Now who was that Joseph guy in the old story from Genesis?

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Former GetReligionista Brad Greenberg passed along this interesting item from Twitter, which barely requires commentary of any kind. However, since commentary is what we do here, let’s start off with a bit of biblical context for this amazing correction from The New York Times.

This famous story from the book of Genesis is offered here with no implied connection whatsoever to current economic conditions here in the United States of America or anywhere else. Honest. The great Gray Lady brought this up.

We will start with the voice of Joseph, in verse 33:

“… Now therefore let Pharaoh select a discerning and wise man, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plentiful years. And let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming and store up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to occur in the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine.”

This proposal pleased Pharaoh and all his servants. 38 And Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are. You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command. Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.” And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.” Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand, and clothed him in garments of fine linen and put a gold chain about his neck. And he made him ride in his second chariot. And they called out before him, “Bow the knee!” Thus he set him over all the land of Egypt.

Like I said, it’s a very famous story and just about anyone who has ever spent any time in a synagogue or church would know it. You could even have been exposed to this familiar story in a theater or via DVD, care of Steven Spielberg and Co. at Dreamworks.

Alas, these simple qualifications appear to be rare these days on the copy desk of the Times. Thus, a passing reference to the biblical Joseph led to one the most amazing corrections of all time.

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Time magazine claims that Bible-ness is next to Godliness

An old Salvation Army musical production — the kind of church entertainment often aimed at youngsters and teen-agers — had a catchy little chorus about that Christian group’s fabled “slum sisters” of years ago, whose work in tenements was legendary:

“Cleanliness is next to Godliness

“Soap-and-water is divine.”

Those words came to mind as I read a rather astonishing Time magazine online piece that seems to put a whole lot of, well, faith in a survey undertaken by the Barna Group for the American Bible Society:

America, you may have a new Sodom and Gomorrah.

The two least “Bible-minded” cities in the United States are the adjacent metros of Providence, R.I., and New Bedford, Mass., according to a study out Wednesday from the American Bible Society.

The study defines “Bible-mindedness” as a combination of how often respondents read the Bible and how accurate they think the Bible is. “Respondents who report reading the bible within the past seven days and who agree strongly in the accuracy of the Bible are classified as ‘Bible Minded,’” says the study’s methodology.

Yowza! If there isn’t “enough” Bible reading in New Bedford, watch out for the brimstone! Oh, and don’t look back, or you could become a true pillar of the community. (Cue snare drum!)

While I don’t want to demean the American Bible Society, a nobile group that has had its ups and downs recently, or belittle the research that the Barna folks have done, I was struck both by the research results — more on that in a moment — and Time‘s interpretation of the data.

Providence and New Bedford are noted for many things, but a modern day Sodom-and-Gomorrah — when it comes to moral conduct — isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, or even the second or third.

In other words, did anyone ask this basic question: Is Bible-less-ness really an indicator of rampant sinning?

I’m not saying folks shouldn’t read the Scriptures — I’m all for it — but might we have a little more here on the part of Time to make the connection? You know, some, er, data or facts perhaps?

Instead, I get the feeling that this piece was intended to generate heat, and not light. The snark from the lede morphs into hair-splitting later on:

Surprisingly, that den of sin called New York City didn’t make the top ten least Bible-minded cities, coming in at 89th in the list of 100. Suspecting New York’s large Jewish population may have rescued it from the bottom ten, TIME inquired as to whether the Torah counted as the Bible for the purposes of the survey. A spokesperson said questioners left it up to respondents to determine what they considered to be the sacred text, but the question asked was, “How many times do you read the bible outside of church or a synagogue?”

Har-de-har-har, Time, now that’s a real thigh-slapper!

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A basic, but tough religion question: What is faith?

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MICHELLE ASKS:

What is faith?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

This is the simplest yet perhaps most difficult question in the brief history of “Religion Q and A.” Not the sort of thing journalists usually write about, but The Guy can at least report on what some thinkers have said about this.

Start with Merriam-Webster definitions:

(1) “strong belief or trust in someone or something.”

(2) “belief in the existence of God: strong religious feelings or beliefs.”

(3) “a system of religious beliefs.”

