WWROD: When reporters fail to get religion ….

A quick online confession: Yes, I am “Terry in D.C.”

You see, while I am not in D.C. at the moment, I was inside the only Beltway that really matters at the time that I fired off a quick question to veteran religion-beat writer Richard Ostling at his weblog, Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy answers your questions” (for more info click here).

In his format, readers send him basic religion questions and, well, he gives brief, journalism-driven responses. As you would expect, issues linked to religion news and events are going to be common and, once a week, we’ll be pointing readers over to his site for material with strong GetReligion-esque content.

I this case, I rather blatantly primed the pump for Ostling:

TERRY IN D.C. ASKS:

What are the five mistakes that mainstream reporters make most often when covering religion? Let’s assume these reporters are NOT religion-beat specialists.

And the Ridgewood Religion Guy answered:

Good one, especially when a secular milieu in many newsrooms (and classrooms) can foster slant and error. Some Journalism 101 pointers:

Mistake 1 is to suspect religious believers in general tend to be stupid or at least ill-informed (particularly a problem if the reporter has no close friends who are devout).

Mistake 2 is to assume this reporter could not possibly be so ill-informed as to misunderstand the belief or believers being written about. Even those of us who’ve spent decades covering this field know religious topics are usually quite complex. Always check with experts if you’re unclear or uncertain about something.

Mistake 3 is the related tendency to over-simplify. (Do all American Evangelicals subscribe to the colorful End Times scenario in those “Left Behind” novels? Are they all Tea Party enthusiasts?)

Wait a minute (I hear many readers thinking), what about plain old laziness? That has to be in the list somewhere!

By all means, click on over to the Ostling site for the for rest of that post. And please leave some religion-beat questions of your own for the master of the house to answer.

PHOTO: The cover of a rather obvious book related to all of this, which you can buy (hint, hint) with a click right here.

God save the Tsar

Take up the White Man’s burden–
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain
To seek another’s profit,
And work another’s gain.

So reads the second stanza of what may be the most politically incorrect poem in the English language. Interpretations of what Rudyard Kipling meant by his 1899 poem “The White Man’s Burden“, written in the wake of the American annexation of the Philippines, have differed sharply. From Henry James and Mark Twain to the denizens of Lit-Crit faculties today, many have objected to the poem as racist and condescending. Others, especially as of the time of its writing (Theodore Roosevelt for example) saw in it an expression of a Christian duty to bring the light of civilizations to the darker corners of the world.

The era that produced “The White Man’s Burden” also formed the tenets of classical Angl0-American journalism. Motivated by many of the same moral imperatives that under girded Anglo-American imperialism, the liberal school of journalism sought to civilize the newspaper profession, replacing  partisan, hysterical, “yellow journalism” with an impartial, scientific, and honest retelling of the news of the day.

The mission of classical liberal journalism was summarized by the editor of the Manchester Guardian C.P. Scott in 1921. “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” While on the editorial page he said: “It is well to be frank; it is even better to be fair”.

Scott’s dictum guides the writers at GetReligion. Yet this view is not universal. It is disappearing within the American newspaper guild and is all but gone in Europe. Yet not all agree that this approach to journalism is possible or ideal. Seeking balance and fairness in reporting is viewed (charitably) as being quaint, and (more commonly) as naive. It exhibits, the critics say, the same sort of condescension that makes Kipling’s poem so execrable. When truth is relative, this line goes, claiming to possess the sole truth is illusory — or an arrogant manifestation of a journalist’s “White Man’s Burden”.

This philosophical conflict can be illustrated by my critique of an article in the Observer, the Sunday edition of the Guardian. The article entitled “Church backs Vladimir Putin’s ban on Americans adopting Russian children” tells the story of the Russian Orthodox Church’s response to the passage of a law by the Duma that prevents Americans from adopting Russian orphans. Here we have a formidable caste of bogeymen — Vladimir Putin, Vsevolod Chaplin, the Russian Orthodox patriarch Cyril — playing off against orphans, Pussy Riot, and liberal democracy. What right thinking person would back KGB hacks and creepy clergy against orphans?

Before answering the question, let’s look at the article. It begins:

The Russian Orthodox church has been attacked for supporting a new law banning Americans from adopting Russian children, at the end of a year that saw it plagued by scandal and accusations of collusion with an increasingly authoritarian Kremlin.

