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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Clamoring for the Tridentine Mass?

TridentineOver the past quarter century or so, I have written my share of stories and columns about traditional Catholics who yearn for the return of the Tridentine Mass.

I realize that this is a very emotional subject, in part because of the tsunami of cultural changes that swept over the American Catholic Church — emphasis on the word “American” — at about the same time as the Second Vatican Council. For a nice summary of all of that, check out this post from Amy Welborn at open book.

There are Catholics who think the church went too far into modernism and there are Catholics who do not think the changes went far enough. Now here is the key to the emotions tied to this issue. Many of the people who yearn for the return of the Tridentine Mass are convinced that the leaders of the “we want more changes and we want them now” camp are actually in charge of the liturgy offices in many dioceses across the nation. There is some truth in this claim. There are people in places of power who shudder at the sound of Gregorian chant and traditional language in the Mass.

As the old joke goes: “What’s the difference between a terrorist and a liturgist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.”

Thus, temperatures rise all over the place at the slightest mention of bringing back the old Latin Mass. So I read, with interest, this Sunday’s Baltimore Sun report by Liz F. Kay titled “Enthusiastic Catholics clamor for Mass of past — Interest grows for rare 16th-century service.” I came away with the impression that there are, as the story sort of says, dozens of local Catholics clamoring for this 16th-century rite. Can you get a real clamor going with dozens of voices?

Anyway, why are they clamoring?

If the speculation around the Vatican is right, their prayers might be answered. Rumors have swirled for months that Pope Benedict XVI will formally grant permission to all Catholic churches to perform what’s commonly — though incorrectly — known as the Latin Mass.

… The move — if it happens — is seen as a way of reaching out to traditionalists who were alienated after the Second Vatican Council produced a new missal, or prayer book, in the late 1960s that streamlined the Mass.

“Identifying with the Tridentine Mass is a kind of a mild form of protest,” says Mathew N. Schmalz, a professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross. “A lot of it has to do with a more aggressive assertion of Catholic identity and a feeling that that has been lost.”

Here is my problem. This is an emotional story, but is this a big story?

Frankly, I think it is a story hooked to a symptom rather than a root cause. And, besides, I haven’t seem much evidence that large groups of modern American Catholics clamor about much of anything at the parish level. They tend to live rather quietly in their doctrinal and stylistic niches like everybody else in mainline religion in this culture. They do like to clamor on the Internet.

Meanwhile, the Tridentine is not the only Latin Mass. It is perfectly legal for Catholics to celebrate the Novus Ordo liturgy in Latin (although, truth be told, there are bishops and liturgists who oppose even that — which is a story in and of itself). It is also possible to celebrate the post-Vatican II rite with a high degree of respect, dignity, beauty, pomp and, yes, glorious injections of chant and other forms of ancient and medieval Catholic music.

So the Sun story is good, but I think it confuses several issues. To use the Tridentine Mass as the symbol of conservative Catholicism in the Baltimore area, or America in general, is to miss the point and to hide some of the fascinating divisions in the modern church. The “worship wars” that ravage many churches are a big part of modern Catholic life. Trust me.

There are Catholics who yearn for beautiful worship — period. There are Catholics who yearn for their church and for their own priests and liturgists to defend the doctrines of the faith. There are charismatic, semi-megachurch Catholics who yearn for conservative doctrine, yet love the informal forms of worship and music that drive the traditionalists bonkers. There are liberal Catholics who love smells, bells and NPR classical music, yet who want inclusive language and female priests. There are priests who want to be talk-show hosts. There are parishes that are totally dead when it comes to liturgy and spirituality and have no idea what they are doing.

In other words, this story merely scratched the surface. In an old, complex Catholic city like Baltimore, the heart of Maryland, readers deserve more. Let’s hope that the Sun turns this one story into a longer and more worthy series of articles.

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To dust you will return

ashesI always get a kick out of the way my friends and colleagues celebrate Mardi Gras with a fervor not seen since before the Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus. But mere hours later the liturgical calendar is forgotten. These devout observers of Shrove Tuesday can be heard telling the Christians they have “dirt on your forehead.”

