The divine Miss Winfrey?

oprah bless youDid you hear that Oprah Winfrey is the reincarnation of God? Well, at least according to USA Today. Reporter Ann Oldenburg did just about everything but say Oprah was the sister of Jesus Christ in a 2,000-plus-word profile in Thursday’s edition.

Oldenburg lines up a bunch of big names to say how awesomely insightful Oprah is on people’s spiritual lives, quotes people predicting that Oprah will be there to greet them in heaven and even includes a Beliefnet poll finding that 33 percent of respondents think Oprah has more impact on their spiritual lives than their pastor. Not missing a beat, the Oldenburg quotes fan Claire Zulkey saying that if Oprah existed 1,200 years ago, we’d look back at her as a deity.

This idea of the “Church of Oprah” is not new. Mollie wrote about it back in January as the James Frey scandal was busting open. God can do no wrong, and apparently neither can Oprah, as we saw her receiving praise for what easily could be argued was a tremendous blunder on her part in promoting Frey’s book.

Oprah has been denying her status as a deity since 1989, but at the same time, she was describing her show as her “ministry,” according to the article. Apparently it wasn’t Oprah’s best interview, and she refused to do interviews for the USA Today piece:

Love her or loathe her, Winfrey has become proof that you can’t be too rich, too thin or too committed to rising to your place in the world. With 49 million viewers each week in the USA and more in the 122 other countries to which the show is distributed, Winfrey reaches more people in a TV day than most preachers can hope to reach in a lifetime of sermons.

“One of the things that’s key,” says Marcia Nelson, author of The Gospel According to Oprah, “is she walks her talk. That’s really, really important in today’s culture. People who don’t walk their talk fall from a great pedestal — scandals in the Catholic Church, televangelism scandals. If you’re not doing what you say you do, woe be unto you.”

In Ellen DeGeneres’ stand-up comedy act several years ago, she included a joke about getting to heaven and finding that God is a black woman named Oprah.

TDoprah2I don’t give a hoot about what Oprah does. But some people do and while many like her, others despise her for her influence and power. Oldenburg introduces Oprah’s critics and quickly dismisses them, turning the article into a puff piece that furthers Oprah’s deity-like image:

[Reed College professor Kathryn] Lofton points out that any discussion of Winfrey should not be one that criticizes her or how she came to be a spiritual icon for the history books but one that examines how it came to be that way. “Why do we all need her so much? What is wrong with us that we so need this little woman in Chicago?”

Jim Twitchell, a professor at the University of Florida who has written several books about branding and describes himself as a cultural anthropologist, says Oprah reverence makes sense.

“Religion essentially is based on high anxiety of what’s going to happen to you.” Winfrey pushes the idea “that you have a life out there, and it’s better than the one you have now and go get it.”

For several years, tmatt has been using the term “OprahAmerica.” That would be the 60 to 70 percent of Americans who you could place “in the mushy middle” of any given social issue. Considering that the vast majority of the Americans who watch her show probably fall into that category, it is not surprising that they view her as a godlike figure in their lives. Who else would they turn to?

I found it interesting that while the article is set upon placing Oprah in the pulpit of American homes, Oldenburg had the space for only one pastor, who merely explains how he came to understand the concept of the Church of Oprah. There’s nothing about how it feels to be replaced by a talk-show host.

This all relates back to Mollie’s post on NBA star LeBron James (she provided the title for this post, by the way). LeBron has a similar image, just a different audience.

In writing about King James’ deity (more on the religious implication of the title “King” later), Mollie found this Washington Post article by Mike Wise to be a great example of how a reporter went into a church to understand the intersection of sports and religion. Too bad Oldenburg couldn’t do the same in helping us understand the collision of afternoon television entertainment and religion. It might have helped balance the article a bit.