Father Vsevolod Chaplin, a high-ranking priest and a spokesman for the church, said the law was “a search for a social answer to an elementary question: why should we give, and even sell, our children abroad?”

Speaking to Interfax, a state news agency, last week, Chaplin said the path to heaven would be closed to children adopted by foreigners. “They won’t get a truly Christian upbringing and that means falling away from the church and from the path to eternal life, in God’s kingdom,” he said.

This is a strong opening. It asserts the church has been “plagued” by scandal and is in bed with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin before moving to a second hand quote from a church spokesman that is wonderfully awful (to Guardian readers). It then introduces a voice offering an opinion in line with the editorial slant of the story.

Critics say the church’s support for the law is the latest example of its submission to the Kremlin, in which it acts more like a government ministry than an independent spiritual body. “Everything is repeating – it’s like the 19th century, when the church lay completely under the state,” said Valery Otstavnykh, a theologist and Kremlin critic. “Everything was calm and fine until churches started getting blown up in 1917 and they all asked, ‘Why’?”

As an aside, I do not care for the word “theologist” — it is an uncommon word that is most often used in a pejorative sense. That may not be the case here as the statements of the theologist are in line with the views of the article, but it nonetheless is an ugly word.

The article then lays out the 2012 church scandals: Pussy Riot, the wandering watch, hit and run priests driving BMWs, church involvement in politics and suspect financial dealings. It then closes with a gratuitous unsubstantiated accusation and a plea by the outside commentator for the church to clean up its act.

Two weeks later, the state news agency RIA-Novosti cited an anonymous source as saying that a bordello was uncovered in a Moscow monastery.

“The church has also done a lot of good,” said Otstavnykh. “But the church as an organisation must change.”

There is no balance to this story. No facts are offered in mitigation nor voices in defense or explanation of the church’s actions. It may well be these actions are indefensible, but the reader cannot know this from this story. Throwing in the bordello line without further corroboration was improper.

The quote offered by Fr. Chaplin, who is a character about whom I have written, is taken from a Russian language story and is abbreviated in such a way by the Observer as to not allow for any nuance. The tail end of the first quote in the Observer story — “why should we give, and even sell, our children abroad?” — continues in the original with a statement by Chaplin that Russia must take care of their own at the level of the family as well as at the local, state and national levels.

I would translate the second passages as:

As he noted, the adoption of children by foreign couples in most cases means “they can not get a truly Christian education, and thus fall away from the Church and from the road to eternal life in God’s Kingdom.”

“Orthodox people should remember and take seriously the words of the Lord Jesus: ‘He who has faith and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not have faith will be condemned’.”

The shading of the Observer’s version may leave the impression that children taken from Russia will go to hell because they have been taken from Russia. However Chaplin’s meaning is they may wind up raised in homes where the Christian faith is not practiced.

Chaplin’s views about the necessity of a Christian upbringing do not find favor with the Observer. In a Twitter exchange about the article, the author of the story responded to a critic who defended Chaplin by writing:

Your attempts to justify his statement as holding any logic or good will confound me.

The author may well think that, but should she have commented in public? If this article was in the op-ed section, I would say it would be appropriate for her to make this statement. But is it appropriate for a news story?

From a journalistic perspective, the critique offered by Mr. Otstavnykh should have been matched with a defense of the church’s actions. And it also would have helped the reader to know that Mr. Otstavnykh spoke in court on behalf of the Pussy Riot defendants, saying their actions did not constitute blasphemy.

Please note I am not speaking to the issues under examination. I am commenting on the professionalism and journalistic craft exhibited by this article. As a hit piece, the story is well done. As journalism, it is junk.

While many of the ideals expressed by Kipling in “The White Man’s Burden” are passé, “By open speech and simple, An hundred times made plain”, is not. There is a story to be told from Russia on the interplay of the church, state and society. Mr. Otstavnyk’s concerns the Russian Orthodox Church is returning to the days when church and state were one is an important one. Is the Orthodox Church returning to the bad old days of the Nineteenth century, updating its prayer and priorities from God Save the Tsar to God Save the President? That story needs to be told.

The story told in this article, however, is neither plain nor simple, frank nor fair. And that is a shame.

ESPN gets Irvin and his ‘threshing floor’ sermon

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Hey! Time for another GetReligion post about religious issues in sports coverage! Can you hear the cheers from the crowd?

