Deadly social networking in Japan

ReiPortraitIn his feature article “Let’s Die Together” in the May Atlantic, David Samuels does a heroic task of explaining why anonymous group suicide is becoming popular in Japan. The opening image Samuels uses, of a car in a Tokyo suburb in which five young men and one young woman died together, reminded me of a scene in P.D. James’ novel The Children of Men, in which a group of elderly people on a bus cruise hold hands and jump to their deaths from a cliff.

My only criticism of Samuels’ report is his assertion that suicide “is known in Christian teaching as ‘the sin against the Holy Ghost.’ ” Historic Christian teaching certainly condemns suicide, but the church also has been very cautious about identifying any one thing as the sin against the Holy Ghost (presumably because of Jesus’ sobering warning about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit). That said, Samuels’ larger point stands: Suicide “occupies a very different place in the imagination of the West than it does in Japan, where self-disembowelment with a specialized blade has long been considered a proper response to shame or dishonor.”

Samuels writes:

Whereas in the West, suicide is generally seen as the needless act of desperate souls, or of the terminally ill, in Japan it is understood as a more or less rational decision that can be taken by perfectly sane individuals as well as by groups. Japan has a long history of families committing suicide together, as well as suicides by cults and militaristic groups, including kamikaze pilots, or samurai warriors who suffered dishonor and hoped to wipe the slate clean. What is shocking about the new suicide epidemic is not so much that it is a group activity as that people are choosing to kill themselves together with total strangers. The Perfect Suicide Manual has become the essential text of a decentralized death cult that takes orders from no one, and whose members meet on Web sites designed solely to support and strengthen their common intention to die.

Samuels does not attribute the phenomenon to any one social factor. He discusses the roles of Japan’s collapsed “bubble economy,” publication of The Perfect Suicide Manual by Wataru Tsurumi, the ease of connecting with like-minded people through the Internet and the popularity of the animated series Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Tsurumi offers this: “There’s nothing bad about suicide. We have no religion or laws here in Japan telling us otherwise. As for group suicides, before the Internet, people would write letters, or make phone calls … it’s always been part of our culture.”

Samuels interviews animator Hideaki Anno about his series and its heroine:

I am particularly interested in talking to Anno about the character of Rei, a depressive, suicidal girl whose big eyes, girlish body, and blank expression have been the model for the central female characters in Japanese anime for the past decade.

“Rei is someone who is aware of the fact that even if she dies, there’ll be another to replace her, so she doesn’t value her life very highly,” Anno explains, slouching ever-deeper into the couch. “Her presence, her existence — ostensible existence — is ephemeral. She’s a very sad girl. She only has the barest minimum of what she needs to have. She’s damaged in some way; she hurts herself. She doesn’t need friends.”

More troubling still is how Anno describes his neighbors:

Anno pauses for a moment, and gives a dark-browed stare out the window. “I don’t see any adults here in Japan,” he says, with a shrug. “The fact that you see salarymen reading manga and pornography on the trains and being unafraid, unashamed or anything, is something you wouldn’t have seen 30 years ago, with people who grew up under a different system of government. They would have been far too embarrassed to open a book of cartoons or dirty pictures on a train. But that’s what we have now in Japan. We are a country of children.”

The next time I’m tempted to think that euthanasia clinics will be widespread in the United States, I think Samuels’ essay will help me regain perspective.

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On the other side of the notebook

theotokos grA very strange thing happens when journalists write books — they find themselves (hopefully) being interviewed by other journalists, often before speeches and other (hopefully) book-promoting events. Soon thereafter, they often read articles based on these interviews and find themselves exclaiming, “Wait just a (provide colorful descriptive words here) minute, I didn’t say that!”

There’s more to this than the fact that most writers have pretty firm ideas about how we want to express our own beliefs and what we think about our own writings. Truth is, we tend — when being interviewed — to use many of the same words over and over to express what we think. Journalists, in particular, are good at quoting other people, and it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that we are also pretty good at quoting our own best quotes.

