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:

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Here we go again: So was Jesus married or what?

JANET ASKS:

What is your opinion on the historicity of the ancient text mentioning Jesus’ wife? What are the implications for the Christian faith?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

To decide what to make of this text, which has one word that apparently says Jesus was married, it’s all-important to know when it was written. So the wits at www.christianitytoday.com take the prize for funniest religious pun of the month, if not the year, with their headline:

“How to Date Jesus’ Wife”

The quick journalistic summary for Janet is that experts think the text is either a modern fraud, even possibly a joke, or if genuine gives a glimpse of some unknown cult 6 centuries or more after the fact. So it gives us no reliable information about the actual Jesus. But the hubbub reveals both modern scholars’ revisionist itch and the hunger of many people to learn more about history’s single most intriguing personality. If solid proof that Jesus took a wife were ever to turn up someday, yes, that would presumably scramble concepts of his divinity, especially if we also learn that the Son of God had a son or a daughter. However, such finds seem unlikely in the extreme.

The background in more detail:

In 2003, the goofy “Da Vinci Code” novel toyed with the old tales about Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene. The Mrs. Jesus chatter seemed to shift from fiction to fact in 2012 when Karen L. King of Harvard Divinity School told a confab at the Vatican about this scrap of papyrus, a bit smaller than a credit card, with writing in Egypt’s Coptic language. King figured it came from a lost document she grandly titled “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ (or “GJW”), much to the distress of scholars like Larry Hurtado at Scotland’s University of Edinburgh. King originally thought the fragment was “ancient,” probably from the 4th Century A.D., and carried on a belief she said could reach back to the 2d Century.

The 33 words that survived included this partial line: “… Jesus said to them, my wife …”

King properly cautioned that this didn’t mean the real 1st Century Jesus of Nazareth was married, just that centuries later some group thought he was. As the furor died down, 10 experts went to work studying GJW. Their conclusions are reported in the current Harvard Theological Review. Skipping technicalities, here are the basics:

Date: Radioactive carbon dating puts the papyrus between A.D. 659 and 859, with a mean date of 741, far beyond King’s original hunch. It is not “ancient,” which generally signifies times before the fall of Rome in A.D. 476. (Since GJW mentions Jesus, it’s amusing that the first radiocarbon test dated it “Before Christ,” apparently because the sample studied was too small for accuracy.) Experts who maintain that this is all a hoax (see below) propose that a modern forger simply obtained an old piece of blank papyrus to write on.

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About those evangelical whispers on same-sex marriage

As you would imagine, your GetReligionistas are never eager to critique the work of previous members of our team who have found their way back into the world of mainstream religion-news work. However, that professional courtesy doesn’t mean that we can’t point our readers toward stories by our former colleagues that we think everyone needs to read.

Right now, Sarah Pulliam Bailey has a fine report out for Religion News Service that openly explores the doctrinal question that is currently being debated behind closed doors (including most faculty lounges) just about everywhere in the messy postmodern world that is American evangelicalism.

Wait a minute. That’s not quite right. Truth is, progressive evangelicals are debating this question and ordinary, run-of-the-mill evangelicals are debating what to do about the fact that lots of progressive evangelicals are about to make mainstream-news headlines by debating this question out in the open. Did you follow that?

In other words, Sarah has herself an important story here and I would imagine she will keep chasing it. Here’s some material from the top of her report. The key, of course, was the World Vision explosion, before and after it’s decision to reverse its decision to hire Christians openly living in same-sex marriages.

Wait a minute. I forgot to let Sarah state the question:

At its core, the reversal raised a stark question: Can you be an evangelical and support same-sex marriage?

Taking a softer position, a group of progressive Christians wrote in a letter released Wednesday (April 9) that they grieve World Vision’s reversal. “And, we call on Christian institutions to employ LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ who help further the mission of their institutions,” the letter states, acknowledging disagreements on both sides.

“There are committed Christians who believe, honestly, that a few passages in the Bible referencing sexual activity between people of the same gender have been historically misconstrued,” the signers say. “There are also committed Christians who believe, honestly, that homosexuality is sinful and flies in the face of what God desires.”

More than 300 signers include theologian Walter Brueggemann, Dartmouth College historian Randall Balmer, Louisville Seminary theology professor Amy Plantinga Pauw, Yale University emeritus professor Nick Wolterstorff and pastor Brian McLaren.

“I would like the world to know that there are many Christians who support the hiring of gay Christians in Christian institutions,” said Julia Stronks, a political science professor at Whitworth University who organized the letter. Whitworth is an evangelical university based in Spokane, Wash.

