Who, what made him do it?

virginia tech pinThe mainstream media explanation for the tragic actions of a young college student in Blacksburg, Va., has been that he was troubled, sick, mentally ill and a textbook case of a school shooter.

Not everyone is going to be satisfied with those explanations, though, since there is really no way to know for sure what compelled Cho Seung-hui to release his heinous rampage. Explanations will come from university officials, family, friends and, yes, clergy. Many of you have emailed us about this Fox News report that asks “Did the Devil Make Him Do It?”, and while the producers interviewed a lot of good people it is largely speculative and lacks a serious news hook.

The first article to shine light on the idea that spiritual forces were directly at work Monday morning was this hard news story by Tim Funk in The Charlotte Observer:

Evangelist Franklin Graham, who dispatched 20 “rapid-response” chaplains to Virginia Tech this week, says he believes gunman Cho Seung-Hui was “demon-possessed.”

“The thirty-something lives he took and the families he ripped apart — for what? I believe it’s the devil,” Graham said Wednesday.

Graham, who leads Charlotte’s Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, dismissed the idea that the killer was mentally ill or seeking revenge.

“I don’t think you can go out and murder innocent people just because somebody rejected you. We’ve all been rejected,” he said. “I believe there are demons that dwell in the human heart.”

Funk adds that “not all Christian leaders are willing to rule out mental illness in the Virginia shootings.” But since when are these two explanations mutually exclusive? And the story is awfully short on details and theological content for such a weighty subject. What is the basis for Graham’s belief that Cho was demon possessed?

The challenge in reporting on this subject is that no one really knows why this happened or why Cho decided to go on a murderous rampage Monday morning. For a journalist, when did the psychologist become the more trusted source on human nature than the pastor?

And while Protestant denominations are naturally inclined to be more divided on this issue, the Catholic Church is by no means divided. Here’s The New York Times in January 1999:

Reaffirming that the Devil exists and is at work in the world, the Vatican today issued a revised rite of exorcism, the Roman Catholic ritual for driving out demons.

In an apparent effort to placate liberal Catholics embarrassed by a practice that seems to echo medieval superstition, the Vatican urged those performing exorcisms to take pains to distinguish between possessed people and others suffering from forms of mental or psychological illness.

Exorcism is an ancient practice of driving the Devil from people believed to be possessed. It remains a source of theological debate and in recent years, despite its renewed popularity in the United States and elsewhere, the church has sought to play down its significance without shaking the foundations of belief in a personal source of evil in the world.

For an excellent post on the religious aspects in this tragic news story, go over to this post by Ted Olsen and staff of Christianity Today. Olson asks questions about Cho’s religious beliefs, considering his reference to Christianity in his eight-page manifesto. While it’s inconclusive whether Cho had faith, there are plenty of faith aspects worth talking about:

If Cho’s faith remains something of a mystery, Christianity is front and center in much of the memorial. Stories of the victims are trickling out. The Myspace page of Lauren McCain, 20, now continues her testimony. “The purpose and love of my life is Jesus Christ,” she wrote. “I don’t have to argue religion, philosophy, or historical evidence because I KNOW Him. He is just as real, if not more so, as my ‘earthly’ father.”

I was very disappointed that the diatribe Cho mailed to NBC News received so much attention, particularly by NBC and MSNBC. I think stories like McCain’s and others are far more compelling and newsworthy, and it’s a pity that the final media stunt of a killer was able to dominate so much print and air time.

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He heard the music of the spheres

EinsteinWhile interviewing Walter Isaacson on Wednesday’s Fresh Air, guest host Dave Davies raised the point that Albert Einstein has become an icon of unattainable genius. True, but he’s arguably the one scientist who most strongly attracted the affection of Americans. Whether because of his wonderfully untamed hair, his doleful eyes or that photo in which he sticks out his tongue, Einstein also became an icon of the scientist as approachable, and maybe even humble, human being. What other acclaimed scientist could have inspired Walter Matthau’s oddball role in the film I.Q.?

Time‘s excerpt from Isaacson’s new biography reinforce the notion of Einstein as a humble scientist, especially in his relation to God and faith.

Early on there is a glimpse of spiritual precociousness, even as the family maid called him “the dopey one”:

Consequently, when Albert turned 6 and had to go to school, his parents did not care that there was no Jewish one near their home. Instead he went to the large Catholic school in their neighborhood. As the only Jew among the 70 students in his class, he took the standard course in Catholic religion and ended up enjoying it immensely.

