News flash: Resurrection story has staying power

Resurrection2Holy Week is so nice that we have it twice here at GetReligion. The Western Church, which includes Daniel and me, had Holy Week last week. The Eastern Church and Terry are in the midst of Holy Week now. Oh that wacky Julian Calendar! Because of our many services, I was a bit out of the loop on what religious stories ran over the weekend. But I couldn’t miss one story as I received almost a dozen emails about it. The headline sort of says it all:

Is Jesus Risen? Literal View Gains Ground

Yeah, the Washington Post‘s Michelle Boorstein penned a piece about how some (some?) Christians believe Jesus literally rose from the dead. They even have a whole day set aside to celebrate this bizarre belief in a literal, science-defying resurrection. Who knew? It’s a bizarre story and headline for Christians because the physical resurrection of Christ is a central tenet of the church, to understate wildly. Here are her nut graphs:

The Easter story is the centerpiece of Christians’ faith. For most, the miracle of Jesus overcoming death three days after the Crucifixion — whether in body or spirit — is not open to debate. Others do not view the Resurrection in a literal way but as a powerful, transformative metaphor about his message living on.

In the past two decades, there has been a heightened scrutiny of Scripture, with basic Christian tenets such as the Resurrection challenged by biblical scholars and others in their search for historical facts about Jesus. But in recent years, there has been a rise in the popularity and stature of books that embrace [the] traditional view of Easter, experts say.

We could talk about the problems with using descriptors like “most” and “others.” We could talk about the problem of not better describing the theology of people who renounce key Christian doctrines. We could discuss the odd use of the phrase “past two decades” to describe historical revisionism, which is a century old and has wreaked havoc on church bodies that used to be so important they were called mainline.

But I’m still stuck on the headline! To say that the key doctrine of Christianity is something on the rise within Christianity shows a lack of historical perspective and an odd starting point for a story. Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass said it best:

Obviously, I work in the secular media, and we’re usually skittish about spiritual matters. But we’re quite dogmatic when it comes to some other things. For example, we’re almost severe in our collective belief in scientific progress, in the ability of government officials and technology and reason to solve the problems of the modern world. . . .

Just think about that. All across the world on Sunday, and again next Sunday, millions of folks will confirm their belief in something that can’t be proven by scientific means. That yearning is news, isn’t it? Even though it takes place year after year, it’s still news.

So we have the annual rite of questioning in the weeks heading up to Easter. This year we got the stories about how Jesus didn’t walk on water, but an ice floe; that he wasn’t crucified in the manner in which people think; and that his father was a Roman soldier named Pantera. And on Easter weekend we get stories that focus on controversies — that sell books — rather than the stories taking place in Christians’ lives throughout the week. It will happen against next year. On that note, one controversy story this Easter that was fairly informative was the Associated Press’ Richard Ostling piece on beliefs about whether Jesus rose from the dead. But for Christians, the Easter story is not about controversy! It’s about salvation, peace and forgiveness of sins. Stories can be interesting and focused on what Easter means for Christians as opposed to what Easter means for non-Christians who love to cast aspersions on believers. It is possible. Just look at how well controversy stories go over with readers, judging from today’s letters to the editor section at the Dallas Morning News:

Great article, guys. Can’t wait for your coverage of how the Quran isn’t the last word for Muslims. You can run that during Ramadan. Or how about a story on the plutocrats and dictators who have resulted from various Mexican revolutions? Page One for Cinco de Mayo? Millions dead because of the DDT fad? Run it on Earth Day.

resurrectionThe other letters weren’t much more kind.

Anyway, I think this is my favorite passage from Boorstein’s piece:

The Rev. Steve Huber of St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in the District said he sees a “deep spiritual hunger afloat in our culture” but isn’t sure whether that translates into more people believing in the physical Resurrection — or whether it matters. . . .

“If Easter is about proving the veracity of some historical event that happened 2,000 years ago, that misses the point,” Huber said.

She doesn’t just leave the comment hanging, exactly, but a point-counterpoint approach to reporting on an issue like this just doesn’t suffice. She doesn’t reference it in any way, but the issue of whether Christ literally rose from the dead was addressed by the apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. In chapter 15, he wrote:

Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up — if in fact the dead do not rise. For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.

If Jesus did not rise from the dead, the apostle Paul says, then you are the most pitiful loser to have faith in him. And Steve Huber says you’re not. Pick your sides. But if you are a reporter covering this issue, you have to understand who has more sway in Christianity. And you have to mention how central to Christianity a belief in the physical resurrection is and how it is the basis for Christian beliefs about life, death and forgiveness of sins.