Anyway, we have been known to criticize reporters and editors, from time to time, for playing the God card in sports stories (athletes talk about God a lot) and then failing to deliver any content that puts journalistic muscle behind the faith claims. Or an athlete brings up faith in a key quote about his or her life and then reporters just drop it like a hot frying pan.

GetReligion readers have been know to say that we complain about the bad in this news niche, then ignore the good.

So, folks, here is a tmatt post noting that the ESPN team took on some highly charged faith material in a story about the rise and fall and rise of Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin and just nailed all the details down just right.

The story digs into the roots of Irvin’s deeply confessional speech at his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony, a speech that changed how athlete’s with messed up lives can handle that moment in the spotlight. Faith is a huge and VERY specific part of the story and Eli Saslow delivers the goods.

You have to read the story, but here is just a taste. The key is a biblical image — that of a man being challenged and purified like wheat on a threshing floor. Here’s part of the overture in this wonderful piece:

Irvin spent months preparing obsessively for this moment, just as he had prepared to play in three Super Bowls during his career as a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys. He hired a language coach to improve his vocabulary. He did enunciation exercises in the shower while the steam opened his lungs. He watched and rewatched tapes of his most embarrassing public comments outside of courtrooms and locker rooms, reliving the many moments when “a self-sabotage with words” left him humiliated.

The only thing he hadn’t yet done was settle on a speech. He had sketched out two possibilities and recorded parts of each of them. Nobody had heard either from beginning to end. Even alone in front of a mirror, Irvin never had the nerve to practice them straight through.

The first version was a boilerplate acceptance speech, a resume list of football achievements and expected thank-yous — a safe way to cement a Hall of Fame reputation.

The second version was a speech less about football than about the self-described “scars and regrets” of a man with one of sports’ most complicated legacies. It was an admission of failure in marriage and in fatherhood. It was a declaration of faith. It was a public risk by a man whose public risks had rarely worked out.

You really need to read it all.

If I started highlighting all of the key parts of this piece (I didn’t even get to the threshing floor hook) the post would go on and on. So read it. If you like good long reads, read it. If you love good feature writing about sports, read it. If you like detailed journalism about remarkable human lives, read it.

Bravo, ESPN. We criticize that sports empire quite a bit, around here. But this story truly gets the religion details right. Yes, it’s long, but just read it all.

Remembrance and mourning in Newtown

I imagine I’m not alone in still struggling with the Newtown massacre. Even after witnessing media deluge, the tangential political grandstanding, the unique evil of killing 1st graders is very difficult for me to think about.

How do reporters even begin to make sense out of the bloodbath? For many, they turn to politics, which provides comfort for many, including many journalists.

I’ve been intrigued by the relative downplaying of religion in coverage. But there was a really good piece on one of the victims and it’s worth a read.

It comes from The Jewish Daily Forward, a publication we don’t normally critique. But it’s written in a straight news fashion and does a great job of looking solely at how six-year-old Noah Pozner’s family is mourning. It begins with a mention of all of the gifts being sent to the family by strangers the world over.

Noah was the youngest child massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, when 20-year-old gunman Adam Lanza first killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, and then shot his way into the school and slayed 20 first grade students and six staff members, including the principal. Noah was hit 11 times. He was the first child to be buried, on December 17 in a funeral overseen by Rabbi Shaul Praver of Congregation Adath Israel of Newtown.

For the following six nights, the family sat shiva at a friend’s house, which could better accommodate the dozens of visitors than their smaller home. Today, Sunday, with the official Jewish mourning period over, the Pozners have invited friends and family to a large white two-story home they have rented on the outskirts of Newtown. (Noah’s father Lenny is not present. Veronique says her husband “needed to get away” after sitting shiva with the family, and went to visit friends in Florida.) In preparation, the family clears the stuffed animals off the kitchen island and replaces them with bowls of dried fruit, chips, candied nuts, carrot sticks and a roast turkey.

This is how the nation’s most famous Jewish grieving family grieves.

The story is a couple thousand words long and includes tons of details, explaining that a torn black ribbon pinned to mother Veronique’s shirt is a Jewish mourning custom. Other things are not, such as a tattoo she got the day after his death of “a small pink rose flanked by two angel wings with Noah’s name spanning the space between them, and his birth and death dates beneath.”

