The New York Times explains Easter — not

paskhaReligion is a hard subject to pin down, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find a feature titled “On Easter, Symbolism and the Exuberance of Spring” in the Dining & Wine section of The New York Times.

I am not a regular food-pages reader, but it appears that the goal of writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ piece is to explain the mythical and religious symbols found in Italian and Mediterranean cooking this time of year. Thus, we read:

As the dull winter landscape of the Mediterranean breaks into fresh green life, the exuberance of holiday feasting neatly matches the exuberance of nature. The magic and mystery of Easter and Passover are firmly grounded in the realities of a Mediterranean springtime. The artichokes, asparagus, young fava beans and fresh green peas on the Easter table reflect that, as do the eggs that have piled up, uneaten throughout Lent, in the family larder.

I am sure many readers will be surprised to find that eggs have piled up in Catholic kitchens, since it would be hard to find many modern Catholics in the West who observe the ancient Lenten fast that avoids all meat and all dairy. However, this tradition is followed in the Eastern churches, both Orthodox and Catholic.

However, let us note that this reference does demonstrate that Jenkins appears to know something about the fasting traditions of the Lenten season, since she mentions those eggs in the first place.

In fact, there are all kinds of intelligent and appropriate religious and biblical references scattered throughout this feature story. Bravo. This is why it is rather interesting to bump into the following descriptions of the Christian and Jewish seasons that provide the context for the story, in the first place:

Even for those who no longer observe the traditional 40-day fast, Holy Week brings a palpable sense of anticipation. This Sunday, unusually, Western and Orthodox Easter celebrations fall on the same day, while Passover is observed throughout Holy Week and Easter weekend.

If Passover celebrates the resurrection of a people from the death of slavery in Egypt, Easter affirms the resurrection of individual souls. But both reflect ancient beliefs, lodged deep in the Mediterranean psyche, about the resurrection of the natural world after winter’s death.

OK, raise your hand — or click your mouse — if you think that most readers of a national newspaper will find this description of the meaning of Easter a bit, well, lacking. Also, raise your hand if you think that most synagogue-attending Jews will find it strange that the God of Moses was left out of the Passover equation.

I suggest a visit to a reference site — the “E” page at ReligionStylebook.org — offered by the professionals at the Religion Newswriters Association. There one can find the following definition of the most important day of the Christian year.

Easter: The major Christian holy day. It marks the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead three days after his crucifixion. In the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon that occurs on or after March 21. If the full moon falls on a Sunday, Easter is the next Sunday. As a result, Easter may fall anywhere between March 22 and April 25. The Eastern churches generally celebrate the holiday later than most other Christian churches, although sometimes the two celebrations fall on the same Sunday.

The Times reference isn’t totally wrong, of course. It just, well, misses the point.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • bob

    Sigh. Why does the NYT bother writing about this subject at all? It actually sounds like a comment on the weather. Hey, it’s spring! Can we just agree the whole Easter thing is a comment on global warming, to be avoided at all costs?

  • Dan

    I have an Irish friend who mentioned to my wife that in Ireland the tradition on Shrove Tuesday is to eat pancakes to use up all the dairy and eggs.

  • Eric Phillips

    In addition to the strange omission of Christ, there’s something else wrong with saying that Easter “affirms the resurrection of individual souls.” It’s not about souls, it’s about bodies.

  • Eric W

    The excerpts you post epitomize your Website’s slogan, i.e.: “the press … just doesn’t get religion.” I suspect this is due to the elimination in school curriculums/curricula over the last several decades of the basic (but correct) information about Jewish and Christian holy days. I.e., many reporters, unless they themselves are religious and/or religiously-informed, never learned or never correctly learned these things and write from faulty knowledge or guesswork.

  • Lisa R

    I just wish that Christians would stop trying to explain Jewish holidays from a Christian perspective. If you want to talk about the meaning of a Jewish holiday, here’s a novel idea, get a Jew! That and the fact that we’ve been celebrating Pesach for over 3000 years. Easter happens to fall around when we are celebrating Pesach, not the other way around.

  • Dan Berger

    Lisa R, agreed. The “resurrection” motif was odd.

    Nevertheless, there’s a very good, historical reason that Easter and Passover are at almost the same time.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Lisa:

    Are you upset with me or with the Times? I avoided talking much about the Passover wording because I didn’t think it was my place to do that.

    Do you think the Times wording for Passover is OK?

  • Irenaeus

    A couple things, which some of you have hit on:

    “Easter affirms the resurrection of individual souls” is false on many levels. First, “resurrection” in ancient Judaism and Christianity almost always means the revivification, renewal and transformation of bodies. The Greco-Roman world (and thus Hellenized Jews and Christians) had a category for the “immortality of the soul”; resurrection is something quite different. Second, of course, easter is a celebration of Christ’s resurrection, which is the firstfruits of ours (1 Cor 15.20).

