Skinny-dipping in the most holy and venerated Sea of Galilee

I believe it was President Obama who once said something about the press corps in Washington getting all “wee-weed up” in August. There have been a few news stories in recent weeks that have drawn more attention than they should have (and a few that have certainly received less). But the story we’re going to look at here might take the cake for summer silliness.

Apparently it’s huge news that a Republican congressman skinny-dipped. Now, I can’t say I come from a culture of skinny-dipping exactly, but I’m pretty sure I know no one who really cares about whether people occasionally take a dip in the altogether. And yet, this story led (!!) various newscasts yesterday morning.

To justify the story, the media took to seriously playing up the location of the skinny-dipping. See, Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kansas, took his swim sans clothing in … the most holy of holies — the Sea of Galilee. You can see above that ABC News considers this a “holy sight.” I am pretty sure that’s something similar to a holy site. But either way, is that the takeaway of this news?

Is the Sea of Galilee viewed as exalted or worthy of complete devotion? Is it considered divine or devoted entirely to God or His work? Is it venerated? I certainly took a dip in it when I visited it a couple of years ago. Still, it’s not like I’ve heard of Christians protesting the use of the sea for fishing or other commercial activity. Or swimming. There are many holy sites surrounding the sea, of course, but that can be said about much of Israel.

And yet the media messaging was clear. Here’s the Kansas City Star:

Christians consider the Sea of Galilee a holy site; it is where the Bible says Jesus walked on water.

Well, yes. And the Bible records quite a bit of special activity on the Sea of Galilee. The Washington Post tweeted out a story to its one million followers that included the line:

Not very respectful of the site where the Bible reports Jesus walking on water.

The Associated Press sent the story out with the headline “Nude Dip in Holy Sea Puts Kansas Rep. in Spotlight.”

Now, I fully expect the Daily Mail to run captions for photos of the Sea of Galilee like this: “Sacred: The Sea of Galilee is where the Bible says Jesus Christ walked on water. It remains holy to Christians” right next to pictures of naked or half-naked celebrities. That’s what they do. But I sort of expect other media outlets to be a bit less silly. My other favorite British entry into this hall of shame was The Independent, which claimed:

A US congressman has had to apologise to his Christian constituents after being caught swimming naked in the holy Sea of Galilee while on a fact-finding mission to Israel.

To his Christian constituents? I’m sure American journalists sound just as silly when trying to weigh in on British electoral politics.

A few other notes. The story originated with Politico, which — whatever else you might say about it — emphasized the holy sites around Galilee as well as the general Holy Land tourism. The New York Times definitely wins the award for the most melodramatic retelling of this swim in Galilee. BBC seemed to have the most straightforward story on the matter. And CNN, the New York Times and this local broadcast report did the best job of reporting out religion angles more than just using “holy” buzzwords. It is interesting to see which news outlets reported the public information that one congressman and his wife brought back Galilee water to baptize the baby they were expecting at the time of the trip.

But my favorite religion angle came in a media criticism piece by Conor Friedersdorf over at The Atlantic:

When President John Quincy Adams lived in the White House, between 1825 and 1829, the erstwhile diplomat and U.S. Senator frequently went skinny-dipping in the Potomac River, causing no fuss. President Teddy Roosevelt, an avid outdoorsman, swam naked in the Potomac too. Billy Graham was one of many to go skinny-dipping with President Lyndon Johnson in the White House pool. Yet today in a story emailed out to media professionals as a “POLITICO EXCLUSIVE,” Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan write about mere congressional skinny-dipping like it’s a serious scandal, though no one even tweeted iPhone photos.

Billy Graham went skinny-dipping with LBJ? I never knew. As late as 2007, the media described this not as a scandal so much as “an encounter that included both prayer and skinnydipping in the White House pool.” But that was written in May, not August.

  • sari

    Heard the story yesterday or maybe the day before on Philadelphia’s AM 1060. The story focused on how House leadership castigated the miscreants for inappropriate behavior (skinny dipping and over-imbibing) and exacted promises that such would never happen again. Whatever. But what threw me was the final comment, which stated that the Sea of Galilee was where Jesus walked and performed miracles. Not is thought to have performed or is believed to have performed or according to the Bible performed. Just plain performed, as if these miracles were an established fact.

    KYW 1060 is a CBS affiliate and news channel. Very inappropriate. Btw, in Israel, the Sea of Galilee is referred to as Yam (lake or sea) Kineret, a name that dates back to Numbers, and should have been named as such in news reports. While there are holy cities on the sea, like Tiveria, the lake itself is a tourist destination and lacks any holy status for Israelis.

    • Richard A

      What’s inappropriate? These miracles ARE established fact. What does its being a CBS affiliate and news channel have to do with it?

      • Alan

        Uh, yeah, established fact. Just like it is an established fact that Mohammed ascended to heave on Har HaBayit.

        • mollie

          Friends, please keep comments focused on media coverage and *not* religious debates. Thank you!

      • sari

        It’s inappropriate because it is a fact of faith, not a scientifically verifiable fact, and because it is a secular station serving a religiously diverse area.

    • T. B.

      I don’t see how using an Israeli name unknown to most Americans would make any sense in an American news report. Should teh American networks say Praha instead of Prague, or Anvers instead of Antwerp?
      btw: Tiveria?????

      • sari

        Names matter. Christians may refer to it as the Sea of Galilee, but Yam Kineret has been in continuous usage since biblical times, and predates Jesus by several thousand years. Israel is a Jewish, not Christian, state and some respect should be given to place names. Journalists reference names all the time: the Sea of Galilee, known in Israel as Yam Kineret would be acceptable. We saw similar facts in the articles about the Sioux.