For those curious about the day-to-day aftermath of losing your child, we learn a great deal about just that. And about how Veronique became Jewish:

Veronique was born in Switzerland to French parents who raised her in Scarsdale, N.Y. She converted to Judaism in 1992 when she married her first husband, Reuben Vabner. Her second husband, Lenny, is also Jewish; he is originally from Brooklyn and works in information technology. In 2005, Lenny and Veronique relocated to Newtown from nearby Bethel. (They had previously lived in Westchester.) They had three children in tow: Sophia, an infant, and Danielle and Michael, from Veronique’s first marriage. Sometime in 2013, Veronique says, she plans to move her family again, this time to the Seattle area where much of her extended family lives. They will be taking Noah’s body with them.

Noah and his twin Arielle, we learn, were inseparable. Their 22-months-older sister was also close to them. He was a smart kid who asked about how things worked:

Noah also wondered about God, asking his mother, “If God exists then who created God?” He wanted to know what happens after death. “I would always tell him, ‘You are not going to die until you are a very old man, Noah.’ He was afraid of death, I know he was. He feared the unknown,” Veronique says. “Sometimes I wonder whether he had some foretelling, some prescience about it. Of course I will never know for sure, maybe it was just the random fears of a child.”

The whole piece is good and worth a read. It’s full of interesting details about the religious practices of the Pozners. Would be nice to read more of this type of story.

Remembrance candle via Shutterstock.

Yes, before Baltimore, Lori was bishop of Newtown

If the mainstream press has a creed, one of its central tenets is certainly this old truth: All news is local.

Somehow, some way, the job of the local editor is to find a way to connect major news events to the lives of local readers — no matter how indirect the connection. Was a local man on the plane that crashed in London? Does the national championship team up in Ohio contain an athlete who used to live in, oh, Baltimore?

If there is a valid local tie, editors are supposed to spot it and use it. Pronto.

Thus, I was surprised that it took so long — as the Newtown, Conn., disaster story rolled on and on and on in all its hellish glory — for the editors of The Baltimore Sun to spot this rather obvious story.

It helps to remember that Baltimore is the oldest, most historic Catholic diocese in the United States. This automatically makes its archbishop — who often is raised to cardinal status during his service here — easily one of the most important news figures in the city.

Also, it helps to know that Baltimore has a relatively new archbishop, one who has become a major voice in national affairs. And before he came to Charm City, where did Archbishop William Lori serve? Was that in Connecticut?

The Sun either missed, or for some reason saved, this amazing link to Newtown for its Christmas story. This is just “rather personal”?

Like preachers across the country preparing for Christmas services today, William Lori has grappled with the question of how to celebrate the joy of the day so soon after the devastation of Newtown.

But for Baltimore’s new archbishop, the challenge also is “rather personal.”

Before his arrival here in May, Lori served for 11 years as bishop of Bridgeport, Conn. The diocese includes the quiet, leafy suburb of Newtown, where on Dec. 14 a gunman forced his way into an elementary school and shot 20 first graders and six educators to death.

“For me, it’s a very real tragedy,” said Lori, 61, whose work took him regularly to St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown, and who has been communicating with the parish and diocese since the shooting. “I should think it would be the same for any parents who have young kids, or grandparents. It really strikes very, very close to home.”

Now, the “tough Christmas sermon” angle is valid and even interesting.

But as a news neader, I wanted to know more about the archbishop’s actual ties to the parish and its people — especially since so many of the children who died were from this parish.

Facts! We need some facts quick. The Christmas message is important, obviously. But what about the archbishop and his ties to one of the largest, most powerful, parishes in his old diocese? Did he know the families? Baptize any of these children?

Lori was in Rome for meetings when the news came.

“It was a surreal moment,” he said. “You’d think any place in the world but Newtown, Connecticut. And I was just — I truly could not believe what I was hearing.”

Lori placed a call to Monsignor Robert Weiss, the pastor of St. Rose of Lima.

“And the next thing I know I was on my knees, just praying for these folks,” he said.

And that’s that.

Please understand that I am not — heaven forbid — knocking the spiritual themes in this news feature. Read them and meditate on them, if you wish.

But, gentle readers, this is a strong, strong Baltimore tie to one of the biggest stories in American and the world in late 2012. Where are the basic facts here about Lori and his connections to that ravaged parish? Where is the basic journalism — way too many days after the story broke?

PHOTO: Bishop William E. Lori during a 2011 visit to St. Rose of Lima Catholic Parish in Newtown, after ordaining one of its clergy as a deacon.