The Montgomery Advertiser ran a quick Q&A for readers so that they could learn more about today’s holy day:

1. What is Ash Wednesday?

Ash Wednesday is the day Lent begins in the Catholic faith. It occurs 40 days after Good Friday.

It is rather impressive for the reporter Darryn Simmons to include two errors within two sentences. Of course, Lent begins today for all Christians who follow the liturgical calendar, not just Roman Catholics. And it doesn’t occur 40 days after Good Friday but before. Other papers had some of the same confusion, thinking Ash Wednesday is only celebrated by Catholics. More than one story mentioned the interesting note that many Catholic churches have changed the recitation while marking foreheads from the Genesis verse (“For dust you are and to dust you will return”) to “Turn away from sin and believe the Gospel” or some variant thereof.

Many newspapers had good and interesting articles about Ash Wednesday. Jean Gordon with the Clarion-Ledger looked at how the day is observed in Methodism. Arizona Daily Star religion reporter Stephanie Innes had this delightful lede to her story on how the practice is celebrated in her region.

Probably my favorite story, headlined “Believers give up to grow up during Lent,” came from Newsday‘s Michael Amon, who spoke with various clergy about Lenten disciplines such as fasting and abstinence:

The Venerable Theodore Bean, an archdeacon for the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, made this remark in his monthly newsletter: “I hasten to point out that eating lobster ‘because it is not meat’ really rather defeats the purpose of Lenten abstinence.”

It’s a point about sacrifice that Long Island clergy say they have to make more often.

“We are a society of instant gratification,” Bean said in an interview. “We’re not a society that views giving up things and taking the long-term view as being good for us.”

The article includes an anecdote about a Roman Catholic priest who says his pre-Lenten programs designed to prepare people to sacrifice during Lent probably caused people to leave church.

“People don’t always like to hear about it,” Hanson said. “They want to have control, and sacrificing is giving up control.”

dustThe standard story explaining Ash Wednesday is good and necessary, but Amon really pushed the story forward and gave readers an even better understanding of the significance of the day and penitential season.

Los Angeles Times writer Francisco Vara-Orta took a spin on the traditional Ash Wednesday story by looking into how churches get their ashes. Traditionally churches keep palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebrations, burn them and mix them with oil. But that’s changing, Vara-Orta finds out:

Some churches abandoned the practice because of the fire danger. Some responded to air quality laws.

At Our Mother of Good Counsel Church, a parishioner who for years made the ashes for Ash Wednesday died in the 1980s — and so did the parish’s practice of burning fronds from the previous Palm Sunday for the centuries-old rite.

So Our Mother of Good Counsel, like churches all over the country, began ordering ashes from a church supply store. Some churches buy them in person, others on the Internet.

The lengthy article discusses the church supply store business and extent of selling ashes. The one thing I wanted was a bit more discussion about the propriety of the change. While Vara-Orta quoted some folks defending their decision to purchase the ashes, it might have been interesting to talk to someone who didn’t think it was such a good idea. But it’s still a great new angle on an ancient story.

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Rome on the rise in England?

AugustineCanterburyIf you didn’t know better, you would think that The Times of London is trying to tell us something.

While religion writer Ruth Gledhill has been slaving away trying to cover the behind-closed-door negotiations among the Anglican primates in Tanzania, she has also been serving up print and online reports about another major religion story or two, stories that hinge on a high-profile role for the Church of Rome in England.

The Anglican powers that be are buzzing about Gledhill’s article focusing on longstanding talks to promote unity between Rome and Canterbury. That’s interesting, but there is nothing all that new there. More on that subject in a moment.

No, the story that interests me is this one, which ran in The Times a few days earlier under the headline “Catholics set to pass Anglicans as leading UK church.” Here’s the key piece of information, the pesky fact in this story:

Average Sunday attendance of both churches stood even at nearly one million in 2005, according to the latest statistics available for England and Wales, but the attendance at Mass is expected to soar.

