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.