Ave Maria delivers (headlines)

Ratzinger and FessioAlan Cooperman was understated on Sunday in covering conflicts between Thomas Monaghan and Joseph Fessio, S.J., the founding chancellor of Monaghan’s Ave Maria University in southwestern Florida. Monaghan abruptly dismissed Fessio (a former student and longtime friend of Pope Benedict XVI) as chancellor of the school, then brought him back within 24 hours as theologian in residence.

Monaghan has become a primary bete noir for the cultural left because he is (1) rich, as the founder of Domino’s Pizza; (2) A conservative Roman Catholic who affirms his church’s teachings on sexuality and abortion; and (3) Determined to share much of his wealth to with pro-life movement and Catholic-centric causes. Janeane Garofalo’s character in Reality Bites warned her friends way back in 1994 about the evils of eating Domino’s Pizza. (Pro-choicers who believe in pizza choices can relax: Monaghan sold his controlling interest in the chain four years later.)

No coverage of the conflicts makes clear just what led to Fessio’s dismissal, but NBC2.com referred to a post on the anti-Monaghan AveWatch, which links to several of its own critiques of Ave Maria under Fessio’s leadership.

Monaghan and Fessio are both headstrong, visionary men. As California Catholic Daily reported on Thursday:

Departing Ave Maria is not the first of Fessio’s peregrinations. In March 2002, his Jesuit superior, the provincial, Father Thomas Smolich moved Father Fessio from his longtime base in San Francisco to Santa Teresita Hospital in Duarte in what some considered a punitive move. After University of San Francisco president Father Stephen Privett changed the character of the Saint Ignatius Institute, founded by Fessio, he started the now defunct Campion College in a building nearby the university. Seeing Campion, perhaps, as a competitor to the Institute, Father Smolich ordered Father Fessio to cease all ties to the college and assigned him to work as a chaplain at Santa Teresita Hospital.

The Naples Daily News has covered the dispute especially well, and this page includes a photo gallery about Fessio, from a cornerstone-laying ceremony one year ago to images of students upset about his dismissal.

The conflict between Fessio and Monaghan feels similar to the very public falling out between Richard John Neuhaus and the Rockford Institute. Monaghan’s detractors are no more likely to cheer for Fessio, who is just as committed to the church’s teachings on sexuality. Indeed, some reporters asked whether Fessio’s recent remarks on homosexuality could have led to his dismissal. It’s difficult to imagine that the remarks would have bothered Monaghan.

As this latest conflict makes clear, Monaghan will stay in the glare of public scrutiny as he builds Ave Maria. But as Peter Boyer’s remarkable New Yorker profile of Monaghan (abstract) made clear, that’s not likely to slow him down.

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From the high priest of religion news

marty10This is one case in which I am tempted to simply haul off and print an entire online commentary by a famous writer, claiming that it is a guest column for GetReligion.

The writer, of course, is the high priest, omnipresent writer and witty quote-master of the American religion beat for the past 40 years or so — church historian Martin E. Marty of the University of Chicago. As the old saying goes, this is a man who rarely has an unpublished thought and, in his case, that is not a putdown. When does this man sleep?

Anyway, among his many other duties in retirement (what a joke), he contributes commentaries now and then at the “Sightings” site produced by the Marty Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. This essay, called “The Decline of Print News,” jumped out at me because it is based on a recent Christianity Today piece by Sarah Pulliam, mourning the death of religion-news sections at several major newspapers. Click here to see a GetReligion post linked to that.

You need to read the whole Marty piece (it isn’t long at all), but here is a key section at the end:

… (Editors) are correct in saying that, even without segregated sections in the papers there is a great deal of religion coverage because there is so much religion news. It’s simply too often newsworthy for reasons churches would just as soon not advertise. And religion stories are mingled with other news on the pages of many newspapers.

Still, we have reason to shed a tear, since so much news on the web features only major or outrageous or attention-grabbing coverage, while religion in the quieter separate sections could be served up as “features,” and not only “news.” This meant that, while the stories were not public relations expressions for organizations, their writers could discover a good mix of themes for coverage, including positive but less flashy material than that which comes with conflict, clerical abuse, or televangelist scandals.

Amen. Let me add to that one Marty quote from an event a few years ago at the University of Nebraska’s journalism school during a day in which Marty and I were both asked to address the topic “Is There Any Non-Religious News After 9/11?” In a Scripps Howard News Service column afterward, I ended with this Marty quote:

It would help, said Marty, if (editors) hired more journalists who are trained to cover the complex and emotional world of religion. But that response is no longer adequate, after Sept. 11.

