Gosh! Finding meaning in great Russian literature?

I spent most of last week on the other side of the planet (a Media Project-Poynter.org event in Bangkok) or getting to the other side of the planet and an odd little post I had been planning slid down into the tmatt file of guilt.

The Washington Post did an interesting story the other day that I really wanted to salute, while at the same time noting that it was haunted by a rather obvious religion ghost.

The story ran under a pitch-perfect headline: “Crime and punishment: Juvenile offenders study Russian literature.”

The bottom line in this story: Russian literature offers the kinds of hard-hitting, muscular truths that even appeal to young people behind bars. If you can get them started on “War and Peace,” they will come back for more. That’s what is happening in a class offered by the University of Virginia, with inmates at the Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center.

Say what? Here’s a key chunk of the report:

Researchers have documented positive changes in behavior, decision-making, social skills, educational goals and civic engagement, according to a study by U-Va.’s Curry School of Education. The study also points to benefits for the undergraduates who study alongside incarcerated youths.

The demand for the service-learning class, the response and the impact it seems to have prompted U-Va. to give Andy Kaufman, a lecturer and fellow at the university, a $50,000 grant to expand his experiment. He hopes to bring classics of Russian literature to more U-Va. students, more people at Beaumont, and more inmates at other prisons in Virginia and nationwide.

Beaumont residents said privately that the course had a profound effect on them. Jonis Romero, just released back home to Woodbridge, said that since taking the class, he thinks constantly about how he wants to live his life. He got a job at a carwash right away and hopes to go to George Mason University. Alex Espinoza, an 18-year-old from Arlington County, said it “helped me acknowledge the little things, not worry about greedy things.”

One inmate told researchers that for the 90 minutes of class each week, he felt like a human being again. “When they leave Beaumont,” lead research assistant Rob Wolman said, “do we want them feeling like human beings or feeling like criminals?”

The key is that these books play for keeps, asking big questions about good and evil, life and death, sin and grace, repentance and forgiveness, heaven and hell and, yes, crime and punishment. What is the meaning of life? What happens when the sins of the fathers plague the lives of the sons? Is there life after you have been sentenced to a living hell? What are the lessons someone learns when they watch people die? That’s what the “Books Behind Bars” concept is all about.

So where’s the ghost?

[Read more...]

Print Friendly

A Dan Brown Good Friday from the BBC

What a difference a decade makes. In 2002 the BBC broadcast a documentary on the Virgin Mary characterizing her “as a poor and downtrodden girl, who might have conceived Jesus as a result of being raped.” This Life of Brian view of the birth of Jesus prompted outrage -– letters, editorials, statements from church leaders leaders condemning the broadcast.

A documentary broadcast on Good Friday by the BBC entitled “The Mystery of Mary Magdalene” that suggests Mary Magdalene and Jesus were sexual partners has provoked a complaint from a retired bishop but little else. The Telegraph reports:

The Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, the former bishop of Rochester, said the programme, presented by Melvyn Bragg would be “hugely offensive” to devout Christians because it amounted to the “sexualisation of Christ”. He said it was all the more upsetting because it is being screened at midday on Good Friday – the moment the Bible says Jesus was put on the cross.

The article notes:

Lord Bragg, who describes himself as “no longer a believer”, argues that Mary’s close relationship with Jesus was effectively airbrushed out of the accepted Biblical account by “misogynist” Romans. He points to a series of ancient writings known as the Gnostic Gospels which were not included in the agreed list of books which became the New Testament. They include references to Mary being “kissed on the mouth” by Jesus, being his favourite and even, as one passage suggests, his wife.

Writing in the Telegraph last week, Bragg argued Mary Magdalene:

was acknowledged by other disciples as his favourite and there is one taunting scrap of record which may well lead to the conclusion that she was his wife.

Which leads Bragg to the conclusion:

[Read more...]

Print Friendly

Inside the History Channel’s epic TV miniseries ‘The Bible’

YouTube Preview Image

This is one of those GetReligion follow-up posts where we basically say, “See, was that so hard?”

Back in December, I raised a few questions about media coverage of “The Bible,” the epic miniseries that debuted Sunday night on the History Channel.

