There goes the F-word LA Times, again

Let’s start with the obvious: There were more than a few believers who could accurately be described as “fundamentalists” at the Gov. Rick Parry’s combination prayer rally and pre-White House campaign trial balloon festival.

Let’s start with something just as obvious: There were plenty of people at the rally (simply based on the official list of those who signed on) who could not accurately be described as “fundamentalists” under the historic — and, thus, Associated Press Stylebook endorsed — definition of the term.

Thus, it is appropriate to ask what in the heckfire the editors of The Los Angeles Times were thinking when they approved this lede for their main hard-news report on this controversial event:

With Rick Perry likely to enter the Republican presidential race within days or weeks, thousands of fundamentalist Christians cheered the Texas governor Saturday at a stadium prayer rally that appeared to boost his standing with religious conservatives, a key GOP voting bloc.

Perry organized the daylong service of prayer and fasting, featuring appearances by prominent figures on the Christian right. Stadium officials said the crowd exceeded 30,000, far more than any event staged by the announced Republican presidential contenders.

I realize that most GetReligion readers who work in journalism almost certainly know the following passage by heart now, but let’s take another look at the AP stylebook’s wise and historically accurate advice on how to handle the term “fundamentalist.”

fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

That stated, a glance at the official national endorsement list (a source tapped in few, if any, news reports) for this event reveals that some true fundamentalists were, in fact, in the house.

At the same time, there were evangelicals present — author Max Lucado leaps to mind — who could never be called a “fundamentalist.” Then again, perhaps the dominant stylistic influence on the event came from charismatic churches and, trust me, there are scores of important and divisive theological differences between Pentecostal believers and true fundamentalists. And what does one do with retired Bishop John Yanta of Texas, Sam Brownback and the few other Catholic leaders (clergy and laity) who dared to endorse the event?

The obvious question: Have we reached the point where any Christian believer whose doctrine of scripture and church tradition is high enough to believe that sex outside of marriage is a sin will now be called a “fundamentalist”?

Let me stress that this rally included some fringe folks, for sure. However, instead of accurately quoting these beliefs and, even better, asking the mainstream evangelicals and Catholics to critique them, the Los Angeles Times led the way (correct me if I missed worse, providing URLs) in settling for multiple uses of foggy terms such as “extreme views” — instead of actually citing on-the-record references to those views.

At one point, there was this missed opportunity:

… Perry and other speakers were careful to avoid overt partisan appeals. To applause, the 61-year-old governor expressed his view of a “personal God” whose “agenda is not a political agenda. His agenda is a salvation agenda.” Chuckling, he added, “He is a wise, wise God, and he’s wise enough to not be affiliated with any political party.”

Perry read several Bible verses, including from the book of Joel, a minor prophet whom he cited as the inspiration for the rally.

Uh, “his view” of a “personal God”? The governor has his own view on that basic Christian belief about the nature of the Almighty? Please, Times crew, share the details. Perhaps this newspaper’s inner ring believes that Catholics, for example, do not believe in a “personal God”?

And about those Bible verses read by Perry. I, for one, would like to know what one or two of them were — in case he mangled any of them or used them out of context (Elizabeth Tenety of the “On Faith” site at The Washington Post has many of these details, as usual). The angels (and the demons) are in the details.

I am sure that some readers would question elements of The New York Times report on the event, but at least these editors avoided yet another inaccurate use of the F-word in their short report. This is strong praise, in these times.

Breaking news: Rick Perry prays

When I first read about Texas Governor Rick Perry’s upcoming prayer event, I thought “Meh, PR event. Who cares?” Little did I realize that the media would freak out over it.

Today’s the big day, and even though Perry is not speaking at the public, it’s gained him quite the media attention. It’s hard to know why the coverage has gotten out of control.

People are protesting, but that’s a nice way for them to get automatic media attention, right? It’s specifically Christian, but it’s not paid with taxpayer money, right? Perry might run for president, but a lot of people are running for president, right? Someone please help me understand the news value of this event, because we are seeing some embarrassing media coverage come out of this.