“What I am talking about today is not a call for a huge flood of religion reporters. We need some. We need more,” he said. “We need space in which they can write. … But we are past that, right now. We are now dealing with issues that all journalists are going to have to try to understand. … The horizons of religion and the news have touched and we all have to realize that, now.”

So we need religion-news sections and we need religion news in all of the other sections, too. Thus saith Martin E. Marty.

PERSONAL NOTE: I am headed West for a week to speak at Westmont College and Northwest Nazarene University. I will try to get online as much as possible, but please understand if I am not as quick as usual to respond to email and tips about news.

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A nation of Islam

IslaminAmericaHarvard religion professor Diana Eck’s New Religious America: How A “Christian Country” Has Now Become The World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation looks at how changing immigration laws have shaped the country. She tells stories about Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists.

I actually didn’t like the book because it was annoyingly Pollyanna-ish, unnecessarily pluralistic and avoided criticizing any religion apart from Eck’s own: Christianity. But her section on Muslims was the best. I don’t have my notes from the book, but as I recall, she shows how a small number of slaves retained their Islamic beliefs and continued to practice them. It was a bit like a game of telephone, as far as how well traditions and doctrines were kept in the absence of any scholars. But it was from this cadre of believers that more prominent American Muslim groups, such as the Nation of Islam, arose in the 1930s.

I was glad to have that background when I read a fantastic piece in The New York Times by Andrea Elliott. She uses the story of how two different imams bridged their cultural divides to show the tensions among Muslims in America. One imam, a first-generation Muslim, serves a congregation of American blacks while another, a first-generation American, serves a congregation of Arabs and Asians:

For many African-American converts, Islam is an experience both spiritual and political, an expression of empowerment in a country they feel is dominated by a white elite. For many immigrant Muslims, Islam is an inherited identity, and America a place of assimilation and prosperity. . . .

African-Americans possess a cultural and historical fluency that immigrants lack, said Dr. [Faroque] Khan; they hold an unassailable place in America from which to defend their faith.

For Imam [Al-Hajj] Talib, immigrants provide a crucial link to the Muslim world and its tradition of scholarship, as well as the wisdom that comes with an “unshattered Islamic heritage.”

The article does mention that black American Muslims trace their roots to the arrival of West African slaves in the South. Elliott also mentions the Nation of Islam and other movements in the early 20th century. She mentions the racism of these groups and their negative reception by Muslims overseas. Some of these groups eventually aligned with Sunnis. I wish we knew more about the theological differences between the historic American Muslim groups and Sunnis. I also wish we knew more about the theological differences between the two groups profiled by Elliott. It’s mostly a story about social and political differences.

One interesting detail — in a story full of interesting details — was that the sexes worship separately in the American Musim mosque while the immigrant mosque has no partition for the sexes. At the immigrant mosque, sermons are given in English and most female worshipers do not cover their heads outside of the mosque.

I was pleasantly surprised by how well the religious angles were woven into another story on Muslim families dealing with tragic death. It turns out that the two families that lost nine family members last week in a Bronx row house were Muslim. Reporters Timothy Williams and Manny Fernandez look at a community that has rallied around immigrant families facing unspeakable grief:

Visiting the mosque was a public ritual, but there were private ones, too. At a crowded apartment in a Bronx housing complex, friends and relatives of the Soumare and Magassa families — women and children only — sat on the couches, beds and even the floors, quietly mourning together at the home of an aunt of Fatoumata Soumare, who died in the blaze.

People whispered in the three-bedroom apartment, the television news in the background. No one raised their voices. Women cooked rice and chicken, cutting chunks of goat meat.

They described it as a Muslim tradition, the women mourning together and the men mourning together, separately for now.

Last week we highlighted a story about a polygamous family in Utah. One reader wondered whether polygamy was now legal in the United States since the family was identified by name and apparently feared no repercussion. This story, while not about polygamy, had a fascinating tidbit about the same that provoked more questions than answers:

[Moussa] Magassa has two wives. His wife Manthia was uninjured but lost five children; she spent much of yesterday with him. His wife Aisse jumped to safety, breaking a leg. Her four children lived. She remains in intensive care. Two other children were thrown to safety, caught by neighbors who ran to the building as it was consumed by flames and smoke.