In reading an in-depth feature by CNN Belief Blog co-editor Eric Marrapodi over the weekend, I was pleased to see my questions answered. Obviously, Marripodi pays close attention to the excellent insight at GetReligion. Or maybe he’s just good at his job …

Kidding aside, let’s start at the top of the CNN piece:

(CNN) - Mark Burnett is the king of reality television. His shows and spinoffs command hours of prime-time television real estate. The seal of his production company One Three Media appears at the end of “Survivor,” “The Voice,” “The Apprentice,” “Shark Tank,” “The Job” and “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?”

He will tell you each show was No. 1 in the time slot. He will tell you he will take on all comers in his bare-knuckle, ratings-driven world and beat them. He will tell you on any given day he has 150 video-editing systems churning through edits on his dossier, which spans the three major broadcast networks.

But if you suggest he may not have the chops to take on a massive scripted dramatic presentation of the Bible as a 10-hour miniseries, his eyes will tell you he wants to throttle you.

My bad.

Burnett and wife, Roma Downey, have been barnstorming the country like roving preachers on horseback trying to evangelize the West. Their gospel is spreading the news of “The Bible” - their ambitious project that aims to tell the story of the Bible in 10 installments. It begins its weeklong premiere on the History Channel Sunday night.

My previous post complained about the lack of specific details concerning Burnett’s faith background and the motivation for the project.

Enter Marrapodi:

Both Downey and Burnett were raised Catholic, Burnett in England and Downey in Ireland. They still regularly attend Mass in Los Angeles. Growing up, both watched the classic Biblical films that the Hollywood of yesteryear churned out, like “The Ten Commandments” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”

Wait, there’s more:

[Read more...]

Print Friendly

What, precisely, makes Stephenie Meyer so important? (updated)

I need some help, folks.

My goal is to find that classic Washington Post piece — on A1 or the Style front — about the whole Beltway-women cult that surrounded the “Twilight” series by Stephenie Meyer. The key to this feature was that it focused on how guilty these feminists and hard-charging professionals felt about their desire to read these books. They were hiding them from friends and family. Women could not believe that they were falling for these novels.

Why the guilt? As I remember it, the story argued that liberal women were afraid to be seen reading a book that baptized in old-fashioned Romantic virtues, especially the concept that a man could truly be faithful to one woman — forever. Yes, the story may have mentioned that Meyer is a Mormon and, thus, supposedly on the wrong side of the Sexual Revolution. What if her beliefs were dangerous?

I can’t seem to come up with the right set of search terms to find that story. If anyone manages to reel it in, please leave the link in the comments section.

UPDATE: Well, here it is, care of Naomi Kietzke Young. Here’s a sample from a source more specific than my memory:

This is a story about shame. All across the country, there were women who managed to avoid Stephenie Meyer’s series about a star-crossed human/vampire teen couple. … “Twilight” came for the tweens, then for the moms of tweens, then for the co-workers who started wearing those ridiculous Team Jacob shirts, and the resisters said nothing, because they thought “Twilight” could not come for them. They were too literary. They didn’t do vampires. They were feminists. …

Everyone is vulnerable. One minute you’re a functioning member of society, the next you’re succumbing to the dark side, wondering how deep you’re willing to go — and what that longing says about you.

Now, I bring this up because the Style team at the Post is back with another one of its wink-wink salutes to Meyer and to her tacky fans. This one is written as a series of 13 observations describing a typical book-signing event.

Light some candles and read on.

1. What must it feel like to be Stephenie Meyer? Today, people have driven multi-hour radii — Buffalo, Richmond — to be in her presence. They arrive at 8:45 p.m. the night before the Thursday book signing, and they sleep in pastel comforters outside Politics & Prose on Connecticut Avenue in order to ensure admission. What must it feel like to be on the sponge end of that much devotion? How many pounds of worship can one human body withstand before collapsing under the fervent, pawing weight?

And so forth and so on:

5. Her fans are so pure. When she walks in a room, the fans go — oh, you already know what they go. Everybody already knows what happens at a Stephenie Meyer appearance. The fans go “Eeee!” or “Squeee!” or “Bleeee!”; the fans burst into tears and explain their obsessive love for “Twilight.” Sometimes a journalist who brags that he’s too smart for “Twilight” (even though he’s never read it) parachutes in to write a scene story about these women, and they open up their hopeful hearts because maybe this time he won’t make them look crazy. He always makes them look crazy.

