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Sermon on the Web

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Sermon on the Web

I've long since stopped dismissing writers who self-circulate columns or self-publish books as deluded eccentrics. When media conglomerates dream of slicing and dicing each portion of content and serving it to us 12 different ways, loners saying something personal deserve to be hailed.

Once a week for the past five years, I've opened my E-mail to Blithe Spirit, the musings of a former Jesuit priest. Jim Bowman is 69 years old, and everything in his life prepared him for the opportunity he's taken, which is to be a public curmudgeon.

Bowman's an alumnus of the old Chicago Daily News, a place he remembers fondly for its "hard-nosed" skepticism. Like other alumni--such as Mike Royko, Ray Coffey, and Dennis Byrne--his own skepticism hardened and deepened over the years, and now he seems to be digging in his heels about everything.

"I call myself a born-again conservative, the worst kind," Bowman tells me. "I still call on liberal concepts to support myself--freedom of speech, for instance, openness to others' points of view. But at some point I do make up my mind on some general things, and then, like a lot of other people, I'm more open to those ideas."

Those ideas are often not my ideas, but they are lightly and deftly put. "If I'm sitting at breakfast, here or in some joint," he tells me in a telephone conversation from his home in River Forest, "I will probably be reading, and if I'm alone I certainly will be. I might well have pencil and paper, and I generally write stuff. I take notes, so they're pretty much transferable to Blithe Spirit." He edits himself for coherence, which puts him a cut above a lot of other on-line scriveners.

I ask Bowman to walk me through his education. After Fenwick High School and a year at Loyola University, he entered a novitiate outside Cincinnati. "We weren't monks or in a monastery, but we were quite secluded," he says. "The habit of journal writing was taken for granted--you were keeping track of your spiritual life."

Two years of meditation and spiritual training were followed by two years studying the classics in English, Latin, and Greek. During this period a Catholic magazine published his first article. Its subject was Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, the dictator of Portugual, a man he knew nothing about.

What was your slant? I ask.

"Oh, that he was doing a great job."

Leaving the novitiate, he spent three years studying scholastic philosophy as a seminarian in West Baden Springs, Indiana. Then he taught English for three years at Saint Ignatius College Prep and Loyola Academy in Chicago before returning to West Baden Springs for four more years of theological study. Each of his seven years as a seminarian concluded with an oral examination conducted in Latin. Bowman was ordained after the sixth year and received a degree in theology after the seventh. Still ahead lay the "tertian year," a year of strenuous spiritual examination. Bowman was 33 years old when he reentered the world as a priest.

He stayed a priest for three years. "I knew I wanted to get married," he explains. He left the Jesuits in 1968, worked briefly for a Catholic magazine, and the day before the 1968 elections became a reporter at the Chicago Daily News. He became the paper's religion editor, and he stayed at the Daily News until it folded in 1978.

Since then he's been freelancing articles and writing corporate histories. In 1996 he launched Blithe Spirit. The writing was "restorative," and he likes to believe it's changed readers' minds, if only by forcing them to hone their reasons for believing he's wrong.

The lodestars of scholastic philosophy, Bowman explains, are Artistotle and Thomas Aquinas. They taught him to look for the "essence" of things, for the irreducible. He discovered at the Daily News that good reporters do this too. Something Mike Royko said back then has stayed with him: "So-and-so had gotten a story, but he hadn't gotten the story."

He learned to examine everything and get swept up in nothing. In 1966 James Meredith was shot leading a march in Mississippi, and clergymen from all over the country headed south to take up his banner. "A young fire-eater, a Lutheran, couldn't get over the fact that I took a day or two to decide," Bowman remembers. "I sorted things through and got permission from the provincial--who didn't particularly like it but said OK--and we drove down, marched, and came back. Even when I was doing stuff that was very liberal I did it in a context that was very traditional. I wasn't of course-ing anything."

One of the things he's tried to work out through Blithe Spirit, he says, is a "critique of romanticism as destructive of society."

My theory of Bowman is that he reacts against whatever assumptions surround him. Raising his six children in Oak Park, where most folks are liberal, he increasingly wasn't. "I was among those parents who believed in gifted education, with the corollary of meeting every kid where he or she is with whatever he needs," he says by way of example. "That certainly would have been the Jesuit belief." What Bowman ran into was the "easy assumption" of the liberal majority, "the idea that it was bad for the self-image of kids--white or black, but with special attention to the blacks--who didn't make the gifted class. Frankly, I just didn't buy into that." He wanted proof, and he says that instead of proof all he ever got was conviction.

