Ari Goldman bids you farewell

It’s been two months since I began blogging for GR and I’ve learned something very important: I don’t like blogging. And so, I am writing to bid the GR crowd farewell. This will be my last post.

Terry has built up a very respectable site that smartly looks at the way that religion is covered in the mainstream media. He has assembled a great team and I was honored earlier this year when he offered me a place on the team. In some ways it seemed like a perfect fit. I’ve been a religion writer for most of my career and I now teach an entire course in religion writing at Columbia.

What I found, however, is that I am more of a reporter and teacher than a press critic. I got into journalism because I love learning new things, meeting new people and telling stories. These are things that rarely happen to bloggers. To be a good blogger one needs to constantly be on top of the news (preferably while sitting in front of a computer), have strong opinions and be unafraid to express them instantly. This is simply not my style. My favorite days are spent visiting churches, synagogues and mosques. Not their Websites.

As I wrote in my initial 5 Q +1, I prefer my newspapers the old fashioned way: on paper. I like to chew over an issue before forming an opinion. I like to consider a story from different angles. I know that mine is not the current journalism model, although I’ve adjusted to the new. Every article I write for the mainstream media also appears on its Website. And I teach my students how to write for the Web and how to tell a story in pictures, audio and video. But, above all, I employ, and teach my students, the traditions of good journalism: of fact-checking, fairness and accuracy. I think we can safely say that journalism has standards but blogging does not. Too much of blogging, I find, is “gotcha” journalism by a writer who wants to show that he or she is smarter than the journalist in the field.

On more than one occasion over the last two months I have killed blog posts that I was writing because I felt that I was being unfair to the writer. (I should also add that I knew many of the writers either as colleagues or as former students.) I found myself calling people to get more information, either to find out why a reporter did something (did the editor take it out? was there just no room? why didn’t they think it was relevant?), all of which slowed down or simply destroyed the blogging process.

Two months ago, Terry wrote very warmly and about my joining the GR team. “Ari Goldman is in the house,” he wrote. Thank you for the hospitality, Terry, but Ari Goldman has left the house. I’m heading back into the trenches. And I wish you all Godspeed.

God and the NYC terror plot

james_cromitieAn absolutely shocking story this morning about plans to bomb two synagogues and shoot down planes in New York. “Chilling Terror Plot Thwarted,” the New York Post headline screams.

This is a story with obvious religious implications but the question for GR is: When does the faith of the suspects become relevant? The Post wastes no time:

Four homegrown Muslim terrorists on a mission from hell were arrested last night as they planted what they thought were high-powered plastic explosives at two Bronx synagogues, authorities said.

The New York Times waits until the 11th paragraph to even mention their faith and, like the Post, attributes this to authorities.

The four men arrested are all Muslim, a law enforcement official said. Mr. Cromitie, whose parents had lived in Afghanistan before his birth, had told the informant that he was upset about the war in Afghanistan and that that he wanted to do “something to America.” Mr. Cromitie stated “the best target” — the World Trade Center — “was hit already,” according to the complaint.

Ha’aretz, the Israeli daily, puts faith right in the headline: “Four U.S. Muslims arrested in plot to bomb New York synagogue,” while the Al Jazeera English, the sister channel to the Arab-language Al Jazeera, is more restrained. Deep in the body of its report it quotes a source in U.S. Attorney’s office and adds:

He added that the office of Peter King, a US congressman, said the four men are Muslim, although Al Jazeera was not able to verify that.

The blogosphere was busy with fears, on Jewish sites, of a broader terror plot (officials denied this) and, on Muslim and civil liberties sites, with complaints of entrapment, noting that the FBI had infiltrated the group and even provided them with the “bombs” that the were about to detonate, but the MSM stuck to the basic facts.

The MSM quoted many politicians and community leaders but here is a statement from an Arab organization that I did not see picked up anywhere in the MSM (with the exception of Newsday’s blogs). The statement, which comes from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, mentions neither Muslim nor Jew. It deserves widespread dissemination.

This alleged act of hate is absolutely unacceptable. ADC has been consistent in condemning hate-motivated crimes and any attacks aimed at civilians, especially houses of worship, no matter who the victims or the perpetrators may be. ADC urges the FBI to make every effort to track down all perpetrators responsible for this alleged crime and bring them to justice immediately. We welcome the FBIs proactive efforts in this investigation and remind media outlets and the public that hate-motivated violence is not associated with nor representative of any specific race, religion, or ethnicity.