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Are you ready for Tom Hanks and his mullet?

mulletLike everyone else in the world, I bet I’m going to go see The Da Vinci Code. But not because I expect it to be great or even a fun, brainless action flick. It’s more that I’m in a perpetual state of trying to understand how a book as ridiculous as The Da Vinci Code could enable Dan Brown to sit comfortably on piles of cash for the rest of his life. I had a colleague in my newsroom a few years ago who pronounced it the best book she’d ever read. How sad is that? Do readers really want three-page chapters? And do they need their characters reintroduced on every page? Was the book written for people suffering from short-term memory loss? Why why why?

So let’s go with Sunday’s Da Vinci Code wrap-up. Jeffrey Weiss has done amazing work covering the book and movie this week. Daniel praised his piece earlier in the week that looked at some of the facts Dan Brown got wrong in his “factual” piece of fiction. The piece struck a nerve with readers, and all of the letters to the editor on May 13 were about Weiss’ religion writing, many of them praising his work. Weiss also wrote about a satire of Brown’s work called The Da Vinci Mole. He followed that up with a Frequently Asked Questions piece. Sample:

Can I learn about art, history or theology by reading the book?

Most experts say that’s like trying to learn science from watching Star Trek.

As the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” And Mr. Brown gets plenty of facts wrong.

For instance?

The Priory of Sion is the novel’s secret society. Mr. Brown says it’s a real organization founded in 1099. Last month, 60 Minutes stacked up the evidence that the Priory was a hoax invented in the 1950s by an anti-Semitic Frenchman. . .

Art historians also snicker at Mr. Brown’s repeated references to “Da Vinci.” That would be like referring to “Fred from New York” as “from New York.” Leonardo had no last name, as we now think of it.

The dude is even doing a live chat with the Dallas Morning News movie critic Philip Wuntch later this week. Jeffrey Weiss is everywhere.

The movie has not been screened for critics, a curious move for a flick everyone expects to be a huge hit. But it appears that a few people got an early look at it, including someone with the Daily Mirror. His review is short on info, but I really liked this part:

As it is, the film stands as a superb thriller which cleverly blends action and intrigue with some thought-provoking theories.

Thought-provoking theories? Okay . . . I guess. In a facts-don’t-matter kind of postmoderny way. Or in a Thriller-for-Dummies way that’s not very original and slightly kooky.

fleur21And then Jane Henderson had an interesting package in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She wrote up a what-Brown-got-wrong piece. Even better, in another piece Henderson takes advantage of St. Louis’ French history and architecture to show where Da Vinci readers can find aspects of the novel in their hometown:


What: Symbol of royalty, France, purity, the Trinity and more. Named after the lily, it is actually a stylized iris.

Role in Da Code: Symbol for Priory of Sion, a goddess-worshipping group that knows “the secret” of Mary Magdalene. Book implies fleur-de-lis intertwined with “Mona Lisa” as “flower of Lisa.” The novel says: “A secret pagan cult? Once headed by Leonardo da Vinci? It all sounded so absurd.”

Seen in St. Louis: Everywhere — on the city flag, on buildings, in paintings, atop fences. Associated especially with the city’s eponym, King Louis IX of France, an ardent Christian who led two (failed) crusades and died in 1270. Prominent statue of the king stands in front of the Art Museum, and he’s painted on the Sheraton hotel beside Highway 40 (Interstate 64) downtown.

Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY‘s religion reporter, wrote up a Gallup Poll about religion and movies in which some folks blamed Satan for trying to destroy people’s faith with books that raise doubts about the Bible:

“The devil has always been a scapegoat,” says Terrence Tilley, a professor of philosophy of religion and Catholic theology at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

Still, “some of (Brown’s book) is so like what people would like to believe that it’s easy for people to start believing the whole thing. Scholars really get their dander up when obvious fiction and legend is called fact,” say Tilley, who has spoken about the book on panels from Dayton to Dublin.

Oh, and as for my why why why question from earlier? Weiss answered it in his handy FAQ:

Why is The Da Vinci Code so popular?

That, of course, is a matter of opinion. It touches on themes that resonate with readers: The role of women and spirituality, the power of conspiracies, suspicion about the Catholic Church (especially in the wake of the pedophilia scandals), the idea that hidden truths could change the world for the better. There’s a bit of salacious ritual sex, enough violence for a PG-13 rating, and some word puzzles that an attentive reader can solve at least as quickly as the characters in the book. Plus it’s a page-turner with tangled plotlines, cliffhangers at the end of many chapters, and dramatic feats of derring-do.