This is why it is rather strange to read your own words in print and know that you are being misquoted. This brings us to another episode of an every-now-and-then GetReligion feature that I call “As the Notebook Turns.” This time around, the writer being interviewed was Frederica Mathewes-Green, who is a close friend and the wife of the priest at my family’s parish.

Frederica is best known for her books, Beliefnet columns and NPR commentaries, but she has done more than her share of writing in a more journalistic, magazine style. Recently, she headed down to Lynchburg, Va., for a speaking engagement linked to her latest work, The Lost Gospel of Mary. (Click here for an excerpt.)

This led to an article in the local News & Advance that included all kinds of things. For starters, what does this mean?

A thoughtful, articulate Christian whose pendulum has swung from one philosophical divide to another (once a staunch feminist and spokesperson for Feminists for Life, she is now anti-abortion, albeit non-stridently), Mathewes-Green eventually came to occupy a niche as someone who would speak on religious/social issues that scared other Christians away.

Part of that is accurate, but — last time I checked — Feminists for Life is, as the name suggests, a pro-life group. And then there’s this puzzler:

After leaving Hinduism behind, Mathewes-Green graduated from the Episcopalian-based Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. Later, she and her husband became Anglicans, and now they operate within a denomination with strong ties to Eastern Orthodoxy.

“I’ve never really considered myself a conservative Christian,” Mathewes-Green said, “but gradually, over time, you embrace a classic.”

What, pray tell, is an “Episcopalian-based” seminary? The campus in question is simply an official Episcopal seminary — period. I am also sure that our bishop would be amazed to find out that our congregation has “strong ties to Eastern Orthodoxy,” as opposed to being a real, live, normal Orthodox Christian parish.

Mathewes-Green says the article contained several phrases she has never used while describing her path to Christianity, but she was particularly tickled by that “embrace a classic” phrase. “I have no idea where that quote came from,” she said, in an email about this episode. “As you can see, it was one of the odder interview experiences for me.”

NotebookTurnsBut this wasn’t the most serious misquote, from a doctrinal point of view. Here is the bombshell misquote, from the perspective of an Orthodox believer — especially one who has just written a book about St. Mary, the mother of Jesus. A misquote is one thing. Heresy is another.

“People are hungry to know more about Mary,” she said. “They want a prequel to the Jesus story.”

Among other things, Mathewes-Green’s research led her to believe that Mary did not live out her life as a virgin.

“No one expected that of her,” she said. “She was a normal human being.”

In another sense, however, Mathewes-Green is quite conservative.

What in the world? There is no way that Frederica said that.

So what did she say? Let’s go back to her email:

My point was that the first target audience for evangelism, the Jews, didn’t expect the Messiah to be born of a virgin, nor that his mother would be virgin for the rest of her life. So it isn’t a doctrine the Christians would have invented. The best explanation is, they believed it was true. They stood by this belief consistently, unanimously, and the belief she and Joseph had a regular married life doesn’t arise for over 1500 years.

There are all kinds of things that evangelical, liberal Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic Christians might discuss linked to this issue. That is not the point here (so don’t click the Comments link just to argue about all of that). The key is that an articulate, experienced writer was quoted as saying precisely the opposite of what she believes and what she said. I have been unable to find a correction anywhere on the newpaper’s website. How about you?

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I have no response to that

0512 cnIt has been a very busy week for me as we ended the spring term at the Washington Journalism Center. I have been away from my keyboard quite a bit.

Thus, for several days I have been wondering what in the world to say about Ruth Gledhill’s story in The Times about the death of Father Rodney Hunter, a missionary in Central Africa who was a player in the worldwide Anglican war over creedal doctrine, sacraments and, of course, sexuality. The question is whether he is its first casualty — literally.

I really do not know what to say about this and, to my shock, the story has drawn almost total silence.

How does one research cause and effect in this story until it reaches a court, if it does? The plot is quite complicated and there is really no way to untangle it in a few lines. So, read the story. You can also read some background at Gledhill’s Articles of Faith weblog. But here is a starting point:

Relatives of Canon Rodney Hunter, 73, believe that his food was contaminated by supporters of the Rev Nicholas Henderson in a battle between the liberal and conservative wings of the Anglican Church.