Everything you know about Christmas is wrong

George just posted about an old story being rehashed for Christmas, which reminded me that the regular attempts to debunk Christianity around its holy days has become my favorite tradition. What would Christmas and Easter be like without a semi-blasphemous newsweekly magazine cover questioning some central tenet of the religion?

All that to say that the Washington Post‘s piece the “The Evolution of Holiday Celebrations” is a decent entry into the genre.

It’s in the Style section, so all expectations are lowered, of course. It says stuff like this:

Early Christians did not celebrate the Nativity. Christianity had been around for more than 350 years before the church fathers in Rome decided to add that event to the Christian calendar. They did so in part because many Christians were arguing that Jesus had not been an actual human being but rather a divine spirit — a belief the church fathers considered heretical. What better way to convince Christians that Jesus was human than to commemorate his physical birth? The problem was that there was no evidence of when Jesus’s birth took place. (Neither Luke nor Matthew, the two gospel writers who included stories of Jesus’s Nativity in their narratives, had indicated the date, or even the season, of the event.)

Is it most accurate to say “many Christians” argued that Jesus wasn’t human? Is that really the central aspect of how the date for Christmas was chosen? That is a heresy that has been taught and continues to be taught but I’m not sure this is phrased the best way. As for the rest, it’s true that the Nativity was not celebrated by early-early Christians, but we also know that it was celebrated in a variety of locations well before the date was fixed. By 200 A.D., for instance, Clement of Alexandria is reporting that Egyptians have marked the date and the year of Christ’s birth. The thing was that different people were celebrating the birth on different dates. Why did it get pinned to Dec. 25? Was this a top-down effort to defeat gnosticism? Was the day something Christian laypeople noted that some church leaders tried to stop? Was it much more complex than a brief article in the Style section could broach?

The church fathers decided to place the new holiday in late December, virtually guaranteeing that it would be widely adopted because this was already a season of mid-winter revels, a holdover from pagan times. For the inhabitants of the Roman Empire, the holiday was called Saturnalia. This festival, which concluded on Dec. 23, was partly a holiday of lights that celebrated the winter solstice. But Saturn was the god of agricultural abundance, so his festival also marked the bounty of the completed harvest. Finally, the Saturnalia was a time of role reversals and seasonal license. Everyone took time off from ordinary labor. Slaves were granted temporary freedom and were treated by their masters to lavish banquets. The holiday was observed with feasting, drinking, gambling and sexual abandon.

Yeah, well, it’s certainly true that when the calendar was standardized, there was a push for Dec. 25 as the date to mark Jesus’ birth. But was this because it was a co-opting of Saturnalia? It’s certainly a theory. But Dec. 25 was one of the many dates being used by Christians to mark Christ’s birth and maybe not for the reasons you hear.

As I wrote six years ago (!) here at GetReligion:

Associated Press reporter Richard Ostling wrote about it a few years ago, first describing the theory that says Christians stole a pagan festival for Christmas. Then he cited other research, including Hippolytus of Rome’s Chronicle, written three decades before Aurelian launched Saturnalia, that says Jesus’ birth “took place eight days before the kalends of January,” that is, Dec. 25. He speaks with William Tighe, a church historian at Muehlenberg College:

Tighe said there’s evidence that as early as the second and third centuries, Christians sought to fix the birth date to help determine the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the liturgical calendar — long before Christmas also became a festival.

The New Testament Gospels say the Crucifixion happened at the Jewish Passover season. The “integral age” concept, taught by ancient Judaism though not in the Bible, held that Israel’s great prophets died the same day as their birth or conception.

Quite early on, Tighe said, Christians applied this idea to Jesus and set the Passover period’s March 25 for the Feast of the Annunciation, marking the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would give birth. Add nine months to the conception date and we get Dec. 25.

It doesn’t matter. Almost everyone believes something else.

The story also tackles Hannukah:

In recent times, Hanukkah, too, has largely become a child’s holiday. Many Jewish parents give their children seasonal presents as abundant — and expensive — as those received by their Christian neighbors.

And with Hanukkah as with Christmas, a vestige remains of older mid-winter festivals. This is the dreidel, a four-sided top that resembles the familiar six-sided dice and is used in similar fashion to determine how much money (or Hanukkah “gelt”) the player receives — or owes. Thus Hanukkah, originating as the celebration of a military victory, now incorporates a host of other rituals: the commemoration of a divine miracle, a seasonal celebration of light and harvest, a focus on children and even a hint of mid-winter revelry.

