From our “no comment” department

movieOh my. The following is one of those stories where you wish you could have been a fly on the wall in the meeting in which people debated and made the business decision that led to it. In this case, it makes me wish someone had done an illegal wiretap. This story is beyond silly. It is sick.

And now we turn to the Associated Press report by Monika Scislowska, as it appeared inside the Washington Post. The dateline is Warsaw.

A former Nazi death camp has canceled plans to host a production of the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar.” … Edward Balawejder, director of the State Museum at Majdanek, said he changed his mind about hosting a production of the musical after Polish newspapers reported Jewish leaders’ objections.

“It was not a good idea. It did not take into consideration the relations between Christianity and Judaism,” Balawejder told the Associated Press. “I decided that there will be no performance because we must stick to the message of the museum, which is truth, memory, reconciliation.”

There are the crucial facts that must, must be told. During World War II, 230,000 people, including about 100,000 Jews, were killed by the Nazis in the death camp in Majdanek.

But wait, there is another obvious fact. What does this campy old “rock opera” have to do with Christianity? Truth is, Jesus Christ Superstar — the album, the Broadway show, the movie — was controversial with all kinds of people, especially with traditional Christians. It contained all kinds of offensive material, including stereotypes of Jews, gays and many other people. But some trendy people on the cultural left — long ago — thought it was hip. It was kind of The Da Vinci Code of its day, with a rock beat and bad show tunes.

So, and here’s the key question, who wanted to stage this production? Who thought this was a good idea? I mean, we are told that the state museum changed its mind, but someone had to think that this made sense, that this would be good, that there were ticket buyers out there who would think that this was a cool idea.

Who was supposed to be the target audience for this bizarre show in this haunted place? Traditional Christians? No way. Post-everything Europeans who want to mock Jews? Who are bored? Who want to shock people? What was the point?

Call me crazy, but I’d like to know.

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Any Koranic verses in particular?

Koran Open2I am sorry to keep returning to this subject so often, but the reporting coming out of the Zacarias Moussaoui trial is so gripping, unnerving and frustrating that I can’t stop reading it.

Once again, we need to ask Richard A. Serrano of the Los Angeles Times for more information.

Why? Think of it this way. Let’s say that some traitor to the pro-life cause was part of a plot to massacre thousands of people that he or she believed were trying to destroy Christianity. Then let’s say that this terrorist pled guilty and, on the witness stand, sat holding a Bible lined with Post-it notes and, during questioning, read verse after verse from those Holy Scriptures while attempting to defend the righteousness of the massacre.

Here’s my question: Wouldn’t you want to know what some of those verses said? Wouldn’t you want to know what traditional believers thought those verses actually mean (as opposed to being justifications for mass murder)?

With that in mind, let’s turn to Serrano’s latest Moussaoui trial report.

Moussaoui … repeated his deep hatred for Americans and predicted another major terrorist attack on U.S. soil before the end of President Bush’s term. He said the strike would be so catastrophic that the government would be forced to release him from prison.

“I fight,” he said. “And God will help me and free me.”

The 37-year-old Al Qaeda terrorist occupied the witness stand for nearly three hours. In his lap he fingered his worn copy of the Koran, sometimes flipping the pages to read a verse to the jury that he had marked with Post-it notes.

How about it? Is anyone else curious about those passages?

I looked around online and could not find any references that actually quoted the Koranic verses that he used in his defense. Across the Atlantic, reporting by Tom Baldwin in The Times did offer this summary, and many more details about Moussaoui’s hatred of Israel and the Jews:

Moussaoui quoted from the Koran which he said called on Muslims to fight for supremacy for Allah. He said that Islam taught that “we have to be the superpower, we have to be above you.”

Gerald Zerkin, for the defence, asked him why he hated the US and Americans.

“For theological reasons and life experience reasons,” he replied. “You are on a crusade, like [President] George W. Bush says. In Europe, they call New York ‘little Israel’,” he replied, attacking the US for being the first, in 1948, to recognise Israel, which he called the “Jewish state of Palestine.”