In November Canon Hunter was found dead at his home in Nkhotakota, Malawi, with a strange black substance around his mouth. The day before his death he had complained of severe stomach pains, and postmortem examination has now shown that he was killed by three poisons. Malawi police have charged his cook with murder and are investigating rumours that the poisoning was organised by supporters of Mr Henderson, who had no knowledge of the alleged plot.

Canon Hunter was an outspoken critic of plans to appoint the liberal Mr Henderson as Bishop of Lake Malawi. The Province of Central Africa is at the heart of conservative evangelical opposition to the liberal Anglican outlook in the West on homosexuality.

Who knows what is going on here. Still, it is hard to believe that — outside the blogosphere — it has received no attention. Am I missing something online somewhere else in the mainstream?

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Mere candlestick holders in Moscow?

Christ the SaviorAs an Orthodox Christian, I have to admit that my heart lurched a bit when I read the early wire stories about the funeral of Boris N. Yeltsin.

Online Orthodox folks were forwarding these reports around today with short messages on the top, such as “Interesting,” “Amazing” or “Can you imagine this?” But the emotions were more mixed than outsiders might think. Let’s pick up the early New York Times report by Michael Schwirtz at the second paragraph:

The service was held in full accordance with Orthodox Christian tradition in the Christ the Savior Cathedral, whose reconstruction Mr. Yeltsin approved while he was president after it was destroyed during the Communist era.

During the service, Mr. Yeltsin’s open casket lay beneath the cathedral’s massive frescoed dome and was draped with the Russia tricolor. Clergy intoned prayers over the body, as a teary-eyed Naina I. Yeltsin, Mr. Yeltsin’s widow, and his two daughters, dressed in black, looked on.

… Not since the death of Czar Aleksandr III in 1894 has the Christ the Savior Cathedral officially been used for the funeral of a Russian head of state.

This was such a symbolic national moment, but please do not think that many Orthodox believers — inside and outside of Russia — were tempted to overestimate its importance. The moment was poignant, but in no way perfect. “Civil religion” is real, but it’s rarely the real thing when it comes to faith.

This is not to judge Yeltsin, whose career is framed by courage as well as by corruption. And how are we to know the mysteries in the minds, hearts and souls of President Vladimir V. Putin and the other dignitaries who — with varying degrees of success, if you study the photos — seemed to make the sign of the cross again and again while attending the funeral rites?

But I have a very strong memory from 1991 that, I think, provides a bit of context for these images. Through a strange series of events linked to that year’s Moscow Book Fair, I was part of a group that arrived in a hotel across the street from Yeltsin’s headquarters only days after his triumph and the fall of the Soviet Union. In fact, I was in the crush on the steps of the Russian White House at his victory party, with 100,000 or so other people. It was a stunning time, which led a friend of mine to look at the scene and say, “Don’t you feel like you’re back stage at the changing of the world?” (If you wish, click here and see my Scripps Howard columns from that era.)

It was amazing. However, let me stress that it was at that time — even as the bells rang and the world seemed to tremble — that a candid Orthodox priest told me about an interesting and sobering Russian expression that I think helps put the Yeltsin funeral in context.

The term is “podsvechnik,” which means “candlestick holder.”

However, the Russians also use this term to describe leaders who understand the power of the liturgical photo opportunity, the politician who knows how to venerate an icon, make the sign of the cross and then stand still holding a candle during some or all of an Orthodox rite, while the cameras click.

OrthoCandlesThis is the cynical side of what we witnessed today.

But this brave priest emphasized that it is not the whole story, for those who are patient and are willing to cling to hope. It is possible to see signs of faith, as well as cynicism. It helps to remember the context for this era of confusion and mixed signals. This is how I put it a few years ago:

Outsiders must remember that this is taking place only a few generations after the Communists closed 98 percent of Russia’s churches and, in one brief period, killed 200,000 bishops, priests and nuns and then sent another 500,000 believers to die in labor camps. Millions later died in Stalinist purges. KGB records indicate that most clergy were simply shot or hanged. But others were crucified on church doors, slaughtered on their altars or stripped naked, doused with water and left outdoors in winter.