Over the centuries, through all those historical accidents, Hanukkah and Christmas have come to look a lot like each other.

They don’t really look much like each other, obviously, but is the dreidel just a game? It’s origin isn’t exactly known but when I was in Israel, I was told that it hearkens back to a game developed by Jews to hide the fact they were studying the Torah. During one period of their history, the penalty for teaching the Torah was death. Jews would gather in caves to study and were pretending they were gambling if spotted by soldiers.

But more than anything, it’s not what is in the article that is so bothersome but what’s left out. Or how what’s in the article is treated so flippantly. Did Christianity just happen onto the idea of Jesus being the Christ? Isn’t the Nativity story a central element of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew? Even the Winter Solstice is treated as something of an historical accident. Was Hanukkah really just a holiday that morphed into something about light?

I wonder if part of the problem is that the author of the piece typically writes very accessible history books and that this breezy style works well when you have the time to flesh out more details but when you’re given just a few hundred words in the printed page, it comes off too glib, glossing over serious religious and cultural battles. That might be a function of editing as much as anything.

Hanukkah image via Shutterstock.

Jesus of Nazareth (maybe)

When does a story grow stale? Does the length of time between first publication of a story and subsequent re-tellings matter? Or, if the news is not common knowledge, is it proper for a reporter to retell the story without acknowledging earlier accounts? My mind turned over this question after reading a piece that reported some archeologists believe Jesus was not born in Bethlehem.

“Come all ye faithful…to the ‘wrong’ Bethlehem?” appeared on 24 Dec 2012 in the Times and was syndicated at the Australian. It began:

TENS of thousands of people are streaming into Bethlehem, on the West Bank just south of Jerusalem, to celebrate Christmas in the cradle of Christianity. Few know that they might be in the wrong Bethlehem.

Archaeologists have long believed that Mary may have given birth to Jesus in Bethlehem of the Galilee, a hillside village far away in northern Israel.

“I think the genuine site of the Nativity is here, rather than the well-known site near Jerusalem,” [said Averim Oshri, a senior archeologist with the Israeli Antiquities Authority] “Bethlehem in the Galilee was inhabited by Jews at the time of Jesus, whereas the other Bethlehem? There is no evidence that it was a living site, an inhabited area in the first century.”

The Telegraph ran a story on its website summarizing the Times article, and on 26 December 2012 the author of the original article re-wrote the story for National Public Radio. The NPR story “Dig Finds Evidence Of Another Bethlehem” began:

Thousands of Christian pilgrims streamed into Bethlehem Monday night to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It’s the major event of the year in that West Bank town. But Israeli archaeologists now say there is strong evidence that Christ was born in a different Bethlehem, a small village in the Galilee.

About 100 miles north of where the pilgrims gathered, shepherds still guide their flocks through green unspoiled hills, and few give notice to the tucked-away village with the odd sounding name: Bethlehem of the Galilee. But archaeologists who have excavated there say there is ample evidence that this Bethlehem is the Bethlehem of Christ’s birth.

“I think the genuine site of the nativity is here rather than in the other Bethlehem near Jerusalem,” says Aviram Oshri, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority which has excavated here extensively. He stands on the side of a road that now cuts through the entrance to the village. It was the construction of this road that led to the discovery of the first evidence that Bethlehem of the Galilee may have had a special place in history. “It was inhabited by Jews. I know it was Jews because we found here remnants of an industry of stone vessels, and it was used only by Jews and only in the period of Jesus,” Oshri says.

On its face, this is a nice, timely story. Just the sort of thing to run round Christmas. The author noted in the second paragraph of the Times story that the debate over the birthplace of Jesus has been a subject of debate, but should she have mentioned this debate has been ar0und for over 100 years?

In 1898 Sir William Ramsay wrote Was Christ born in Bethlehem? — the first major modern English-language study of this question — which has yet to be settled by the Biblical scholars fraternity. The issue has been raised by the “Jesus Seminar” group of scholars and was mentioned in a 2001 Washington Post article entitled “The Story of Jesus’s Birth, Revised; Modern Scholars Challenge Details of the New Testament Accounts of Christ’s Infancy”.