So there you go.

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How to characterize doctrine

vials2There’s an interesting story coming out of Wisconsin about a woman who was fired from her job as a Roman Catholic school teacher because she conceived her children using in vitro fertilization.

The method of conception involves removing eggs from the woman’s ovaries and fertilizing them with sperm. The main complication of the method is the frequency of multiple births. This is because of the practice of creating many embryos and passing several of the “best” of them into the uterus to improve the chances of implantation. Leftover embryos are frozen for future use or discarded. Millions of embryos have been discarded or frozen by couples who use in vitro fertilization.

Let’s look at the way Susan Squires, a reporter for the Appleton Post-Crescent, handled explaining Roman Catholic opposition to the practice after a generous explanation of the woman’s position:

The church’s position is spelled out in “Donum Vitae,” a 1987 church instruction on “respect for human life in its origin and the dignity of procreation.” The document — Latin for “Gift of Life” — was written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.

It teaches that in-vitro fertilization is immoral. By employing medical technology to commingle her eggs with her husband’s sperm, Romenesko had violated two clauses in her teaching contract: to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church, and to act and teach in accordance with Catholic doctrine and the church’s moral and social teachings. . . .

Simply put, in-vitro fertilization is the process of extracting eggs from a woman’s ovaries, fertilizing them with a man’s sperm, choosing the most promising cell clusters and injecting several into the mother’s uterus. Clinics typically freeze “extra” embryos, which the parents may use later, discard or donate.

The church, which teaches that life begins at conception, objects to the procedure on several grounds. First, destroying leftover embryos is tantamount to abortion in the eyes of the church, as is “selective reduction” — the elimination of some implanted embryos to avert multiple pregnancies.

Secondly, it usually requires male masturbation to harvest sperm, which the church holds immoral.

Finally, according to the Donum Vitae, “The act which brings the child into existence is no longer an act by which two persons give themselves to one another, but one that entrusts the life and identity of the embryo into the power of doctors and biologists and establishes the domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the human person.”

Not bad, eh? The explanation is placed midway through the story and is a rather fair explanation of the church’s position on human life issues. Now let’s look at the way the Associated Press handled it:

In vitro fertilization involves extracting eggs from a woman’s ovaries and fertilizing them with sperm in a laboratory dish or test tube. The fertilized eggs are implanted into the woman’s uterus.

Catholic teaching holds that the procedure is morally wrong because it replaces the “natural” conjugal union between husband and wife and often results in destruction of embryos.

Even though [attorney James C.] Jones said the couple used their own eggs and sperm and none of the embryos were destroyed in the process, the church forbids such donations and condemns all forms of experimentation on human embryos.

The AP characterization just seems lacking on so many levels. It’s not that anything it says is wrong, just that it gives short shrift to a complex theological issue. You can almost see the wave of the hand as the reporter skirts from the news hook about the woman’s firing onto descriptions of the cute twins she gave birth to last year.

test tube babyI noticed another difference between the two reports. While Squires speaks with two Catholic theologians who wonder whether the school overreacted, she shares their concerns with the principal and includes his response. Compare that approach with how the AP handled it:

The in vitro fertilization issue was first highlighted for Catholics in “Donum Vitae,” a 1987 church instruction written by the cabinet of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, on “respect for human life in its origin and the dignity of procreation.”

Mark Johnson, who teaches moral theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee, said the 1987 document was the first serious official church writing on the subject, and modifications could be possible.

“This is brand spanking new stuff in the life of a church that is 2,000 years old,” Johnson said, noting that the Vatican now is considering allowing the use of condoms to help battle AIDS in Africa despite its longtime opposition to contraceptive devices.

The reporter then went back to more details about the woman who had been fired. We frequently think that national reporters are better at handling nuance and difficult situations, but I think the local reporter does better in this case. Squires looked at an explosive and controversial issue with a deft hand, treating all of her subjects fairly.