Let’s start with NPR (bolded phrases are my own to illustrate some loaded language).

While the governor claims it’s nothing more than a Christian prayer rally, the event has touched off a holy war among critics, who claim it is Jesus-exclusive and political.

Then there’s some misinformation.

Among prominent religious leaders expected to speak: James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.

Um, did you miss the memo that Dobson left Focus and started his own show? Oh yes, there’s a correction at the top, but it illustrates that the reporter must be new to religion coverage.

The Southern Poverty Law Center characterizes the AFA as a hate group because of its fierce anti-gay agenda.

Does the Southern Poverty Law Center actually set the standard for hate groups? What are some examples that they cite?

The Associated Press leads off with some vague description of Perry’s own religious views.

Openly and deeply religious, Texas Gov. Rick Perry organized what seemed like a slam-dunk event for a politician in a state where religion and politics walk hand in hand: He would fill Houston’s Reliant Stadium with fellow believers in a seven-hour session of Christian atonement by some of the nation’s most conservative preachers, exhorting believers to pray about the nation’s moral decline.

Um, how is he openly and deeply religious? Where does he attend church?

The gathering could give the Texas governor a chance to further demonstrate his bona fides with the Republican Party’s social conservatives, who are being aggressively courted by several candidates already in the race. Others worry a rally of Christian fundamentalism, and one involving several controversial religious organizations, could alienate independent voters and conservatives who are more focused on economic issues.

So as long as you say “others worry,” then it’s okay to go against AP style on “fundamentalism”?

Locally, the Dallas Morning News published a piece with the headline, “Rick Perry says he doesn’t endorse extremists participating in prayer meeting.” I just assume that politicians attend lots and lots of functions and don’t necessarily endorse every one of them, but I missed the expectation here. Here’s the Houston Chronicle‘s piece:

Dubbed “The Response,” the all-day event is attracting an inordinate amount of attention, not only because of the governor’s presidential ambitions, but also because of his embrace of Christian groups and leaders known for their theocratic tendencies, fringe beliefs and intolerance toward nonbelievers.

Do any of the leaders coming to this event embrace theocracy? Or is this just because they oppose gay marriage and abortion (hardly fringe beliefs)? How do they act intolerant toward nonbelievers?

Noting that Perry himself has expressed the conviction that he is, perhaps, “called” to the presidency, they contend that the prayer event is prelude to his White House pilgrimage.

The reporter doesn’t explain the context of when he said he felt “called” to the presidency or that he walked back on that statement later (referencing how he can feel called by his mother). Do these supporters back him politically, or do they just support his idea of public prayer?

Perry’s own political alliance with fundamentalist pastors has its antecedents in ties forged some years ago.

So he hasn’t come into religious ties until recently (never explained further) but he forged the fundamentalist ties some years ago? Let’s review: Associated Press style says avoid the term fundamentalist.

The only person that the reporter finds to support him is a former aide. It’s like he is trying to only do a perfunctory attempt at “balance.” Surely someone can speak to larger role of public prayer in politics?

The same paper ran a much more calm, informative piece from Kate Shellnutt* (and, if you want to follow the prayer event, follow her live tweets and liveblog). Please let us know what you find in post-event coverage, the good, bad and ugly.

Update: To be clear, I don’t think the media should ignore this event. I just think the coverage has been overblown and poorly executed. *This post has been updated to correct Kate Shellnutt’s name. My apologies.

Shrill, hateful crusades

Every once in a while, reporters discover some religious group that has been around for a long time, but they feel the need to profile it all over again because of some newer political connections. This time, the New York Times has re-uncovered the American Family Association, thanks to its involvement in Texas Governor Rick Perry’s upcoming prayer event.

Instead of telling us something new, unfortunately, the Times makes all sorts of sweeping claims with loaded language. In LeBlancian style, it’s time to do an edit with bolded phrases to highlight the reporter’s choice of words. For instance, watch for the incredible number of scare quotes.

