Some compelling religion stories from Easter front pages

Fittingly, stories of rebirth and renewal made their way to many newspaper front pages on Easter Sunday.

One of my favorites ran in the Chicago Tribune. That story, by Angie Leventis Lourgos, highlighted Christians such as Edeette Chukro, a Syrian who celebrated her first Easter in America:

Easter is bittersweet for those seeking refuge like Chukro and her family, who were among the Christian minority in Syria. They fear for their loved ones overseas. They worry their mass exodus will diffuse their culture and identity.

And they note the paradox in fleeing Syria, a cradle of ancient Christendom, in order to worship freely.

St. Paul, once a tormentor of Christians, was converted on the road to Damascus in the New Testament’s Book of Acts. Aramaic, the ancient language of Jesus Christ, is still spoken in pockets of Syria today and is sprinkled in the Mass at St. Mary’s.

“Jesus went to Syria to preach. St. Paul went to Syria to preach. St. Peter went to Syria to preach,” said Bishop Paulus Benjamin, a leader of the Assyrian Church of the East, who is based in Chicago. “There’s a rich Christian history there. Unfortunately, Christians now must leave.”

Salt Lake Tribune Godbeat pro Peggy Fletcher Stack also told the story of a faithful foreigner finding freedom in the U.S.:

As Saman Lall joins other Utah Christians celebrating Jesus Christ’s resurrection on this spring-dappled Sunday, you could say the Pakistani educator has been reborn himself.

This is, after all, Lall’s first Easter in a country where freedom of religion is a bedrock principle, where all varieties of believers worship freely.

Lall could repeat the ancient prayers and ceremonies in a new land: Foot-washing, taking communion, carrying the cross, tracing the “stations of the cross,” experiencing darkness in the sanctuary, followed by lit candles, a flood of light, and then, hallelujah.

All without fear.

Other moving Easter stories included Oklahoman religion editor Carla Hinton’s piece on “New Life for Emma” and Tennessean writer Heidi Hall’s profile of a former drug addict and prostitute who found “A rebirth of her own.”

The Houston Chronicle reported on the reopening of a Galveston, Texas, cathedral closed for almost six years after Hurricane Ike. And the Arizona Republic produced a compelling narrative on a shrine scarred but still standing after a wildfire.

Some other Easter Page 1 angles:

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Easter season, check … Chip away at basic beliefs, check

You know all of those news articles you see published every year at Ramadan that ask if Muhammad really heard from the archangel Gabriel?

No? Well, how about all the stories each Divali that cast doubt on the goddess Lakshmi’s ability to bless her worshipers?

No? Then how about those articles for Eastertime questioning whether Jesus really did rise from the dead?

Ding Ding Ding Ding Ding!

Yep, those come out every year.

Case in point: a feature in the Washington Post on how divisive is this central tenet of the holiest day of Christianity.

The story, actually from the Religion News Service, sets up the resurrection almost as a straw man. First it briefly states the doctrine; then the next four paragraphs try to chip away at it.

It’s “the source of some of the deepest rifts in Christianity,” the story says — “and a stumbling block for some Christians, and more than a few skeptics.” Then it questions whether the doctrine is really that important:

Did Jesus literally come back from the dead in a bodily resurrection, as many traditionalist and conservative Christians believe? Or was his rising a symbolic one — a restoration of his spirit of love and compassion to the world, as members of some more liberal brands of Christianity hold?

As Easter approaches, many Christians struggle with how to understand the Resurrection. How literally must one take the Gospel story of Jesus’ triumph to be called a Christian? Can one understand the Resurrection as a metaphor — perhaps not even believe it happened at all — and still claim to be a follower of Christ?

When a story poses rhetorical questions favoring one side, you get a strong feeling that the tracks have already been laid for this train.

The article tries to argue that the doctrine of a physical resurrection keeps some people from celebrating Easter:

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The Atlantic slips — somehow — inside mind of Benedict XVI

During the annual pre-Easter season of snarky or mildly negative religion stories, I think that I received more personal emails about the Pope Benedict XVI vs. Pope Francis story in The Atlantic than any other item (even more than the Mrs. Jesus media blitz, if you can believe that).

Quite a few readers wanted to critique some of the alleged facts in the story or note some of its inconsistencies. For example, at one point Benedict is portrayed as an all-dominating doctrinal bully. Flip a few pages and readers are then told that he was a totally hands-off leader who, when it came to governing the church, “didn’t interfere even when he was pope!” Yes, the exclamation mark is in the text.

Most of the emails missed the point. You see, “The Pope in the Attic: Benedict in the Time of Francis” isn’t really a work of journalism.