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Covering those flaky religious folks

Ahmadinejad2The 18-page letter from Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to President Bush is gaining a lot of attention for its religious imagery and its call for Bush to look closely at his own religious convictions. It reads, says the Wall Street Journal editorial board, like “the Unabomber’s manifesto.” Ouch.

Words from crazy people who threaten to blow up mailboxes and obliterate entire countries deserve a close examination from every angle possible. And while the media in America are jumping all over the religion angle, particularly the New York Times, they have failed so far in explaining the significance of this religious language:

While the letter laid out a litany of policy disputes with the United States, it was also personal, urging President Bush, who is candid about his religious conviction, to examine his actions in the light of Christian values. As he has done in the past, the Iranian struck a prophetic tone, which is certain to be well received by his core supporters and mocked by his opponents.

“We increasingly see that people around the world are flocking towards a main focal point that is the Almighty God,” he wrote. “Undoubtedly through faith in God and the teaching of the prophets, the people will conquer their problems. My question to you is: ‘Do you want to join them?’”

The letter was framed entirely in religious terms but also laid out a populist manifesto of anti-Americanism, offering illustrations of what has won the Iranian a following among many ordinary people throughout the Middle East. He presented himself as the defender not only of Muslims but of all oppressed people, including those in Africa and Latin America.

As the WSJ editorial aptly said, Ahmadinejad “needs to broaden his daily media sources beyond the BBC.” From my own reading of the letter, Ahmadinejad is attempting to connect with what he sees as a commonality with Bush, which is a strong belief in religion in the public square. Ahmadinejad either needs to broaden his source for news or find better intelligence officers.

Despite what the international media like to say about Bush’s religious convictions, Ahmadinejad’s sources have failed him in informing him of Bush’s religious convictions. Ahmadinejad and the international media could start by reading this article and then this book for a better idea of Bush’s religious convictions.

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Should the state tell black pastors what to preach?

church and stateYou remember how New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael famously asked how Richard Nixon could have won the presidency considering how everyone she knew voted against him? Well, I feel like Pauline Kael a lot since I live in Washington, D.C. If there is a less diverse political environment out there, I’m not aware of it. I was shocked that Bush won in 2004 because we went 90 percent for Kerry. I don’t actually know anyone who voted for Bush and lives in D.C.

Anyway, all the action for political office is in the Democratic Party. The other interesting hallmark of D.C. politics is that near as I can tell we like a good number of our political candidates to be — How does one say this delicately? — clinically insane.

Which brings us to Lori Montgomery’s piece in the Washington Post about how five mayoral candidates in our fine city are all agreeing to erode the barrier between church and state by shaping what is being preached in Washington churches.

Now, as you are reading the relevant portions, let’s think of what would happen if a bunch of conservative groups in Omaha required mayoral candidates to pressure Methodists to handle doctrinal issues differently, such as how they view the sanctity of life for unborn children. Or what if other conservative groups required candidates to pressure Unitarians to change their tune on Christianity’s scandal of particularity? Here we go:

The five major candidates for D.C. mayor pledged last night to promote tolerance for gay men and lesbians in the city’s black churches and to combat attitudes that led two prominent local ministers to denounce homosexuality from their pulpits.

But only two of the five — D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) and former telecommunications executive Marie C. Johns — expressed unequivocal support for same-sex marriage, an ideological touchstone in the city’s powerful gay community.

Now really, since when is it any business of these five mayoral candidates to tell pastors in black churches what they should or should not preach?

I mean, just imagine the outcry if special-interest groups forced public officials to make campaign promises to change what is taught in mosques. Just imagine the outcry, again, if conservative groups pressured candidates to tell pastors in the United Church of Christ how they should preach the Bible, particularly with regard to homosexuality.

And the thing is, if this were happening in my imaginary scenarios, most reporters would know to call First Amendment scholars up to air their grievances.