    “But both reflect ancient beliefs, lodged deep in the Mediterranean psyche, about the resurrection of the natural world after winter’s death.” — Perhaps this is permissible in the “food” section of a paper, but resurrection again is something different. Scholars who approach things from the straightjacket of comparative religion find parallels which are rather forced. For those who are interested, I’d suggest reading CS Lewis, who has some essays on these sorts of things in God in the Dock, particularly the essay “Myth become Fact.”

  • Aristotle

    You have a lot of time on your hands. Probably the best example of nitpicking I have seen in a while. Looks like a pretty pathetic pretense to “critique” those Godless libs at the Times. You can do better than this.

  • Dennis Colby

    A single objectionable sentence by a NY Times food writer clearly reveals the extent of the vast MSM conspiracy to destroy Christianity and Judaism and replace them with socialistic Mediterrenean cuisine features.

    Seriously: The Exodus/Easter comparison is pretty close to what I heard on Palm Sunday in a Catholic cathedral. Admittedly, the priest compared the liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt with the liberation of human beings from sin at Easter, which the Times food writer didn’t do.

    Although I can see why Jewish readers might not appreciate this kind of comparison (although, unlike some posters here, I have no special insight into the Times writer’s religious beliefs), surely there are more serious Easter blunders in the press.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Aristotle:

    Sorry, but no apology on this end. Leaving Jesus out of Easter and God out of the Passover is a pretty big deal in my view of things. It’s hard to name two more important holidays in the whole world religion scene.

  • Lisa R

    tmatt,

    You were just commenting on the Times article, that’s cool. Essentially, I was expanding on your comments. Countless Christian authors have penned articles about Easter including rather ignorant comments about Pesach (Passover). Such as the sole focus of our leaving slavery. A huge part of Pesach is that we were given the Torah and the freedom to worship HaShem (The Creator) as we Jews are meant to.

    Btw, it’s just Passover, not ‘the Passover’. ;)

  • Lisa R

    Dennis,

    Food makes up a huge part of Jewish life. You’ll find countless articles devoted to food for our various holidays in Jewish publications, especially during Pesach as food preparation and consumption makes up a very large part of the observance. Food articles tied to Pesach in secular publications have no negative impact outside of incorrect attempts to explain Pesach and recipes that are either not kosher for Pesach or kosher at all.

    As for concepts of salvation from sin, etc. These concepts don’t exist in Judaism so an attempt to link them to Jewish practices simply doesn’t make sense.

  • Chip

    tmatt,

    I question the use of ReligionStylebook.org as a model that the NYTimes might aspire to. Scroll down the page you cited and look at the entry for Eucharist which manages to offend each tradition cited.

  • Eric Phillips

    Chip,

    Wow, that “Eucharist” entry is a train wreck!

  • http://www.confessingevangelical.com John H

    If you think that’s bad, try the press release put out by the UK supermarket chain, Somerfield:

    Brits will on average be enjoying over 3.5 eggs each over the Easter weekend alone. But over a quarter don’t know why handing them out symbolises the birth of Jesus

    Oops. A first revision changed it to “rebirth”, which if anything is even worse. Eventually they hit on the word which had presumably been on the tip of their tongue all along: “resurrection”… :-)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    LISA R:

    When I used the phrase “the Passover equation,” the article “the” goes with “equation” and the word Passover is, in this case, an adjective. Right?

    As in, “Her family always gathers for the Passover meal.”

    But it would be, “Her family always observes Passover together.”

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    CHIP:

    I agree that the RNA materials have some problems.

    But it’s still hard to work of a definition of Easter that doesn’t include the resurrection of Jesus.

    So let’s say that The Times should be BETTER than the RNA guide. OK? That’s the ticket. Better.

  • Charlotte

    *sigh* – well, at least the Times didn’t do their usual polite contempt of any christian tradition. This was just confused.

    I think they have a policy against using the word “Jesus” in a respectful context, so they try to avoid it altogether.

  • Larry Rasczak

    Aristotle

    While I am always a fan of sarcasim, I think yours is rather badly misplaced here. Leaving God out of religous holidays is rather like trying to explain Memorial Day and Veterans Day without mentioning the military. Or Columbus Day without Columbus (not that THAT hasn’t been tried of late) or July 4th without mentioning the Revolution.

    So yes, this is both a case of sloppy and ignorant journalisim on the part of the Times, and a case of political correctness. The Times would rather print something that is not true rather than print a reference to God. (Apparently ANY reference to God scares the bejezus out of a large portion of their readers.) If one were to believe that they really do turn out “All the News that’s fit to print” then their preference for printing inaccuate secular fantasy over accurate religious facts tells you a great deal about what is and is not “fit to print” in their view.

    Lastly I think our dear food critic doesn’t seem to know a whole lot about food either. “…as do the eggs that have piled up, uneaten throughout Lent, in the family larder.”

    Excuse me… but has anyone thought about what would happen if you actually tried to keep an egg in an unrefrigerated Mediterranean LARDER for the better part of SIX WEEKS??