“I do a lot of deep breathing,” Meyer says. This is how she adjusts to the decibel level of a public appearance. She’s grown more used to it now. The public appearances used to make her nervous. She used to pep-talk herself: “I am going to live through this. Nobody is going to kill you today.”

6. Does she realize how polarizing she is? Does she realize that her fans’ love for her work is equally balanced out by — “This passionate hatred that it spawns?” she suggests, in the Georgetown hotel room. She laughs.

This whole hate thing — the “dismissive sneer” offered by critics — is approached at the level of her writing ability, not the content of her writing. But surely there is more to it than that. Right?

[Read more...]

Print Friendly

WWROD: When reporters fail to get religion ….

A quick online confession: Yes, I am “Terry in D.C.”

You see, while I am not in D.C. at the moment, I was inside the only Beltway that really matters at the time that I fired off a quick question to veteran religion-beat writer Richard Ostling at his weblog, Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy answers your questions” (for more info click here).

In his format, readers send him basic religion questions and, well, he gives brief, journalism-driven responses. As you would expect, issues linked to religion news and events are going to be common and, once a week, we’ll be pointing readers over to his site for material with strong GetReligion-esque content.

I this case, I rather blatantly primed the pump for Ostling:

TERRY IN D.C. ASKS:

What are the five mistakes that mainstream reporters make most often when covering religion? Let’s assume these reporters are NOT religion-beat specialists.

And the Ridgewood Religion Guy answered:

Good one, especially when a secular milieu in many newsrooms (and classrooms) can foster slant and error. Some Journalism 101 pointers:

Mistake 1 is to suspect religious believers in general tend to be stupid or at least ill-informed (particularly a problem if the reporter has no close friends who are devout).

Mistake 2 is to assume this reporter could not possibly be so ill-informed as to misunderstand the belief or believers being written about. Even those of us who’ve spent decades covering this field know religious topics are usually quite complex. Always check with experts if you’re unclear or uncertain about something.

Mistake 3 is the related tendency to over-simplify. (Do all American Evangelicals subscribe to the colorful End Times scenario in those “Left Behind” novels? Are they all Tea Party enthusiasts?)

Wait a minute (I hear many readers thinking), what about plain old laziness? That has to be in the list somewhere!

By all means, click on over to the Ostling site for the for rest of that post. And please leave some religion-beat questions of your own for the master of the house to answer.

PHOTO: The cover of a rather obvious book related to all of this, which you can buy (hint, hint) with a click right here.

Print Friendly

Jesus of Nazareth (maybe)

When does a story grow stale? Does the length of time between first publication of a story and subsequent re-tellings matter? Or, if the news is not common knowledge, is it proper for a reporter to retell the story without acknowledging earlier accounts? My mind turned over this question after reading a piece that reported some archeologists believe Jesus was not born in Bethlehem.

“Come all ye faithful…to the ‘wrong’ Bethlehem?” appeared on 24 Dec 2012 in the Times and was syndicated at the Australian. It began:

TENS of thousands of people are streaming into Bethlehem, on the West Bank just south of Jerusalem, to celebrate Christmas in the cradle of Christianity. Few know that they might be in the wrong Bethlehem.

Archaeologists have long believed that Mary may have given birth to Jesus in Bethlehem of the Galilee, a hillside village far away in northern Israel.

“I think the genuine site of the Nativity is here, rather than the well-known site near Jerusalem,” [said Averim Oshri, a senior archeologist with the Israeli Antiquities Authority] “Bethlehem in the Galilee was inhabited by Jews at the time of Jesus, whereas the other Bethlehem? There is no evidence that it was a living site, an inhabited area in the first century.”

The Telegraph ran a story on its website summarizing the Times article, and on 26 December 2012 the author of the original article re-wrote the story for National Public Radio. The NPR story “Dig Finds Evidence Of Another Bethlehem” began:

Thousands of Christian pilgrims streamed into Bethlehem Monday night to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It’s the major event of the year in that West Bank town. But Israeli archaeologists now say there is strong evidence that Christ was born in a different Bethlehem, a small village in the Galilee.