Despite his parents’ secularism, or perhaps because of it, Einstein rather suddenly developed a passionate zeal for Judaism. “He was so fervent in his feelings that, on his own, he observed Jewish religious strictures in every detail,” his sister recalled. He ate no pork, kept kosher and obeyed the strictures of the Sabbath. He even composed his own hymns, which he sang to himself as he walked home from school.

Later came disenchantment:

“Through the reading of popular scientific books, I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of free thinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression.”

But later still came his connection with the God of Spinoza. Isaacson offers a pithy summary of an interview Einstein granted to George Sylvester Viereck, a son of Germany who eventually showed a troubling enthusiasm for Nazism:

Viereck began by asking Einstein whether he considered himself a German or a Jew. “It’s possible to be both,” replied Einstein. “Nationalism is an infantile disease, the measles of mankind.”

Should Jews try to assimilate? “We Jews have been too eager to sacrifice our idiosyncrasies in order to conform.”

To what extent are you influenced by Christianity? “As a child I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.”

You accept the historical existence of Jesus? “Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.”

… Do you believe in immortality? “No. And one life is enough for me.”

Most striking is Einstein’s attitude toward atheists:

“There are people who say there is no God,” he told a friend. “But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views.” And unlike Sigmund Freud or Bertrand Russell or George Bernard Shaw, Einstein never felt the urge to denigrate those who believed in God; instead, he tended to denigrate atheists. “What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos,” he explained.

In fact, Einstein tended to be more critical of debunkers, who seemed to lack humility or a sense of awe, than of the faithful. “The fanatical atheists,” he wrote in a letter, “are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who — in their grudge against traditional religion as the ‘opium of the masses’ — cannot hear the music of the spheres.”

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The story of Christ goes on

jesus tombIn the aftermath of the Jesus tomb story, it looks like most Christians still believe in what the Bible says about Jesus Christ and few are the worse for the controversy. GetReligion reader Stephen A. urged us yesterday to comment on the actual showing of The Lost Tomb of Jesus Saturday night, and I regret to say that I missed the show. Fortunately, others did see it, but overall I was generally disappointed in the lack of media attention to the film’s premiere.

So be it. The news focused on what the film allegedly revealed and the media felt it was worth the attention. I want to highlight one of the better mainstream pieces on the film by Time‘s David Van Biema. Rather than writing about the controversy, Van Biema writes about why this is happening more and more often. And you’d never guess it, but it’s largely due to Dan Brown:

Then there is what Publishers Weekly senior religion editor Lynn Garrett calls the Da Vinci Code effect. “Speculative histories were out there before Dan Brown wrote,” says Garrett. “But they didn’t make the best-seller lists and their authors didn’t go on The Daily Show.” Or receive a million-dollar paycheck, as was rumored in a recent case.

But Garrett cautions that “it’s not simply following the dollar. Writing popularly, I think, they feel freer.” Scholars are not working more speculatively because Dan Brown made money. His success allows them to write profitably from their adventurous hearts. Mark Tauber, vice president of HarperSanFrancisco, which publishes many of them (HSF did Family Tomb), notes that these academics came of age during the translation of the Nag Hammadi “library” and the Dead Sea Scrolls, troves that opened a window to unorthodox faith during and after Jesus’ life that the Bible and church fathers only hinted at or condemned. The authors can now transmit that vision to a Da Vinci-primed public. Says HSF editorial director Michael Maudlin: “Maybe we have enough evidence to say that our understanding of what happened back then was too simple. Dan Brown didn’t invent it, but he made it sexy.” Says Tauber: “I think it’s wonderful.”

Well, perhaps so. But like many wonderful (and not so wonderful) things, it’s moving forward to a herky, sometimes unintelligible beat. The kind that makes one nostalgic for the deliberate, footnoted revolutionism of Father Brown.

For a review of the film, check out The Journal News (of White Plains, N.Y.) religion reporter Gary Stern’s On Religion. He writes that the film was “very compelling for an hour or so. Increasingly hard to follow (and believe) through the second hour.”

Here’s more:

During the last 40 minutes or so, the show takes on a “Da Vinci Code” feel, contending that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were quite possibly married and had a child. The show also argues that the early church fathers covered up Mary Magdalene’s role as the founder of the Christian faith.

One of several dramatizations showed Mary Magdalene and her son holding one another and weeping during the crucifixion.