Now, once again, we see Russian bishops burning incense in a state funeral. It’s a great photo. However, I hope some journalists who covered the rites hang around to ask this hard question: Were some of the bishops in these photos mere “candlestick holders”? There is no easy answer, but the safest is “some were and some were not.”

Why? As Yeltsin came to power in 1991, that anonymous priest in Moscow told me that it was crucial to understand that the post-Soviet Russian church will contain four kinds of leaders:

A few Soviet-era bishops are not even Christian believers. Some are flawed believers who were lured into compromise by the KGB, but have never publicly confessed this. Some are believers who cooperated with the KGB, but have repented to groups of priests or believers. Finally, some never had to compromise.

“We have all four kinds,” this priest said. “That is our reality. We must live with it until God heals our church.”

That’s what I was thinking about today, as I read the reports from Christ the Savior Cathedral. I hope there are journalists who linger to explore this confusing, joyful, painful, inspiring, sobering story. It would be worth the effort.

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More on the evolution of Pope Benedict

rottMaybe it’s really difficult to write about Pope Benedict XVI. We noted that bad Newsweek International piece last week. And here’s another one that’s not the best example from the genre. Jeff Israely filed something from Rome for Time that was given the headline “A Step Backward for Pope Benedict?” Intriguing. Let’s learn more:

Two years into his papacy, Benedict XVI may be about to reclaim his reputation as a no-holds-barred traditionalist. Thanks to Benedict’s thoughtful manner, Church progressives had believed that the man who was once the hard-line Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would cut some slack on areas of doctrinal contention — using his intellectual heft and traditional credentials as necessary cover. But as Benedict turns 80 on April 16 and marks two years as Pope on April 19, the once hopeful progressives have all but given up their fantasy of Benedict the Reformer.

It’s funny. I remember how when Ratzinger was chosen, the response was more or less sheer horror from progressives. Now, in just two years, we are to believe that they changed their tune and believed he’d throw away doctrinal positions — only to be horribly disappointed once again? I mean, I understand changes of heart but this doesn’t seem to be an accurate portrayal of progressives’ hopes or fears. It seems more like a flashily-written lede that is not born out by the rest of the story. I’m not sure it serves readers wanting to learn about Ratzinger or those skeptical about him.

Israely cites one problem that is supposed to be heartbreaking — giving priests the option to perform mass in Latin. I’m with Luther on the benefits of chanting a mass in the vernacular, but I’m not sure that this change — which is only permitting priests to do a Latin Mass facing the altar if they want, is that big of a deal. An unnamed priest says it’s a big deal but doesn’t quite explain why.

Israely quotes another two unnamed but disappointed folks, a “progressive cleric” and a “senior Church official.” I understand how difficult it might be to get folks to talk on the record but if the flashy lede is to be believed, you need to back it up with more than anonymous sources, I think.

Israely tries to sum up a bit of the Pope’s approach and has this interesting note:

In addition, Benedict professes a very specific kind of Christianity, one based not only on the teachings of Jesus, but on abiding by the letter of ancient Catholic Church traditions as the only effective bulwark against rampant relativism.

That’s a fascinating claim and one I’d love to learn more about. It’s crying out for examples, I think. The last line is also worth excerpting:

The professor Pope may be happy to have a conversation on doctrine, but he knows he always has the last word.

That’s one way of putting it.

Eric Gorski — now with the Associated Press — had a fantastic and relevant article on Benedict and his imprint on the United States. He notes that the Pope hasn’t focused too much on the States but that is changing, with some looming bishop appointments. The balanced and informative article quotes a variety of observers — on the record! — and notes areas where Benedict might have taken action in the United States but chose not to. Rather than repeating the notion that the Pope has undergone some magical transformation, Gorski presents an alternate view from conservative editor of First Things Richard John Neuhaus:

Neuhaus dismisses suggestions that conservative Catholics such as himself are disappointed that Benedict has not been tougher, and derides media portrayals of the pope transforming himself from “God’s rottweiler” to kindly uncle.

