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Inside NCR

NCR creates a little artistic flurry

When our July 30 issue launched a search for a contemporary image of Jesus at 2000, we had little idea what a stir the story would make.

The first major show of interest came from Canada. The Toronto Star had a front-page article. There can scarcely be a newspaper or radio station across Canada that has not by now done something on the art competition. On one call-in talk show we talked for two hours. We weren’t always in agreement (there are many fervent people of the Book across America who rail against graven images), yet we were talking about art and religion and the whole human comedy and tragedy all wedged in with the local weather and commercials for odd commodities. It was Jesus back briefly in the marketplace.

Then word spread south, though only in small snippets, until USA Today’s Cathy Lynn Grossman did a piece that placed Sr. Wendy Beckett, the contest’s final arbiter, on the front page. That same day, the call went out via Catholic News Service and Religion News Service. The Associated Press did a story by David Crary that quickly went around the world. These seemed to open up the floodgates. By the following day the NCR search for a contemporary Jesus was in dozens of papers.

Early the same Wednesday morning the USA Today story appeared, there was a call from a person named Jennifer inviting me to come to New York and talk about the Jesus at 2000 search on the “Today Show.” Ignorance, as everyone knows, is a liability to be avoided. I’m afraid I didn’t know who the anchors were, because Channel 41 is way over at the other end of my dial (no cable in our house, y’see). I assured Jennifer I’d help her out so long as I didn’t have to leave Kansas City. I have nothing against New York, but back here at the ranch the phone was ringing like crazy, and there was an Inside NCR column to be written.

Jennifer, who didn’t seem accustomed to such reluctance, went off to check. Once I got off the phone, my colleagues browbeat me until I got on the phone to repent and tell Jennifer, yes, I’d go to New York, anything she wanted. I had forgotten to ask for her phone number -- or her name. As luck would have it, NBC has several Jennifers. I found two but not the right one, Jennifer Long, a most amiable person. Eventually she got back to me. She already had a flight and other particulars lined up. In other words, NBC wasn’t taking no for an answer. In a few hours I was in New York, with a tie, which I wear only to funerals and weddings, in my old canvas bag.

The people on the “Today Show” are fine and friendly. I have no inside stuff to share, except that Matt Lauer was professional and courteous and lobbed some easy questions our way. NBC wants NCR back when a winner is chosen. But so do many others. Jesus may not yet be a match for the apocalyptic mayhem still buzzing on the airwaves, but there are signs of a comeback even in the popular culture. People do want something more exalted to happen in their lives than they are getting at the mall or on Yahoo!

A couple of hours later, I was on MSNBC. Among the many interviews on the following days was one with National Public Radio’s Lynn Neary. Back in Kansas City, Managing Editor Tom Roberts was such a hit on the local Fox station that they recycled him four times, each segment longer than the previous one.

We are, at press time, almost inundated with queries from media and -- more important -- artists.

Finally, yours truly doesn’t feel all that comfortable talking about stuff that may smell of self-importance. But the denizens of the newsroom insisted our readers, who stick with us in good times and bad, would want to share our excitement as we create -- of all things -- a little artistic flurry.

My e-mail address is farrellncr@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 1999