Polygamy is forbidden by law in this country, right? So in what sense does Magassa have two wives? Presumably he took his multiple wives under Sharia or another legal system. But how does this work for an immigrant? A bit of explanation is definitely in order.

Anyway, this isn’t a religion story per se, it’s a local story about a major event. But like so many stories that we read about each day, the players are religious and are existing in a notably religious realm. I think far too many reporters shy away from details about religion, which is unfair to readers and just makes stories less interesting. When the reporters delve into the funeral details — mentioning how even non-Muslims in the community are helping with arrangements — they include the note that usually Muslim funerals are held within 24 hours. Just seamlessly placed into the story. A good show on both counts from The New York Times.

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What America doesn’t know about religion

religious educationWe’ve ranted and raved about the lack of knowledge important Americans like senators and Congressmen have about Islam, but now it’s time to have a fit about how little most Americans know about the religion that is all around them.

For starters, turn to a nice long report by Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today on the new book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t by Boston University religion department chairman Stephen Prothero. He argues that religion is becoming more and more important these days (amen!) and Americans are less and less likely to be informed about it:

“More and more of our national and international questions are religiously inflected,” he says, citing President Bush’s speeches laden with biblical references and the furor when the first Muslim member of Congress chose to be sworn in with his right hand on Thomas Jefferson’s Quran.

“If you think Sunni and Shia are the same because they’re both Muslim, and you’ve been told Islam is about peace, you won’t understand what’s happening in Iraq. If you get into an argument about gay rights or capital punishment and someone claims to quote the Bible or the Quran, do you know it’s so?

“If you want to be involved, you need to know what they’re saying. We’re doomed if we don’t understand what motivates the beliefs and behaviors of the rest of the world. We can’t outsource this to demagogues, pundits and preachers with a political agenda.”

You don’t have to believe to get religion, according to Prothero. He was raised Episcopalian and now is a “confused Christian.”

Grossman does a great job with this news story. Interviewing and quoting Philip Goff of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University in Indianapolis, the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, former general secretary of the National Council of Churches, U.S. historian Joy Hakim and a half-dozen others, Grossman gives us a sad picture of religious understanding in America.

Education is a major theme in the piece:

Prothero’s solution is to require middle-schoolers to take a course in world religions and high schoolers to take one on the Bible. Biblical knowledge also should be melded into history and literature courses where relevant. He wants all college undergrads to take at least one course in religious studies.

He calls for time-pressed adults to sample holy books and history texts. His book includes a 90-page dictionary of key words and concepts from Abraham to Zen. There’s also a 15-question quiz — which his students fail every year.

In a Q&A with U.S. News & World Report‘s Jay Tolson, Prothero also cites the lack of education as the major reason for this lack of religious knowledge:

What accounts for the shocking neglect of religion in most U.S. and world history textbooks?

Fear of controversy — even allergy to controversy — is one big factor. Publishers are determined to make textbooks as unobjectionable as possible so they can be sold in every school district in the country. Another factor is that one of the pockets of secularity in the middle of this very religious country is [the] publishing [industry] and the media more broadly. A lot of the authors and publishers of these textbooks are secular, and they imagine that everybody else must be also. Finally, until recently, a lot of intellectuals thought religion was going away as societies became more modern, and that just hasn’t happened. A lot of historians and sociologists have been scrambling in the last few years to make sense of a world in which religion matters. I think they’re finally getting the message.

In your view, what other nations, if any, do a good job teaching religion in an objective, academic way?

European countries do a much better job. They are at least trying to educate young people about religion and, to their credit, not just about the state religion, either. You don’t only learn about Lutheranism in Sweden or Anglicanism in Britain.

Now I am not going to quarrel with anyone who wants to increase the level of religious learning in schools, but I do wish someone had said something about the media’s impact in all of this. I remember reading somewhere that newspapers are cutting back on their religion coverage. That was a good story, by the way.

When a week-long media blitz involves transparent crackpot theories about a box supposedly containing Jesus Christ’s bones, and turns out to be little more than a publicity stunt, whose fault is that?

And what of the other recent media coverage of religion? If it doesn’t have to do with right-wing Republican politics, it has to do with new theories (which are really quite old) and sensational coverage of new books (which are also really quite old).

I have yet to read Prothero’s book, but I’d be curious to see what it has to say about the media’s coverage of religion.

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Tax dollars to fix the cross?

