ANALYSIS: The Flying Spaghetti Monster Gets A Fair Shake From Deutsche Welle

Does a reporter have to be a believer to cover religion?

A simple question, but a vexing one, as there are two currents of thought at work in Western culture today.

The classical view, characterized as the Anglo-American school of journalism, would say no. For journalists working from this perspective, the highest virtue is critical disinterest. The reporter’s personal views play no part in the story. He or she writes from a distance, laying out the facts, providing context and history, with the goal of enabling the reader to make up their own mind.

There are limits. One may assume Hitler and the Nazis were evil. But few questions are as straightforward as that. For example, how do you report on religions on the margins? Do you have to believe in the religion you are covering? What if you are assigned a story on Pastafarians?

The European school of journalism sees reporting primarily as a species of ideological activism. The message the story teaches -- not the content of the story -- is where value lies. The issue for a devotee of advocacy journalism is not whether a story is worth reporting, but what cause will this serve if it is reported?

The precise components of that activism will vary depending on the nature of the politics involved. Radical feminists have their issues and controversies, which tend to differ from issues and controversies that preoccupy devotees of racial, cultural, political, sexual and the other tribal commitments of the postmodern West.

The end product of this school of advocacy journalism differs according to the political aims of the author. But all work from the premise cited by Joseph Stalin in 1932: «писатели — инженеры человеческих душ». (Writers - engineers of the human soul). Союз писателей СССР, Воронежское отделение, «Подъëм» (1990), p. 48.

Advocacy journalism, by its very nature, is more pleasing to a mind predisposed to its conclusions. A skeptic would likely relish the recent story in the Independent -- “Bible says Canaanites were wiped out by Israelites but scientists just found their descendants living in Lebanon” -- that held the Bible had been proven false by DNA testing. TMatt reviewed this canard in a recent GetReligion piece, beginning his critique with the note the Bible does not say the Canaanites were wiped out by the Israelites.

From the classical perspective, this self-contented, hopelessly ignorant, deliberately provocative, commercially compromised, and politically motivated article is wretched journalism. But it's a tour de force of the advocacy school if your goal is to tarnish the Christian faith. It has the added bonus of being “click-bait,” driving up a website’s traffic and hopefully its advertising revenue.

Were the Independent clever, it would have played this both ways by highlighting the falsity of the Old Testament while also proclaiming a newly discovered miracle of Jesus. After all, Mark and Matthew's Gospels recount his meeting a Canaanite woman. Not only did he drive out a daemon from her child, he revived a destroyed civilization!

Not all continental news outlets have sunk to the pamphleteering epitomized by this Independent article. The German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle recently published a story that gives a fair hearing to the Pastafarians.

German courts take on the Flying Spaghetti Monster” reviews a court ruling in Germany’s Brandenburg state that adjudicated a religious sign dispute. As drivers enter the town of Templin, three signs erected by the local highway authority direct motorists to the Catholic, Evangelical and Protestant churches in town. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster erected a fourth sign directing motorist to its weekly Nudelmesse, or “noodle mass.” The dispute centered on whether the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was a bona fide religious organization.

The article lays out the history of the group, and interviews its local leader, Rüdiger Weida, who goes by the pastafari name "Brother Spaghettus."

Deutsche Welle writes:

Those familiar with German law know that in order to be legally recognized as a registered association, an organization must demonstrate its benefit to the public - something that's easier said than done for a carb-based religious parody. "Our concern - also according to the organization's charter - is the promotion of a scientific worldview," said chairman Rüdiger Weida …

However, the group had moved beyond its protest base and sought to present a coherent worldview:

"Earlier there was the addition of 'factual and satirical means,' but we had to change that a little following pressure from the tax office because there wasn't enough of a clear public benefit," [Weida] said.

The article offers comment by an expert on the subject, explaining its aims.

As journalist Daniela Wakonigg, a theologian and author of a book on the Flying Spaghetti Monster, explains: "Alternative religions are associations with the goal of living out their own lifestyle or building their own fandom, but satirical religions have a serious concern - namely, criticizing the special position granted to religions in society." A community such as the pastafarians want to "hold up a mirror to established religions - especially regarding the non-provability of their gods, the inconsistency of religious argumentation and the special position they demand in society due to unchallenged beliefs," Wakonigg told DW. One method of doing so is erecting signs on the side of the road.

The article concluded with the news the Brandenburg court ruled against the Pastafarians.

The court ruled that the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was not an ideological community, and therefore had no right to its own signs. But Brother Spaghettus isn't giving up: If necessary, he will take the fight all the way to the European Court of Justice, he said after the verdict.

I applaud Deutsche Welle for playing this story straight, and not seeking to elicit cheap laughs or juvenile sarcasm. The boorishness on display in the Independent’s article on the Canaanites is not seen in this story on a religious group that admittedly arose from sarcasm and protest.

The story is balanced and well written. “Brother Spaghettus" is not presented as a crank, though the photographs permit the conclusion that he is rather eccentric. Nor is the story of the National Geographic-type of religion reporting -- “look at the quaint natives in their exotic dress.” The individuals involved speak for themselves. The issues are presented without prejudice, and the story is given an impartial framing. And, I very much doubt Deutsche Welle sent a Pastafarian from Berlin to write this story.

Can a non-believer write religion news stories? Here is evidence that they can, and can do so with professional skill.