“TIME” journalist dies. And “God” is….?
At the Religion New Service blog, Dan Burke reminds us that John T. Elson, the author of the (in)famous 1966 TIME magazine cover on the death of God, has passed away. In the New York Times obit, a former managing editor of TIME said of Elson, a Notre Dame grad:
“He was catholic with a capital C and a small c in his interests, deeply and widely read. His ability to absorb an enormous amount of information and turn it into a readable story was remarkable.”
Our own ability to absorb information may be less impressive. The issue was enormously controversial, and produced Time’s “biggest newsstand sales in more than 20 years and elicited 3,500 letters to the editor, the most in its history to that point,” according to the NYT.
And it remains a touchstone for many, especially religious conservatives, who regularly refer to the notorious issue as the one in which the liberal press declared God dead–while the faithful have since proved the secularists wrong.
In reality, however, the cover posed a question: “Is God dead?” And, as Burke writes, “the article’s actual headline was ‘Toward a Hidden God,’ and it was a scholarly, careful look at how secularism, urbanism, and all the other ‘isms were changing people’s ideas about God.”
The NYT obit continues:
The quiet, studious Mr. Elson, who died on Sept. 7 at the age of 78, was an unlikely bomb-thrower, and his article, for those who ventured past the cover, reflected his scholarly bent. Meekly titled on the inside as “Toward a Hidden God,” it began: “Is God dead? It is a question that tantalizes both believers, who perhaps secretly fear that he is, and atheists, who possibly suspect that the answer is no.”
For the next six pages, readers were guided through thickets of theological controversy and a shifting religious landscape. Profound changes taking place in the relationship of believers to their faith were often expressed through the words of people, both eminent and ordinary, grappling with the same fundamental problems. Simone de Beauvoir, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Billy Graham and William Sloane Coffin were quoted. So were a Tel Aviv streetwalker, a Dutch charwoman and a Hollywood screenwriter.
More than 30 Time foreign correspondents were also involved in the project, conducting some 300 interviews to measure contemporary thinking about God around the world.
In fact, one of those journalists involved in the project was a young Philadelphia priest, John Patrick Foley, who would go on to become and archbishop (and now cardinal) and serve as a top communications official at the Vatican for many years.
In any case, God seems to have survived the kerfuffle. The better question now is that posed by Dan Burke:
“It seems worth asking whether the kind of journalism John Elson practiced is gone with him.”
You can read the original TIME essay here.