To its admirers on the religious right, the American Family Association is a stalwart leader in a last-ditch fight to save America’s Christian culture and the values of traditional families.

Is it really a stalwart leader? Says who? How do the numbers of its audience compare to those of organizations like Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm and other similar groups?

To its liberal critics, it is a shrill, even hateful voice of intolerance, out to censor the arts, declare Muslims unfit for public office and deny equality to gay men and lesbians because they engage in sinful “aberrant sexual behavior.”

It’s hard to know what to do with this paragraph above. Can you imagine the same kind of language used from the critics of People for the American Way (since it is quoted in the piece)? Also, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that even non-liberal critics might pause at some of AFA’s activism. If the reporter did some calling around, he might find that AFA is a little more divisive among even some evangelicals.

…the American Family Association’s pronouncements have flowed forth daily from its sleek offices here in the Deep South.

But now it is doing more than preaching to the choir. This summer, the association has thrust itself into presidential politics by paying for and organizing a day of prayer to save “a nation in crisis” that Gov. Rick Perry of Texas is convening this Saturday.

Is this the first time the organization has been involved in presidential politics?

In speeches and books, Mr. Wildmon has voiced a sense of siege that is widely shared among evangelicals, one he first expressed 34 years ago as sex and violence crept into television.

Some examples for “widely shared,” please?

But the association has sharpened its edge over the years, moving from its well-known crusades for public “decency” to harshly opposing what it calls an anti-Christian “homosexual agenda”…

Funny, didn’t the reporter get the memo that evangelicals aren’t using the word “crusade” so much anymore?

… the group’s reputation for inflammatory statements rose after the hiring two years ago of Bryan Fischer, a former pastor from Idaho, as the director of “issues analysis” and the host of a daily two-hour afternoon show. Mr. Fischer, 60, silver-haired and a talk-radio natural, has become a public face of the group.

I wonder if the reporter asked Wildmon why Fischer’s posts always end with the following line: “(Unless otherwise noted, the opinions expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Family Association or American Family Radio.)” Is he really the public face, or is that what the reporter infers?

Perhaps most notably, Mr. Fischer trumpets the disputed theory that Adolph Hitler was a homosexual and that the Nazi Party was largely created by “homosexual thugs” — evidence, he says, of the inherent pathologies of homosexuality.

Again, going out on a limb, I’m going to say that I have never heard this theory espoused by any Christian leader other than Fischer, so it’s probably more than just “disputed.”

Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow at People for the American Way, a liberal group, says of the American Family Association’s radio network: “Clearly a lot of Republican politicians want to reach the people who are listening to the American Family Association. Many Republican candidates see no shame in lending credibility to the extremism and bigotry on its radio shows.”

Honestly, why even bother including this quote, using the guilt by association angle that only benefits the person quoted. Surely there is someone more objective who can talk about the AFA’s role in politics?

Though liberal critics call it a hate group, the association and Mr. Wildmon are widely revered in conservative circles.

Who calls it a hate group? Why not quote someone who “reveres” the association?

Again, we’re talking about an organization that has been around for decades, but this particular reporter probably just disocvered it and decided to profile it all over again. The same reporter has recently profiled David Barton, single pastors, homosexuality on Christian campuses, Christians who get involved in Greek life, groups or ideas that have actually been around for quite a while, but he’s apparently just learning about it now. Perhaps the reporter could find fresher, newer angles that don’t come straight out of the 1970s.

Oh yeah, she’s a Muslim, too

GetReligion co-founder Doug LeBlanc notified us of this absolutely fascinating piece by Terri Gross for NPR’s Fresh Air. It runs about 45 minutes or so and goes through a new documentary called The Interrupters. The documentary was done by Steve James, who also directed the fantastic Hoop Dreams.

We learn about former gang members in Chicago who stage group interventions for at-risk youth. These men and women are known as “violence interrupters” and they work with CeaseFire, a group that has an interesting approach to targeting violence. Basically, the group believes that violence moves in the same way that infectious diseases do. So they aim to “go to the source” to stop it.

