Easter season, check … Chip away at basic beliefs, check

You know all of those news articles you see published every year at Ramadan that ask if Muhammad really heard from the archangel Gabriel?

No? Well, how about all the stories each Divali that cast doubt on the goddess Lakshmi’s ability to bless her worshipers?

No? Then how about those articles for Eastertime questioning whether Jesus really did rise from the dead?

Ding Ding Ding Ding Ding!

Yep, those come out every year.

Case in point: a feature in the Washington Post on how divisive is this central tenet of the holiest day of Christianity.

The story, actually from the Religion News Service, sets up the resurrection almost as a straw man. First it briefly states the doctrine; then the next four paragraphs try to chip away at it.

It’s “the source of some of the deepest rifts in Christianity,” the story says — “and a stumbling block for some Christians, and more than a few skeptics.” Then it questions whether the doctrine is really that important:

Did Jesus literally come back from the dead in a bodily resurrection, as many traditionalist and conservative Christians believe? Or was his rising a symbolic one — a restoration of his spirit of love and compassion to the world, as members of some more liberal brands of Christianity hold?

As Easter approaches, many Christians struggle with how to understand the Resurrection. How literally must one take the Gospel story of Jesus’ triumph to be called a Christian? Can one understand the Resurrection as a metaphor — perhaps not even believe it happened at all — and still claim to be a follower of Christ?

When a story poses rhetorical questions favoring one side, you get a strong feeling that the tracks have already been laid for this train.

The article tries to argue that the doctrine of a physical resurrection keeps some people from celebrating Easter:

This struggle keeps some Christians from fully embracing the holiday. A 2010 Barna poll showed that only 42 percent of Americans said the meaning of Easter was Jesus’ resurrection; just 2 percent identified it as the most important holiday of their faith.

“More people have problems with Easter because it requires believing that Jesus rose from the dead,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of the new book, “Jesus: A Pilgrimage.”

Leaving aside the question of how many Christians are “some,” the story fails to prove the point. For one thing, if survey numbers are important here, then how many people believe Jesus rose from the dead? Well, Rasmussen Reports announced on Good Friday that 69 percent of American adults believe he did.

Now, that survey came out on April 18, perhaps too late for the RNS story. But the Rasmussen archives also show poll results on Jesus’ resurrection going back to 2007. Americans answered “Yes” in the mid-to-high 70s for most of that time until hitting a low of 64 percent for 2013. So public opinion on the matter is actually higher than last year.

Even those polls didn’t ask why Americans believed (or didn’t believe) that Jesus rose. Nor did RNS conduct one for this story. So we’re left with anecdotes and opinions.

Father Martin, the Jesuit quoted above, does get quoted in favor of the belief:

“But believing in the Resurrection is essential,” he said. “It shows that nothing is impossible with God. In fact, Easter without the Resurrection is utterly meaningless. And the Christian faith without Easter is no faith at all.”

But following him is NYU professor Scott Korb — an avowed “non-practicing Catholic” — who sees it “symbolically”:

“The miracle of a bodily resurrection is something I rejected without moving away from its basic idea,” Korb said. “What I mean is that we can reach the lowest points of our lives, of going deep into a place that feels like death, and then find our way out again — that’s the story the Resurrection now tells me.”

Canadian youth minister Reg Rivett says he believes in a literal resurrection, but he says churches have “made it very common” by preaching it the same way every year. He says there should be a preparation period for the holy day:

To restore the Resurrection and the Easter story to its appropriate place, Rivett said, the church should “build” toward the holiday throughout the year — place it in its context within the whole biblical saga.

You know, that could work. Believers prepare for several weeks with prayer, hymns, fasting and devotional studies on Jesus’ death and resurrection. You’ll no doubt recognize this as Lent, practiced by Catholics, Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox and other traditional Christians. Shouldn’t the Religion News Service have recognized it, too?

But the most astonishing part of this article is the last 30 percent — all of which was handed over to retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark, which the article notes is “best known for his liberal interpretation of Christianity.” Our own George Conger wrote last October that he considered Spong “a great man, but also a tragic one.”