Number 3 is clear-cut but not what Michelle is asking (e.g. “the Catholic faith claims more than a million adherents”). Number 1 is often secular (“they have faith in the governor” or the New Yorker cartoon quip about stock market investments being “faith-based”). Number 2 is what this question is all about.

In Islam, the prominent scholar Habib Ali al-Jifri told a 2011 dialogue with Catholics, ”the technical meaning of faith is firm belief in something real, based on evidence. Experts in this subject have defined faith as being ‘to believe with the heart and proclaim with the tongue.’ ” He added that some like Abu Ubayd al-Qasim ibn Salam have added “to act on it with the body.”

The Jewish Bible (or Old Testament) puts deeds at the center, says the comprehensive Anchor Bible Dictionary: “Faith is described rather than defined.” The word usually translated as “faith” doesn’t link with “believe” so much as “sustain” or “support,” and the same Hebrew root gives rise to the word for firmness, as with a peg attached in a “sure” place in Isaiah 22:23. Modern Jewish theologian Martin Buber’s Two Types of Faith said Judaism emphasizes faith as firm fidelity toward God, while Christianity sees it more as belief or knowing about God. The latter emphasis is seen in a classic definition from Thomas Aquinas’s 13th Century Summa Theologica: “Faith is the act of the intellect when it assents to divine truth under the influence of the will, moved by God through grace.”

But Christianity involves non-intellectual aspects, too.

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Wives, submission, web traffic and Candace Cameron Bure

Candace Cameron Bure (Photo by Joe Seer/Shutterstock.com)

Candace Cameron Bure, darling of ’80s sitcom television, is all grown up.

In case you’re mired in Nick at Nite reruns of “Full House” and hadn’t heard, the younger sister of fellow actor Kirk Cameron has been married for 17 years, has three teenage children and is on her second book tour. She calls herself a devout evangelical Christian and, while on tour promoting said second book, has been peppered specifically about a chapter where she explains her take on the biblical concept of wives being submissive to their husbands.

The Huffington Post deals with it thusly:

She writes in her book, “I am not a passive person, but I chose to fall into a more submissive role in our relationship because I wanted to do everything in my power to make my marriage and family work.”

Bure elaborated on HuffPost Live, “The definition I’m using with the word ‘submissive’ is the biblical definition of that. So, it is meekness, it is not weakness. It is strength under control, it is bridled strength.”

Cameron has defended her view of marriage in the past. On Christian Women Online she quoted the biblical passage, “First Peter 3:1 says, ‘In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives.’”

“It is very difficult to have two heads of authority,” she told HuffPost Live. “It doesn’t work in military, it doesn’t work — I mean, you have one president, you know what I’m saying?”

The Cameron family project (a nice title for a reality series, no?) seems to be focused on taking a conservative Christian message to the mainstream media, ready or not. Remember Kirk Cameron’s 2012 interview with Piers Morgan in which he came out swinging against homosexuality, declaring it “unnatural, detrimental and ultimately destructive to foundations of civilization.”

Fans aligned with his beliefs embraced the father of six and have supported his ministry and evangelistic film work. (As an aside, I coughed through “Fireproof” while my husband teared up, which was my indictment of the acting. Ahem.)

It seems his sister is going to tackle women’s roles in marriage and family according to her interpretation of Scripture. And while the live Q & A on Huff Post’s website went well overall, from the looks of the transcript, other sites that have picked up on the story are simply pulling one or two quotes about submission, sensationalizing headlines and hoping to light up their comment sections.

Some of the more predictable responses from readers to these efforts:

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Are there different versions of Islam’s Quran?

DUANE ASKS: Are there different versions of the Quran or just different interpretations of the one version?

THE GUY ANSWERS: Since early in the history of Islam, only one Quran text in the original Arabic language has been fully authorized. However, as with most religious matters, the story is complicated. The religion teaches that the Quran existed eternally in heaven before angels gradually revealed the words little by little to the Prophet Muhammad between the year 620 C.E. (“Common Era”) and his death in 632. A tradition that the Prophet was illiterate is said to show the Quran’s miraculous nature and that Muhammad was a passive transmitter who did not produce the words himself. (By contrast, Jews and Christians see their Bible as God’s Word but written by humans.)

