Mike Maser

Harpurs’s Progress

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The spiritual pilgrimage of a religion reporter

Dr. David Suzuki is leading a panel discussion in the auditorium at the Ontario Science Centre after showing a 30-minute segment from his celebrated series, A Planet for the Taking. The crowd, spilling out into the lobby, fidgets whenever Suzuki, the star attraction, deflects their attention to other panelists, among them Tom Harpur, syndicated columnist and former religion editor of The Toronto Star.

“Men have come to dominate the planet largely because the Bible tells us to do so,” Suzuki says, regaining the spotlight. “The Judeo-Christian ethic instructs us that we are superior and it is perfectly OK to screw up nature as we see fit.”

A moment of supplication washes over the crowd. Then Tom Harpur draws the microphone to a bearded jaw. “That’s a mistaken belief,” he counters. “The Bible tells us that man is a fellow worker with God and not the pinnacle of evolution as your series would have us believe. The Judeo-Christian ethic has brought the advances that enabled you to make your series.”

This, as they say, is not in the script-at least not in Suzuki’s-but Harpur continues.

“What you are confronting is technology and technology is a two-edged sword. You should be concentrating on that. I find the series altogether too slick.”

Whoa! David Suzuki, eminentgeneticist, multimedia journalist and bottom-kicker of scientific sacred cows, has just had his own bottom kicked. He sulks, and the discussion drifts into dogmatic bickering about the plight of the planet. The discussion is soon formally closed, signalling a noisy exodus of all but 20 or so stragglers who fawn over a grumpy Suzuki. Tom Harpur, facing a coterie of none, tucks a pipe between his teeth, adjusts an overcoat to his six-foot four-inch frame and, nodding to the other panelists, strolls out.

A week later, in his Sunday Star column, Harpur takes another swipe at Suzuki and his series. “The program’s critique of technology is too general, and too one-sided,” he writes. His argument is convincing and his closing caveat explicit: “Watch this series but don’t be oversold. There may be less here intellectually than meets the eye.”

It’s evident that Tom Harpur kneels before few false gods. In fact, this man, who doesn’t so much fit into a crowd as tower over it, regularly criticizes institutions-churches and government being favorite targets-and often sears them deeper than he has Suzuki and the CBC.

Harpur’s views are not always popular. But when trying to sort out sanctity from sanctimony, or moral meaning from everyday mush, he has, as Sunday Star editor Gerry Hall says, “an unusual talent for grasping the real meaning of an issue and putting it into context for the reader.”

Harpur practises candid, articulate journalism in an area once the domain of over-the-hill hacks or green reporters. His arguments are tailored to irrevocably logical conclusions, adding an extra dimension to a field of reporting that is too often superficial and unthinking. Of course he knows the territory well when he tackles religion or morality. He was an Anglican minister for 17 years. And he knows the media. Over the past 15 years he’s been a radio open-line host, a TV broadcaster, an author and an award-winning newspaper reporter and columnist.

In another life Harpur, 55, father of three and now married a second time, would have been a missionary. He was born in Scarborough, to Irish parents of Anglican faith, and his childhood memories include street-corner religious discussions and prayer meetings in the living room at home.

While other boys dreamed of playing in the NHL, Harpur wanted to roll back history and roam the Canadian north. He idolized the 19th-century missionaries who trailed behind the trappers by canoe and dogsled with the Book of Common Prayer, the Bible and their hymn hooks. Men like Rev. William West Kirkby, the Anglican frontiersman who paddled into the Yukon in 1861. And Rev. W.C. Bompas, who ranged for thousands of miles into the Arctic in 1870 preparing the way for the opening of mission stations, and who was later named first Anglican Bishop of Athabaska. They were men who lived off the land, spread The Word and saved souls.

Harpur fulfilled part of his dream. During the summers between his studies at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, he worked on a Cree reservation at Big Trout Lake, north of James Bay. As a summer school teacher for native children who spoke little English, Harpur learned Cree.