Spong speaks true to liberal form in the RNS article:

“I don’t think the Resurrection has anything to do with physical resuscitation,” he said. “I think it means the life of Jesus was raised back into the life of God, not into the life of this world, and that it was out of this that his presence” — not his body — “was manifested to certain witnesses.”

He says his listeners “could not believe the superstitious stuff and they were brainwashed to believe that if they could not believe it literally they could not be a Christian.”

RNS gives Spong the last word:

A Christian, Spong said, is one who accepts the reality of God without the requirement of a literal belief in miracles.

“What the Resurrection says is that Jesus breaks every human limit, including the limit of death, and by walking in his path you can catch a glimpse of that,” he said. “And I think that’s a pretty good message.”

This may be a naïve question, but wouldn’t it be a good idea to check the book? Here’s the resurrected Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, speaking for himself:

“Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

When people say that Jesus’ resurrection was merely “symbolic,” or that his followers only sensed his “presence,” shouldn’t a reporter have at least asked them to account for the Bible’s Easter passages?

Self-criticism can be good. So can a variety of voices. They help us refine beliefs, promote freedom of opinion and benefit from new information. But it also needs to account for established information.

And literally for God’s sake — as well as journalistic ethics — let’s save those articles for other occasions than the holiest time of the year. Show Christians the same sensitivity that we show Muslims and Hindus.

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About Jim Davis
  • Brett

    I would like to have seen the questions used in the Barna survey and the breakdown of the responses. The numbers vary so much with some of the Rasmussen results that I’m not sure Ms. Winston understood the Barna survey report properly.

    If you were to tell me she cherry-picked a survey with results that would support her contention that there’s a controversy, or that she interpreted them in such a way to do so, I don’t know that the story as the “Post” runs it would help me argue against you.

  • Kris D

    In 1 Cor 15, Paul pretty much lays out belief in Jesus’ resurrection is central to Christian identity. Whenever the press interviews these scholars and theologians, they never seem to address what Paul addressed over 1900 years ago. Why?

  • Darrell Turner

    Another puzzling Easter story was the Time magazine cover feature in this week’s issue. It’s a profile of theologian Barbara Brown Taylor keyed to her new book on finding God in the dark. I didn’t think it was offensive, but I wondered why Time chose to base a cover story on one book. It was also interesting to me that there were no comments from any other sources about Taylor’s theology overall or about this specific book.

    http://time.com/#66260/barbara-brown-taylor-new-book-faces-the-darkness/

  • R. Howell

    Shall I take it there are in fact lots of liberal imams who deny that Muhammad heard from the Archangel Gabriel, and they are out there preaching in large mosques, teaching in venerable Islamic schools, and publishing widely read books – but the press is just delicately ignoring them so as to avoid offending any one?

    • Jim Davis

      There are, in fact, a fair number of moderate and liberal Muslims who criticize various aspects of the tradition and practice. They include Irshan Manji, Aisha Musa, Khaleel Mohammed, Riffat Hassan and Salwa Abd-Allah. They’re quoted now and then in mainstream media. But never, as far as I know, in articles published during Ramadan that question the basis of Islam.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Of course, it would never do to speak to someone like Steven Smith, a professor at Mount St Mary’s in Maryland (http://www.thegodwhospeaks.com), who writes and talks about the resurrection and refutes the many claims against the resurrection, including the silliness from folks like Spong: (http://files.lighthousecatholicmedia.org/documents/Resurrection_of_Jesus.pdf). But I suppose the effort to find someone like that — you know, someone beyond the all-too-readily available Jesuits like James Martin and Thomas Reese — will use up too many precious RNS monetary resources.

  • FW Ken

    See, at GetReligion, I frequently read praise for the old Dallas Morning News religion section, but Easter arrived when they published some Spong, or, for variety, the Jesus Seminar. One Christmas, we got a long article on how inhospitable some congregations can be.