“There is no difference between the Jewish state of Palestine and Hawaii,” he said.

Once again, we hear the impact of his views of the Koran. But we do not hear what the Koran actually says, nor do we hear how others would interpret these — for him — deadly verses.

I think that we need that information. I think that is part of the story.

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The gospel of ignorance

judas3My newsroom was all abuzz this week with the revelation of the Gospel of Judas. The media have been going nonstop with the news that a Gnostic tract has been translated that says Judas was helping Jesus rather than betraying him.

Well, where to begin? Before I criticize the ridiculous ignorance of the media in covering this very old story, let me offer a critique of the church. If Christians knew anything about their history, if they knew anything about how the New Testament canon came to be formed, I doubt these stories would be met with more than a yawn.

Sometimes I get the feeling that Christians — and others — think the Bible was delivered to the church in present form upon Christ’s death and resurrection. In fact, the Gospels, which were written soon after Jesus’ time on earth, were fixed into the canon by the last quarter of the second century. Other books were included by A.D. 220. But there were many, many other books that were considered. And then there were some extremely heretical books that were never really considered. Various principles for inclusion were debated, but as a rule the books were tested against each other. So if the Apostles themselves said, for instance, that Jesus was betrayed by Judas, you would be hard-pressed to include a book written by a sect centuries later that said Judas was all good.

The thing is that for those who know their church history, Gnosticism is not news. It is a syncretistic movement with roots in pre-Christian times. It reached its zenith around the time the Judas Gospel was written. And it was based on the very non-Christian idea that its adherents possessed a secret message, bequeathed to a select few, that held the key to higher life.

For crying out loud, Irenaeus condemned the Judas writing in A.D. 180 in his book Against Heresies. He summed up the Judas tract as follows:

Others again declare that Cain derived his being from the Power above, and acknowledge that Esau, Korah, the Sodomites, and all such persons, are related to themselves. On this account, they add, they have been assailed by the Creator, yet no one of them has suffered injury. For Sophia was in the habit of carrying off that which belonged to her from them to herself. They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas.

The Gospel of Judas claims to be a secret discussion between Judas and Jesus. Compare that with the four Gospels of the New Testament where Christ’s preaching is extremely public. The Gospel of Judas claims secret knowledge for a limited few. Compare that with Christ’s teaching that he came for all. The Gnostics tried to rehabilitate every bad guy in the Bible from Cain on down. They thought Yahweh was evil. I mean, is it really that shocking that Irenaeus, and the larger church, condemned these guys?

This story is sort of akin to folks in A.D. 3800 translating a Weekly World News story from this year that says Abraham Lincoln was actually a woman dressing as a man. I mean, sure, it’s true that Gnostics existed, accessed Christianity and wrote several tracts. But why do the media treat this as some sort of breaking news story that casts doubt on the veracity of the Gospels? And why has their coverage provided no context and no understanding of the relative credibility of the Gospel of Judas? Perhaps it is because, as Harold Bloom notes, Gnosticism is America’s cultural religion?

Let’s go to the Associated Press story, which reached news outlets far and wide:

A “Gospel of Judas” was first mentioned around 180 A.D. by Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon, in what is now France. The bishop denounced the manuscript as heresy because it differed from mainstream Christianity. The actual text had been thought lost until this discovery.

Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, said, “The people who loved, circulated and wrote down these gospels did not think they were heretics.”

Gnostic Sea SaltI love the way AP characterizes Irenaeus’ theological whipping of the Judas-adoring Cainites. “Sorry, guys, but you differ from mainstream Christianity.” That’s like saying the Flat Earth Society was denounced for differing from mainstream cartography. I also love the Pagels quote. Really? The Gnostics didn’t think they were heretics? Well, I guess the battle between orthodox Christians and Elaine “Gnostic Gospels” Pagels is settled, then. And that’s precisely what the AP story makes it out to be. The next quotes are just odd, really. I kept waiting for a Christian who thinks the Judas Gospel is bunk (and lived after A.D. 180) to appear. Instead we got this:

Added [the] Rev. Donald Senior, president of the Catholic Theological Union of Chicago: “Let a vigorous debate on the significance of this fascinating ancient text begin.”