Now, there are very few surprising names among the early signers of this letter, which means that large segments of the progressive evangelical world — including academic leaders on many campuses — are still sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what happens. In the months ahead, wise reporters will keep their ears open for whispers (or shouting) on elite campuses in northern zip codes.

Meanwhile, Sarah had no trouble finding people who still think that marriage, and the status of sexual acts outside of traditional marriage, are not core issues in Christian doctrine. For example:

In a blog post for The Gospel Coalition, LifeWay Christian Resources employee Trevin Wax asked: “Can an institution with an historic evangelical identity be divided on an issue as central as marriage and family and still be evangelical?”

(LifeWay is, of course, linked to the Southern Baptist Convention, which is America’s largest non-Catholic flock.)

Ah, but there is the rub in terms of church history. What, precisely, is the doctrinal make-up of this so-called “historic evangelical identity”? What ecclesiastical body has the power to define such a thing for the wider evangelical movement?

The World Vision war hinted that evangelicalism remains a diverse movement defined by the leaders and financial supporters of large parachurch groups that, by their nondenominational nature, struggle to know which issues are essential and which ones are not. Often, there is no there there.

GetReligion readers already know what is coming, right? We are back to this challenge: Define “evangelical” and give three examples.

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Ahhh … a balanced article on religion … thanks, David

After carving apart so many journalism-challenged articles, it’s nice to be able to throw laurels every now and then. This one — a whole bouquet, actually — goes to David Van Biema of Religion News Service for his thorough, balanced article on the newest project of the Green family: a Bible course to be taught in public schools.

We at GetReligion have long noted the fine work of Van Biema, a veteran religion writer for Time magazine. Three years ago, our George Conger mentioned Van Biema’s 2006 article on the prosperity gospel. Eight years later, he’s just as good.

I like Van Biema’s RNS story just for the lede. Only there does he mention the Supreme Court case where the Greens, who own the Hobby Lobby store chain, are fighting the Affordable Care Act because of its contraception requirement. That would likely have been the focus of many other media reports.

Instead, Van Biema moves quickly to the still-developing Bible course, which has been accepted in the Greens’ backyard, Mustang, Okla. He offers an introduction, saying the program would examine the Bible’s “narrative,” its development and its impact on civilization.

The article extensively quotes Jerry Pattengale of the Green Scholars Initiative, who of course pumps the product. He cites Green for wanting young Americans to understand the Bible and its significance. Pattengale describes the first year of the four-year task as a “multimillion-dollar effort involving more than 170 people.”

Van Biema offers a gee-whiz item: pictures in a textbook that “come alive” when a smartphone is held over them. The feature sounds like “augmented reality,” which I wrote about in May when I saw it in a Catholic high school yearbook.

Great touch also in getting input from a veteran expert on church and state:

The Green curriculum “is like nothing we’ve seen before,” said Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and editor of a booklet sent out to all schools by the U.S. Department of Education in 2000 on teaching religion in public schools. “It’s unique in its ambition and its scope and its use of the latest technologies. I think school districts far from Oklahoma will take note.”

Yet another laurel for Van Biema reminding us what the Supreme Court says and does not say about teaching the Bible:

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Did Jesus only become God at Easter?

ARTHUR ASKS:

Christians observe that the Son of God died to atone for human sins. But St. Paul says (Romans 1:4) that Jesus was “declared … to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead.” So apparently Jesus wasn’t divine when he died (or before). How then does atonement work?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

A timely inquiry as Christians reflect on Jesus’ death and resurrection, and also due to the clash between two new scholarly books, “How Jesus Became God” by skeptic Bart Ehrman, answered simultaneously (!!!) by an international team of conservatives in “How God Became Jesus.”

Arthur cites a sentence Paul wrote only a couple decades or so after Jesus’ crucifixion, and “form critics” think the apostle was quoting from a previous creed so these words date back to Christianity’s earliest days.

Thanks to www.biblegateway.com, The Guy compared 46 English translations and found “declared” is the typical wording. Other versions say that by the resurrection Jesus’ divine Sonshop was “openly designated,” “publicly identified,” “demonstrated,” “proved,” “marked out” and “shown,” while Bible commentaries add “displayed,” “proclaimed” and “manifested.”

So the expert consensus agrees with the 8th Century theologian John of Damascus that Paul meant that by the resurrection “it was made plain and certain to the world that Christ was the Son of God.”

Note that all the translators say “by” the resurrection, not “at” or “with” or “upon,” which could indicate Jesus’ divinity originated only at Easter. All this agrees with the early belief found elsewhere in the New Testament that Jesus was divine in his earthly life and beforehand (for instance Matthew 27:54, John 1:1-3, I Corinthians 2:8, Philippians 2:6).