I was pretty burned out by the time the whole thing ended, but I stuck around for a very interesting and sometimes tense post-show analysis hosted by Ted Koppel. He really tried to put Jacobovici on the spot, questioning his methods and reasoning. He also let two academics take some real shots at the film.

Jonathan Reed, professor of religion at the University of La Verne and the co-author of “Excavating Jesus,” called the show “archeo-porn.” Ouch. Jacobovici did not like it.

Well, there you have it. I won’t be lining up to purchase the film on DVD, but maybe others should because the whole episode is a nice reminder for religious reporters the next time dramatic revelations are made about religious archaeology.

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James Cameron to Christians: It’s over

James Cameron vs. jesus christThe hype machine for James Cameron‘s documentary The Lost Tomb of Christ has hit Anna Nicole Smith levels of ridiculousness.

An allegation that Jesus Christ’s body has been found is an interesting story. The fact that some big-name moviemaker is behind it adds to the spice and makes it a very legitimate story. But the silliness of the headlines, the hypothetical evidence, poor background information (likely fed by Cameron’s PR machine) and the hype factor all add up to give people who take religious issues seriously just another reason to ignore the media. And that’s too bad.

The story at this point is an embarrassment to reporters. It’s why they have a bad name in religious circles. As Amy Welborn said, “It’s nonsense, but you know what … Easter is coming!!!

When did a filmmaker turned amateur historian become a reliable source for questions related to archeology? Well, since his facts were based on “sound statistics,” as he put it. We all know what they teach journalists in training about statistics (“He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp posts — for support rather than illumination” — Andrew Lang).

The documentary is running on The Discovery Channel on March 4. Yes, this is the same channel that airs documentaries that make you want to believe we are visited frequently by UFOs.

One of my favorite quotes comes from an Associated Press piece by Marshall Thompson that draws on interviews the filmmakers did with various television stations:

Cameron told NBC’S “Today” show that statisticians found “in the range of a couple of million to one in favor of it being them.” Simcha Jacobovici, the Toronto filmmaker who directed the documentary, said the implications “are huge.”

“But they’re not necessarily the implications people think they are. For example, some believers are going to say, well this challenges the resurrection. I don’t know why, if Jesus rose from one tomb, he couldn’t have risen from the other tomb,” Jacobovici told “Today.”

The range of a million to one? What kind of statistical basis is that for any serious discussion, and what is Jacobovici trying to tell us with that cryptic statement about the implications? It confuses me. Things like that should be explained.

Another problem with the AP piece is including this comment by Cameron:

Cameron said his critics should withhold comment until they see his film.

“I’m not a theologist [sic]. I’m not an archaeologist. I’m a documentary film maker,” he said.

coffinSo let’s all follow Cameron’s advice and not write about the film until it comes out? Um, no. He’s not a theologian or an archaeologist, but just a documentary filmmaker. Then why are news organizations reporting his words as gospel truth (pardon the pun)? This is a highly scripted media campaign that is relying on all the free publicity provided by eager reporters looking for a story to write. The final paragraph of the AP report, relating to the experts who heavily criticized the documentary, is especially ironic:

None of the experts interviewed by The Associated Press had seen the whole documentary.

Did Thompson see the film?

My favorite press release news article comes from our friends at Newsweek, who were tipped off to the news much earlier than the rest of us, giving them time to put together a 2,100-word piece documenting the controversy.

Reporters Lisa Miller and Joanna Chen cite all the usual naysayers but frame their words as equal to that of the moviemakers, whose credibility in these matters is self-admittedly lower.

Time magazine’s Middle East blog post on the matter is lame:

Brace yourself. James Cameron, the man who brought you ‘The Titanic[,]‘ is back with another blockbuster. This time, the ship he’s sinking is Christianity.

The New York Times is no better:

Raising the Titanic, Sinking Christianity?

The media pack will likely follow this story to its airing in March. We will have gained little from it other than the knowledge that the media can be conned by clever PR tactics into writing a set of dubious stories that do little to sort out established facts from amateurish speculation.

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When geoscientists attack

geoscientistOnce upon a time, I thought I wanted to become an economics professor. This delusion lasted from early high school until I took enough postgraduate classes to be convinced otherwise. I loved my field of study and I had fantastic professors. One way in which they were helpful was to counsel me to keep my private views on everything from monetary theory to the Coase Conjecture hidden.