LeBlanc noted that while he didn’t discover an outright ghost, this piece “reflects the maddening ability of Terri Gross to neglect an interesting religion angle in favor of a feminist hobby horse.” It relates to the discussions with Ameena Matthews, who is certainly the most interesting subject of the documentary. From the accompanying article:

The third subject of the film is Ameena Matthews, one of only two female members of Chicago’s interrupters team. Matthews is the daughter of a famous gang member and had been in a gang herself — which, she says, gives her credibility when navigating potentially volatile situations among teens on the streets.

I got so into listening to the piece that I had forgotten LeBlanc’s note. But here’s what he said:

Toward the end of an otherwise excellent interview with one of the interrupters, the intense and fascinating Ameena Matthews, Gross focuses on her scarf. She mentions only in passing that Ms. Matthews is a Muslim and her husband is an imam (or, as Gross puts it, “the head of the mosque that you belong to”). But then Gross interprets the scarf primarily as a statement — wait for it — against being a sex object.

Even after listening for 40 minutes or whatever, as soon as Gross mentioned that Matthews wears a head covering, is Muslim and is married to her imam, I immediately had a dozen questions I was hoping to get answered. Instead, Gross said something about makeup and suggested that the head covering keeps girls from thinking she’s competing with them in the looks department. It was kind of odd.

Of course, Matthews didn’t object to the question and, in fact, joked that Gross’ praise of the benefits of head scarves would be printed up and used to present herself on the street. But what a squandering of an opportunity for an interesting avenue of discussion. The accompanying article has a tiny bit more, but it only serves to make me more curious:

When Matthews was heavily involved in gang activities, it was her Muslim faith, her children and grandmother who served as her own violence interrupters, she says.

“[My grandmother] would step in the middle of raids, asking, ‘Where’s Ameena?’” she says. “Guns were drawn and she’s not even looking at the guns or the gas that was thrown in the building to smoke us out, she’s yelling my name and telling me to get my behind out. … She was there.”

So was her father Muslim, too? And does her religion have anything to do with the work she does now?

NPR and CCM: Don’t ask, don’t tell

For GetReligion readers who happen to follow the niche music market known as Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), there really isn’t much new information to share about the life and career of the lesbian singer-songwriter Jennifer Knapp. Her decision to publicly out herself cost her lots of fans and made her some new fans.

That all happened about a decade ago.

However, it takes time for events in evangelical culture to reach National Public Radio. Thus, there has been a new-old NPR story about Knapp that is reaching lots of new listeners.

It opens like this:

Many Christian denominations denounce homosexuality as a sin. As a result, gay Christian singers, songwriters and musicians face a challenge in balancing their art, their sexuality and their faith. For those few who have decided to come out, it has meant giving up successful careers.

In the first sentence, I have trouble with the word “many” and the word “denounce.” Actually, very few church hierarchies have rejected centuries of Christian doctrine that sex outside of marriage is a sin — so “many” is rather weak, even if we are speaking in the present tense. For example, the overwhelming majority of Anglican believers would fall into the traditional camp on this issue, even now.

Meanwhile, “denounce” could more accurately be stated as “teach,” since very few mainstream Catholic, Orthodox or evangelical bodies publicly emphasize this issue, unless challenged in the public square. The norm today is to teach that acts of same-gender sex are sins, the same as legions of other sins that tempt human beings in a sinful, fallen world.

The point, of course, is that NPR is wrestling with editorial issues in the very first sentence. This is a hot-button topics, one in which a wide variety of beliefs must be taken seriously.

However, this is not the main point that must be made about this particular report.

You see there is a side of the story that is completely missing — religion.

The story is, essentially, about how a religious subculture (CCM) has decided to reject gay, lesbian and bisexual musicians who are open about their faith and their sex lives. The story tells us nothing about the religious beliefs and church lives of Knapp and the other musicians included in the story. Zippo.