Shameless graduation “naches”

graduationThe Columbia University campus where I teach is awash in graduation regalia and good feelings. Students strut about in their caps and gowns as proud parents snap photographs and listen to commencement speakers wish everyone a bright future. As we at the Journalism School send out a new crop of students into a perilous economic and journalistic climate, my mind turns to the students I’ve trained over the last 15 years and the pride I take in their work. It is a special kind of pride known in Yiddish as naches, which I define as the ability to look at someone’s work without a hint of jealousy. It is the pride we take in the work of our children and our students.

As a GR blogger, I am seeing much more of my students’ work than I have in the past. My normal journalistic instincts have told me not to write about them, but then Terry introduced me to his special category: the shameless post. In other words, just be honest with the reader about your connections and all is kosher.

And so, let me just briefly highlight some of the lessons we teach here at Columbia and how I see them played out in the work of my students:

*Probably the most famous lesson about not following the journalistic pack comes from the work of Jimmy Breslin who, in 1963, let the rest of the Washington press corps cover the funeral of JFK, while he went to talk to the man who was digging the president’s grave at Arlington Cemetery. In the same spirit, Manya Brachear of the Chicago Tribune broke away from President Obama’s talk at Nortre Dame to cover the alternative graduation ceremony set up by pro-life students in protest. Terry has already commented on this report, but I thought I’d add words of praise both for the idea and the execution of the story. Most amazing, is that Brachear managed to cover both events, albeit with the help of a colleague who shared a byline with her on the main Obama story. Also in the Jimmy Breslin spirit, Brachear wrote a sidebar on Mario Cuomo who had his own run-in with Notre Dame over abortion in 1984.

*Another lesson that I teach is the “ritual moment.” To make a religion story a religion story, I like to see something transcendent or sacred going on. In her alternate graduation story, Brachear provides this element when she has one of the the pro-life graduates “reciting the rosary and turning her tassel at a service in the Grotto, a Marian shrine at the corner of campus.” In other words, there’s more here than just a political protest; it is a statement of faith. On a very different topic, Matthew Hay Brown gives us a ritual moment right in the lead of his story in the Baltimore Sun:

For Yoel Benyowitz, setting aside work at sundown on Friday, lighting the shabbos candles and spending the next 24 hours in prayer and fellowship with family and friends “recharges our batteries, both physically and spiritually.”

Brown’s article is about an unusual demonstration by thousands of Orthodox Jews in Baltimore who want to see a Jewish Community Center remain closed on the Sabbath even as its operators consider opening it for Jews who, as one community leader put it, “have different ways of observing.” Bown’s ritual moment lead certainly illustrates how the Orthodox observe.

* A third lesson is to have fun doing journalism, a lesson that is especially important in these days of dire predictions about the future of our craft. For this I offer Nicole Neroulias’ delightful story in RNS that begins like this:

Las Vegas may be known as “Sin City,” but when it comes to transgressions per capita, parts of the Bible Belt may burn much hotter, suggests a new study by Kansas State University geographers.

The project, conducted by four graduate students in the university’s department of geography, maps out “hot spots” for Christianity’s seven deadly sins — lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride.

The hot-spot data is based on federal statistics such as sexually transmitted disease rates for lust, theft rates for envy and violent crime rates for wrath.

Refreshingly, Neroulias doesn’t take the study all that seriously and provides all the requisite caveats. She notes that “most experts, including the researchers themselves” see flaw in the methodology, especially “given the difficulty of findings ways to accurately quantify each of the sins.”

Look for the not-so-obvious story, include a transcendant moment and have fun. No one asked me to give a commencement address, but I think I just did.

Israel, where religion is always the story

When Pope Benedict visited the Holy Land last week, every religious move he made was analyzed for its political significance. On Monday when Prime Minister Netanyahu will meet President Obama in Washington, just the opposite will be true: the political moves will be analyzed for their religious significance.