But get this: A favorite conservative translation of the Bible could be read as suggesting Jesus only became God at Easter. The 2011 edition of the New International Version says Jesus was “appointed the Son of God” by the resurrection, vs. “declared” in earlier N.I.V. editions. Similarly, the first edition of U.S. Catholics’ New American Bible (1970) said Jesus was “made” the Son of God by Easter. The 1986 N.A.B. revision changed that to the ambiguous “established,” which to average English readers could mean either newly established or established for everyone to see.

Then, how does atonement “work”? What does it mean that “Jesus saves” or “Jesus died for our sins”?

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For the Times, Ayaan Hirsi Ali controversy has only one side

Brandeis University offered an honorary degree to a controversial speaker, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, then withdrew it under pressure from Muslim students. Controversies always have at least two sides, right?

Not when the New York Times reports it. In its story on the dispute, the Times cites three sources who opposed Hirsi Ali’s appearance.

How many voices speaking on Hirsi Ali’s side? None.

There’s an attack by Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, calling her “one of the worst of the worst of the Islam haters in America, not only in America but worldwide.”

There’s Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute: “… for an institution like Brandeis to choose to honor someone like this is really disappointing.”

And there’s a professor of Arab studies at Columbia University, who endorses Brandeis’ decision.

The Times adds: “Having drawn fire for inviting Ms. Hirsi Ali, Brandeis may now take criticism from other camps, whether for disavowing Ms. Hirsi Ali’s views, or for giving in to Muslim activists.”

You bet they might. So why didn’t the newspaper ask anyone?

Could the Times perhaps have called the Anti-Defamation League or the American Jewish Committee? Or the American Enterprise Institute, where Hirsi Ali is a visiting fellow?

How about one of a dozen Jewish organizations at Brandeis? Surely the newspaper could have found a Jewish source at a school that was founded for Jewish higher education — as a 1998 Times article noted?

The Times story is not totally one-sided. It notes in the lede that Hirsi Ali is a “campaigner for women’s rights” as well as a “fierce critic of Islam.” It reports that it tried to reach her by phone and e-mail. And it offers two paragraphs of explanation for her antagonism to Islam:

Even some of Ms. Hirsi Ali’s critics say they understand her hostility to Islam, given her experiences, though they think she goes too far. A native of Somalia, she has written and spoken extensively of her experience as a Muslim girl in East Africa, including undergoing genital cutting, a practice she has vigorously opposed, and her family’s attempts to force her to marry a man against her wishes.

She moved to the Netherlands as a young woman, and she was later elected to the Dutch Parliament. She wrote the screenplay for “Submission,” a 2004 film critical of the treatment of Muslim women. Shortly after its release, the director, Theo van Gogh, was murdered on an Amsterdam street by a radical Islamist, who pinned to the victim’s body a threat to kill Ms. Hirsi Ali as well.

But it would have been better to quote someone who was on her side.

Asking comment from Maya Berry is puzzling in itself. Most Muslims are not Arabs and not all Arabs are Muslims, as the Arab American Institute’s own website indicates. Even Hirsi Ali isn’t Arab; she was born in Somalia.

Other media had little trouble going to the other side, as it were. Omar Sacirbey of the Religion News Service quotes two of them in the second paragraph of his piece. And an Associated Press story quotes a professor who refused to sign a faculty letter against Hirsi Ali:

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Sister Jane drama: Observer still trying to catch up on news

The Charlotte Observer tried to play catch-up this week on the Sister Jane controversy. But it succeeded only partly, and it continued journalistic errors typical of those found in recent articles on this subject.

You may recall my own posts on April 2 and April 4 about the flap that started with the Observer’s‘s story on March 27, in which parents were upset over an assembly speech by Sister Jane Dominic Laurel. Her talk, at Catholic High School in Charlotte, allegedly criticized gay couplings and said children were best adjusted when raised in traditional nuclear families.

After the talk, some students launched a petition (which has since been taken down by its writer), parents launched an e-mail campaign, and the school held a stormy town hall meeting. And Sister Jane — who was a guest speaker, not a staffer at the school — was instructed to take a sabbatical from her teaching post at Aquinas College in Nashville.

The newest Observer episode is a rather unremarkable statement from Bishop Peter Jugis on the matter, after his return from dedicating a mission in the mountains of North Carolina. The article starts rather impatiently, then continues rather provocatively:

Bishop Peter Jugis has finally weighed in on the controversy that recently rocked Charlotte Catholic High School, saying the last few weeks have been “very difficult” for the school and that all concerned have “experienced a great deal of pain.”

In a statement Wednesday addressed to Catholics in the 46-county Diocese of Charlotte, Jugis said that after all the debate over a divisive speech at the school, it’s now time to “move forward toward healing with charity.”