Oh, the author makes it clear that he went to Rome and, apparently, he even drove around and talked with some people. But the result isn’t a work of journalism built on clearly attributed information. No, this is something else — it’s a work of apologetics.

Do you remember that famous Peggy Noonan quote about Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing,” a show for which she served as a consultant?

A reporter once asked me if I thought, as John Podhoretz had written, that “The West Wing” is, essentially, left-wing pornography. I said no, that’s completely wrong. “The West Wing” is a left-wing nocturnal emission — undriven by facts, based on dreams, its impulses as passionate as they are involuntary and as unreflective as they are genuine.

That’s kind of what we are dealing with here, especially in the passages in which essayist Paul Elie all but claims to have read the mind of Benedict, perhaps while driving past his abode (I am not making that part up, honest). This piece is a love song to all of the Catholics who suffered so much during the terrifying reign of the soon-to-be St. John Paul II and his bookworm bully, the future Pope Benedict XVI. Here’s a sample, right up front:

Pope Francis lives only a few hundred meters down the hill, in the Casa Santa Marta: the guesthouse where the cardinals stay while electing a new pope. He arrived there for the conclave of 2013 as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Jesuit cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires. After his election, he surprised everyone by taking the name of Francis, the saint of radical simplicity — and then by refusing to move into the palace, and staying on at the guesthouse instead. All the world acclaimed the act as if he had pitched a pup tent in St. Peter’s Square.

Benedict was as surprised as anybody. In a stroke, the Argentine had outdone him in simplicity.

Interview? Quote? A second-hand reflection from a key aide, even an anonymous aide? And then there is the thesis statement:

And so it has come to pass that, in his 88th year, he is living at the Mater Ecclesiae, served by four consecrated laywomen and his priest-secretary, with a piano and a passel of books to keep him occupied. Here he watches the Argentine, prays for him, and keeps silence — a hard discipline for a man who spent his public life defining the nature of God and man, truth and falsehood.

It’s odd enough that there are two living popes. It’s odder still that they live in such proximity. But what’s most odd is that the two popes are these two popes, and that the one who spent a third of a century erecting a Catholic edifice of firm doctrine and strict prohibition now must look on at close range as the other cheerfully dismantles it in the service of a more open, flexible Church.

Dismantles? Pope Francis has dismantled orthodox Catholicism?

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Weed in Denver, but Easter news on other front pages

If you live in the Mile High City (no pun intended), you woke up Sunday morning to this banner headline on your hometown paper’s front page:

Welcome to Weed Country

Happy Easter to you, too, Denver Post!

Another Colorado newspaper had a much better week than the Post — and not just because it won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. The Colorado Springs Gazette, edited my my friend and former colleague Joe Hight, filled up two-thirds of its Sunday front page with this headline:

The road to Chimayo

Yes, the Gazette published a major religion story — and not a marijuana tourism piece — on its Easter front page:

The road to Chimayo, N.M. is long and tiring during the Christian holy week leading up to Easter.

But the spirits of the estimated 30,000 to 50,000 pilgrims who walk for hours to reach a famous Roman Catholic church outside of Santa Fe are anything but weary.

George Warda of Parker has made the journey for the past 20 years. Maybe more; he’s lost count.

At about mile 13 of his 15-mile trek on Good Friday, Warda was sending thanks to God for his family’s blessings and praying for a little help with health challenges.

“There’s nothing more beautiful than this time,” he said. “It’s very spiritual. I wouldn’t miss it.”

Pilgrims, from babies in strollers to the elderly with canes, come from nearby towns and faraway states. Warda wore a Colorado T-shirt.

Across the nation, some papers — like the Post — failed to acknowledge Easter on the front page.

But many others — like the Gazette — recognized the news value of Christianity’s most important holiday.

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Nice but, at times, confusing news on Virginia Anglican wars

Inspiring, uplifting stories have been hard to find in recent decades in the world of Episcopal vs. Anglican infighting, especially when it comes to in-the-trenches doctrinal warfare at the local and regional levels.

However, the religion-beat team at The New York Times thought it had one the other day. The headline: “Two Ministers Forge Friendship Across a Church Divide.”

This news feature worked, kind of, on the macro level. However, many of the micro details were out of focus and Anglican-fluent readers were left, methinks, wondering what was really going on.

This is the story of the unlikely friendship between the Rev. Tory Baucum, a doctrinal conservative, and the Rev. Shannon Johnston, a doctrinal progressive who, among other things, strongly supports same-sex marriage.