        • JoFro

          I agree with Sari…I would have loved to see reporters mention the Israeli name of a lake based in Israel. Thanks, I learnt something new today :D

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Obviously, none of these journalists are reading the Bible. “So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord.’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea.” (John 21:7 NAB revised) “Lightly clad” baloney — the original Greek (at least according to my NIV interlinear Greek-English NT) is “naked.” So here we have the first Pope out — not skinny-dipping — but fishing on the Sea of Galilee in the buff.

    The Sea of Galilee sacred — hah! Only if it’s Republicans doing the skinny-dipping in August of an election year. If it had been Democrats in the same situation, it would have been styled as them getting closer to the “sacred waters.”

  • northcoast

    Unless this turns into another Wilbur Mills story, I’d guess it must be a slow news day. Isn’t the Holy See in Rome? I always wondered what was holy to the mainstream press.

  • Dixibehr

    And this factoid is important because…..??? And why is the FBI investigating it?

    Fish do worse things in the Sea of Galilee than skinny-dipping.

  • http://aandbcounseling.com DrDonLCPC

    It is a silly story and, as Thomas said, had it been a Democrat it would have been spun differently or gotten minimal air time, if at all. The Sea of Galilee is not sacred but is a locale where many powerful and biblically significant events occurred.

  • deiseach

    Well, the Israeli tourist site offers information on the Christian connections with Lake Kineret (the Sea of Galilee) but they also mention the tourist attractions:

    “Most of the beaches allow nature-loving visitors to sleep in camping areas on the sand, and there are also hostels, guest houses and beachfront hotels. Most of the beaches also offer various types of water sports and water activities, such as boating in inflatable rubber dinghies, canoes, etc.; children can enjoy the giant slides at the water parks (Luna Gal, Tsemakh or Gai Beach). There are plenty of restaurants and grocery stores along the way, and most of all one can enjoy the calm and tranquility.”

    So it’s not as though this is preserved as a pilgrimage site only and going for a swim (in either a swim-suit or your birthday suit) is A Terrible Sacrilege. And just for clarification of another point, I thought it was more usual for people to bring home water from the River Jordan for baptisms, rather than water from the Sea of Galilee?

  • Bill Thompson

    This story is silly. Life around the Sea of Galilee continued uninterrupted during and after Jesus’ temporary departure.

  • Mack

    In the many thousands of years in which humans have existed, I’m sure a great many of them have skinny-dipped in a great many bodies of water. Total yawn. I hope Mr. Yoder has not apologized for enjoying life.

  • Jerry

    This is the first time I think I’ve ever written on GR that a story needs less religion but this is one. It’s just the latest kerfuffle in a long list of such stories about drinking and doing foolish things that go back (in my memory) to Wilbur Mills and the “Tidal Basin” incident decades ago.

  • mollie

    RNS went ahead and asked the difficult question “Is skinny-dipping in the Sea of Galilee sacrilegious?” You’ll never believe what they found out: http://www.religionnews.com/faith/beliefs/is-skinny-dipping-in-the-sea-of-galilee-sacrilegious

    I know this isn’t GetReligion material, but I still am confused as to why anyone cares about skinny-dipping to begin with. Junkets aimed at influencing legislative opinions? I get how those could be offensive. Skinny-dipping? Who cares? I think someone needs to start a GetSkinnyDipping.com to help me out.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      Right. And just like Playboy, everyone’s going to go to that site for the articles, right?

    • sari

      Mollie,
      A couple of things came to mind. While Lake Kineret is clearly not holy to the Israelis, the Sea of Galilee is holy to many Christians. What would be eh to one group might be considered sacrilegious to another during an election year where religion matters. My sense was that the group was reprimanded for behavior unbecoming of representatives of this country and of their political party. The group, not just Yoder. That’s the real story: congressmen behaving badly.

  • Bert S

    I thought that the group that went into the water included spouses and “children”? Doesn’t that make a difference?
    I am pretty sure Billy Graham and LBJ were alone.

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    Where in Christian writing has the Sea of Galilee ever been called “holy”? This whole reference is silly.

    If you want a “sacred” location to Christians visiting Israel, you go to the spot on the Jordan River, which location (supposedly) John baptized Christ. The government even provides access to the Jordan at this point, and Pentecostals and Methodists in our tour group actually had a “baptism” service here.

    I DID bring a small bottle of water back from the Jordan to add to the font in future Baptisms; the families of the baptized were suitable impressed. That location might be considered a “holy” place because of what happened there. The “holy” Sea of Galilee……………oh, forget it!

  • marya

    This news story is one of the lamest attempts to drum up a scandal that I can recall. If the reporters thought the story would outrage Christians and cause them to turn against Rep. Yoder, they were wrong. It’s a memorable case of misunderstanding one’s intended audience.
    “Holy Sight,” tee hee . . .

  • Bill Russell

    The Apostles themselves apparently swam naked there. When the risen Lord called to them from the shore, Peter had to put his clothes on because “”he was stripped for work.” ( John 21:7)

  • Pete McNesbitt

    What a stupid article and story. It is in fact a non story. And must have been a real slow news day to even print it. Wee wee’d up, exactly! Maybe he was looking for extra loaves and fishes too.

  • pagansister

    Guess Yoder found out he couldn’t walk on water! Sorry, couldn’t resist. The only thing I could possibly think would be considered inappropriate was that Yoder was part of a US delegation, not an individual tourist, on his own. As mentioned above by others—how is that water any holier than any other body of water? The water that Jesus was supposed to have “walked on” is most certainly NOT the same water of 2000 plus years ago. Billy Graham and LBJ skinny dipping together?? Not a visual I want to entertain. :o)

  • Juli

    This has nothing to do with what is holy or not holy from the perspective of the media. It is intended to provoke those in the western world who still hold priggish views regarding nudity. This journalism could not be more banal. And no pictures?

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