The orthodox view of the Quran’s transmission is depicted in English by such scholars as Muhammad Mustafa al-Azami of King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, pioneer English translator N.J. Dawood, Majid Fakhry and Mahmud Zayid of the American University in Lebanon, and A.S. Abdul Haleem of the University of London. Muhammad dictated the revelations to his “Companions,” who preserved them by memorization in an ancient oral culture skilled in accurate preservation that way. (Christian conservatives say that’s also true for materials about Jesus collected in the New Testament Gospels. For instance, see the brand-new The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority by John H. Walton and D. Brent Sandy.) Quran passages were also said to be written down by the Prophet’s secretaries.

Orthodoxy holds that all the material of what became the Quran existed in writing during Muhammad’s lifetime, though oral recitation remained important. A non-Muslim expert, W. Montgomery Watt, judged it “probable” that “much of the Quran was written down in some form” while Muhammad was still living. Al-Azami even contends that the Prophet arranged the final order of the verses and chapters (“suras”), though western scholars disagree.

After Muhammad died, his successors pursued a full written compilation, partly because deaths of Companions in battle raised fears that their memorized material could be lost. Eventually the third caliph (religious and political ruler) in the Sunni line, Uthman (644-656 C.E.), ordered an authorized version, then assigned reciters to deliver copies to several major Muslim towns and sought to destroy all other Quran texts in order to enforce uniformity. Watt considered it “certain that the book still in our hands is essentially” Uthman’s authorized text. (A manuscript in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, is thought to be one-third of a surviving Uthman manuscript; Columbia University’s library has a copy.) Shiites use the same text as Sunnis though the faith’s two main branches disagree on the role of early caliphs. Egypt’s official Quran from 1924 is the recognized Arabic edition.

Certain French writers are skeptical about the orthodox history.

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Pondering duck doctrines and our bubble-bound media elite

Let’s see. Where should we begin on this oh-so-bizarre morning?

What will it be, Pope Francis, Santa Claus or Duck Dynasty?

Pope Francis, Santa Claus or Duck Dynasty? As my favorite French History professor at Baylor University used to say, with a world-weary and exasperated sigh: “What a world.”

First, let me offer a few relevant confessions on my part.

I would like to echo the following Twitter comment by one of the scribes who often hangs out in my favorite coffee shop here in our neighborhood on Capitol Hill. Yes, this man is a bit of an elite Yankee, but he is what he is. Ross Douthat works for The New York Times. So, sue him.

I’m good to go with all of that, except for the “Merry Christmas” reference — since we are still in Advent, after all. Douthat must be one of those post-Vatican II Catholics (just kidding).

Another confession: I have never watched a single episode of “Duck Dynasty,” although I have tried to do so several times. It’s just not my style. Frankly, when it comes to the masculine virtues I favor Jane Austen’s Captain Frederick Wentworth over the the guys in the duck crew. I also lived in the mountains of Tennessee for six years (and plan to live there again someday) and I’ve never even watched a NASCAR race on television. I do, however, like barbecue. A lot. I also like ZZ Top and Eastern Orthodox bishops, so I’m OK with the beards.

There, I needed to get all of that off my chest. Now, I can confess that there is one element of the Duck Dynasty media storm that fascinates me.

Let’s try, for a minute, to ignore duck patriarch Phil Robertson’s reflections on genitalia — although I rather think that if he had rapped that stuff with a strong backbeat, it would have viewed as a kind of elderly Eminem thing. You know, Eminem has to keep his street cred. Elite media folks from places like Harvard and Yale tend to respect street cred way more than they do swamp cred.

No, I want to join the once and always GetReligionista M.Z. Hemingway in thinking that the key to this particular duck blind spot is found in this chunk of Robertson GQ prose:

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So which Bible version is really the most authentic?

DUANE ASKS:

There are many different versions of the Bible: King James, New International Version, New Revised Standard Version, etc. Which is considered the closest to the earliest available manuscripts?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

Folks shopping for Christmas gift Bibles are well aware of the countless editions on sale, those aimed at Moms, teens, substance abusers in recovery, ESL students, and the like, and all the useful study Bibles with marginal notations, explanatory articles, timelines, maps, and indexes. However, Duane isn’t asking about such add-ons but the many English translations of the Bible itself.