This is how the story identified each man — “the Rev.” The problem is that the liberal priest is, in fact, Bishop Shannon Johnston. Don’t get me wrong: Johnston is quickly identified as a bishop, but I still wondered who he was not granted that title when he was first mentioned. Strange. Another key point of confusion slips in print in this key fact paragraph:

Mr. Johnston is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia — the most populous Episcopal diocese in the United States — and a supporter of same-sex marriage who has blessed same-sex couples. Mr. Baucum is the rector of an unusually vibrant parish, Truro Church in Fairfax, which left the Episcopal Church over the election of the gay bishop, Gene Robinson, the final straw in a long-running dispute over theological orthodoxy. By the time the two men arrived in Virginia, in 2007, their flocks were suing each other over who owned the Truro property, worshipers had been forced to choose sides, and sharp-fingered bloggers were trading medieval-sounding epithets like “heretic” and “schismatic.”

The story notes that this parish “left the Episcopal Church” but, for some strange reason, never calls this congregation by its new name — Truro Anglican Church.

This is picky stuff, but there are crucial facts related to that name that readers need to know to grasp some of the subject material covered in this story. Truro is now part of the conservative Anglican Church in North America and is located in the Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic.

To cut to the chase: Baucum serves under the authority of another bishop.

It’s nice to know that the priest gets together from time to time for a beer and fellowship with the liberal Episcopal bishop, but it’s especially important for readers to know that these two men are, literally, not in Communion with one another at the level of shared views of Sacraments, ordination vows and ministries. They cannot share the same altar and, I am sure, Baucum’s own bishop would have wished that these facts were clearly presented in the story.

So who is Baucum’s actual bishop? At the very end of the story, readers are finally told the following, concerning the atmosphere surrounding this right-left friendship:

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Here we go again: So was Jesus married or what?

JANET ASKS:

What is your opinion on the historicity of the ancient text mentioning Jesus’ wife? What are the implications for the Christian faith?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

To decide what to make of this text, which has one word that apparently says Jesus was married, it’s all-important to know when it was written. So the wits at www.christianitytoday.com take the prize for funniest religious pun of the month, if not the year, with their headline:

“How to Date Jesus’ Wife”

The quick journalistic summary for Janet is that experts think the text is either a modern fraud, even possibly a joke, or if genuine gives a glimpse of some unknown cult 6 centuries or more after the fact. So it gives us no reliable information about the actual Jesus. But the hubbub reveals both modern scholars’ revisionist itch and the hunger of many people to learn more about history’s single most intriguing personality. If solid proof that Jesus took a wife were ever to turn up someday, yes, that would presumably scramble concepts of his divinity, especially if we also learn that the Son of God had a son or a daughter. However, such finds seem unlikely in the extreme.

The background in more detail:

In 2003, the goofy “Da Vinci Code” novel toyed with the old tales about Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene. The Mrs. Jesus chatter seemed to shift from fiction to fact in 2012 when Karen L. King of Harvard Divinity School told a confab at the Vatican about this scrap of papyrus, a bit smaller than a credit card, with writing in Egypt’s Coptic language. King figured it came from a lost document she grandly titled “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ (or “GJW”), much to the distress of scholars like Larry Hurtado at Scotland’s University of Edinburgh. King originally thought the fragment was “ancient,” probably from the 4th Century A.D., and carried on a belief she said could reach back to the 2d Century.

The 33 words that survived included this partial line: “… Jesus said to them, my wife …”

King properly cautioned that this didn’t mean the real 1st Century Jesus of Nazareth was married, just that centuries later some group thought he was. As the furor died down, 10 experts went to work studying GJW. Their conclusions are reported in the current Harvard Theological Review. Skipping technicalities, here are the basics:

Date: Radioactive carbon dating puts the papyrus between A.D. 659 and 859, with a mean date of 741, far beyond King’s original hunch. It is not “ancient,” which generally signifies times before the fall of Rome in A.D. 476. (Since GJW mentions Jesus, it’s amusing that the first radiocarbon test dated it “Before Christ,” apparently because the sample studied was too small for accuracy.) Experts who maintain that this is all a hoax (see below) propose that a modern forger simply obtained an old piece of blank papyrus to write on.

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Don’t divorce an NYT article from sharp reporting

It’s especially crucial for journalists to, well, GetReligion when the story is about a “get.”

That religious divorce paper — called a “get” — is important for traditional Jews, especially Jewish women. Without it, they cannot marry someone else under religious law. That gives ex-husbands a whip handle over the women — either to coax money or property out of them, or simply to spite them.

The New York Times made a brave attempt to explore the depths of Jewish law over this issue (this one has been in the GetReligion “guilt” file for a while), and the related question of how to remain faithful to it while serving the obvious needs of women. The newspaper’s in-depth article brings out some lesser-known facts, and it couches the women’s dilemma in wrenching terms. But like such marriages themselves, the story doesn’t end well.