Montgomery’s story covers a debate hosted by the District’s largest gay political organization, the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club. So I rather understand that she didn’t speak to any First Amendment scholars who could respond to this idea that politicians should tell black pastors what to preach. Still, might members or pastors at these black churches have been available for a response?

church stateUnfortunately, coverage of this very issue — the divide between Washington’s black churches and its gay community — has been lacking.

The candidates were asked about a sermon last month in which Bishop Alfred A. Owens Jr., pastor of Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church, referred to gay men as “faggot” and “sissy,” as well as the Rev. Willie F. Wilson’s sermon last summer in which he claimed that lesbianism poses a grave threat to the black community. . . .

Later, Brown pounced again, accusing [council chairwoman Linda] Cropp [D] of making “a very homophobic remark” when she said that closeted gay men who also have sex with women have spread AIDS among women. Cropp recited her long record of support for gay causes, including enactment of the city’s domestic partnership laws and legalization of adoption for same-sex couples.

“Language is cheap!” Cropp yelled, rising from her seat. “Nobody’s record is stronger than Linda Cropp’s record! Sitting here, put ’em all together, they can’t beat the Linda Cropp record!”

Man does Mollie Ziegler love that candidate trick of speaking in the third person.

But anyway, notice how in the coverage of this story on how black pastors discuss homosexuality, never is the idea engaged that they have a theological defense for their remarks. I’m not taking sides on the issue, just noting that a defense of their perspective is rarely given space in the pages of the Washington Post. It’s almost as if the newspaper authorities have decided that opposition to homosexuality is wrong and not worthy of engagement. And since the battles between black churches and the gay community don’t seem to be going away, the Post does a disservice to its readers by not better explaining the theology of black churches.

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Why military chaplains matter

SoldiersPrayingLast Sunday’s 8,000-plus-word takeout in The Washington Post Magazine on military chaplains is a tremendous example of why long-form journalism is so helpful in dealing with complex religious issues. The magazine’s editors gave Kristin Henderson, the wife of a Navy chaplain and author of While They’re at War: The True Story of American Families on the Homefront, the space needed to tell the story of why chaplains are a necessary part of the U.S. military operations and some of the immense challenges they face:

The soldier nicknamed Razz is standing on the platform between the two back seats, half in, half out of a hole in the roof, manning the .50 caliber machine gun mounted in the turret. He scrunches down as the overpass closes in. His butt settles into a sling hanging next to the head of a fourth soldier in the backseat, a man who’s not part of the crew, who seems to be doing nothing. He’s Chaplain John Smith.

Smith, 32, has been preaching since he was 16, has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in divinity. But he looks like a kid, walks like a kid, high-speed and bouncy-toed. He first arrived in Iraq four months ago, a brand new captain fresh out of an Assemblies of God seminary and Army chaplains school. Back on the forward operating base, or FOB, Smith leads two different services every Sunday, one an intellectual hymn to traditional [P]rotestantism, the other a two-hour, standing-room-only Pentecostal throw-down. Together, the two services reflect Smith himself, brainy and charismatic. Six to seven soldiers a day come into [Smith's] office for counseling; more pull him aside as he passes through their workspaces on his daily visitation rounds.

This Humvee is one of his soldiers’ workspaces.

chaplainsThe military chaplaincy has become ever more controversial these days, and a growing chorus is calling for the practice to be re-examined. The issue also gets more complicated in Muslim countries and for Jewish chaplains. This type of journalism has an impact in government politics and policies. Not only do policymakers read such articles, but they also hear about them from their wives, children, friends and fellow church members. This article excels not only in its descriptive color, but also in its deep understanding of the issue:

Chaplains can come from any faith group that has established a relationship with the Department of Defense. But statistics from the Defense Manpower Data Center indicate that while Christian fundamentalist and evangelical service members make up less than 20 percent of the military, more than a third of military chaplains come from such denominations. As a result, for every Southern Baptist chaplain, there are only 40 Southern Baptist service members. By comparison, Roman Catholics, who constitute the military’s single biggest religious group, make do with one priest for every 800 Catholic service members.