Senior expressed doubt that the new gospel will rival the New Testament, but he allowed that opinions are likely to vary.

Craig Evans, a professor at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, Canada, said New Testament explanations for Judas’ betrayal range from money to the influence of Satan.

“Perhaps more now can be said,” he commented. The document “implies that Judas only did what Jesus wanted him to do.”

Christianity in the ancient world was much more diverse than it is now, with a number of gospels circulating in addition to the four that were finally collected into the New Testament, noted Bart Ehrman, chairman of religious studies at the University of North Carolina.

Eventually, one point of view prevailed and the others were declared heresy, he said, including the Gnostics who believed that salvation depended on secret knowledge that Jesus imparted, particularly to Judas.

Could they not find one modern-day scholar or observer, even, who is less impressed by this supposed blockbuster? In fact almost all of the stories I read used the same few people to provide context. The Washington Post reporters who wrote about the Judas Gospel also managed to quote the same people as the AP story, but in a way that made them seem to be saying much different and more sensible things. It’s actually worth comparing. Here, though, they quote Pagels again:

Some scholars suggested that view — if it had been accepted — might have lessened anti-Semitism over the centuries. “The story of the betrayal of Jesus by Judas gave a moral and religious rationale to anti-Jewish sentiment, and that’s what made it persistent and vicious,” said Princeton University professor Elaine Pagels.

Lord, have mercy. I mean, I’m beyond glad that Christians don’t riot at the slightest offense. But this public relations stunt (coincidentally timed to prep for the fictional Da Vinci Code?) released just before Palm Sunday heading into Holy Week? Christians have every right to be offended. There were some other media outlets that handled this news with a bit more cynicism and analysis, but for the most part, I give the media a failing grade.

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Death and dying

thoughts while dyingI was thinking Tuesday that it would be interesting to do a long, drawn out series on death and dying. This of course has already been done many times by reporters far more gifted and in much more prominent publications than I could hope to attain, but it would be an education and an experience that I would appreciate. In college, a course was taught on the sociology of death and dying and I regret to this day not enrolling.

The religious aspects of death and dying are of course a very compelling aspect, if not the most compelling aspect, of what I would hope to explore. As a believer in Christianity, I have my own thoughts on where I believe I will go when I pass away, but what do others think and how does that affect their daily lives?

My thoughts on death and dying were prompted by this tremendously well-done radio broadcast on National Public Radio Monday titled “A Year to Live, A Year to Die” by Mary Beth Kirchner:

At age 48, Stewart Selman was told he had a malignant brain tumor. Less than 5 percent of people who are diagnosed with malignant tumors of the brain live for more than a year. To leave a record for his wife, Rebecca Peterson, and their two children, Selman began an audio diary.

Although Stewart knew his messages would be heard by a wider audience, Rebecca says she didn’t have the courage to share them until now — three years after her husband’s death.

Stewart Selman started recording his audio diary on February 22, 2003. His first entry was made while he was in the hospital awaiting tests, awake and alone in his room at two in the morning. It had been two weeks since he first learned about his brain tumor.

“We only live about five minutes from where the CAT scan was done. I was kind of keeping it together,” Stewart said. “This was a big deal. I drove home and my kids were downstairs playing a game. I went upstairs and I saw my wife and I just started crying … I knew I had this brain tumor. And I knew my life was going to change forever.”

“Yeah, I remember that,” says Stewart’s wife, Rebecca.

going into the sunsetAnd thus begins an amazingly moving story of struggle, pain and suffering that only begins to scratch the surface, I believe, of the material gathered by Kirchner.

The story behind the story is equally compelling. I am curious, though, why Kirchner did not follow up on the religious aspects of the story. We find out at the end of the article that Stewart was Jewish. He shares some thoughts about where he may end up after he dies, but that’s about it.