Of course, there is more to it than religion. As most commentators noted on the eve on the meeting, there are strategic, military and political factors to weigh. Obama is expected to press Netanyahu to accept the notion of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, a position that Netanyahu has rejected as premature. He’ll want to see an end to Israeli settlements on the West Bank. For his part, Netanyahu will want to put the focus on stopping Iran — which has called for Israel’s destruction — from developing nuclear weapons.

I thought the New York Times got it right on Sunday in two articles that drew attention to the religious dimensions of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting. Jeffrey Goldberg’s “Israel’s Fear, Amalek’s Arsenal,” explores Netanyahu’s world view, which he says was shaped in part by Deuteronomy. Goldberg writes:

I recently asked one of his advisers to gauge for me the depth of Mr. Netanyahu’s anxiety about Iran. His answer: “Think Amalek.” “Amalek,” in essence, is Hebrew for “existential threat.” Tradition holds that the Amalekites are the undying enemy of the Jews. They appear in Deuteronomy, attacking the rear columns of the Israelites on their escape from Egypt. The rabbis teach that successive generations of Jews have been forced to confront the Amalekites: Nebuchadnezzar, the Crusaders, Torquemada, Hitler and Stalin are all manifestations of Amalek’s malevolent spirit.

Goldberg mentions two other influences on Netanyahu, both of them borne of Jewish history, one ancient and one more recent. He was shaped by the scholarship of his father, the pre-eminent historian of Spanish Jewry, whose work showed that the Spanish hatred of Jews was not merely theological but based in race hatred. And he was shaped by the martyrdom of his older brother who died in the 1976 Israeli raid on Entebbe to free Jewish hostages. Entebbe, Goldberg notes, still symbolizes “the purest expression of the modern Jewish rejection of passivity.”

Obama’s world view is explored in another article in the Times, this one by Helene Cooper and written from Washington. In a few pungent paragraphs she notes that Obama, although a Christian, is the son of a Muslim father; is a chum of Rashid Khalidi and other Arab-Americans; and is poised to give a major talk on Islam in Cairo next month.

“None of this,” Cooper adds, “necessarily means that Mr. Obama will chart a course that is different from his predecessors’.” But the headline on her story, “World Watches for U.S. Shift on Mideast,” suggests that others may be expecting something else.

Obama’s views are still emerging. But Netanyahu, who is serving his second round as Prime Minister, has a pretty firm positions. If, as his adviser’s suggest, he sees Iran as the classic enemy, Amalek, it would be good to keep in mind that the Bible offers no compromise with Amalek. “Thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven,” Deuternomy 25 commands, “Thou shalt not forget it.”

In short, just because the pope may be out of the Middle East picture for now, religion is not.

Girls at the altar

687494590_c1b2f03a26It’s just three little paragraphs in today’s Independent under the headline “Women May Join Papal Swiss Guard,” but it contains so many mistakes, both when it comes to religion and when it comes to journalism.

The problems begin with the very first words:

Women may be as far as ever from gaining the right to become priests or even altar girls in the Catholic Church, but the Vatican’s gates creaked open a chink this week when the new head of the Pontifical Swiss Guard said that female soldiers could join its ranks.

True, women cannot serve as Catholic priests but, as our reader Hugo Mendez points out, altar girls have been allowed since 1994. The reporter for the Independent could have checked his newspaper’s own files to learn of the Vatican ruling that year. If not, he could have just asked any church-going Catholic girl. To her, altar girls are just part of life.

The journalistic error was using an ambiguous phrase like “female soldiers could join.” That can be read as either “they now have permission to” or “someday they might be allowed to.”

If you read on, you’ll find it is the latter. In fact, the whole story hinges on this quote from the commander of the guards: “It could be possible. I can imagine them having one role or another.”

In other words, there’s nothing here but speculation.

It is also curious why anyone would associate the Swiss Guard, who have a ceremonial function in Vatican City, with the liturgical function of serving at the altar. But then it was just three little graphs in the Independent, and I’ve already written double that number, so I will end.

Ghosts of popes past

Poor Pope Benedict XVI. Wherever he goes he is plagued by the larger-than-life reputation of Pope John Paul II whose legacy keeps growing, perhaps nowhere more so than on the current visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

On Day One of the trip, Benedict visited the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem where by all accounts he gave a moving speech but, unlike his predecessor, failed to mention Germany or the Nazis. The Israeli press pounced, saying that Benedict had a special obligation to do so as a German himself. The New York Times noted:

By contrast, in his visit to Yad Vashem in 2000, John Paul said: “My own personal memories are of all that happened when the Nazis occupied Poland during the war. I remember my Jewish friends and neighbors, some of whom perished, while others survived.”