Captain Edward Grimenstein, a Lutheran who has been an Army chaplain for only two years, explains the large number of evangelical chaplains in his class this way: “It’s in their theological doctrine — very pro-nation, pro-government, pro-country. You don’t find that in a lot of mainline Protestant denominations.”

Pentagon policy acknowledges that these days Americans practice a wider variety of religions than ever before. Prior to becoming an Army chaplain, a candidate must certify that he or she is “sensitive to religious pluralism and able to provide for the free exercise of religion by all military personnel, their family members, and civilians who work for the Army.” Chaplains don’t lead worship services outside their own faith group, but they do have to make sure that every other recognized faith group has the supplies and space they need to practice their religion. Officially, proselytizing is forbidden, but recent headlines indicate that commandment isn’t always obeyed.

A online chat with Henderson is just as interesting — if not for the answers, then for the questions asked, especially the first one. Clearly Henderson knows her subject and understands the importance of religion. Her article will help people better understand the challenges involved in being a chaplain in the U.S. military.

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Does Da Vinci need a disclaimer?

tom hanksOne thing I’m looking forward to seeing in the launch of The Da Vinci Code next weekend (besides everyone laughing at Tom Hanks’ career-damaging hair) is what type of on-screen language it will open with and what, if any, type of language it will end with.

Director Ron Howard says that there won’t be a disclaimer, but if the book had a disclaimer of sorts (“Fact: The Priory of Sion — a European secret society founded in 1099 — is a real organization”), should not the movie have something similar? Here is the Los Angeles Times:

For the lay reader, such musings rank up there with what if the South had won the Civil War or Hitler had triumphed over the Allies. But the theory rankles the devout, hence the drumbeat of criticism. Howard’s movie version contains re-creations of the biblical allusions so viewers understand the alternate religious history that drives the plot. There’s no disclaimer, however, though some critics have asked for one.

“It’s very controversial. What Dan Brown did with the novel, we didn’t back away from in making the movie,” says Howard. “I think what a lot of people have discovered — a lot of theologians — is this is a work of fiction that presents a set of characters that are affected by these conspiracy theories and ideas. Those characters in this work of fiction act and react on that premise. It’s not theology. It’s not history. To start off with a disclaimer … .” he searches for the right words. “Spy thrillers don’t start off with disclaimers.”

Quick question for the LAT: Who are these “lay readers”? Non-priests/pastors? They are the only ones upset about Da Vinci? How about the odd journalist or historian who cares about history and facts? Just curious, because I don’t know anyone who sees this book along the lines of Philip Roth’s Plot Against America. While books like Roth’s can be very profound in examining an alternative form of history, Dan Brown goes a huge step further in his mixed portrayal of fact and fiction.

da vinci artBut let’s get back to the main topic. Howard and journalists writing about this movie should know that this is more than just another spy thriller. And they do know that. Otherwise it would just be another movie and nobody would give a hoot and a half, unless, sadly, Tom Cruise was starring. Journalists, armed with the facts, need to call Howard and the movie’s promoters out for such distortions.

For those of us who are concerned about those tricky, sometimes nebulous things known as facts, Jeffrey Weiss of The Dallas Morning News has written a tremendous piece that must in the back of all reporters’ minds as they write about the controversies surrounding the movie (because journalists care about facts, right?):

Experts agree: Dan Brown got most of his facts wrong.

Religion scholars have been whacking The Da Vinci Code like a low-hanging pinata. The swings have come from establishment Christianity — the Vatican and the Archbishop of Canterbury — and from the fringes of the faith — a member of the liberal Jesus Seminar and the agnostic historian Bart Ehrman.

At least 44 books debunking The Da Vinci Code are for sale at, several written by serious academics or well-known pastors. And with the movie starring Tom Hanks scheduled to open in two weeks, surely more are in the pipeline.

All of which leaves this question unanswered: Why bother?

Weiss goes on to explain that smart people care about Brown’s creation because the book made a pretension of accuracy and it “reeks of truthiness and smartiness.” But the movie’s promoters are not playing the movie like the book when it comes to its alleged grounding in truth. If the movie doesn’t carry some type of “factual” disclaimer at the beginning, will the movie studios lose out on potential ticket sales? As James Frey will tell you, selling truth is always going to be easier than selling fiction:

If Mr. Brown can’t get inarguable facts right, the experts say, what faith can readers place in his conclusions about the nature of Christianity?