Instead, we get this kind of vague information.

Seven years later, Knapp reemerged, no longer self-identified as a Christian artist — instead, she was a folk-rock musician, a person of faith and a lesbian. Knapp says that even after all that time, she still had doubts about coming forward.

“It made me very hesitant to get back up into the public level, knowing that there would be discussion about my sexuality on the whole,” she says.

“Person of faith” is the key, of course. There is no particular faith that Knapp was once a part of and there is no particular faith that she is a part of now. So readers/listeners have no idea what she used to believe, what she no longer believes and what she now believes — other than the fact that she rejects traditional Christian doctrines on sexuality. In fact, the story doesn’t even deal with another issue, which is whether Knapp is sexually active outside of traditional marriage (which is what orthodox — small “o” — Christian doctrines actually teach is sinful behavior).

Was Knapp a Southern Baptist and now she is, oh, a member of an oldline Protestant body that has modernized Christian doctrines on this topic? Has she dropped out of church and chosen to walk alone? Does she have a new set of Christian fans, even progressive evangelicals, who are drawn to her new music?

In other words, what role does religion actually play in this story, for Knapp, for other LGBT artists, for executives in the CCM industry, for fans, etc.?

I guess NPR, when it comes to facts about religion, sex and CCM, has decided not to ask and not to tell.

Editor’s note: Comments bashing either NPR or the Christian faith (liberal or conservative branches) will be deleted. Stick to the journalism issues in this post, issues such as accuracy, fairness and balance.

Evangelist blowhards

So a man named John Stott died last week. Sure, he was no Amy Winehouse, but the English pastor, theologian, intellectual and author was kind of a big deal for global evangelicalism.

After Christianity Today (for disclosure, where I work full-time) posted the first obituary, the Associated Press quickly followed with a news story, and the New York Times and The Guardian eventually posted obituaries.

It wasn’t surprising that most reporters didn’t fall all over themselves to write about his death, but I would have expected a little more in the mainstream. For instance, its ironic that while Time magazine named Stott one of the most 100 influential people in 2005, they posted nothing about his death.

Sure, Stott didn’t pray with presidents, but he influenced a generation of evangelicals, especially its leaders. If reporters needed to connect it to public office, they could have pointed out that he was chaplain to Queen Elizabeth II. If they needed a little controversial hook, maybe they could have explored the annihilationism angle (becoming non-existent rather than tormented in hell) with the recent debates about Rob Bell and universalism. But these are only slices of Stott’s widespread influence, and we might grade the coverage with a “meh.”

What prompted a GetReligion post for me, though, was the Los Angeles Times obituary, posted Sunday with the headline “The Rev. John Stott dies at 90; influential Anglican evangelist.” Although Stott did lots of personal evangelism (encouraging conversion), I’m not sure “evangelist” is the right term, since he was not an itinerant preacher to the masses in the manner of Billy Graham. Then we have the deck, which draws directly from the text of the article.

Unassuming but erudite, the pastor was considered a mentor to Billy Graham and Rick Warren. He was a principal framer of the 1974 Lausanne Covenant that launched the global evangelical movement.

Stott definitely helped frame the modern, global evangelical movement, but he certainly did not launch it the same way you would launch a formal institution. Then there’s the framing of the lead.

The Rev. John Stott did not fill stadiums with the faithful like his longtime friend, Billy Graham, or give the invocation at a presidential inauguration, as megachurch pastor Rick Warren did for Barack Obama. Yet he was a giant of the evangelical world — perhaps the most influential evangelist most people have never heard of.

The Times probably wants to connect to its California audience with the Rick Warren reference, but it’s funny to me that the reporter thinks that Warren’s invocation prayer is his most influential moment (Purpose Driven Life anyone?). Like Billy Graham, politics has been part of Warren’s ministry but just one sliver of his influence. This illustrates a larger issue in journalism where reporters search so hard for the obvious story that they fail to see the big picture. Here’s how the piece ends:

He also was famous for his simple lifestyle. For three months every year for 50 years, when he wasn’t living in his spare London flat, he retreated to a tiny cottage in Wales where he wrote his books by lantern light. It was not until several years ago that, over his objections, electricity was finally installed.