Blithe Spirit on John McCain: "Do we want magnetism at the helm of the ship of state? Doesn't it throw a compass off? Where would the Magnetic Man lead us? Is this fascism--electoral appeal and nothing else? What fools these McCain-adulating newsies be, to take the bait so hungrily."

Blithe Spirit on Elian Gonzalez: "Here's a thought: If Elian's father were a drug-dealer living in a crack house, the government would not let him have the kid. If he were a well known pornographer traipsing the land with double-bimbo baggage, the government at least would have to make its case well before transferring the kid. If he were a rabid right-wing racist? Not a chance. If he were the head of a cult holed up in a Wyoming cave? Nope. What if he were a cult member believed to be under mesmeric control of the cult leader? Hardly.

"What if he were resident of a well known police state where public disagreement with the caudillo was so frowned on as to invite incarceration and worse? What if the caudillo was a rabid left-winger who has his people so mesmerized/scared-witless that he can get away with hours-long harangues which they applaud wildly, smiling the while at the joy of it? What if the caudillo accused capitalism of perpetrating worse than the Nazi holocaust?

"(OK, he can't be all bad if he's going to dump on capitalism, which is his cachet in the first place, let's face it.)"

Bowman E-mails Blithe Spirit to 180 or so people who either want to get it or at least haven't told him to get lost. A few others receive it by snail mail. Then there's the Web site, www.blithe-spirit.com, though he has no idea whether anyone ever goes there. There isn't a penny in it for him.

"Do I hear from readers?" he writes me, in an exchange of notes. "In spurts. My (a first rather muted) commentary on Elian the Refugee elicited heavy, perfervid response. I try to answer comments, usually with a few lines....I try not to be cute about it and like the Jesuits' founder Ignatius try to concede all I can. E-mail is a hot medium, however, to use McLuhan terminology. Hotter than the telephone in some ways, and can get out of hand. Tempers flare, things are said that wouldn't make the telephone. Very interesting."

But despite the occasional tempests, over the years Blithe Spirit has averaged about one reaction per column. Which isn't much, but as I tell him, Hot Type can't claim much better. A wise old journalist once observed that a column becomes a columnist's best friend, the one to whom stories are told, gossip passed on, confidences are entrusted. Bowman needed such a friend, and now he has one.

"It's better than stealing hubcaps," he says.

News Bites

Radiohead played August 1 in Grant Park. The day before, Tribune rock critic Greg Kot published a copyrighted Q and A with the band's Thom Yorke. This conversation sounded so familiar to one reader that he did a computer search. And sure enough, the identical interview--by "contributing writer" Greg Kot--had been posted days before on the CDNOW Web site.

"Is this just an example of more outlets but fewer voices in the media?" asked the reader.

Not exactly. There's a rule of thumb in the newspaper biz that reporters who've exhausted their material in the paper they work for can try to recycle it somewhere else for a few extra bucks. In this case, Kot had used some very brief bits and pieces of his Yorke interview in the Tribune story back on June 3, when he covered the release of Radiohead's new CD, Amnesiac.

So maybe Kot told himself that his CDNOW piece was OK because he was merely recycling an old interview, and then told himself that his July 31 Tribune interview was merely recycling it again. Kot wouldn't talk to me, so I don't know if that's his story. But whatever he told the Tribune, it wasn't impressed. Kot's editor, Scott Powers, tells me, "My understanding of Tribune policy is that any outside endeavor must be cleared in advance, which Greg did not do in this case....We don't expect this to happen again."

In olden days, a news story that came from a wire service always said so right up-front in the dateline. The Sun-Times has become much more modest about its dependency on the Associated Press, giving it credit in a quiet line of italics at the end of each story. That obscure "Associated Press" credit just gave way to an almost imperceptible "AP."

Meanwhile, the Tribune is showing its own reluctance to be straightforward about where stories come from. It still acknowledges the source at the top of each story, but obscures its debt to the Los Angeles Times by labeling stories from the Times "special to the Tribune." (There were five of these Times "specials" in last Tuesday's Tribune alone, plus a sixth from the Tribune Company's Baltimore Sun.) It's a perk of ownership.

July 24 Sun-Times headline: "John Paul Rips Embryo Testing."

August 11 headline: "Scientists Rip Stem Cell Limits."

August 16 headline: "Daley Rips Pols: They're Just Jealous."

Could the Sun-Times use a thesaurus? asked the reader who sent in this list. My reaction: Is that all there were?

Hot Type readers who can't get enough two-fisted local media reporting will be happy to hear it's now also on tap every week at Chicago magazine's recently renovated Web site. Look for Steve Rhodes's "Press Box" at www.chicagomag.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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