But in comments likely to further inflame the situation, the conservative bishop also criticized parents and others who he said engaged in uncharitable talk before, during and after a meeting with high school officials last week that drew nearly 1,000 parents.

The article then summarizes parents’ objections, but then repeats a questionable statement from past coverage: “Some students who attended the assembly reported that Laurel said, for example, that children raised by single parents had a greater chance of becoming gay or lesbian.” That has yet to be established: The sister’s speech wasn’t recorded, and even the 10-point petition didn’t include such an accusation.

Next, the Observer says that parents at the town hall meeting “sought an apology” from the Rev. Matthew Kauth, the school chaplain, for not alerting them in advance about the delicate nature of the nun’s speech. And it quotes Sister Mary Sarah, president of Aquinas College, that Sister Jane had gone beyond “the scope of her expertise” in some of her high school comments.

The previous day’s story in the Observer was similarly thin: a summary of remarks in the Sunday homily of a priest who has no obvious connection with the Catholic High controversy. The Rev. Timothy Reid was the only source quoted in the Observer’s March 27 story in support of Sister Jane and the school, and he devoted a little more than half the homily to the topic. The Observer did helpfully include a link to the whole homily for any interested readers.

Granted, the Tuesday article includes some vehement quotes from the priest against the protestors. But the quotes are graded as coming from a “traditionalist”:

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Bob Coy’s fall: Kinder, gentler media treatment, for now

Some of the most compelling Bible stories are those with flawed characters like David and Samson: rising to prominence, then falling into sin. Pastor Bob Coy, who fell from grace last weekend at Calvary Chapel of Fort Lauderdale, fits that mold.

Coy, whom I got to know casually during my time as the religion editor of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, could be forceful and aggressive, but never holier than thou. He was public with his past as a womanizer, drug abuser and Las Vegas promoter. And he always told people to follow Jesus, not him.

This is why I think mainstream media have been rather kind with the story of his resignation over a confessed, though unspecified, “moral failing.” The Sun Sentinel and the Miami Herald are fierce, longtime competitors; yet their coverage of Calvary Chapel this week has refreshingly shunned the acidic glee of most scandal stories. Thus far, at least.

Both newspapers posted initial “breaking” news articles, followed by longer newsfeatures. The Herald’s first piece, however, was a five-paragraph AP story with the barest details — and an incorrect report of 18,000 members for Calvary Chapel. The staff-produced story gave a more accurate 20,000.

The Sun Sentinel turned out a longer, 18-paragraph newsbreak, as one might expect from a newspaper in the church’s hometown of Fort Lauderdale. The article also narrates considerable church history, drawing from its own extensive files going back to the church founding in 1985.

Both sets of stories do have their blemishes. The Herald veers into cliché by mentioning Coy’s “boyish good looks.” And both newspapers talk about Calvary Chapel’s “parishioners.” Apparently, they’re still unaware that many Protestant churches are not parishes.

The Sun Sentinel states incorrectly that Calvary Chapel started six other campuses, as opposed to the Herald’s accurate reporting of nine. The Sun Sentinel could have simply counted the campuses on the church website.

Each paper stumbles in saying that Coy had no higher education in religion — “no formal religious training” in the Sun Sentinel’s story, “no formal seminary training” in the Herald’s. It’s a stumble because it shows little understanding of how nondenominational churches operate. In Pentecostal churches, for example — both black and white — young believers often sense the call, then undergo apprenticeship under a pastor, then receive a license to preach. And some church chains run their own ministerial schools.

Beyond accuracy, there’s the matter of tone. Media cultures include overall attitudes, including those toward religion; and each indepth story reveals differences in the two newspapers.

The Sun Sentinel, drawing from the Midwestern-based Chicago Tribune chain, sets up a religious Camelot before hinting at the fall:

When Bob Coy arrived in South Florida nearly 30 years ago to found a Calvary Chapel ministry, he seemed an unlikely man of God.

Yet from his first days in front of worshippers meeting in a Pompano Beach funeral home, the admitted onetime cocaine abuser and womanizer from Las Vegas showed a talent for mixing Bible lessons with real life that gave rise to a mega-church with tens of thousands of followers.

“He just kept your attention the whole time,” said 20-year parishioner Beverly Shrove, 62. “There was just something about him that made you keep coming back.”

But in the wake of Coy’s surprise resignation for what church officials have termed “a moral failing in his life,” some wonder if one of the largest churches in Florida can survive the loss of its charismatic leader.

In contrast, the Herald takes a more pompous, melodramatic tone, drawn from its roots in the old Knight newspaper chain:

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