A Church of England spokesman said: “I don’t think you can talk in terms of decline in the Church of England. It is fairly clear that with small fluctuations the worshipping population of the Church of England is 1.7 million a month. That is actually a stable figure.”

Note that the article is discussing worship attendence. The state Church of England rarely mentions membership statistics — 27 million is one estimate — because so many people in Great Britain are nominal members. Church statistics claim that about 1.2 million people attend church each week. Attendance plunged in the second half of the 20th Century.

Meanwhile, the Roman church has had its own problems with numbers and statistics. Nevertheless, it would be a huge shift in British life if, once again, the Catholic Church was the dominant body Sunday after Sunday. Gledhill makes it clear that this is not because the Roman church has found a way to defeat the growing secularism in England.

Roman Catholicism is set to become the dominant religion in Britain for the first time since the Reformation because of massive migration from Catholic countries across the world. Catholic parishes will swell by hundreds of thousands over the next few years after managing years of decline, according to a new report, as both legal and illegal migrants enter the country. It says that the influx of migrants could be the Catholic community’s “greatest threat” or its “greatest opportunity.”

Here’s the question for me: If Anglicanism needs more people in its pews, is the Roman crisis that (no surprise here ) the Vatican needs more men at its British altars?

It is in this context that the much ballyhooed Gledhill story about “unity” between Canterbury and Rome makes some sense. While the Anglican primates have struggled to find unity in their own communion, it seems to me that Gledhill is convinced that some Anglicans are continuing to talk about new ties to Rome — after a split in the Church of England. This is not a new topic.

No one thinks that Rome and Canterbury are going to be able to agree on — for starters — the issue of the ordination of women. The Anglican establishment could never back down there. No way.

But what if, in the context of a new Anglican-Rite Roman Church, the Vatican was willing to compromise on mandatory celibacy for priests? Thus, Gledhill writes concerning the tense gathering in Tanzania:

Were this week’s discussions to lead to a split between liberals and conservatives, many of the former objections in Rome to a reunion with Anglican conservatives would disappear. Many of those Anglicans who object most strongly to gay ordination also oppose the ordination of women priests.

Rome has already shown itself willing to be flexible on the subject of celibacy when it received dozens of married priests from the Church of England into the Catholic priesthood after they left over the issue of women’s ordination.

This is interesting to think about, while continuing to read about the warfare behind closed doors at the highest levels of the Anglican Communion. Where will the Anglican right go for Communion — with a large C — if the establishment Anglican left is triumphant?

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Anti-Mormon bias?

antimormonpropWe look at media coverage of Mitt Romney so much because, unlike most other candidates, the media are obsessed with his religion. My wonderful Mormon in-laws are following Romney, and the number one thing they can’t stand is the focus on Romney’s religion instead of his politics.

The Washington Post‘s media critic, Howard Kurtz, weighed in on that matter in his latest column. He says the media seem downright excited at the prospect of the first female or black president, but aren’t so giddy about a Mormon president:

The skeptical tone toward Mitt Romney’s announcement has been impossible to miss. And the major reason is his religion.

“Will Mormon faith hurt bid for White House?” said USA Today’s front-page headline on the day that the former Massachusetts governor announced.

Try to imagine a headline that said, “Will Jewish faith hurt bid for White House?”

Obviously, reporters are raising the issue because of polls showing that a chunk of the public wouldn’t vote for a Mormon commander-in-chief — 24 percent in a USA Today poll yesterday. But I believe the passive acceptance of this political “fact” — as opposed to, say, questioning opposition to gay marriage or civil unions — reflects a mindset that Mormonism is kind of weird and therefore okay to treat as a fringe movement.

It’s true that the polls mean Romney’s religion is a legitimate news angle for political and religion reporters, but I think there might be something to Kurtz’s criticism. Sure, Romney faces some hurdles because of his religion. But at this point in the race, most of those polls are meaningless — imagine what a similar poll would have indicated about John Kennedy’s prospects in 1959.

Romney is trailing behind frontrunners John McCain (Episcopalian) and Rudy Guiliani (devout Roman Catholic*) in straw polls. But he’s keeping very competitive with fundraising and he’s lured a number of significant Republicans to his team.