About 100 miles north of where the pilgrims gathered, shepherds still guide their flocks through green unspoiled hills, and few give notice to the tucked-away village with the odd sounding name: Bethlehem of the Galilee. But archaeologists who have excavated there say there is ample evidence that this Bethlehem is the Bethlehem of Christ’s birth.

“I think the genuine site of the nativity is here rather than in the other Bethlehem near Jerusalem,” says Aviram Oshri, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority which has excavated here extensively. He stands on the side of a road that now cuts through the entrance to the village. It was the construction of this road that led to the discovery of the first evidence that Bethlehem of the Galilee may have had a special place in history. “It was inhabited by Jews. I know it was Jews because we found here remnants of an industry of stone vessels, and it was used only by Jews and only in the period of Jesus,” Oshri says.

On its face, this is a nice, timely story. Just the sort of thing to run round Christmas. The author noted in the second paragraph of the Times story that the debate over the birthplace of Jesus has been a subject of debate, but should she have mentioned this debate has been ar0und for over 100 years?

In 1898 Sir William Ramsay wrote Was Christ born in Bethlehem? — the first major modern English-language study of this question — which has yet to be settled by the Biblical scholars fraternity. The issue has been raised by the “Jesus Seminar” group of scholars and was mentioned in a 2001 Washington Post article entitled “The Story of Jesus’s Birth, Revised; Modern Scholars Challenge Details of the New Testament Accounts of Christ’s Infancy”.

In 2007 the Biblical Archaeological Review ran articles by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor defending Bethlehem as the site of Jesus’ birth and Steve Mason who laid out the case for Nazareth. Recent books that have addressed this topic include Bruce Chiltons’ Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography (2000) and Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (2012). While the Telegraph‘s review of the Benedict’s latest book hyped the shocking news (to the Telegraph) that the Pope believes Jesus was not born on 25 December in the year 0, it also mentioned that Benedict accepts the traditional site of Jesus’ birth as Bethlehem.

I was critical of the Telegraph for hyping the non-story about the date of Jesus’ birth. Should the Times/NPR be taken to task also? The theory propounded by Dr. Oshri to the Times in 2012 was the same one he presented in Archaeology magazine in 2005. Now Archeology is a scholarly publication that also has a general readership, so missing that story is no crime. But Dr. Oshri’s argument also appeared in a 2008 National Geographic post entitled: “Bethlehem of Judea–or of Galilee?”

What then is news worthy about this story? The question of where Jesus was born has been debated for over 100 years, and Dr. Oshri’s claims had their first public airing in 2005. Is it enough that most people are unfamiliar with them to warrant a new story? But if so, should not there be an acknowledgement of what has gone before, or how Dr. Oshri’s discoveries advance the scholarly argument? How was this news?

 

Print Friendly

Should Fox News be telling you to lie and steal?

I realize I’m the fuddy duddy around here who is always telling kids to get off my lawn, but there have to be other people who were saddened by this FoxNews.com story headlined “Hotel confidential: Secrets to scoring hotel freebies.”

It’s just a silly, cheesy story about someone’s new “memoir of hotels, hustles and so-called hospitality,” published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Late in the story, we’re told about how to tip the concierge:

The Concierge: For something like directions around $2-3 will suffice, but if their getting you reservations at a popular restaurant you should give about $10-20. Even in the era of the Internet and smart phones, concierges still have firsthand experience with the best places in town. “You can try calling for a table yourself, but they’re the ones that will have good connections and real pull to get you that reservation,” [Jacob] Tomsky told FoxNews.com.

Their? I realize I’m a typo queen, but this is why copy editors are super important. Anyway, the next section is:

Extra Freebies: Tomsky says the overstocked and overpriced mini bar charges are the most disputed on any bill. Although it’s hard to believe in a world where most mini bars have become censored, he insists that all you have to do is tell the front desk you ‘never touched the minibar’ and they will wipe away the charges. “It would be a weird desk agent to say ‘you sure you didn’t have these?’ That’s a terrible stance to take,” Tomsky said.

Apparently free movie rentals are also easy to score. “Once you’ve finished watching your movie just call down to the front desk and tell them the movie just froze in the middle or it turned off suddenly,” Tomsky told FoxNews.com. “Usually there is a subscription fee that they pay for the hotel as a total so they’re not losing any money.”