While it’s a tremendous story about grief in the face of tragedy (and not to be a spoiler, but it’s also a story of tremendous hope), the entire religious aspect is ignored. Perhaps Rebecca asked for the religious angle not to be covered? It’s made clear that she’s not Jewish and there are a couple of references to a generic “god,” but again, that is it.

I know this piece is freelance and NPR doesn’t seem to exercise much editorial control over the production — nor do I feel it needed to — but this should put a damper on any claims that NPR interjects too much religion into its journalism.

This 20-minute story was selected for the Story of the Day podcast and is easily available in both the text version and the audio version. I recommend listening to it though because hearing the voices was a tremendously moving experience.

On a related note, former newspaper columnist Art Buchwald, 80, has been quite public that he is in his final days, and he has some interesting thoughts on God:

The big question that keeps coming up all the time when anybody, an interviewer, talks to me is: Do I believe in God? The answer is I believe in God, but I’m not too certain that the people that are telling me, “It’s God’s will,” are the ones I want to listen to.

If faith in God is the big question people are asking Buchwald, why wasn’t the question at least raised with Stewart? Failing to do so leaves me with an incomplete picture of the story.

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Cell phones, black hats and shopping lists

BreadI saved this lovely little Baltimore Sun piece from earlier in the week, with the idea that I was going to run it on Friday, about the time that the events described in it would be unfolding. Then it hit me that this was not a wise thing to do — if Orthodox Jewish readers and bloggers were going to see it. I guess I should have posted it on Thursday.

Whatever. In this little feature called “Grocer a timely part of Shabbos tradition,” reporter Matthew Hay Brown has taken a snapshot of a moment in Orthodox Jewish life that stands for so much more. In particular, I love the detail that modern technology — that would be cell telephones — are now a crucial element of the ancient traditions of Orthodox Judaism linked to the Shabbos meal and the homey rites linked to it.

You see there are the Traditions and then there are the “traditions.” It’s all part of traditional faith making its way into modern life.

It’s a typical Friday afternoon at the supermarket in Park Heights, where families are picking up food and supplies for Shabbos while they still can. Beginning at sundown on Friday, Orthodox Jews will refrain from working, handling money, driving a car, answering the telephone and operating electrical appliances. With the din of modern life thus quieted, they will gather with family and friends, attend synagogue services, sing, dance and eat together. …

But before the calm, there is — well, if not the storm, at least a fair amount of preparation. Shabbos, which begins at sundown Friday and lasts until after nightfall Saturday, creates a distinct rhythm to Jewish life — a pulse that can be felt at Seven Mile Market. Thursdays, the business bustles with men wearing black hats or yarmulkes and women in berets, ankle-length skirts and sleeves, buying wine and braided challah bread, candles and ingredients for cholent, a slow-cooking stew.

And the cell telephones? Ah, this is the new link to the command center back at home, where the troops prepare to host friends and families in these tight-knit communities. There is something about staying within walking distance of one another that creates networks and a true social community.

So who is coming to dinner?

Rabbi Shlomo Porter clutches a crumpled shopping list in one hand and reaches into a suitcoat pocket with the other.

“This is the key,” says Porter, of the Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Learning, producing a cell phone. “You’ll see men talking with their wives, making sure they’ve got everything they need.”

Porter was picking up the last items for the 20 guests he and his wife were hosting that Friday. “We talk about a one-table Shabbos, and a two-table Shabbos,” he says. “This is a three-table Shabbos.”

Reporters can find stories very similar to this in any traditional faith that makes demands on the details of daily life — especially food.

I hope to do a column very soon on the impact of Eastern Orthodox Christian Lenten traditions on the kitchens of converts. There are Wednesday night pot-lucks at Southern Baptist churches and, my oh my, the traditional foods that are spread out for acres at any dinner on the grounds held by any Pentecostal congregation (of any ethnic stripe). Obviously, you see similar stories linked to Islam and its growth in the West.

Is this news? Not hard news, I guess. It’s just daily life soaked with faith and symbolism.