There is nothing so political as the academy. And generally speaking there’s not a lot of room for people who express unorthodox views. They don’t call it a university for nothing! So even though Keynesian theories no longer have exclusive sway in non-academic economic fields, they completely dominated my college. My professors, some of whom were extreme socialists and some of whom had enjoyed the forbidden fruits of Posner and Hayek, told me how to play the game. Basically that meant that I would just study whatever I was assigned and complete coursework in support of the approved theories. Once I received my Ph.D., I was to keep up the facade, more or less, until I was tenured. Only then could I reveal my personal views.

That is a long way of saying that Cornelia Dean had a fantastic idea for a story in today’s New York Times. She found a geoscientist who completed his undergraduate and graduate schooling with great marks — all while being a young earth creationist (which the Times puts in scare quotes).

For him, Dr. [Marcus] Ross said, the methods and theories of paleontology are one “paradigm” for studying the past, and Scripture is another. In the paleontological paradigm, he said, the dates in his dissertation are entirely appropriate. The fact that as a young earth creationist he has a different view just means, he said, “that I am separating the different paradigms.”

Ross says it’s no big deal and even uses an economics department as an analogy. But as you might expect, other professors are enraged that the academy let an, er, non-believer into their hallowed halls.

Dean really handled the story well, characterizing and quoting each side charitably. Major kudos for that. She also nails the crux of the debate:

And, for some, his case raises thorny philosophical and practical questions. May a secular university deny otherwise qualified students a degree because of their religion? Can a student produce intellectually honest work that contradicts deeply held beliefs? Should it be obligatory (or forbidden) for universities to consider how students will use the degrees they earn?

She speaks with one professor who concedes it’s a difficult issue but says that if an academic’s work is good, his work is good. End of story. Others disagree, saying the issue is how Ross will use his degree.

Ross teaches at Liberty University and Dean explores how his classes are taught. He uses conventional texts but also discusses how they intersect with Christianity, he says. Dean gives a few other examples of the intolerance for conflicting views in scientific fields, including this one:

A somewhat more complicated issue arose last year at Ohio State University, where Bryan Leonard, a high school science teacher working toward a doctorate in education, was preparing to defend his dissertation on the pedagogical usefulness of teaching alternatives to the theory of evolution.

Earle M. Holland, a spokesman for the university, said Mr. Leonard and his adviser canceled the defense when questions arose about the composition of the faculty committee that would hear it.

Meanwhile three faculty members had written the university administration, arguing that Mr. Leonard’s project violated the university’s research standards in that the students involved were being subjected to something harmful (the idea that there were scientific alternatives to the theory of evolution) without receiving any benefit.

Dean talked to many people for her story and gives the reader a good understanding of Ross’ academic history and the challenges he faced at various schools. To ascertain whether the academic field believes that Ross’ religious views should result in his being ostracized, she spoke to many professors, including David Fastovsky, who is a paleontologist, professor of geosciences and Ross’ dissertation adviser. By hearing from so many people, the reader gets a better feel for the contentious issues:

Dr. Fastovsky said he had talked to Dr. Ross “lots of times” about his religious beliefs, but that depriving him of his doctorate because of them would be nothing more than religious discrimination. “We are not here to certify his religious beliefs,” he said. “All I can tell you is he came here and did science that was completely defensible.”

Steven B. Case, a research professor at the Center for Research Learning at the University of Kansas, said it would be wrong to “censor someone for a belief system as long as it does not affect their work. Science is an open enterprise to anyone who practices it.”

Dr. Case, who champions the teaching of evolution, heads the committee writing state science standards in Kansas, a state particularly racked by challenges to Darwin. Even so, he said it would be frightening if universities began “enforcing some sort of belief system on their graduate students.”

But Dr. [Eugenie] Scott, a former professor of physical anthropology at the University of Colorado [and executive director of the National Center for Science Education, a private group on the front line of the battle for the teaching of evolution], said in an interview that graduate admissions committees were entitled to consider the difficulties that would arise from admitting a doctoral candidate with views “so at variance with what we consider standard science.” She said such students “would require so much remedial instruction it would not be worth my time.”

That is not religious discrimination, she added, it is discrimination “on the basis of science.”

That last excerpt doesn’t include all of the professors she spoke with, but it gives you a taste. Rather than painting one side as anti-religious extremists or the other as evangelical yokel sympathizers, Dean gives you real humans with real ideas. Not everyone agrees, but they have the opportunity to share their views. If only academia were as welcoming to opposing views as Dean’s article!

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A must-get gig at Mother Jones

regretIn preparation for the 34th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, The New York Times Sunday Magazine had a lengthy feature on how post-abortion syndrome doesn’t exist. I’m sure you are as shocked as I am that the paper would come down quickly and easily on this side of the debate.