“There is no evidence whatsoever he has changed his judgment on anything of consequence the last two years,” Neuhaus said. “He is a gentle, thoughtful, paternal, firm and loving person. That’s the man you see. For those of us who knew Ratzinger over the last 25 years, there were no surprises at all.”

With a religion as large as Roman Catholicism, there are bound to be different views. Sometimes rather than picking one narrow view and running with it, it’s better to go ahead and lay out the nuance and complexities.

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The heart of Islamic Turkey

Islam in TurkeyIn response to tmatt’s post that GetReligion should comment on more stories about non-Christians, a reader Liv submitted this New York Times piece on religious tensions in Turkey. I mention this because it is an example of a story unrelated to Christianity that has massive application to the largely Christian nation that is the United States of America.

Here’s the heart of the story, which has a news hook related to a 300,000-person(!) protest of the perceived rising role of Islam in Turkish society:

“We don’t want to become another Iran, another Afghanistan,” said Hanife Sahin, a retired nurse, stooping under the red tent formed by a Turkish flag that ran like a river over the crowd.

News reports said demonstrators numbered as many as 300,000, an unexpectedly high turnout for a gathering that was initially expected to draw only harder-line nationalists. The numbers underlined the deepening divide within Turkish society over the role of Islam in Turkey, a country whose very charter scrubbed the government clean of religion.

“Believe me, all of Turkey is here,” said a 27-year-old market researcher, as teenage boys draped in Turkish flags jostled her.

But there are two Turkeys now. Turkish society is opening a lively, sometimes painful, debate on its past for the first time since 1923 when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk stamped out public religion to create the Turkish state. That has divided society and focused attention on the contest over the presidency, which controls the military and is the country’s most important post safeguarding secularism.

But there are two Turkeys now. Turkish society is opening a lively, sometimes painful, debate on its past for the first time since 1923 when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk stamped out public religion to create the Turkish state. That has divided society and focused attention on the contest over the presidency, which controls the military and is the country’s most important post safeguarding secularism.

My first question: What does it mean, theologically, to “become another Iran, another Afghanistan”? There’s a lot that could be taken from that quote. And in that last paragraph: What does it mean, again theologically, to safeguard “secularism”? What does secularism mean in the Middle East and how does it compare to what Americans refer to as secularism? Who is it in America that wants to “safeguard secularism”?

The article is a vivid portrait of a country on the edge of the largely traditional Middle East and, for lack of a better word, secularist Europe. But what that exactly means plays out in the everyday lives of the country’s citizens. Reporter Sabrina Tavernise found plenty of evidence, some of it anecdotal, that the state could be moving toward a more traditional Islamic society and government:

More women are wearing head scarves, said Ecem Karanfil, a 17-year-old in a T-shirt and jeans. “We want to feel comfortable dressing the way we want,” she said.

Her friend said she sensed something suspicious in the attractive new design of religion textbooks being given out in their high school. “I am wondering why,” she said, as a pretzel seller squeezed by, his wares stacked in a pyramid on his head.

A 65-year-old woman who had come from Izmir, a town in western Turkey, said she was annoyed at what she saw as the new state laxness allowing state workers to take time off for prayer on Fridays.

“I go to the post office on Friday, and I can’t see a single person at their desk,” she said, sounding indignant.

A small thing had caught Ms. Sahin’s attention. A government official had recently suggested increasing the number of letters in the Turkish alphabet to 32 to allow the language to better accommodate Arabic sounds. “I’ve done pretty well with 29 so far,” she said, smiling.

This is all good stuff, but what is being preached in mosques on Fridays? What are the words, the historical references and lessons? And what are the sources for this trend? What is fueling the fire?

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New, evangelistic atheism in Europe

militant atheismThis week’s long (2,000-plus words) and much-discussed Wall Street Journal feature about the growing militancy of atheists in Europe raises a lot of questions. Sadly, it is available only to subscribers, but let’s not let that little detail keep us from talking about it.

Here’s a snippet:

Mr. Onfray, 48 years old and author of 32 books, stands in the vanguard of a curious and increasingly potent phenomenon in Europe: zealous disbelief in God.