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Every body is religious

05328151425 eyesA few years ago I was in Czech Republic to witness the baptism of a dear friend. We went to Kutna Hora, home to the beautiful Sv. Barbory (Saint Barbara) Cathedral, one of the most famous Gothic churches in Europe. From Jan Svankmajer’s film, I knew of an ossuary nearby that I wanted to visit. Hana repeatedly told me that I shouldn’t go, but I insisted.

She was probably right. A chapel made out of creative arrangements of the bones of 40,000 humans is, it seems, not for the weak. Finding out that it was made in the late 19th century, instead of 500 years earlier, only made it worse. It provoked in me a deeper appreciation for more private cemeteries and resting places.

I thought of this experience when reading Denver Post writer Eric Gorski’s interesting piece on an exhibition of human bodies that is touring the country. I enjoy reading Gorski because he takes the time to understand the nuances of religious issues. So many religion reporters think that they can explain complex religious issues by talking to people on opposite sides of an issue. Gorski tries to explain issues by differentiating seemingly similar views.

He looks at an exhibition in which corpses have their skin removed to show muscles and nerves. The corpses are put in bizarre positions, too, like swinging a baseball bat:

The exhibit raises questions about the existence of a creator, when life begins and the afterlife. Displaying actual cadavers — a sight usually reserved for medical students — also raises ethical and religious issues.

He talks to various religious leaders about their concerns, finding most clerics to be generally supportive. However, two of his Muslim sources disagree about whether the exhibit is okay. I found the following quote from the executive director of the Colorado Southern Baptist General Convention to be very interesting:

“The body is a beautiful miracle — a major proof of the creator,” [Mark] Edlund said. “In a cadaver there is no soul, no spirit. I see no Christian ethics involved.”

bodyworksI am sure this is the view of Southern Baptists, but I just thought it was fascinating. Think of how the spread of Christianity — with its central belief in the resurrection of the body — led to major changes in the way people dealt with the human body after death. The early Christians would have universally disapproved of such treatment of the human form. They strenuously advocated burial of the human body — contrary to many customs of the time. Obviously things have changed drastically in Christianity — with many churches supporting the cremation that early Christians worked so hard to eradicate. I am certain that some scholars or religious leaders who represent the historic Christian position could have been found, but the wide variety of belief mentioned in Gorski’s piece was interesting. I also appreciated that he found out a bit about the religious views of the exhibit’s creator:

As for the man behind it all, [Dr. Gunther] von Hagens told Colorado reporters last week he was baptized a Protestant behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany and did not see the inside of a church for 17 years.

Von Hagens describes his belief system now as largely agnostic.

Does the master anatomist believe in an afterlife? Did souls once dwell in his ballet dancer, his soccer player, his man at leisure?

“I think my brain is not constructed to answer those questions,” he said.

Too many reporters would listen to an agnostic such as von Hagens and deem his religious views unworthy of mention. But it’s important when writing about one source’s religious motivation to seek out information about everyone’s religious motivation.

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Rioters do not make good editors

1097517737460887800 jpg 200 1I know that the following op-ed piece isn’t hard news, but it is opinion about the shaping of the news. And I do think that some very interesting people are getting upset about the same things.

Be honest. Didn’t you do a bit of a double take when you saw a piece in the Washington Post with the headline “A Failure of the Press” and, lo and behold, it was topped with the byline “William J. Bennett and Alan M. Dershowitz”? Now that is a flash of diversity.

Sure enough, these two men do not agree on each and every issue when it comes to MSM coverage of the “war on terror.” Still, when it comes to the cartoon crisis, they do agree on some things — especially that, when it comes to the new press rules on not offending religious believers, some believers are more equal than others.

The Boston Globe, speaking for many other outlets, editorialized: “[N]ewspapers ought to refrain from publishing offensive caricatures of Mohammed in the name of the ultimate Enlightenment value: tolerance.”

But as for caricatures depicting Jews in the most medievally horrific stereotypes, or Christians as fanatics on any given issue, the mainstream press seems to hold no such value. And in the matter of disclosing classified information in wartime, the press competes for the scoop when it believes the public interest warrants it.