His classical history studies at Wycliffe won him a gold medal for achievement and then a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford for three years. There, in the ancient classrooms of Oriel College, Harpur continued to study the humanities and, on the upper reaches of the Thames, he won two oars for the Oriel College rowing team. Returning to Wycliffe he entered theology and after two years’ training he was ordained by the Anglican church in 1956.

Naturally he wanted to follow his heroes to the Arctic, but his decision, based on how he felt he could put his education to best use, was to stay in Toronto and work as a parish priest. Of this period in his life Harpur writes: “My belief system was neat, black-and-white, and very dogmatic. I was sure I knew all the right answers on any topic from sex to global salvation.”

During the next seven years Harpur followed his vocation in York Mills and Scarborough, counselling the depressed, the grieving, those whose marriages were falling apart, and those who were losing their faith. It made for an informal yet ultimately pertinent education: “Compassion moved more to the centre of my creed. I got more in touch with the fuller texture of my own humanity as my parishioners let me share in theirs. I shared in a lifetime of experiences.”

In 1964, Harpur quit the parish and joined the teaching staff at Wycliffe College. Though glad to return to more tranquil academic life, he would soon feel the very foundations of Western religion sway.

In 1965, as the Second Vatican Council was announced, Pope John XXIII declared the Roman Catholic Church would begin aggiornamento-updating Catholicism to modern realities. Vatican II was a watershed for a period of agitation not seen in the world of religion since the Reformation of the 16th century. Priests and nuns left their orders, trendy clergy experimented with innovative lifestyles and modes of worship and evenTime magazine asked “Is God Dead?” on its cover.

Harpur made several important discoveries during this time, among them his perception that most clergy preferred to ignore the moral issues that were shaping people’s lives-religious controversy, civil rights, and the Vietnam war.

When criticism was acute, when two bestsellers-Honest to God by John Robinson, then Anglican Bishop of Woolich, and The Comfortable Pew by Pierre Berton-attacked the complacency of the church, the church refused to respond. Harpur agreed with Berton that the church was acting as though the telephone had just been invented. Harpur felt it was time for Christians to get involved in the media and begin talking to people outside the church instead of always talking among themselves.

In 1967 he initiated what was to be his personal revolution. He met with the only media person he knew-the manager of country and western music station CFGM-and proposed an open-line religion show. Harpur’s Heaven and Hell went on the air almost immediately. The show’s early format was confined to religion, but its host soon opened the lines to discuss anything: peace, the war, modern religion. And he interviewed controversial personalities, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and a stripper who had found God.

“The show was a terrific success,” says Harpur, though some listeners wrote letters to his bishop accusing him of heresy and demanding he be defrocked. He also received bomb threats because of his stand against the Vietnam war. Friends and colleagues, mostly clergy, urged him to back off but Harpur delighted in his role as religion gadfly. He began to write opinion pieces for the Star and he was sought out for comment by the CBC. In 1971, he resigned his teaching position at Wycliffe-“It seemed very sterile,” he says-and accepted an offer to be the Star‘s religion editor.

Harpur excelled at his new job, which allowed him to travel the world. He slept on Mt. Sinai, covered papal tours and elections, met Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta, visited Hiroshima, Jerusalem, Rome, Northern Ireland. Fulfilling the Northern fantasies of his boyhood, he toured the Canadian Arctic, bringing back a huge half-wolf named Yukon which accompanies him to the Star from time to time.

Drawing on his experiences and theological training, Harpur became the best religion reporter in the country. And suddenly the religion section of the paper, often thought of as a back-water, gained an intellectual respectability that it had seldom had.

Media critic Barrie Zwicker, who as a Globe and Mail reporter in the ’60s and ’70s spent some time on the “church beat,” says religion reporting made most editors uneasy. “They were content to run a picture of the Pope and a few squibs on page one, but not much more.” Harpur, says Zwicker, took an improving situation and ran with it. “Religion reporting could have been another media fad but it wasn’t because of Tom Harpur. He developed into an ornament to religion journalism.”