Passive indifference to faith has left Europe’s churches mostly empty. But debate over religion is more intense and strident than it has been in many decades. Religion is re-emerging as a big issue in part because of anxiety over Europe’s growing and restive Muslim populations and a fear that faith is reasserting itself in politics and public policy. That is all adding up to a growing momentum for a combative brand of atheism, one that confronts rather than merely ignores religion.

Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun and prominent British author on religion, calls the trend “missionary secularism.” She says it mimics the ardor of Christianity, Islam and Marxism, all of which have at their core an urge to convert nonbelievers to their worldview.

My initial reaction to this piece was to wonder whatever happened to the anything goes attitude of modern secularists. This attitude is nothing new but the fact that it’s growing is interesting. We’ve seen it with Sam Harris. We’ve seen it with Oxford’s Richard Dawkins.

This is yet another sign that religious and anti-religious voices on the left are going to demand, and they deserve, more coverage.

Not content to let this piece just focus on wishy-washy supernatural issues, the author, Andrew Higgins, had to bring it into the real world of “concrete issues.” As a commentator on things related to religion, I resent that, but here’s what he comes up with:

As with many fights involving faith, Europe’s struggle between belief and nonbelief is also a proxy for other, concrete issues that go far beyond the supernatural. In this case, they involve a battle to define the identity of a continent.

Half a century after the 1957 Treaty of Rome laid the foundations for the now 27-nation European Union, Europe has secured peace and prosperity. But it is deeply uncertain about what binds the bloc together beyond mere economic self-interest. Says Ms. Armstrong: “There is a big fight going on to define European civilization.”

In London last month, leading British atheists squared off with defenders of faith in a public debate on the motion, “We’d be better off without religion.” Tickets cost nearly $40 but so many people wanted to attend that the event was moved to a bigger venue with over 2,000 seats. It still sold out. The audience declared the atheists the victors, by a margin of 1,205 to 778, with a few score abstentions.

In Germany, a wealthy furniture manufacturer is funding a “think tank of Enlightenment,” a group of scientists and others committed to debunking religion. It is named after Giordano Bruno, a 16th-century philosopher and cosmologist who was burnt at the stake as a heretic. In Italy, one fervent nonbeliever has gone to the European Court of Human Rights with a claim that the Roman Catholic Church is guilty of fraud: Jesus, he says, never existed.

Dawkinssouthpark2This is not the first time the Journal‘s news team has decided that religious issues are less important than the real “concrete issues” with which modern people grapple. Rod Dreher of Beliefnet’s Crunchy Con and The Dallas Morning News caught an instance back in February.

Speaking of Rod, his analysis of this piece is striking. While the Journal hints at the issue — “Europe’s Muslim populace, estimated at between 15 million and 20 million” and “alarm over Islam” acting as the “prime catalyst for much of the polemic” — it’s the undercovered irony in this story:

Europeans, by turning their back on the cult that created their culture, and substituting an ersatz religion of secularism and hedonism, are committing civilizational suicide. Mark Steyn has been beating the drum about demographic disaster in Europe for some time. Writing in the new issue of National Review, he cites this quote about the demographic changes upon us: “The expected global upheaval is without parallel in human history.”

Know who said that? The United Nations. In fact, check out this most recent comprehensive revision of the UN’s demographics forecast. It predicts a demographic catastrophe for Europe in the decades to come. Somebody’s got to stick around to take care of all those old people who decided not to have children, and that somebody is going to be immigrants — most likely Muslims, who have the bad taste (by Euro standards) to believe in God. In his NR column, Steyn takes on those who point out that fertility rates in Muslim Tunisia are falling. In response, Steyn points out that Turkey is rapidly de-secularizing because the Western-oriented Kemalists of the cities have been outbred by the intensely religious Turks of rural Anatolia. …

But who will be left standing to inhabit Europe when that happens? It’s not going to be the people who run the place now. And it’s certainly not going to be the evangelists for atheism.

Perhaps that’s a question worth asking the militant atheists? But note that this is, first and foremost, a valid news story worthy of investigation by journalists.