Some critics say they’re intent on tearing down the credibility of the book because many people, mostly ignorant of what is known of the early years of Christianity, accept Mr. Brown’s fictions as gospel truth.

“In our experience, readers are taking it as true,” said Dr. Ehrman, a religious studies professor at the University of North Carolina and the author of Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code. “Historians care about what happened in the past, and it’s important … to separate the fact from the fiction.”

The biggest question in this story is whether people will start actually believing Brown’s theories. So far I have yet to see that the book has had that kind of influence. Time will tell with the movie.

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China-Vatican deal goes boom over bishops

CardinalZenOr does it?

Alessandra Rizzo of the Associated Press reported Friday that the Vatican excommunicated four bishops because two of them were ordained by the state-controlled church without consent from the Pope. The two bishops who ordained them were also excommunicated. Except they weren’t quite cut off from church fellowship.

Rizzo is a bit too far ahead of the story. Look at this Los Angeles Times story, which mentions the possibility of excommunication:

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican declared Thursday that two bishops ordained by China’s state-controlled church without papal consent were excommunicated, escalating tensions as the two sides explored preliminary moves toward improving ties.

The Vatican also excommunicated the two bishops who ordained them, citing church law. The Holy See then criticized China for allegedly forcing bishops and priests to participate in “illegitimate” ordinations that “go against their conscience.”

Pope Benedict XVI’s first major diplomatic clash since his election as pontiff a year ago shatters hopes for any reestablishment soon of official ties that ended after communists took control of China in 1949.

Now read this Catholic News Service article:

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The threat of excommunication hangs over two Chinese bishops ordained without papal approval, but only if they acted knowingly and freely, said a canon lawyer.

And even if they incurred excommunication automatically by acting of their own free will, the penalty is limited until Pope Benedict XVI publicly declares their excommunication to the bishops and their faithful, said Jesuit Father James Conn, a professor of canon law at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University.

Then there is this piece by Edward Cody, who is responsible for a lot of the “Pope goes to Romehype, in the Washington Post from Thursday:

BEIJING, May 3 — For the second time in four days, China’s government-sponsored Catholic church consecrated a new bishop without the pope’s approval Wednesday, casting a deeper chill on what had been promising efforts to end half a century of hostility between China and the Vatican.

The new bishop, Liu Xinhong, was installed as Anhui province’s top prelate in a morning ceremony at St. Joseph’s Church in Wuhu, in eastern China, according to a church official who declined to be identified. His ascension followed the consecration Sunday of Ma Yinglin as bishop of Kunming, in southwestern China’s Yunnan province, in spite of a request from the Vatican for more time to consider whether he could meet the pope’s approval.

Excommunication in the Catholic Church is not taken lightly and it is rare that the punishment is inflicted on bishops. If Pope Benedict XVI does indeed approve these excommunications, you can forget about any near-term reunification between the Chinese Communist government and the Vatican, despite the church’s willingness to give up ties with Taiwan.

Also from the Times piece is this interesting information that may shed some light on the diplomatic tit-for-tats:

Some analysts here suggested that China’s abrupt decision to name bishops in defiance of the Vatican came in response to Benedict’s elevation of Hong Kong Bishop Joseph Zen to cardinal this year.

Zen [pictured] has been an outspoken critic of the communist regime. He said his promotion could make him an important bridge between the Vatican and Beijing. But he has not hesitated to criticize Chinese abuses, including the jailing and persecution of priests and other Catholics.

Most recently, the Associated Press reported late Saturday that a bishop appointed by the Pope will be ordained Sunday, according to the AsiaNews agency out of Rome.

This story isn’t ending anytime soon, and reporters should avoid grand pronouncements about excommunications and potential Vatican trips to China until the facts have settled in place. Too much can shift as the many players work the situation, and the media, to their advantage.

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