From The Globe and Mail
By Kenneth Bagnell
February 20, 1988
In the classrooms of the Toronto
School of Theology, where the students come from most of the major
churches, one of the frequent visiting lecturers is a man named Tom
Harpur. He is clearly qualified to be there; along with his basic
arts and theology degrees, Harpur is also a Rhodes Scholar who
studied philosophy and theology at Oxford. He became an Anglican
clergyman, a professor of the New Testament and then, in the late
sixties, a journalist specializing in religion in The Toronto Star.
Often in his classes Harpur is asked to defend the media. Many times he does. "There is, however," he says, "one criticism I find impossible to parry: that in covering the news, the media are, deep down, extraordinarily shallow most of the time."
Harpur makes this statement in his book Always on Sunday, and in doing so he is not, in the main, complaining that the media ignore religion or ethics as explicit subjects by themselves. He simply feels that the people who write the news and put out the magazines too often lack a certain ethical awareness that would help them put things in the moral context they clearly call for: "For example, there hasn't been a major news story that I can remember that does not have a ‘depth dimension' that has to do with religion and morals." He mentions the sabotage of the Air India flight, the hostage-taking in Lebanon, the nuclear issue and the debate over the Canadian economy.
Harpur's Sunday Star columns raise in an unassuming way the questions of human conduct and human purpose. He discusses these ideas in a style so engaging that many of his readers will have no interest whatever in the purely religious. One day he will deal with belief, and point out that atheism itself is a form of belief; then he will turn to the TV evangelists and argue that they stand for values at odds with Christ; then he will take up the decline of courtesy in our generation.
In all his pieces, even those on horrific subjects, Harpur is calm. But he is not so intimidated by the media culture in which he works that he fears being labeled a moralist, which is often the case with a journalist who dares to put his intelligence to work on ethics and religion. In one of his most telling essays, he examines violence against women by taking an obscure passage of scripture from the Book of Judges and retelling its story in modern language - the story of a girl taken by a mob and abused over and over again. Writes Harpur: "When this pitiless gang rape ended, she collapsed near dead at the door of the old man's house. Early next day she was discovered there by her master as he was preparing to leave. He issued a curt order to the unconscious victim to get up and join him on the journey...Somewhere along the road she died, unwept for, untended, truly alone." This is Harpur's finest column and one of the most moving essays I've read on violence against women. His main point is that the Bible is still used to subjugate women and the Christian Church has been the handmaiden: "An Apology is owed the women of the world by nearly all organized religions."
Harpur's paper and his readers should be pleased at one thing they probably take for granted: he is not limited, as some current religious journalists are, to what theologians call "the horizontal" - the question of South Africa, the issue of native rights, the disarmament movement and so on. These are enormous subjects of enormous importance. But if religion writers are wedded exclusively to them, they risk the self-defeat that is the fruit of their reader's boredom. Moreover, the question of the presence of God in our lives is still the ultimate one. The age of science has neither answered it nor, as some once thought, pushed it aside.
I am grateful that there is one man writing quietly and well, who on Sundays is there to remind us of the truth of the words said to have come from John Wesley: "The greatest of all is this: God is with us."