The Washington Post, however, gave the reader an opportunity to compare Benedict with Benedict.

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi defended Benedict, saying the pope had mentioned his German roots previously, specifically when visiting a synagogue in Cologne, Germany, in 2005 and at the Auschwitz death camp the following year.

“He can’t mention everything every time he speaks,” Lombardi told reporters in Jerusalem.

I looked up that 2005 talk and found that, indeed, Benedict does nail the German and Nazi issue, but he comes up short on Christian responsibility for the Shoah. Here is some of what he said according to the Catholic News Agency:

The history of relations between the Jewish and Christian communities has been complex and often painful… And in the twentieth century, in the darkest period of German and European history, an insane racist ideology, born of neo-paganism, gave rise to the attempt, planned and systematically carried out by the regime, to exterminate European Jewry. The result has passed into history as the Shoah.

In this statement, the Pope lays the blame for the Shoah on “an insane racist ideology, born of neo-paganism” and thereby seems to absolve the church of any responsibility. It was another example of Benedict’s blind spot about the Jews, as David Van Biema writes this week in Time magazine in an essay titled, “Pope Benedict on the Question of Judaism”:

He seems simply to have forgotten Jewish concerns on a range of decisions regarding liturgy, sainthood and historical interpretation.

John Paul had a much better handle on the what Jews needed to hear. This can best be illustrated by one final JPII/Benedict comparison. One of the rituals associated with visiting the Western Wall is to leave a prayer on a little slip of paper and place it in the wall. Can you guess which one was written by John Paul in 2000 and which one was written by Benedict in 2009?

Note 1:

“God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, hear the cry of the afflicted, the fearful, the bereft; send your peace upon this Holy Land, upon the Middle East, upon the entire human family; stir the hearts of all who call upon your name, to walk humbly in the path of justice and compassion.”

Note 2:

”God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations. We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer. And asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant.”

Time to check your facts

news_worldreligionsIf a mainstream media outlet raves about a movie or a restaurant or a book, you’d expect that its reviewer did due diligence in checking it out. One would hope that the reviewer actually saw the movie or ate the meal or read the book. Why then, I wonder, does Time magazine praise a new religion website that is so essentially flawed?

That’s the question I have after reading Time‘s promotional story on, which is titled “What Do Religions Believe? A Website with Answers.” Time gushes:

Its founders, husband and wife Leo and Cathie Brunnick, have created a library of the histories and belief systems of 50 (and counting) of the world’s faiths. … Moreover, all the content on the streamlined, reader-friendly site is written and peer-reviewed by divinity scholars and other experts, including theologians at Harvard and the University of Southern California, where some undergrads will be using Patheos in introductory religion classes this fall.

Given all that peer review from the divinity schools it is hard to imagine why Patheos got so many things wrong. One of our regular readers, the omnipresent Jerry, points out flaws in the entry on Sufis. He writes:

The article started with the comment that Sufism is an offshoot of Islam which is not held by all Sufis. The founding date for Sufism is similarly not accepted by all since some say that Sufism predates Muhammad. … Sufis taking vows of poverty and celibacy is plain wrong for many if not most because the teaching is “in the world but not of the world.”

A quick check on some comparative religion books proves Jerry right on all his Sufi points and Patheos wrong. I decided to check out what I know best, Judaism, and found numerous mistakes. The site, for example claims that Conservative Judaism is the largest of the Jewish branches. That was once the case but hasn’t been true in years. Reform is the largest.

Errors abound when it comes to the Orthodox Judaism too. Orthodox, the site claims “originated in response to the innovations in Jewish practice introduced by the Reform movement.” They’ve got it backwards. Reform emerged in response to Orthodoxy, which is traditional Judaism. Their understanding of ultra-Orthodox Judaism is even more muddled. Here is part of the entry:

Ultra Orthodox Judaism (aka Jewish Fundamentalism) refers to several different strands of Judaism that stress the necessity of strict observance of Jewish religious laws and moral code as taught in the Torah and Talmud. Primarily found in Israel, Jewish Fundamentalism includes many within the Zionist movement (a militant religious sect), Haredi Judaism (an ultra-Orthodox sect), and Shas (a Sephardi political party). These groups formed after of the establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948.

time_logoThere is so much wrong with this explanation that I don’t know where to begin. Suffice it to say that you can’t lump all these groups together as “fundamentalists” and to use 1948 as their birthdate. To do so does a disservice to Jews and to Patheos.