I’m sure we’ll continue to analyze the copious media coverage of Romney’s religion, but it’s worth considering Kurtz’s comment. How should the media handle Romney’s religion? How should they cover other candidates’ religious views? What do you think?

*UPDATE: I thought, given what everybody knows about Rudy Guiliani, that this was an obvious joke. Judging from the myriad earnest/shocked comments from people noting “he’s not devout,” I will concede defeat on my attempts at sarcasm.

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Again, what about the religious left?

edwardsThe two controversial bloggers hired by the presidential campaign of John Edwards have quit after people complained that they had written some things that were anti-Catholic. No, they weren’t fired. They went on their own accord:

A second controversial blogger resigned yesterday from John Edwards’s presidential campaign, a day after Amanda Marcotte quit amid criticism that her writings were anti-Catholic.

Melissa McEwan wrote that she made the decision, with the campaign’s “reluctant support, because my remaining the focus of sustained ideological attacks was inevitably making me a liability to the campaign, and making me increasingly uncomfortable with my and my family’s level of exposure.”

Edwards had decided last week to retain Marcotte and McEwan even while saying he found some of their writing offensive. McEwan, who had called President Bush’s conservative Christian supporters his “wingnut Christofascist base,” apologized for “letting down my peers” in the liberal community but said she had been the target of a campaign of “frightening ugliness.”

As Mollie pointed out last week, this story goes to the heart of the debate among Democrats over what they are to do about religious Americans. What type of signal did Edwards send by keeping these employees even though their writings deeply offended many in America?

The Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz, writing about the departure of the Marcotte on Tuesday, focused on the media aspect of the story. To Kurtz, who reports brilliantly on all things media, it’s a story about bloggers with a tail of information that was dug up and used to change the political storyline. It’s a legitimate side of the story, but I was hoping to see Alan Cooperman share the byline for this story because it is as much about religion as about new media.

The aspect of the story that has been missing from mainstream media coverage is the voice of the religious left, or the lack thereof. I haven’t had the time yet to read the opinions of the religious left thoroughly (Religious Left Online had a thoughtful post here), so I won’t make a judgement on their reaction. Let’s just say it’s one thing for Kurtz to quote the predictable Michelle Malkin or the folks over at, but why not find a few members of the famous religious left and see what they have to say?

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Newsweek moralizes on interfaith communion

interfaithNewsweek‘s weekly BeliefWatch section is great. It’s a guaranteed two-column slot in a national magazine that will focus on some unique issue relating the religion. Usually it’s a story that has received little or no coverage elsewhere, and for that the contributors to the section should be commended.

This week is a great example. How often do you read about the history and the results of “interfaith dialogue”? But unfortunately this piece by Lisa Miller gets off to a poor start by quoting Nexis search results. Miller found that of the 173 entries since 1997 in major national newspapers, 100 were in the past five years. I guess that tells us something, but there are better ways to prove a trend than keyword searches.

After explaining to us what a tremendous thing it was for Pope John Paul II to reach out to Jews in 1987 and to give support to the state of Israel, Miller goes on to explain that if children of different faiths become friends, “that’s all to the good” and that dialogue between religious sects is “essential to world peace.”

Now I don’t disagree with any of that, but why is Miller telling us this? Can she site specific examples where interfaith dialogue led to peace? I don’t doubt that there are examples out there, but unsupported statements fail to pass as quality journalism.

In an attempt to insert some skepticism, Miller interviews a college psychologist who seems to be an expert in interfaith issues. Here’s where the piece gets interesting:

Based on the sheer volume of these efforts, however, it’s reasonable to assume that the bulk of them, though sincere, are quixotic. For the past five years, Steve Worchel, a psychologist at the University of Hawaii, has been studying the effects of interfaith camp programs on youth over time. “You go to these camps [in the Balkans or the Middle East] and afterward, everyone’s hugging each other,” he says. That glow quickly fades. “Many of these programs are one-shot deals, and these are attitudes that have grown up over generations … You don’t change deep-seated hatred in a week.” More lasting, says Worchel, is a feeling of self-esteem. Kids who attend interfaith camp tend to think of themselves as part of the solution, but they need the long-term support of their community and political leaders to keep their minds open. And then Worchel says something really profound. Conflict, he says, is part of life and love; communities require enemies in order to cohere. Interfaith dialogue is not a magic bullet. The question is how to manage the human instinct for conflict into the future so it doesn’t destroy the world.

