Words of Pray

(Note: This article originally appeared online at The Electronic Newsstand, in slightly different form.

According to Clay Felker, former editor of New York and Esquire, current eminence gris at U.C. Berkeley's graduate school of journalism, magazine readers are tired of celebrities. In their search for meaning and inspiration, Felker believes, they're turning to other sources. "You know what sells best now in magazines?" he recently exclaimed in a profile that appeared in GQ. "Religion."

While a quick scan of local newsracks suggests that movie stars, computers, cars, guns, dolls, and food have yet to relinquish their market dominance to spiritual pursuits, not every editor is as prescient as Felker. And even though it's doubtful that anything less than the Second Coming might attract more magazine coverage than the recent departure of the world's most beloved celebrity, there's plenty of evidence to back up Felker's assertion. Over the last year, Time has featured a cover story on the existence of heaven; Newsweek has done stories on the mystery of prayer and Mary's role in the Roman Catholic Church; The Atlantic Monthly has devoted covers to the scholarly search for Jesus and the growing popularity of "full-service" churches. Even that hotbed of rock and roll damnation, Spin, recently ran a piece on a Pentecostal revival that's been taking place in Brownsville, Florida for the last two years.

In addition to this attention from the secular press, there are dozens of publications in which spirituality isn't just fodder for the occasional cover, but rather the primary focus: magazines like Bible Review, Catholic Digest, Charisma, Christianity Today, New Age Journal, and Tricycle are just a few of the currently available titles. And with the Baby Boomers reaching that point in their lives where they're beginning to seriously contemplate the Really Big Chill and what might greet them in its aftermath, this segment of the magazine market will undoubtedly continue to grow.

A magazine devoted to religion, of course, is a kind of paradox: magazines, especially in this day and age, are commercial, topical, ephemeral entities, antithetical to the anti-materialism and notions of eternity to which religion generally aspires. And yet given their potential to attract a committed, highly focused group of readers with a presumably long-term desire for information on the subject, magazines devoted to religion make perfect sense. In addition, religious conviction, however manifested, can obviously serve as the basis for the sort of sharp, informed perspective that any magazine should have. In this respect, it's no surprise that religious publications have existed almost from the start of the magazine industry; the "Sunday School" journals of the late 1800s were some of the first publications to reach a mainstream, non-literary audience.

Many of those journals, alas, were merely a means of delivering patent medicine ads; F.G. Kinsman, a prominent patent medicine bottler, was also the largest publisher of Sunday School monthlies. While today's religious magazines don't blend conviction and commerce quite as egregiously as that, at least a few contain advertisements that recall the days of Kinsman's bogus compounds and liniments. Catholic Digest includes an ad for a product called Benefin that makes vague claims regarding the treatment of cancer; New Age Journal, a bimonthly whose tagline reads "Health for Body and Soul," is filled with pitches for products that promise to "protect your brain" and "help promote healthy joints." Many of these ads, however, also include fine print disclaimers like the following: "This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease." And even when the pitches are more straightforward than that, it's disconcerting to see so much advertising mixed with articles that presume to examine spiritual subjects in a serious manner: Is faith just another merchandising tool? Almost half of Charisma & Christian Life's 106 pages are ads; New Age Journal actually has more ads than editorial.

But if you don't mind your doctrine mixed with the occasional pitch for thermal socks, as happens in Catholic Digest, many of these magazines do offer some interesting editorial. As Felker implies, their focus on issues that extend beyond which celebrity has a new movie out distinguishes them from mainstream titles. The September issue of Catholic Digest, for example, includes a number of articles one might have found in The New Yorker in the days before it started profiling movie stars and media moguls and world leaders exclusively: there's a story about a cathedral in Las Vegas, a profile of the Salvation Army, an article describing an American family's decision to join a lay Community in Europe. In the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, much of the Fall 1997 issue is devoted to death, a subject that only seems to get covered in secular titles if a celebrity or a shocking murder is attached to it. Unfortunately, most of the writing in the religious magazines is generally mediocre at best; it makes you hope a few of the glossies will act on Felker's observations and add religion as a regular department.

On the other hand, maybe the discussion of religion and spirituality is best left to books. Indeed, even if you put aside questions regarding the propriety of advertising, presenting religious material in magazine format invariably has the effect of trivializing it. New Age Journal, which has no great tradition or church to answer to, is the worst offender in this regard; it presents spirituality as little more than a value one looks for in the products and services one consumes. Catholic Digest juxtaposes explanations of the Eucharist with Reader's Digest style one-liners, and features a variety of multiple-choice quizzes, including "The Child Jesus Challenge." And while celebrities aren't featured in these magazines with quite the same amount of prominence that secular publications grant them, they still pop up with surprising frequency. New Age Journal features a long profile of singer Jimmie Dale Gilmore; Tricycle offers a gossipy, name-dropping account of Alan Ginsburg's death that could just as well have been written by Liz Smith as a Tibetan lama: "At one point, I said to Philip [Glass], 'You know, Philip, Allen is still with us.' And he said, 'Rinpoche, even I can see that.'"

If this is what it takes to get readers to consider religious magazines, why bother? If I'm in the mood for trivia or fluff, there are thousands of places that do it better than Catholic Digest. And when I read about celebrities, I want to hear about their sins, not their virtues.

-- G. Beato

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