Lastly, the luxurious and cozy bathroom robes. Of course they sell them for an outrageous amount in the hotel gift shop but Tomsky says you can take one home for free. “They’re supposed to have robes preset in each room but you can call up and tell them your room is missing a robe. In the time it takes someone to come up and deliver you another one, you can stash the extra robe right into your suitcase.” Tomsky told FoxNews.com.

I don’t know what a censored mini bar is, so I assume we’re going for “sensored.” But so much more importantly than these typos, for the love of all that’s holy, what is Fox News doing telling people they should steal from other people?

If I were an editor and was presented with a subject pitching a book about how to lie and steal — under the guise of how to get the most out of your stay in a hotel — I would never in a million years give it any publicity of the non-condemnatory variety.

What if the author pitching the book were talking about how to cheat on an exam or how to rape someone or how to commit voter fraud or how to hide a body — what’s the line that FoxNews won’t cross here? Am I just an old fuddy duddy who thinks that the mainstream media shouldn’t run stories about how to lie and steal?

Ten Commandments image via Shutterstock.

Print Friendly

Washington Post’s ghostly top 50 list

It’s that time of year when media outlets put out their best of the year lists. I know we’re all waiting with baited breath for the news about who is Time‘s Person Of The Year (come on, Mars Rover! You can do it!).

The outcome of these lists might be boring. But they do tell us quite a bit about the culture of a given media outlet. Which is why I found John Wilson’s comments about a recent end-of-year list so interesting.

Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture, a wonderful bimonthly review that engages the contemporary world from a Christian perspective. He had some interesting insights about the Washington Post‘s Best of 2012: 50 notable works of nonfiction list. Here are the first few books on the list, in alphabetical order:

500 DAYS: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars By Kurt Eichenwald (Touchstone)

An anecdote-rich, page-turning account of President George W. Bush’s war on terrorism, with almost all of his actions traced back to decisions made during the first 500 days after Sept. 11, 2001. — Dina Temple-Raston

ALL THE MISSING SOULS: A Personal History of the War Crimes Tribunals By David Scheffer (Princeton)

Written by the Clinton administration’s point man on international justice, the book describes the U.S. role in trying to make accountability for mass atrocities a central principle in international affairs. — Anthony Dworkin

AMERICA’S GREAT DEBATE: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union By Fergus M. Bordewich (Simon & Schuster)

This stylish history recounts the Compromise of 1850, which managed to hold the expanding nation together. Bordewich breathes new life into figures who were giants in their day. — Donald E. Graham

AMERICA’S UNWRITTEN CONSTITUTION: The Precedents and Principles We Live By By Akhil Reed Amar (Basic)

This is a masterful, readable book that constitutes one of the best, most creative treatments of the U.S. Constitution in decades. — Ken Gormley

AUTUMN IN THE HEAVENLY KINGDOM: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War By Stephen R. Platt (Knopf)

Platt’s fresh and important argument refutes the traditional idea that China was unchangeable and not a significant factor in the world’s history in the 19th century. — John Pomfret

THE BOY KINGS OF TEXAS: A Memoir By Domingo Martinez (Lyons)

Recounting the author’s tough upbringing in Brownsville, Tex., this finalist for the National Book Award joins a rich body of Mexican American coming-of-age narratives. — Valerie Sayers

Notice anything thus far Wilson wrote (on Twitter):

In WaPo’s Best 50 works of nonfiction in 2012, 14 titles (by my quick count) deal with war, including 7 on war on terror.

There are also several others closely related (e.g., on Pakistan, on Saudi Arabia), and another 9 or 10 on politics.

This list represents a suffocatingly truncated view of “nonfiction” in 2012–or any other year.

No book on the WaPo list–this will shock you–centers directly on religion, though it plays a part in a book on the Taiping rebellion, …

…and on the side in a couple of others. One book of 50–by E.O. Wilson–is from science. (WaPo hates science?)

The list includes some mighty fine books and I have my own ideas about some that had no business being included or no business being excluded, but I think Wilson’s point is worth ruminating on.

If you wonder why some media outlets view everything through the prism of politics, it might just reflect their own provincial culture. Perhaps it’s to be expected of some media outlets, but it’s just a good reminder to keep in mind when evaluating overall media coverage and the world it conveys to readers.

Print Friendly