    I have strong doubts that the tradition of Easter Eggs comes from “Hey Maria! These eggs have been pilied up, uneaten, in the family larder for over a month and they are starting to smell… maybey we should paint them pretty colors and feed them to the kids?”

  • Dennis Colby

    “So yes, this is both a case of sloppy and ignorant journalisim on the part of the Times, and a case of political correctness. The Times would rather print something that is not true rather than print a reference to God.”

    Why is it that when we find something we don’t like about a newspaper article, the first impulse is to assume there’s some kind of sinister anti-Christian conspiracy afoot? Doesn’t it seem like simple error is more likely?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    DENNIS:

    You didn’t read conspiracy in my post. I was, however, curious that a writer who handled other religious themes with intelligence (not that everyone would agree with the points she made) would produce such strange historical references for Easter and Passover.

    Clearly, there are people at the Times who feel comfortable dealing with traditional forms of religion and there are people who are not.

  • Larry Rasczak

    “Why is it that when we find something we don’t like about a newspaper article, the first impulse is to assume there’s some kind of sinister anti-Christian conspiracy afoot? Doesn’t it seem like simple error is more likely? ”

    Well nobody here is raising the “sinister anti-Christian conspiracy” straw man but you.

    Look at it this way. When the TITANIC struck an iceberg and sank, simple error was more likely the cause than anything sinister. However when U.S. lost 23 ships totaling 121,505 tons in the Atlantic during the first few weeks of 1942 it was instantly evident that icebergs and simple error were not the most likely cause.

    The Times has a long and well documented history of being a paper with an agenda; and that agenda is not exactly that of a Texas, family values, churchgoing Baptist. (Perhaps my favorite example is the television commercial the NYT ran until quite recently encouraging people to subscribe to the NYT weekend edtion. There was a very attractive African American lady lounging on her bed with a cup of coffe and the NYT spread out, and she says “For me Sunday was made for the New York Times”. Well when I saw that I always wanted to scream “Sunday was made for you to go to Church! It’s the THIRD COMMANDMENT!” (Well, 4th if you are Protestant or Jewish.)

    Apparently it simply never occured to the NYT, or their ad agency that people might have other things to do on a Sunday morning than listen to NPR, sip gormet coffee, and to the NYT crossword puzzle.

    There is a reason that the press does not “get religion”. It is not that they all wear black robes and meet in secret star chambers and sacrifice stray cats; and nobody with two brain cells to rub together believes that. (For one thing running a world wide media cabal would take a level of competence, intelligence, and ability that the NYT staff has yet to display in any aspect of their work.))

    However to claim the NYT is an accurate unbiased objective news source, especially on issues runs against vast amount of evidence. Simply look through the archives of this blog.

  • Dennis Colby

    TMATT,

    Wasn’t referring to your post, but to the startling, quasi-psychic insights many commenters seem to have into the NY Times newsroom.

    LARRY,

    On the one hand, you dismiss my criticism as a strawman, and then go on at length about how a harmless TV commercial is a tremendous slight against religious people. Incidentally, Sunday was not made for people to go to church – Saturday, the seventh day, was. Sunday was made for people to go to work – Christians started going to church on that day not because of the 10 Commandments, but because that’s when Jesus rose from the dead.

    This blog, incidentally, has (justly) showered praise on the NY Times’ top religion writer. Singling out an errant line in a food article as evidence of institutional bias seems unwarranted to me when it’s not considered as part of the overall religion coverage of the paper – which has, I repeat, been praised repeatedly by people often fairly critical of the mainstream press.

  • Martha

    Perhaps this throws a light onto the question of should newspapers maintain a dedicated religion beat staffed by a specialist reporter or can it be handled by any competent journalist or should they even have one at all?

    In this case, we have the food section going for seasonally-themed recipes; Easter has religious connotations (at the very least) so they may feel they have to throw the dog a bone by at least mentioning them – same thing if they’re going to go for Passover foods – but it’s not really a comfortable fit, is it? They’re not the religion section, after all.

    They probably feel that if they just say “recipes for Easter” and nothing more, that sounds as if they’re assuming everyone is Christian (oh, no!) and gets the reference without needing explanation, which is horribly uninclusive and presumptive and breaching the separation of church and state and ignoring the multicultural wonderfulness and all that; on the other hand, the whole point of Easter/Passover recipes is that they’re specifically for religious festivals which are major enough that everyone knows about them, so you’re stuck with these specific religious references tied to the wider culture (or is anyone seriously going to tell me that actually, in their house, they bake egg custards for the goddess Eostre and don’t know about these new-fangled imported cults? Come on now!).

    I’d say, if they want to avoid this bind in future, either simply print ‘Easter/Passover foods’ without explanation (yes, yes, sounds like heterosexist white judaeochristian imperialist bourgeois monocultural oppression, but suck it up, guys), or stick to ‘it’s spring, it’s the new lamb, here’s some groovy Mediterranean-style cookery’.

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