Really? That’s how you end an obituary on someone who shaped a religious movement?

Separate from the newspaper’s fine obituary, the news of Stott’s death prompted The New York Times‘ columnist Nicholas Kristof to write about why Stott illustrates the kind of evangelical he loves, rather than those bigoted, homophobic, blowhards. We don’t usually discuss columns here, but since it was a newsier column, we’re bringing it into this roundup.

Those self-appointed evangelical leaders come across as hypocrites, monetizing Jesus rather than emulating him. Some seem homophobic, and many who claim to be “pro-life” seem little concerned with human life post-uterus. Those are the preachers who won headlines and disdain.

But in reporting on poverty, disease and oppression, I’ve seen so many others. Evangelicals are disproportionately likely to donate 10 percent of their incomes to charities, mostly church-related. More important, go to the front lines, at home or abroad, in the battles against hunger, malaria, prison rape, obstetric fistula, human trafficking or genocide, and some of the bravest people you meet are evangelical Christians (or conservative Catholics, similar in many ways) who truly live their faith.

I’m not particularly religious myself, but I stand in awe of those I’ve seen risking their lives in this way — and it sickens me to see that faith mocked at New York cocktail parties.

It’s a tough life at those cocktail parties.

Don’t get me wrong: Kristof does some great reporting and I highly recommend his book Half the Sky, but he seems to pick and choose what he likes about a religious group. What he doesn’t seem to understand is that there are values intrinsic to a religious body that leaders don’t abandon because it’s viewed as backwards or less pragmatic (Catholics and contraceptives in Third World countries, for instance). There are these things called “doctrines,” in other words, that are rather important in most religious traditions.

Instead, we might consider David Brooks’s column from 2004, where the idea that Stott might be considered the “evangelical pope” first appeared.

Stott is so embracing it’s always a bit of a shock — especially if you’re a Jew like me — when you come across something on which he will not compromise. It’s like being in “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” except he has a backbone of steel. He does not accept homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle, and of course he believes in evangelizing among nonbelievers. He is pro-life and pro-death penalty, even though he is not a political conservative on most issues.

Most important, he does not believe truth is plural. He does not believe in relativizing good and evil or that all faiths are independently valid, or that truth is something humans are working toward.

Brooks worked harder to understand Stott — beyond what he personally approved of — so that he could explain why Stott was so unique, both the obvious stances on policy and lifestyle and also the less visible theology and ideas that set Stott apart.

GetReligionistas hit a perfect storm

It’s summer and, at some point, people’s lives are going to line up wrong, schedules are going to go crazy and the result is a perfect storm that threatens to shut things down.

As a rule, your GetReligionistas try to put up three or four new posts on weekdays and then two or three new posts every weekend (unless, of course, news events simply dictate otherwise).

For us, that’s business as usual.

This summer has been different, to say the least. We’ve had all kinds of health issues in our midst (I’ve been in surgery three times), busy day jobs and, of course, we lost young master Brad Greenberg to the world of law reviews (dang it, since the same thing happened years ago with a young man whose last name was Pulliam).

Through it all, we stuck close to business as usual.

I just wanted to alert readers that things are going to get a bit lean the next week or so — in large part because of travel and work matters that are hitting the Hemingway clan and Sarah Pulliam Bailey. Bobby is busy, as always, and I am away from the office, getting to know the first grandchild to enter our nuclear Matt family. I’ll be up in the wilds of central New Hampshire trying to get used to the idea of being called “Papa” for a week (gotta get one of those “Live Free or Die” sweatshirts).