In 2007 the Biblical Archaeological Review ran articles by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor defending Bethlehem as the site of Jesus’ birth and Steve Mason who laid out the case for Nazareth. Recent books that have addressed this topic include Bruce Chiltons’ Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography (2000) and Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (2012). While the Telegraph‘s review of the Benedict’s latest book hyped the shocking news (to the Telegraph) that the Pope believes Jesus was not born on 25 December in the year 0, it also mentioned that Benedict accepts the traditional site of Jesus’ birth as Bethlehem.

I was critical of the Telegraph for hyping the non-story about the date of Jesus’ birth. Should the Times/NPR be taken to task also? The theory propounded by Dr. Oshri to the Times in 2012 was the same one he presented in Archaeology magazine in 2005. Now Archeology is a scholarly publication that also has a general readership, so missing that story is no crime. But Dr. Oshri’s argument also appeared in a 2008 National Geographic post entitled: “Bethlehem of Judea–or of Galilee?”

What then is news worthy about this story? The question of where Jesus was born has been debated for over 100 years, and Dr. Oshri’s claims had their first public airing in 2005. Is it enough that most people are unfamiliar with them to warrant a new story? But if so, should not there be an acknowledgement of what has gone before, or how Dr. Oshri’s discoveries advance the scholarly argument? How was this news?

 

Bear QB after RGIII keeps the vague faith

As we roll through the semi-holy football season of minor bowls, I am happy to report that The Los Angeles Times team noticed that the Baylor Bears had another winning season and, apparently, are playing in some game out on the West Coast.

This means that the Times needed to produce a feature story about the Baylor team or one of its stars. That’s in the bowl-season handbook, I am sure.

Anyway, those who follow college football — this includes two or three GetReligion readers — surely know that the Bears were, for a completely logical reason, not expected to do very well this season.

Why is that? Well, because You Know Who won the Heisman Trophy last year and then ascended to instant NFL stardom with that team that (for Texans and, in my case, prodigal Texans) shall not be named up in Washington, D.C. I mean, how is the Baylor team supposed to survive without Robert Griffin III?

This is the angle that the Times team jumped on. How would you like to try to follow the RGIII act in Waco, Texas? Thus, here is the logical opening:

SAN DIEGO – Nick Florence didn’t need this.

The Baylor quarterback already had his degree in economics. He was a fall semester from earning his MBA. Life could have been so simple. Instead, he embraced a difficult job. A really difficult job.

A year ago, Robert Griffin III was the first player from Baylor to win the Heisman Trophy. There are weekly reminders, with Griffin having an exceptional rookie season with the Washington Redskins.

Florence was next up in Waco, Texas.

“I never told him that he shouldn’t expect to be Robert,” Baylor Coach Art Briles said. “But I put it out there that everyone else shouldn’t expect that. I think, arguably, he had the toughest position to fill in America, following a guy who won the Heisman and is as dynamic as Robert is on and off the field.”

The thing is, Florence has come close to matching that.

At this point, the story finds many football-related ways of noting that Florence’s Baylor career has been the essence of self-sacrifice and quiet achievement, while RGIII was the man out front. Now, he had one year of eligibility left and, lo and behold, he has managed top put up Heisman-like numbers on the field.

This would not, however, require the attention of GetReligion. Later in the story, Florence gets to speak:

“I happened to follow a Heisman Trophy winner,” Florence said. “That had nothing to do with who I am.”

Florence knew what he faced when he came to Waco from Garland (Texas) South Garland High in 2009. Griffin, considered one of the nation’s top high school quarterbacks the previous year, was the Big 12 Conference freshman of the year. Florence anticipated a waiting period.

“Football is a huge part of my life, but it is not my entire life,” said Florence, who has been named to the dean’s list three times. “I felt this is where I was supposed to be. Faith is a big part of who I am. The education was good, the community would challenge my faith and I would still get to play football.”

You see, Florence had to become the quarterback at the world’s largest Baptist institution of higher learning. A key part of his story — as with RGIII — is linked to his religious faith and the ways he has expressed that in service and in campus life at Baylor.

You can’t tell Florence’s story, including how he gracefully handled following Griffin, without mentioning this religion element.

So the Times saw the logical story. The Times team even included one quote that pointed to the obvious. The bear minimum? You bet.

But that’s that. Nothing to see here, in terms of who Florence actually is as a person and a football player. It’s time to move along.


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