SUNfountainI realize that I have been rather hard on the folks at the Baltimore Sun lately, but, you know, it’s the local newspaper that’s in my front yard every morning. It comes with the territory and I really think that this major daily needs a more systematic approach to covering religion news.

The latest story to grab my attention was by reporter Jamie Stiehm and ran under the lengthy headline “A wellspring of city history to flow again: A long-overdue renovation planned for a neglected Annapolis landmark.” It helps to know that Annapolis is, in addition to being the state capital, a city that is really into history and its role in the formative years of U.S. life and politics.

So here’s the top of the story:

For decades, pedestrians and drivers passing Church Circle have hardly noticed the slender cross atop a shallow octagonal base, except as a traffic island.

Now the city of Annapolis is giving Southgate Fountain a second chance in its second century — before it crumbles in plain sight. Using city and grant funds, the city will spend about $100,000 restoring the 1901 fountain to make it shine for the Charter 300 celebration, marking the tricentennial of Annapolis’ charter, said Donna C. Hole, the city’s chief of historic preservation.

There really isn’t anything controversial in this story.

That’s my point.

As a rule, mainstream newspapers tend to point out when tax dollars are used in connection with projects involving a cross and the public square (or in this case a public circle). And there are other religious connections in this symbolic site and the monument on it. As the story notes:

William Scott Southgate was a beloved Episcopal rector of St. Anne’s Parish from 1869 until his death in 1899. He was considered one of the healers of the post-Civil War era, known for reaching out to the newly emancipated former slaves to establish a separate parish, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, not far from St. Anne’s.

… Five churches, the Naval Academy Band and community residents all gave money to help build the fountain, city records show, an outpouring that has seldom been matched.

… According to city records, all sectors of the town showed up at the fountain dedication. Along with Episcopal clergy, ministers from other denominations, the Naval Academy Band, residents and public officials attended the unveiling of the public art, designed by T. Henry Randall.

Now there are all kinds of things that we don’t know about this story.

We do not know if anyone has questioned this project. We do not know if those behind the fountain restoration effort have checked and, for whatever legal reasons, have already been told that this site is “secular enough” to be fixed up with taxpayer dollars. We do not know if the fountain is being fixed with city dollars while the cross inside the fountain is being repaired with private donations.

In other words, there may be a hole in this news story. There may not be. We do not know. I’m interested in why there isn’t a controversy, just as I would be interested if there was one. Does that make sense?

I do know that, over the state line in Virginia, the cross that used to be on the altar in the Wren Chapel at the College of William & Mary is still making news. School officials are moving it back into the chapel, but not putting it on the altar? As the old saying goes — location, location, location.

You may also recall that there was a media stink about the status of the Mt. Soledad Cross outside San Diego. That was a rather big news story, too.

Maybe the legal left thinks the Annapolis cross is OK. If so, I’d like to know that.

The copyrighted photo with this post is from the Sun. I could not find another image of the fountain and the cross online. If someone can find one, I will gladly take this image down — if there is a problem.

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‘GetReligion week’ for Chuck Colson

colsonIt seems like it’s “Let’s try our hand at GetReligion work” week at the Chuck Colson research staff office.

First off, Colson’s BreakPoint commentary dated Feb. 28 appropriately takes apart Time‘s piece on crisis pregnancy centers:

For example, Time suggests that pregnancy resource centers, while willing to help mothers during pregnancy, are indifferent to their financial needs after their babies are born.

Not true: Pregnancy care centers often form long-term relationships with women, offering economic and other help years after the baby is born.

Time also quotes abortion advocates who claim that crisis pregnancy centers lie to women and traumatize them in an effort to coerce them into giving birth. Interestingly, Time did not quote any women who said that this had happened to them. The only people quoted were abortion advocates.

The rest of the piece is more on the “abortion industry,” as Colson calls it, but it’s good to see other media outlets constructively picking apart the poor coverage of religion and moral issues. My only problem with the analysis is that Colson seems to be asking for “positive coverage” of “pregnancy resource centers,” rather than just the truth. Yes, the truth can be a tricky thing, but how about the best version of the truth obtainable by the reporter’s deadline?

The second piece is an interesting perspective on this week’s Lost Tomb of Jesus hoax (I think we can call it that now). Colson, who kindly mentions us in his short radio talk (that my soon-to-be mother-in-law heard), says the filmmaker James Cameron is suggesting that the Apostles were involved in a cover-up about who Jesus really was.