Emily Bazelon of Slate penned the piece. She has written for Mother Jones, too! Just like Jack Hitt, who wrote a previous (problematic) abortion story for the magazine. One of Bazelon’s stories for that magazine was — wait for it — against a feminist pro-life group. Seriously, if anyone wants to write for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, bolster your leftist credentials. Mother Jones seems to be the surest fire stop on your path.

Also, Emily Bazelon is Betty Friedan‘s cousin. I love it. A sample of the evenhanded perspective of the author:

Abortion-recovery counselors like [Rhonda] Arias could focus on why women don’t have the material or social support they need to continue pregnancies they might not want to end. They could call for improving the circumstances of women’s lives in order to reduce the number of abortions. Instead they are working to change laws to restrict and ban abortion.

See, pro-lifers don’t really care about women.

Anyway, the piece is long but not terribly illuminating. What pro-lifers are going to read such lines and feel their perspective is being given the benefit of the doubt? What pro-choicers will read the same without feeling a sense of self-satisfaction? What has been gained by that little swipe that is, in my experience, completely inaccurate in any case?

Bazelon tracks precisely one woman — Rhonda Arias — who says abortion was bad for her — and only very lightly, in the context of how the same woman now is an evangelical minister who counsels and ministers to other post-abortive women in prison. She gives lots of details about the woman — her past abortions, her preaching style, her emotional religiosity, her messed up childhood, etc. — and yet because the perspective of the author is so clear, it makes it hard to trust that her descriptions are in good faith. Rather, I kept wondering why this was the woman Bazelon chose as her lead/only anecdote. Bazelon also mentions the religious affiliations, mostly Roman Catholic, of many of those working to counsel women after their abortions.

What annoys me more than anything in abortion coverage is how the stories are always so political. This story is entirely political — about the politics of the abortion movement and (without realizing it, it seems) about the politics of the science surrounding whether post-abortion syndrome exists. And the reporter takes precisely the angle you would expect from The New York Times Sunday Magazine. I’ll note that it’s not the same angle I’d expect from the daily Times.

Like most people (statistically speaking) I have many friends who have had abortions. And while the vast majority of these friends remain pro-choice, they would be the first to tell you that the procedure’s effects are profound and long-reaching. Not so long ago, I was privy to a conversation with four pro-choice women who had their first or only abortions over a decade ago. They all spoke of effects that remained with them: Abortion-related nightmares, frequent thoughts of how old their child would be, etc. None of these women are pro-life. But because of the politics surrounding abortion, their situation — shared by millions of American women — receives no balanced coverage. Such after-effects are picked up on as proof of abortion’s evils by pro-lifers and ignored for the same reason by pro-choicers.

Bazelon does mention this in her piece, for which she should be commended:

While it seems that some anti-abortion advocates exaggerate the mental-health risks of abortion, some abortion advocates play down the emotional aftereffects. Materials distributed at abortion clinics and on abortion-rights Web sites stress that most women feel relief after an abortion, and that the minority who don’t tend to have pre-existing problems. Both claims are supported by research. But the idea that “abortion is a distraction from underlying dynamics,” as Nancy Russo put it to me, can discourage the airing of sadness and grief. “The last thing pro-choice people, myself included, want to do is to give people who want to make abortions harder to get or illegal one iota of help,” says Ava Torre-Bueno, a social worker who was the head of counseling for 10 years at Planned Parenthood in San Diego. “But then what you hear in the movement is ‘Let’s not make noise about this’ and ‘Most women are fine, I’m sure you will be too.’ And that is unfair.”

In general, Bazelon’s treatment of how pro-choicers deal — or don’t deal — with post-abortion problems is infinitely better than her emotionally distant and lengthier treatment of the same on the pro-life side. She’s able to look at some of the pitfalls of ignoring emotional problems resulting from abortion with a gentleness and sympathy that is illuminating. While that’s a wonderful benefit for readers in learning one side of the story, the problems are only emphasized for readers wanting to learn more about the other side. I think it may be yet another argument for ensuring that Mother Jones isn’t on the resume of all your abortion reporters.

Ultimately, though, the problem is with this story’s emphasis on politics. A story like this has to include actual women. How many tens of millions of women have undergone abortions in the last 34 years since abortion was legalized? How many of them could share the true effects — subtle or profound — of their abortions years after the fact?