What has happened? To put it simply, radical Islamists have won a war of intimidation. They have cowed the major news media from showing these cartoons. The mainstream press has capitulated to the Islamists — their threats more than their sensibilities. One did not see Catholics claiming the right to mayhem in the wake of the republished depiction of the Virgin Mary covered in cow dung, any more than one saw a rejuvenated Jewish Defense League take to the street or blow up an office when Ariel Sharon was depicted as Hitler or when the Israeli army was depicted as murdering the baby Jesus.

This is familiar territory these days, but it is interesting to see a leader on the left stating this, as well as an angry alpha male on the right.

dersSo what, for the team of Bennett and Dershowitz, is the bottom line?

So far as we can tell, a new, twin policy from the mainstream media has been promulgated: (a) If a group is strong enough in its reaction to a story or caricature, the press will refrain from printing that story or caricature, and (b) if the group is pandered to by the mainstream media, the media then will go through elaborate contortions and defenses to justify its abdication of duty. At bottom, this is an unacceptable form of not-so-benign bigotry, representing a higher expectation from Christians and Jews than from Muslims.

… There should be no group or mob veto of a story that is in the public interest.

Now, if you want to see this thesis expressed in a more cynical, post-news, Comedy Central is our North Star kind of editorial feature, check out this essay by Bruce Feirstein at the New York Observer (which is not published by anyone on the cultural right, last time I checked). It seems that the new, improved and more faith-sensitive New York Times has a new “public editor,” and here is the top of his first column:

Allow me to introduce myself: I am Ali bin-Zabar, the new public editor of The New York Times. Reporting to no one but the Prophet himself, my goal here is not to defend “All the News That Fits,” but to make sure The Times publishes only “All the News That’s Halal.”

I think you get the idea.

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A new cartoon and a new crisis

Russian flag x2Under the best of circumstances, Russia does not have a fabulous record when it comes to freedom of the press.

Nevertheless, the closing of the city-owned Gorodskiye Vesti newspaper in Volgograd has shocked many journalists who fight hard to protect press rights. This case study also offers a new twist in the widening cartoon crisis. It is clear that the editors intended this cartoon as a statement against racism and in favor of religious toleration.

Here is a piece of reporter Kim Murphy’s story in the Los Angeles Times, which ran with the headline “Russian Paper Ordered Closed Over Religious Cartoon.”

The cartoon was not part of the series, first published by a Danish newspaper last fall and since widely reprinted, that has led to violent protests in many parts of the Muslim world. The Russian illustration portrays Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Moses and Buddha gathered around a television screen showing two groups going into battle.

“We never taught them to do that,” the caption says.

Although newspapers have been shut down and editors fired in connection with the cartoon controversy in places as diverse as the middle East and Malaysia, the Russian newspaper appeared to be the first closure of a paper in a nation without a Muslim majority. Russia has about 20 million Muslims, about 15% of the population.

The New York Times’ report by Steven Lee Myers has another detail or two, including the fact that Moses is the speaker in the caption. It is also interesting to note that the image shows a clash between two groups of rioters. At the moment, the violent protests against the Danish cartoons have been one-sided. There have been some peaceful counter-demonstrators and, in some cases, authorities have cracked down on them rather than the crowds, or even mobs, protesting the cartoons.

“Well, we did not teach them that,” Moses says in a caption as the four watch a television set showing two groups confronting each other with banners and clubs and hurling stones. The cartoon appeared on Page 5, accompanying an article on an agreement signed by regional political parties and organizations to combat nationalism, xenophobia and religious conflicts.

Volgograd’s first deputy mayor, Andrei O. Doronin, announced the closing of the newspaper, Gorodskiye Vesti, or City News, “in order not to inflame ethnic hostilities,” according to the official Russian Information Agency. He gave the newspaper a month to liquidate its assets, leaving the fate of its staff unclear.

“Ethnic hostilities”? Is that the theme here?

It could be that the closure of this newspaper is rooted in local politics, as much or more than in global tensions. But there is no positive spin to put on this story. Shutting down a newspaper or a broadcast station is a radical act, no matter where it takes place. After all, no one expected to see governments flinch in Europe, either.

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