It opens with one of those spiteful husbands, Meir Kin, showing some chutzpah in a Las Vegas wedding, although he never gave previous wife Lonna a religious divorce. He’s holding the get hostage for $500,000 and custody of their son. Observers disparage the event, but the article suggests he just may get away with it:

Jewish law prohibits men from taking multiple wives. But Mr. Kin, according to several rabbis here, apparently relied on a legal loophole, which says that if a man can get the special permission of 100 rabbis to take a second wife, he is able to do so.

The case has become a powerful symbol for what activists say is a deepening crisis among Orthodox Jews — hundreds of women held hostage in a religious marriage, in some cases for years after civil cases have been settled. According to the intricate religious laws dictating marriage and divorce, only the husband has the power to grant a divorce.

“What has happened here is really shameful,” said Rabbi Kalman Topp, who drove from Los Angeles to protest the wedding, along with other rabbis and congregants from Orthodox synagogues there. “Not only is he in clear violation of Jewish law, but he is utilizing and corrupting Jewish law to commit cruel domestic abuse.”

The Times fluidly narrates Mrs. Kin’s efforts to get Meir to sign off on the marriage, even waiting until he filed a civil divorce and made plans to remarry. And as the newspaper explains, there are Jewish courts to resolve such issues, but Meir Kin apparently hasn’t approached one.

Props to the newspaper for getting emotional quotes from Lonna Kin. Comments like “I am chained to a dead marriage” and “He’s basically a bigamist, and basically, I’m just stuck.” It’s also a lesson about shutting out the media: Meir Kin declined comment, allowing Lonna’s quotes to stand unchallenged.

All this happened in Vegas but won’t stay in Vegas. As the Times reports: “Traditionally, Jewish communities relied on the threat of ostracism to persuade a recalcitrant husband to give his wife a divorce, but many say the threat became far less potent as these communities opened and spread out.”

But in documenting the problem, the story starts feeling squishy. The Times tells of a congressional aide who withheld a divorce, and a New Jersey rabbi who is accused of arranging the “kidnap and torture” of such men. But for some reason, in neither case are names, dates or places mentioned. And the newspaper should have tried to find out how many women are affected by men withholding a get: an estimate of “hundreds” of women is awfully vague.

The fuzziness even invades some quotes from authorities:

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Glorious Pascha! The Baltimore Sun gets the key parts right

I keep saying this year after year, but it’s true. One of the greatest challenges for religion-beat specialists, season after season, is the long, steady march of feature stories that editors want you to produce linked to the major holy days in the various world religions.

Easter was always one of the biggest challenges for me, in part because it’s always on Sunday morning (or in the ancient churches, at the stroke of midnight and on into the early hours of morning).

That sounds really obvious, but think it through. That means this story has to appear above the fold on A1 in the biggest newspaper of the week, which means editors have to think very highly of this story. It will also need large and spectacular color photography, for the reasons just mentioned. From the point of view of most secular editors, Easter is also a much more explicitly RELIGIOUS season than, let’s say, Christmas. That’s a problem.

But back to the art issue.

Do you see the problem? How do you get large, spectacular Easter art when that art must be produced BEFORE the holy day itself? And what are most churches — liturgical churches, at least — doing in the days before Easter, when you need to shoot these photos? They are observing the rites of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday — beautiful, but solemn observances that, literally, offer visual images that are the exact opposite of what editors are going to want for that happy, happy Sunday A1 art.

In other words, it’s easier to report about Easter before Easter than it is to photograph Easter before Easter. You almost always end up with something that looks very fake and staged.

All of this is to say that I was rather surprised when I awakened from my post-Pascha (the Eastern Orthodox term for Easter) coma this morning (the service began at 11:30 p.m. and ended at 3 a.m., followed by a giant feast) and discovered that The Baltimore Sun had a produced a quite solid Pascha-Easter story for A1, a package that was way better than the norm.

The focus of the story was on the role of eggs in various Easter rites, but with the major emphasis on the beautiful “red eggs” tradition in Eastern Orthodoxy. The A1 art was a lovely picture of some children lighting beeswax candles at an icon stand on Holy Saturday, with lots of egg art inside the paper. This art was shot earlier in the week when the eggs were being dyed.

The story started with a general overview, before hitting the major themes:

Children pet bunnies and gobble jelly beans. Wal-Mart sells more than 500 types of Easter confection, including unicorn- and space alien-themed baskets. Just a few of them allude to Christianity.

How does eating a package of Peeps recall the man Christians believe redeemed the world by rising from the dead nearly 2,000 years ago? Balancing Easter’s secular and religious sides can be a challenge for area churches.

So you have your Catholic Easter egg hunts, symbolism-free Baptist services and mainline churches with hints of the ancient rites. Then:

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