Meanwhile, on the pop-culture front, what about the beavers in the South Park episode about God, the future and Richard Dawkins? That’s worth at least a mention.

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Is GetReligion a ‘Christian’ blog?

Cb RedSeaThe iMacs on my desks at home and work share many things in common, including an overflowing (digitally speaking) email folder called “GetRel guilt.”

This file is full of really good, really bad or really interesting religion-news stories that I really, really wanted to write about on this weblog. However, something bad happened along the way and things just kind of slid until the topic was simply too old. Most of the time, the topic of the story is so important that I am simply too intimidated to write about it without pouring several hours of careful writing into the post. There are many times when — with my full-time academic job, starting a new program in which I am the director and lead lecturer — I just don’t have the time. Oh, and I write the “On Religion” column for Scripps Howard as well.

Thus, several times a week, I drag another couple of stories over to the “GetRel guilt” file, because my co-workers — working journalists, all — are too busy to write about them either. I imagine that they have their own guilt files.

Meanwhile, the waterfall of news roars on. And, in the midst of this, readers are constantly submitting links to stories from newspapers, magazines, wire services and networks that they want us to cover on the blog. Most of these tips are really good and we appreciate them very much, especially those from newspapers in cities and lands far from the oceans of ink poured out on the east and west coasts. There is no way that we can read even a tenth of the news that we would like to read. Television news is another major gap.

My guess is that we get about 10 to 15 of these news tips during a typical weekday, when traffic on the site is heaviest. Add that to the dozen or so items that the GetReligionistas share with each other day after day, as we try to figure out what we have the time or the smarts to write about on any given day while we do our various jobs.

So a week or so ago, a reader sent in the URL for a New York Times piece by Michael Slackman that ran with the headline “Did the Red Sea Part? No Evidence, Archaeologists Say.” It focused on a tour of digs that Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s chief archaeologist, provided for a pack of journalists. This media event

… prompted a reporter to ask about the Exodus, and if the new evidence was linked in any way to the story of Passover. The archaeological discoveries roughly coincided with the timing of the Israelites’ biblical flight from Egypt and the 40 years of wandering the desert in search of the Promised Land.

“Really, it’s a myth,” Dr. Hawass said of the story of the Exodus, as he stood at the foot of a wall built during what is called the New Kingdom.

Thus, our reader commented:

… (P)lease understand that I am not necessarily saying THERE IS compelling physical evidence of the Exodus. I have my own questions about Biblical “history.” I am only commenting on the quality of this story and the major play it received in the NY Times, “the paper of record.”

I believe this story deserves comment on several levels:

(a) It’s a standard “where’s the beef?” story that pops up around every major “historically based” religious celebration — Jewish, Christian or whatever (well, maybe not all of them). This particular story line has been done for years in connection with Passover, which leads one to wonder why the Times bothered to redo it.

(b) The only source quoted touting the no-evidence line is an Egyptian, apparently a government official (no academic connection is mentioned so how else do you get to be Egypt’s chief anything?), which makes him suspect in this context, given Israel’s conflict with Egypt (despite the peace treaty) and the Arab history of seeking to deny any Jewish historical connection to the Holy Land for religious/political reasons.

(c) The counter voice by another Egyptian is deeply buried at the story’s very end.

(d) This piece talks only about one possible route into Sinai. There has been speculation about several possible routes.

(e) The writer fails to note that no proof it happened differs from proof that it did not happen.

Excellent points, all the way around. I remember thinking that I wish I could run this as an item on GetReligion, in large part because this particular reader is a religion-writing pro named Ira Rifkin. If you don’t know that byline, Rifkin is best known as the former national correspondent for Religion News Service, founding news producer for and Washington correspondent for The Jerusalem Report magazine. His most recent book is Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval and you can read his work in lots of other places, as well.

But I didn’t get to that article and my co-workers didn’t, either.

tenCommandmentsAs you can tell, I didn’t throw it away. It was, however, almost certainly headed to the GetRel guilt file.

