppose, as a book about Catholic things and those things about Catholics that we least like. We all have models for imitation. Read the Princeton historian, Peter Brown, about how it was the cult of the saints that the barbarians saw as Christianity spread. They didn’t see people up there preaching. My point is that there is a lot of imitation — saints are mediating figures. Like, why have a Billy Graham Bible? Or a Jerry Falwell Bible. Or a Pat Robertson Bible? Through television, these people are mediating figures. What do you mean by holiness? Forget works. It’s a dead issue. Just tell me how you’d recognize holiness if it bumped into your face. It seems to me that’s not an uninteresting question since we’re all called to holiness. Anyway, that book is about culture, looking at the saint as a cultural figure, and it’s about holiness.

I should add that people did hear sermons in those days, but they didn’t read the Bible. And I wonder how many people read the Bible today. Poor George Barna, focusing on evangelicals, constantly finding that people can’t name the first four books of this or that. But sermons — our pastor’s not that bad at sermons. It’s kind of like what can we take out for my daily life, and that’s not high on my list of things I want to listen to. We’ve got a guy who’s an accountant, a Capuehin, who’s always prepared, always good. But not great stuff. Anyhow, the business of the sermon ought to be a kind of insight or connecting that you don’t normally see.

Homiletics: How have you managed to survive at Newsweek for so long?

Woodward: I’m easing out. I’m now a Contributing Editor. I’m trying to see how this is going to work out. I’ve done over a hundred cover stories. I’m not sure I want to do another one. I agreed to write on hell, which is always more interesting than heaven. That’s another thing: the loss of that kind of language and a sense of evil — think about 9/11 — they’re difficult words to use, but they’re there. For that matter Satan is there, too.

Homiletics: So God is good box office?

Woodward: I’ll tell you what sells. It’s been true for at least 25 years. Religion covers are always the first, second, third best-selling covers on the newsstand for Time and for Newsweek. I assume U.S. News & World Report has had the same experience. It’s mostly Jesus who sells. For a while the pope sold, but the pope’s too old, and doesn’t sell now. “God and the Brain” sold, but mostly it’s Jesus. Publishers who get into calendar journalism do God covers at Christmas and Easter, so they collect the Jesus Seminar people and dump them on people at Christmas and Easter. If at all, I’d put Jesus Seminar stuff in a sidebar. Crossan and I are friends, and he’d say, “I know you don’t like my work,” and I’d say, “Well, you’re a good guy, and I don’t want to get into all this stuff.” But you can appreciate the Jesus Seminar at least for encouraging attention.

But in the history of Newsweek there’s only one theologian whose work has appeared more than once on the cover, and that’s Raymond Brown. Catholic priest at Union Seminary. He was wonderful. Prodigious scholar. That’s another thing now that has been a good thing, the way scholars of whatever tradition can come together and work.

Homiletics: Did you ever consider the priesthood?

Woodward: Not seriously. But I’m disappointed that my own children never had to seriously ask themselves that question. It was the nature of the animal, having gone to Catholic schools all my life that you would ask yourself that question. But when I was at Jesuit high school they would push that stuff. They don’t push that stuff now. They figure that if you like us you’ll admire us and want to be one of us. Now maybe they’re paying for it. I think that to imagine a life other than the standard operating procedure, never to consider that I might — to use this language — to give myself to God, I think is a loss.



Kenneth L. Woodward



Other Homiletics Interviews:

Preaching Is an Incarnational Event
Richard Ward

Jesus and the Consumerist Culture
Tyler Wigg Stevenson

Taking God to Work
David Miller

Why Things Are the Way They Are
Paul Shepherd

Let’s Try to Keep the China on the Table
N.T. Wright

Stitching Together the Patchwork Family®
Barbara Carnal

Praying with Body and Soul
Jane Vennard

The Competent Pastor
Ron Sisk

Being Christian in the 21st Century
Marcus Borg

Lectio Cinema
Rose Pacatte, FSP

Getting Things Done
David Allen

Bored in a Culture of Entertainment
Richard Winter

Building “Mobility” Into the Craft of Preaching
David Buttrick

A Generous, not Suspicious, Orthodoxy
Brian McLaren

From Worship Service to Gathering
Ken Medema

The Middle East: The Absence of Hope
Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni

Bonhoeffer: The Truthful Witness
Stanley Hauerwas

The Church: From Postal to E-mail
Spencer Burke

The Church in an Emerging Digital Culture
M. Rex Miller

Jesus Has a Lot of Explaining to Do!
Randy Cohen

The Art of Biblical Storytelling
Dennis Dewey

Flowers in the Desert
Kathleen Norris

The “Taming” of Religion in America
Alan Wolfe

What Younger Evangelicals Want—and Are Getting!
Robert E. Webber

Leaders: Build a Church You Would Want to Go To
Larry Osborne

Does Prayer Change Things? Yes, if you're an Open Theist
Clark H. Pinnock

Keeping the World from Getting Worse
Jean Bethke Elshtain

If you get the congregation to God, sit down!
Thomas H. Troeger

The Gospel is personal, but never private
Jim Wallis

God Is Not My Buddy
Kenneth L. Woodward

Worship in the Digital Age
Len Wilson and Jason Moore

Preaching and the Arts
Catherine Kapikian and Laura Wyke

The Virtual Church of the Blind Chihuahua
John A.H. Futterman

A Blind Man's View from Mount Everest
Erik Weihenmayer

We're Taking Communion at the Mall
Terry Mattingly

The Church and the Mosaic Generation
George Barna