Say what you will about Nixon’s hatchet man, the guy knows what he is speaking about when he talks about cover-ups:

Like others, his ultimate explanation for what happened that Sunday morning is a cover-up. Like others, he has no explanation for why the Apostles would be willing to die for what they presumably knew to be a lie. I know a thing or two about cover-ups and conspiracies: No conspirator willingly dies for what he knows to be untrue — or, in the case of Watergate, even go to jail. The closest men around the president of the United States testified against him to save their own skins. You’re going to tell me the Apostles maintained their story at the cost of their lives? Impossible.

What’s worse than Cameron’s “preposterous” claims is the credulous reaction of the media.

Colson gives the media the lashing they deserve. While I’m not one to revel when the media make a mess out of serious things, their handling of the Cameron film has been quite embarrassing. It is just another incident that people of faith will point to when they need to prove that reporters do not get religion. But people will still be in church Sunday, and Easter will be here next month, none the worse for the extra publicity.

Unfortunately, protests have canceled the showing of the film in India (I’m against nearly all forms of censorship) and some people are still treating the film as a controversy. While I think the coverage of the film is controversial (sensational, lacking balance, etc.), most people are fairly settled on the fact that this film proposes bogus ideas, which makes it more of a farce than a controversy.

I’ll try to fit the film into my schedule, but I don’t expect to be shocked and awed. Last time I watched something related to religion on the Discovery Channel, there was speculation that a nuclear weapon could have been contained in the Ark of the Covenant.

To wrap up the coverage of the Lost Tomb story, I point you to a fun article over at Christianity Today that asks readers to propose the most ridiculous coverage of the film’s announcement. Hey, you could even win some free stuff:

So it’s contest time. What media outlet has the most credulous, exaggerated, or otherwise wacky report on the “tomb of Jesus”? Entries (use the feedback form below) are due by Friday, March 9. The winner will receive a one-year subscription to Christianity Today (or one of our sister publications) and a copy of The Tomb of Jesus (the tie-in book to the Discovery Channel “documentary”). The winner will be determined purely at the whim of one or more editors here at CT. So don’t take the contest too seriously. We hope you’re not taking the documentary too seriously, either.

Submit your favorites to CT and then submit them to us too. While we don’t have prizes to give out, a couple of days from now we’ll pick a winner and you too can be a champion.

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A non-gimmicky religion story

p66 John 1 4In an interesting discussion on how religion reporters should handle self-identification when it’s contested, reader Chris Bolinger — a former stringer — made this comment:

As I have written before, what passes for acceptable journalism (or is even praised on this board as stellar journalism) for stories on religion would result in people getting fired if the stories were on sports. Stories on religion often treat readers as if they know little on the subject, whereas stories on sports understand that readers know quite a bit on the subject.

As a huge sports fan, I have to admit that I have become disenchanted with the popular notion that the best writing in newspapers happens on the sports page. They’re quite fun to read if you follow the sport and team in question, but if you don’t, the stories can be confusing or irrelevant. Frank DeFord is still pretty awesome though.

Anyway, I thought of Chris’ comment when I read a local religion story in the Birmingham Herald that is fantastic for its informative details, assumption that the reader isn’t an idiot, and compelling story line.

Reporter Greg Garrison explains how a local pastor helped the Vatican get valuable ancient manuscripts. Here’s how it begins:

It wasn’t exactly “The DaVinci Code,” but a Birmingham priest recently jetted around the world and helped deliver one of the most important documents in Christian history to the pope.

“It contains the oldest copy of the Lord’s Prayer in the world,” said St. Paul’s Cathedral Pastor Richard Donohoe.

Donohoe assisted in the Vatican Library’s acquisition of two rare pieces of papyrus, including the oldest surviving copy of the Gospel of Luke and one of the two oldest copies of the Gospel of John. They were handwritten by a scribe about 200 A.D. and found in Egypt in the 1950s.

Garrison explains how the documents were obtained from the Bodmer Library in Switzerland — with a bit of high-powered fundraising, armed guards and secret negotiations. He speaks with James Robinson, a scholar of ancient biblical documents currently serving at Auburn University. He says the purchase is the most important New Testament biblical manuscript to have survived. He explains that the Bodmer papyri are remarkably complete, too. Who says local stories aren’t exciting?:

They are written in clear, common Greek.

“It’s written in the archaic Koine, the Greek of the streets; that’s what the gospels were originally written in,” Donohoe said. “It’s very easily read. It’s in beautiful condition.”