I love how Miller has taken on the job of telling us what is “really profound” about a person’s words. And again, I agree, what Worchel says here is pretty profound, but I believe I can make that determination myself. I’m not against personal essays, but if this is supposed to be genuine journalism, personal opinions ought to be kept out.

Also, as an afterthought, since this is the age of the Internet, could we see more of Worchel’s work on Newsweek‘s site?

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What about the religious left?

edwards 2008Yesterday I noted media coverage of the anti-religious rhetoric of two bloggers hired by John Edwards for his presidential campaign. The extreme anti-religious rhetoric was highlighted by political conservatives who are Christian.

Because of the political dimensions of the story, the coverage has seemed a bit tired to me. Both the Associated Press and The New York Times, for instance, centered the story on politics — not religion — and tried to claim that the comments of various conservatives were equivalent to those of the bloggers in question.

That’s fine, but also a bit boring and predictable.

But if you want an interesting take on the story — and one that moves the story forward — you could do no better than to read The Politico‘s Ben Smith. He spoke with liberals who are religious and got a fresh and illuminating angle:

As the flap over alleged anti-Catholic writings by two John Edwards campaign bloggers devolves into a shouting match between conservative religious voices and liberal bloggers, some members of the “religious left” say they feel — again — shoved to the margins of the Democratic Party.

“We’re completely invisible to this debate,” said Eduardo Penalver, a Cornell University law professor who writes for the liberal Catholic journal Commonweal. He said he was dissatisfied with the Edwards campaign’s response. “As a constituency, the Christian left isn’t taken all that seriously,” Penalver said.

Democrats — and Edwards in particular — have embraced the language of faith and the imperative of competing with Republicans for the support of religious voters. His wife, Elizabeth Edwards, even sits on the board of the leading organization of the religious left, Call to Renewal. But in private conversations and careful public statements today, religious Democrats said they felt sidelined by Edwards’ decision to stand by his aides.

“We have gone so far to rebuild that coalition [between Democrats and religious Christians] and something like this sets it back,” said Brian O’Dwyer, a New York lawyer and Irish-American leader who chairs the National Democratic Ethnic Leadership Council, a Democratic Party group. O’Dwyer said Edwards should have fired the bloggers. “It’s not only wrong morally — it’s stupid politically.”

Many politically liberal and religious GetReligion readers wrote similar comments in our previous thread, so I’m glad to see that their views are being noticed by someone in the media. The Politico, by the way, is a brand new publication and website that covers politics from all angles. It has hired some pretty heavy-hitting reporters — including some friends and former colleagues of mine.

Smith’s article is conversational and engaging and even includes some of the specific comments that Catholics have found offensive. He mentions Edwards’ statement that the bloggers assured him “it was never their intention to malign anyone’s faith,” and he describes the bloggers’ statements as semi-apologetic. Here’s how he sums up the situation for politically liberal Christians:

And so religious liberals find themselves in a quandary. They have no interest in associating with the likes of William Donohue, the Catholic League president who is closely aligned with the GOP and led the charge against Edwards’ aides. Donohue said Thursday he would take out newspaper advertisements attacking Edwards as anti-Catholic. But religious liberals also think Edwards’ aides merit more than a slap on the wrist.

“I thought his explanation was not satisfying,” said Cornell’s Penalver. “It’s obvious that they did mean to give offense.”

The reason why this story is infinitely more interesting than the tired stuff from other outlets is because the previous stories are focused on a conservative-liberal political divide. But Edwards was never going to get the votes of William Donohue or some of the other conservatives who raised the issue.

Isn’t it much more interesting to contemplate how Edwards’ hiring and support of these bloggers might affect his standing among religious liberals?

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