On top of all of that, J. Calvin “Jay Bob” Grelen has decided, after a week of wrestling with the mysterious doctrines of WordPress and the giant waves of emails that are exchanged every day between members of the GetReligion team, that the whole pace of this blogging thing is not for him (especially right now as he makes the jump from his years of being a columnist to working on a modern copy desk). Thus, he has elected to hit the cyber trail early and not even finish out his trial month with this weblog. This is really sad news, because he is a great Southern writer and we looked forward to working with him.

So we are still down a scribe (and, yes, I have already talked to some logical names in recent weeks and will talk to more).

Jay’s decision only underscores the fact that serious blogging (as opposed to first-person obsessive, “What my cat ate for dinner last night” blogging) is hard work.

This was underscored for us a few years ago when Ari Goldman, one of the great religion-beat professionals (and journalism professors) of the late 20th century, gave blogging a whirl here at this site and then bowed out, noting that he was overwhelmed with the pace of what we do. It is hard work.

It’s hard work, even under the best of conditions — when all of the members of your team are caught up in their ordinary, hyper-busy lives.

So bear with us doing this perfect storm. I think we’ll all get to chime in on a semi-regular basis — think two posts a day as a norm — and we’ll be hovering a bit less over the comments boards (which I am sure will be good news to some of you, and you know who you are).

The storm should pass in a week or so. Thanks for your patience. And, hey, if your want to leave comments on this post, why not tell us about all of the horrid or great mainstream religion news stories (don’t forget those URLs) that we missed TODAY?

Breaking discoveries from third century?

This story from NPR ran in mid-July but was only sent to us recently. Here’s how it begins:

How Bible Stories Evolved Over The Centuries

Many Christians believe that the words of the New Testament are set in stone. But scholars at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary are chronicling just how much those words have evolved over time.

See, it’s that kind of story. Of course “over the centuries” means “over the first three centuries after Christ.” Do the reporters think that this is news to “many Christians” that the Scriptures weren’t written in English and handed down to Protestants in their present form, I guess. I’m not entirely sure what “set in stone” means at all.

Later we’re told:

Variations in the early Greek manuscripts may seem like a cause for alarm for many Bible literalists, but the majority of the discrepancies the project documents, Warren says, were caused by early transcribers doing their best to clarify the text.

Let me just quote from the reader who sent the story in:

“Variations in the early Greek manuscripts may seem like a cause for alarm for many Bible literalists …” Really? Who thinks this? Besides the author of this piece? What is a literalist?

Is this about a new database? Or about a couple of well-known textual issues (long ending of mark, woman caught in adultery) that are treated like breaking, controversial discoveries?

The article gives this example of what it’s talking about:

Take the story of Christ’s resurrection. As the gospel of Mark tells it, on the third day after the crucifixion, Jesus rose from the tomb and appeared to various people, including his disciples.

But Bill Warren, the professor leading the project, tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that in the original manuscripts for Mark, the story of Jesus visiting the disciples is nowhere to be found.

“We actually have more than one ending in the manuscripts, and then we have some with no ending,” Warren explains, “So what we think probably happened there is that as soon as you see the other Gospels with the resurrection stories, early in the 2nd century at least, someone says, ‘You know, we need to put some of this material into Mark to round it off better.’ “

NPR doesn’t explain what it means by literalists. My church doesn’t use that term, and for particular reasons. We do believe that Scripture is inerrant and inspired by God. So while we don’t count as part of the group that’s supposed to be shocked and appalled by this truly ancient news, I wonder if the reporter understands the distinction.

I opened up my Lutheran Study Bible to see the notes for the end of Mark. Here’s what it says:

Mark’s Abrupt Ending: As the ESV text note for 16:9-20 shows, these verses do not appear in a number of early Greek manuscripts. This likely means they were not part of Mark’s original composition, which may have used a “suspended” ending that left readers wanting to learn more about Jesus and His disciples. The longer ending was perhaps added later to satisfy people’s interests.

The reader who submitted this has a great point. Is this entire article premised on a couple of well-known textual issues that are treated like breaking, controversial discoveries? And why?

Image of Saint Mark via Wikipedia.