They are commonly dated to between 175 and 225 A.D. They were able to survive so long because they were preserved in the dry climate of upper Egypt, like the Nag Hammadi artifacts and the Dead Sea Scrolls found in caves in the region.

“Scholars used to think we’d never find anything earlier than 300,” Robinson said.

I love how Garrison turned a basic human interest story about a priest on a mission into something educational and enlightening. Here was a particularly interesting tidbit:

Robinson believes that the documents are from the first Christian monastery, started near Dishna, Egypt, about 320 A.D. by St. Pachomia. Robinson went to Dishna in his research of the Nag Hammadi codices. Dishna is on the Nile River upstream from Nag Hammadi.

The Greek manuscripts date more than a century earlier than the monastery, he said. “These monks were Coptic-speaking,” he said. “How did all these Greek manuscripts get there?”

Robinson theorizes that St. Athanasius, patriarch of Alexandria, went into hiding at a Pachomian monastery during one of his many exiles from persecution and took books with him from the great library of Alexandria, which later burned.

The reader who passed this story on thought we might not be interested in it because it’s a good example of writing about religion. It seems a good idea to remind people that we consider highlighting good stories a fundamental part of this blog’s mission. I do note that our positive posts elicit far fewer remarks than our negative ones.

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Can we call Lost Tomb a hoax now?

jesus tombQuestion: does anyone other than the good folks behind the Discovery Channel documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus believe the claims that this crypt contained the bones of Jesus Christ? I have yet to see any independent confirmation anywhere, or anyone (other than the filmmakers) expressing a single bit of confidence that any of this could be true.

Considering that everyone (other than the reporters covering the matter and the filmmakers) is saying this thing is bogus, what are we to make of the coverage? It’s a legitimate story that this film is being made and makes the claims it does, but at what point does it tip over into a hoax?

A second-day story by Washington Post religion writer Alan Cooperman appropriately carries the headline “‘Lost Tomb of Jesus’ Claim Called a Stunt.” Cooperman is a day behind the coverage, but that extra time seems to have given him a chance to write a more balanced article and find sources outside the usual suspects:

Leading archaeologists in Israel and the United States yesterday denounced the purported discovery of the tomb of Jesus as a publicity stunt.

Scorn for the Discovery Channel’s claim to have found the burial place of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and — most explosively — their possible son came not just from Christian scholars but also from Jewish and secular experts who said their judgments were unaffected by any desire to uphold Christian orthodoxy.

“I’m not a Christian. I’m not a believer. I don’t have a dog in this fight,” said William G. Dever, who has been excavating ancient sites in Israel for 50 years and is widely considered the dean of biblical archaeology among U.S. scholars. “I just think it’s a shame the way this story is being hyped and manipulated.”

Most of the coverage has been somewhat skeptical of the initial claims. Reporters generally understand that this is essentially a publicity stunt.

But if the only people who believe these claims are the filmmakers, why did reporters treat it initially with the premise that one side claims one set of facts leads to a certain conclusion while another side disputes that conclusion? It seems rather clear that the side of the filmmakers consists of just them and their pets. (National Review‘s Dave Konig has released new information that somehow the filmmakers forgot to mention Monday.)

One answer to that question could be contained in the following quote from a Laurie Goodstein story in The New York Times:

“This is exploiting the whole trend that caught on with ‘The Da Vinci Code,’” said Lawrence E. Stager, the Dorot professor of archaeology of Israel at Harvard, in a telephone interview. “One of the problems is there are so many biblically illiterate people around the world that they don’t know what is real judicious assessment and what is what some of us in the field call ‘fantastic archaeology.’”

Professor Stager said he had not seen the film but was skeptical.

Mr. Cameron said he had been “trepidatious” about becoming involved in the project but got engaged out of “great passion for a good detective story,” not to offend and not to cash in.

“I think this is the biggest archaeological story of the century,” he said. “It’s absolutely not a publicity stunt. It’s part of a very well-considered plan to reveal this information to the world in a way that makes sense, with proper documentation.”

Note Stager’s statement that he has not seen the film. Has anyone seen the film? Is there a difference between “not seen the film” and “had not been allowed to see the film”? Reporters might want to ask that question and clarify it for all of us.

For a bit of historical perspective, check out an Atlantic Monthly essay by former editor Cullen Murphy. It documents the state of Jesus studies in 1986.

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