    I’m not sure what Fr. Conger finds “great” about Bp. Spong. He oversaw a 43% membership decline in Newark when he was bishop there. That was more than twice the decline the Episcopal Church suffered during that same period. His ideas are widespread in that church, which lost about a quarter of its average Sunday attendance from 2002-2012.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    With all the people who could be interviewed to be featured in a story such as this, you know the story is typical media hackery designed to attack Catholicism and Christianity, instead of enlightening people about what Catholicism teaches, when it features a “non-practicing Catholic”. Interviewing at least one “non-practicing Catholic” (How come other people are very rarely asked if they are practicing their religion when they are given the media’s “bully Pulpit”??) is nothing but a fig leaf designed to cover some naked bigotry at work.

  • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com/ Crude

    And literally for God’s sake — as well as journalistic ethics — let’s save those articles for other occasions than the holiest time of the year. Show the same sensitivity to Christians that we show to Muslims and Hindus.

    Unfortunately, if you want to see some of the reason why articles like these get so much play, you don’t really have to look further than Getreligion itself.

    I say that hesitantly, since Getreligion provides what I think is an important service and analysis, one much needed. But in the process of offering analysis, there’s also this… kind of emotionally dead reaction to these wrongs. And they are wrongs – not mistakes, not errors, not ‘thoughtful questions but ill-timed’. They’re just one more maneuver in an ongoing culture war that is typically one-sided where the media is concerned.

    Do you know why hindus and muslims and jews and others get respect? Not because they ask for it, politely. Because they demand it. They believe it’s owed to them, whether or not people personally wish to give it. They protest, they get loud, they shout, they get emotional.

    They don’t give a detached analysis of the whole thing and merely raise eyebrows at dishonest wording and inaccurate presentations of their beliefs and communities. They don’t make sure to praise one of the foremost aggressors in this assault on faith as ‘a great man, but a tragic one.’

    Please, Getreligion staff, I implore you – consider getting a little angry at times. It’s not just acceptable – it is, at times, the right thing to do.

    • Julia B

      In a later GR post, there is a long list of positive and neutral Easter front page stories. I went to more half of the links. Interesting that at least 2 featured people affiliated with Eastern Catholic rites. They were described as having rich, elaborite liturgies with chanting in ancient languages. LOL Compare this to many media comments about Western Rite Catholics making fun of their weird services, use of Latin and the priests who wear dresses?

      Crude: I don’t think the press treats Hindus and Muslims better because they protest. I think it’s because they are considered exotic with services, language and wardrobe that are foreign and therefore culturally appropriate – so hands off. On the other hand, the press thinks Western Christianity is fair game and a good target b/c it no longer fits Western civilization which is trending atheist. Note that the Jews who get left alone are the ultra Orthodox and Lubivitchers, who have colorful foreign costumes and ways, which makes them culturally OK, too. The Amish are pretty much left alone as well, because they set themselves apart and don’t claim to be part of the modern world.

      This is not all of it, of course. But it sure sticks out like a sore thumb, particularly in the comments boxes.

      • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com/ Crude

        Julia,

        Respectfully, I disagree. I think ‘trending atheist’ is irrelevant – especially when the ‘trend’ comes in a country that right now has, according to Rasmussen, 69% (I think) of people in the country believing Christ was resurrected – and jews are not just ‘trending’ secular in the US, they are quite secular as is. But jews are ‘left alone’ across the board.

        I don’t think it can be denied that Christians take pretty grievous insults on a regular basis with little or muted reaction. And I don’t think it works to say ‘well the amish – this tiny group that is largely politically irrelevant – doesn’t get tweaked’ when the Amish are Christian, and thus any knock against orthodox Christian belief would cover them as well.

        We get insulted, we get mocked, and we don’t say all that much. It’s on us.

        • Julia B

          I guess what is more relevant is that media folks are trending secular or atheist. So they find colorful foreign or American niche belief systems “cute” and report on them respectfully for diversity reasons, but seem to think mainstream Western religious belief systems should have died out by now.

          Getting upset will not change this mindset. I’m starting to have long-time acquaintences drop the politeness and rail against Christianity openly. These folks are finding more support in the media and on-line for non-belief and for pushing this non-belief. Complaining will not change it.

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