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  • C. Wingate

    Looking at Fr. Huber’s remarks, I continue to wonder whether they were carefully lopped off the part where he explained that the resurrection means nothing to us if it doesn’t lead to some change in how we live. It has a certain transitional feel which suggests to me that other things he said might not have been that “unorthodox”.

  • Mollie

    C. Wingate,

    I’m not sure if you’re talking about the larger discussion Huber had with the reporter or the middle graph that I cut for space reasons. If it’s what I cut, here it is:

    “The truth of the Resurrection shouldn’t be the real battleground. I think what we want to do is try and rise above that and ask, ‘What is the metaphoric truth of Easter?’ ” he said. “The real power of Easter is the transformation that, as Christians, we believe continues to happen in people’s lives.

  • dk

    It might be more interesting (and distressing for the faithful) to report on what gets preached during Easter in churches where the pastor affirms the literal truth of the resurrection. I found myself treated to a direct confrontation with the issue of unbelief and attacks on faith in the media–it ended up being a weak case for fideism.

    Now if you got real responses to impertinent questions from clergy–”Why do you belive?” and “How do you know?” or “Who’s to say?”–I think it would be very revealing of how fragile orthodox or conservative folks are today, why many feel so threatened, why older and newer liberalizing movements keep occurring and why they get such traction.

  • ELC

    I can’t wait for all the critical stories concerning the life and times of Mohammed that will come out during Ramadan.


  • jayman


    With respect I suspect you’re judging from a small sample size. The only churches to speak of in this country or around the world that are growing are ones where the physicality of the Ressurrection is affirmed. Human beings by and large aren’t interested in non-supernatural religions. Kinda misses the point.

    If you haven’t looked into the recent scholarly literature on the Ressurrection you might want to. While it doesn’t command universal assent by any means there is easily more first class historical scholarship affirming the traditional view nowadays than at any time in the last hundred years and probably more. In particular you might want to look at NT Wright’s Ressurrection of the Son of God which affirms in depth (and non-fideistically) the bodily nature of Christ’s Ressurrction.

  • Nate

    Mollie’s already made most of the points I would on this article. But as a journalist, I have to say it’s just poor reporting, plain and simple. There’s been “two decades” of heightened scrutiny of the Scriptures? Sheesh… the utter ignorance of Christian theological debate revealed in that sentence is appalling to me.
    Doesn’t this raging controversy actually has its roots in a court case before a Palestine governor, circa 60 AD (Acts 25:19)?
    Again, as a reporter, this piece reveals a common journalistic ailment — the belief that something is news because it just penetrated the newsroom’s worldview.

  • Boinkie

    There was another glaring omission in the WaPo article on the resurrection: No Catholics used for comments.
    Unless, of course, you consider ex priest Crossan a “cathoic”…
    I emailed them about it, but only got a computer generated reply.

  • NBR

    I know I’m a week late geting a comment in here, so I don’t know if anyone will read this, but I think the point of the article — which is admittedly pretty weakly framed — is that there has been a shift in emphasis at the level of popular Christian discourse. This shift, if the author is accurate — which I don’t think is very well supported — goes from from thinking about the so-called spiritual message of Christianity (i.e., deemphasizing the problematic idea of the literal, physical, rather goulish-sounding re-animation of a corpse), i.e. a message of love, hope, reconciliation, etc. — towards an emphasis on the literal and the bodily and the miraculous. I do think the reporter is right to connect this to the growth of so-called “evidence books,” those Lee Strobel-style, quasi-legalistic books that aim to provide hard-headed proof for traditional Christianity’s claims to present authoritative accounts of supernatural phenomena. As a side note, it’s interesting that Boorstin pulls some evidence from a 2003 Scripps Howard poll, while at the same time a Scripps Howard survey from this year suggests that most lay Christians do not believe that they themselves will literaly be resurrected in the flesh. So much for Tertullian’s ringing dictum in De resurrectione carnis (63,1): “Resurget igitur caro, et quidem omnis, et quidem ipsa, et quidem integra“. Anyhow, with regard to Boorstin’s article, it seems to me that if there is a main point to be found, it has to do with constructing a narrative about a gradual shift in popular religious thinking away from the symbolic and spiritual and towards the literal and material, and away from moralistic readings and towards forensic-type analysis.

  • NBR

    P.S. to previous comment: the earlier (2003) Scripps Howard poll, the one that Boorstin referenced, is still available here. Note that it surveyed Americans, not only Christians, presumably unlike the 2006 poll.

  • Scott Allen

    NBR, thanks for the late comments. They’re very detailed, and as a former Latin student I always enjoy the language of the scholars!
    Please keep posting on the site.