This is why I still think so fondly of Stephanie Simon’s twin stories about women who undergo abortions and women who complete crisis pregnancies. Very little politics at all — just stories about the decisions women face and the choices they make.

How much more interesting would this story have been if Bazelon — a talented and smart writer for sure — had talked to women who had abortions and told their stories?

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Argue with Andrew Sullivan this time

baby angelOK, consider this a short update on our comments-page arguments about whether public debates about abortion are, in and of themselves, a “religious” matter.

It’s poignant to watch this debate, and others linked to it, lived out in real life and covered in the news stories that result.

In this case, don’t yell at me — yell at Andrew Sullivan. It is clear to me (at least) that he has spotted a religion ghost — ethical ghost? moral ghost? — in a New York Times piece about abortion.

Or is it about abortion? That’s the point. Here is the item on Sullivan’s Time blog:

The Culling Continues
09 Jan 2007 11:57 am

Today’s NYT piece on doctors’ urging more comprehensive testing for Down Syndrome fetuses omits one obvious fact: the reason for such testing. Which is to kill them in utero, of course. Why leave this out? Isn’t it the crux of the story? And no mention of the 90 percent figure for abortions after DS detection. Do the NYT’s editors believe readers cannot handle the truth?

This follows another Sullivan post on the same topic and, ultimately, for this voice on the gay-activist side of the Catholic church aisle, leads to another topic looming in the background — the possible abortion of unborn gay children at some point in the medical future. Sullivan recently aired his views on that topic in one of his essays for The Times of London.

Does this sound like a far-fetched idea to you?

I’ve been asking questions about this possible link between the two hottest of hot social issues since the mid-1980s, when I raised it during a press conference in Denver with then-Democratic Rep. Patricia Schroeder. I asked her if, in the future, she expected to see scientific evidence that people are born gay. She said that she did. I then asked if she thought this implied there would be a gay gene that, sooner or later, would show up in prenatal testing. She said she assumed that this would happen. So I asked her if she would, at that time, oppose the abortion of gay fetuses. She did not want to answer that question and one of her staff rushed over to say that they would have to deal with that when the time came.

Sullivan thinks that issue is coming sooner or later (while I think the nature-nurture debate will be much harder to settle) and that we can see evidence of the outcome in the Down Syndrome trends. If he is right, that is a huge story and one that, when the story breaks, will be debated in strongly religious terms. Sullivan and the pope will be on the same side of that debate, correct?

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Thou art Paul, so rock on

Peter PaulGetReligion reader Arnold Barlow has, without a doubt, discovered the religion-news mystery of the day.

You may have heard on the radio or seen on the Web that archaeologists at the Vatican have unearthed a sarcophagus believed to contain the remains of St. Paul and the discovery was made right under Rome’s second-largest basilica.

But what you may not have heard is that, in doing so, the researchers radically altered the entire history of the Roman Catholic Church and, thus, all of Christian history.

What? You didn’t read that story?

Well, head over to the Associated Press report on the website of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. We pick up the action in the middle of the wire story:

“Our objective was to bring the remains of the tomb back to light for devotional reasons, so that it could be venerated and be visible,” said Giorgio Filippi, the Vatican archaeologist who headed the project at St. Paul Outside the Walls basilica.

The interior of the sarcophagus has not yet been explored, but Filippi didn’t rule out the possibility of doing so.

Two ancient churches that once stood at the site of the current basilica were successively built over the spot where tradition said the saint, the first pope of the Roman Catholic Church, had been buried. The second church, built by the Roman emperor Theodosius in the fourth century, left the tomb visible, first above ground and later in a crypt.

Did you catch the gaffe?

Barlow did. It’s the part about St. Paul being the “first pope of the Roman Catholic Church.” Actually, I think that was St. Peter — the gray-haired man shown greeting St. Paul in this traditional icon from Eastern Orthodoxy.

In an email to the GetReligion crew, Barlow raised a good question. Other versions of this Associated Press report online do not seem to contain this rather obvious error — at least, none of them do that I can find with Google News. Here is the wording in the International Herald Tribune:

Two ancient churches that once stood at the site of the current basilica were successively built over the spot where tradition said the saint had been buried. The second church, built by the Roman emperor Theodosius in the fourth century, left the tomb visible, first above ground and later in a crypt.

This raises a crucial question: Did the Associated Press catch the error early on or, perhaps, do Catholics in the great state of Georgia — or merely some folks on the Journal-Constitution copy desk — have different beliefs about the founding of the Church of Rome?

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