I could go on, but I invite readers to check their own faith out at and let me know how they did.

Patheos isn’t totally pathetic, however. It is easily navigable, reader-friendly and does have beautiful art. It also had ads for things like flowers for Mother’s Day and spiritual books for sale related to each faith.

Patheos is the new kid on the block, apparently trying to do what did with its mix of faith and commerce. Beliefnet went through some hard times, including Chapter 11, but emerged healthy and was bought a couple of years ago by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Time quotes Steve Waldman, the founder of Beliefnet, as graciously welcoming Patheos to the mix, saying that there is plenty of room in the internet religion market.

Perhaps the most curious thing about the Time article is the reason the Brunnicks offer for establishing Patheos. The article notes that they come from “different Christian faiths” and collectively have four children from previous marriage that they are wedding into a family.

“Bringing our kids together, deciding what to teach them and how and where to take them for Sunday school — we weren’t taking this lightly,” says Leo Brunnick. “In your 20′s, it’s easy to say, ‘I’m spiritual, without specific tenents, whatever.’ That feels great until you’re staring into the eyes of a 2-year-old and realize you have to give them some moral compass.”

I wish them luck finding that moral compass on the Web.

Swine flu and the Copts

APTOPIX MIDEAST EGYPT SWINE FLUWhile the rest of the world seems to understand that swine flu is not really about the swine, Egypt continues its mass slaughter of every pig in sight. It is on a national campaign to rid the country of its estimated 300,000 pigs in the name of public health.

As has been widely reported, the campaign stems in part from the Egyptian abhorrence of the pig, the Koran’s ultimate “unclean” animal. But other Muslim countries have not taken similar steps to wipe out their pig populations. Israel neither.

Which brings us to the second reason for the pig assault in Egypt: the Coptic Christian pig owners. Egyptians never seem to miss an opportunity to unsettle its Coptic minority. One of our readers sent us the State Department’s 2008 report on religious freedom in Egypt which makes it clear that even before this outbreak things are getting worse for the Copts.

Copts complain about harrassement, discrimination in employment and lack of representation in government. Some live in fear that their children will be kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam. They have taken to tattooing a Coptic cross to the wrists of their children as a sign of their identity (second photo).

The key here is that killing all the pigs in Egypt would be a financial disaster for pig owners. In other words, the Copts. Miss that angle and you miss the story.

The other widely-reported religion story related to swine flu was about an Orthodox Jewish public health official who said that Israel should call it the “Mexican flu” instead of naming it for an unkosher animal. From the AP:

Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman said the reference to pigs is offensive to both religions and “we should call this Mexican flu and not swine flu,” he told a news conference at a hospital in central Israel.

While the story was widely reported, the repudiation of the official was not. I found on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which is sometimes called the AP for the Jews.

The swine flu will not take any new names in Israel despite the unease of a health official from a fervently religious party. …

“Israel has no intention of giving the flu any new names,” the official said. “It was nothing more than a slip of the tongue.”

coptic_cross01Finally, the flu scare has prompted warnings from several church bodies about the common cup used in communion. This from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal:

Concerns about a possible swine flu pandemic spread through Wisconsin houses of worship this week, where leaders were taking steps to educate their congregations and minimize any potential spread.

The Milwaukee diocese reminded pastors that they have the option not to offer communal wine for the Eucharist. A spokeswoman for the archdiocese said that it was using the outbreak as a “teachable moment” to underscore the idea that Christ is present in both the bread and the wine. Pastors were given the option not to offer the communal wine. “To receive just the host is still to receive the body and blood of Christ,” she said.

Other churches were stocking up on hand sanitizer and tissues to pass around after the “kiss of peace.” Pastors are reminding people that no actual kiss or handshake is required. In the age of swine flu, sometimes just a smile is enough.