The beloved “Authorized” or King James Version from 1611 is a monument of English literature that retains wide popularity, especially among Protestant Fundamentalists, some of whom champion a “King James Only” movement. The King is the sole Bible used in Mormonism. But experts note that it isn’t ideal in terms of Duane’s criterion of closeness to the best ancient texts. (The question says “earliest,” which is not always “best,” but let’s leave aside the textual technicalities.) Important ancient manuscripts were not available to the King James team, for instance key 4th Century codices and the Hebrew scriptures found among the celebrated Dead Sea Scrolls. A secondary problem is that the King’s Elizabethan language is occasionally hard for 21st Century readers to comprehend easily or correctly.

Still, something is lost with today’s profusion of modernized translations compared with the time not so long ago when generally similar and memorable phrasing was shared by the Protestants’ King James, the Catholics’ Douay-Rheims Bible from that same era, and the 1917 Jewish Publication Society Tanakh (the Hebrew-based term for what Christians call the Old Testament).

Proponents of each modern translation on the market will assert that it’s faithful to the Hebrew and Greek. Indeed, most renditions from recent decades are reliable products from well-credentialed scholars capable of wrestling with the best available texts. Because there are so many ancient Greek New Testament manuscripts and the meaning of some Hebrew Old Testament terms is unclear, there are differences in wording among the translations, but key substantive disagreements are few. Instead, the major differences involve the philosophy of translation and, to a lesser extent, the reading skill of the intended audience.

One approach is thought-for-thought or “functional equivalence” translation that emphasizes the text’s meaning for clear understanding. An example is the Good News Bible, a.k.a. Today’s English Version, which is especially helpful for those who aren’t fluent English readers. The other main option is more literal word-for-word or “formal equivalance” renditions. The King James leans that way along with modern translations generally following in that tradition such as the Revised Standard Version, English Standard Version, and somewhat more literalistic New American Standard Bible.

An interesting Jewish translation by Everett Fox works to evoke the wording and feel of the underlying Hebrew. For instance, here’s the call of Abraham in Genesis 12: “YHWH said to Avram: Go-you-forth from your land, from your kindred, from your father’s house, to the land that I will let you see. I will make a great nation of you and will give-you-blessing and will make your name great. Be a blessing!”

One recent issue is the degree a Bible uses gender-inclusive language, a hallmark of the 1989 New Revised Standard Version.

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NYTimes: ‘On Religion’ columnist commits … journalism!

Yes, that headline is written with tongue somewhat in cheek: The New York Times‘ “On Religion” column, authored in alternate weeks by Samuel G. Freedman and Mark Oppenheimer, both academics, is at turns fascinating and frustrating. Fascinating when it finds, as will be discussed here, good, solid faith-based stories. Frustrating — to this more traditional believer, at least — when the column appears to delight (in column fashion) at those sticking a finger (or a fist) in the eye of, well, traditional believers.

Just when I’m about to lament this or that fawning column about someone rather far removed from the religious mainstream — let alone evangelicalism — “On Religion” comes along and reminds me that they can get this right. In fact, there are columns that are more news-focused than some New York Times news stories that approach religious matters.

Witness Freedman’s Nov. 29 spiritual profile of the late Oscar Hijuelos (shown here in a 1993 photo) the famed Cuban-American novelist who died in October at age 62 following a sudden collapse on a tennis court:

Nearly 20 years ago, when he was three books into an acclaimed literary career, Oscar Hijuelos delivered the manuscript of his new novel to his editor. It was a Christmas tale filled with the joy Mr. Hijuelos had always taken in with the trappings of yuletide, from manger scenes to oratorios to evergreens strung with lights.

From a lesser writer, perhaps, the new novel would have been perfectly fine. From one who had already won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,” who had received fellowships and honorary doctorates and a dinner invitation to the White House, it felt lacking.

At least it did to Mr. Hijuelos’s editor at HarperCollins, Robert S. Jones. He rejected the book, telling its author something cryptically critical along the lines of, “This is not what I had in mind for you to write.”

The evening after receiving the verdict, Mr. Hijuelos and his girlfriend at the time, Lori Carlson, sat together in their living room in Upper Manhattan, depression suffusing the air. Finally, Mr. Hijuelos told Ms. Carlson, “O.K., I’m really going to the heart of Christmas then.”

That exploration, Freedman noted, wasn’t a walk in the park, yielding the now-classic “Mr. Ives’ Christmas”:

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