What Harpur did, as well, was offend members of almost every cult, sect, and denomination, from guru groupies to cardinals and bishops. His notoriety is such that the South African government will not issue him a visa, nor will the Rev. Ian Paisley of Ulster grant him an interview. Harpur was tough where he thought it was needed. He called on the Catholic church to reverse its stand on birth control, dismiss the infallibility of the Pope, and ordain women as priests (“Jesus was a radical feminist,” he writes, but “religion today is still an immensely powerful force holding women back from full emancipation”). Letters to the Star accused Harpur of an ostensible lack of faith.

But his integrity eventually won him recognition and praise for his work. He received, in 1974, the International Award of Merit for religious writing in the secular media and, in 1976, a Silver Medal for outstanding journalism from the State of Israel. And he won admiration. “I could have read Tom Harpur every day,” says friend and professed non-church-goer Bob Pennington, now drama critic at The Toronto Sun. “He is a man who restores your faith in religion-religion without cant or fanaticism.”

On a fundamental level, the job did not expunge Harpur’s faith, though the saying in the newsroom about religion reporters was, “If you weren’t an atheist when you took this job, you sure will be when you finish.” As retired Star columnist Lotta Dempsey puts it: “Tom may well be the first religion reporter in history who actually believ ed in God.” But it did jolt his sense of values. He once wrote, “There is nothing like standing in the midst of that desolation called Calcutta, watching a young man who says he is an atheist tending the maggot-infested wounds of a man you wouldn’t care to touch, to shatter your ideas about who or what is ‘Christian.'”

In 1979, he voluntarily retired from the ministry after the Anglican diocese invoked new strictures on what priests could or could not preach. Then in September, 1983, he took another turn: he resigned from the Starto promote his second book, a collection of his finest pieces and several essays on controversial issues, for which he borrowed the title from his old radio show, Harpur’s Heaven and Hell. In the introduction, he identifies his audience as “those concerned and thoughtful people who are not willing to settle for easy answers to the deeper issues we all face,” then sums up how his 12 years at the Star altered his attitude toward organized religion: “I could no longer believe in only one right and true faith. I could no longer hold that any denomination’s view of Christianity was the unique reflection of what Paul calls ‘the mind of Christ,’ when I’d seen at first hand the havoc each denomination, in its own way, is capable of wreaking in people’s lives.”

In October 1984, after a year’s absence, he returned to the pages of the Star as a columnist for the Sunday paper, and soon began work on a third book, For Christ’s Sake, which was published in January. Not surprisingly, his approach has been direct and his views uncompromising on subjects from the Pope to abortion to disarmament. Harpur says his column has freed him from conventional limitations. “I can say what I want. I’m not tied down in a narrow sense, religiously.”

Still, he has a lot to say about religion and how it shapes the lives of those it touches. It remains wrapped in dogma and ritual, he writes in Heaven and Hell, offering a “package” of faith that includes Sunday worship, Holy Communion or the Eucharist, confession, funerals, weddings. He feels the vast majority of adults in Western society are experiencing an aching spiritual void and traditional religion is not only incomprehensible to them, it is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Reforming organized religion, then, is one of Harpur’s popular themes, but he writes with concern on other profound moral issues as well. Among his favorite topics are the pro-choice and women’s movements, which he supports, the “stewardship of the earth,” which he often cites as “rudderless.” and the formation of a consumer society, which he detests. He writes, as well, that he is “furious the media so often become the mere tools of consumerism and deal in superficialities instead of with issues that really touch our lives in depth.”

The state of religion reporting in print, television and radio remains impoverished. But there are a half-dozen or so Canadian newspapers that have employed full-time religion reporters and the occasional religion-oriented show, such as CBC’s Man Alive, makes it to the air. To these reporters and broadcasters Harpur has been an inspiring model.

Says Joe Matyas, religion editor of The London Free Press, “Harpur set a standard that is now being followed by Canadian reporters, and his influence has helped them become much more competent and less parochial.”

To Harpur, who defines himself as a Christian humanist in the midst of a spiritual pilgrimage, his mission is clear. “Naturally, I’m concerned about faith and its ability to be communicated properly but my job, as I see it, is to make people think, not preach to the converted. And, though my religious views are much less provincial than they once were, I’d be disappointed if I was still thinking the same way I did as a choir boy.”


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