A few days later, another note showed up from Rifkin. It was blunt and it stung, in large parts because I agreed with much of it. It certainly needed to be taken seriously. Here is a shortened version:

The creators of any publication, online or dead wood, have the right to decide subject matter and perspective. Readers who differ can go elsewhere or start their own publication. So it is with some hesitancy that I write the following.

I’m a veteran religion journalist who reads GetReligion with some regularity because I agree with the blog’s basic premise — which is that one cannot understand human actions and world events without first understanding religious motivations, and that the popular media too often fails in its responsibility when it comes to covering religion. This is particularly so when the religious are traditional in nature. …

Reading the blog’s “Why We’re Here” page I am led to believe that critiquing popular journalism’s coverage of religion is the blog’s raison d’etre. There is no mention of a desire to spur insider wrangling over Christian theology, criticism of liberal Christian thinking or to evangelize from a traditional perspective. Also not mentioned is any desire to in any way limit the blog to Christian issues, even though most American media religion coverage is — and rightly so from a demographic perspective — about Christian issues and individuals.

Nonetheless, I find the blog to be Christian-centric in a way that contradicts the “Why We’re Here” page. I concede that I could be overly sensitive on this point as a non-Christian. I’m a practicing Jew; my theology is unorthodox but my practice leans toward what might be described as a blend of liberal and traditional. Moreover, I consider my faith tradition, in all its permutations, to be under considerable if not existential threat from external and internal pressures.

What prompts me to write this is GetReligion’s apparent decision not to comment on a story I submitted that ran in the New York Times last week under the headline: “Did the Red Sea Part? No Evidence, Archaeologists Say.” Perhaps it was inadvertently overlooked, or simply fell through the cracks because of Holy Week pressures, but several other important non-Christian stories I’ve sent in or have noticed in the major media also have not received comment by the editors. So I discern a pattern.

Why comment on Rachel Zoll’s AP piece on debunking Easter stories and not Michael Slackman’s Times story debunking Passover? I think anytime the Times gives prominent play to a controversial religion story it is worthy of GetReligion comment. …

So tell me, am I out to lunch? Am I simply on another wave length? I welcome repudiation, though agreement would be nicer.

Like I said, it’s an important letter. We’ve been dealing with some of these questions from day one or thereabouts (post No. 24), when Jeff “Killing the Buddha” Sharlet of The Revealer quipped that we want people to “get” religion — our religion. I stressed that we are interested in mainstream news coverage and that, well, we have no plans to add a “Just As I Am, Without One Plea” soundtrack to the site. That remains the case.

We really have no interest in doctrinal fights unless they get woven into the news and, believe me, they often do. That’s where the whole “tmatt trio” thing came from. Those edgy doctrinal questions grew out of my own work covering the Anglican wars, and I will argue again and again that they are valid, information-rich questions, if journalists want to dig beneath the political surface of that ongoing train wreck (and lots of other oldline Protestant stories, as well).

Obviously, reporters focusing on fault lines in Judaism, Islam, neopaganism and other newsworthy faiths would need to ask doctrinal questions appropriate to those groups. As an Orthodox rabbi in Denver once told me, when in doubt ask Jewish newsmakers if they believe in God and if they still believe in the state of Israel.

Meanwhile, I would like someone to show where the featured writers for this blog — as opposed to folks on the comment boards — have veered into evangelistic work. We are constantly trying to police the comments pages to try to get people to focus on the journalistic questions linked to the writing we do here. We should spike more comments than we do.

However, let me answer Rifkin’s main question: Is GetReligion a “Christian” weblog?

The most honest answer is that it is a journalism blog produced by mainstream journalists who are traditional, creedal Christians — Eastern Orthodox, Episcopalian, Lutheran and Presbyterian — who have never hidden their religious convictions.

Yes, I am sure we tend to write about the topics that we know the most about, in part because we don’t want to mess up. I, for one, am constantly aware that I am — this is my goal — writing to an audience of mainstream journalists and that I am also praising or dissecting the work of professionals. I also know that the GetReligion gang has never found a writer with the time to do a decent job covering religion news at the global level. That is another massive area of guilt.

I wish there were more hours in the day. I probably end up writing about one out of 10 news stories or topics that I want to write about. My GetRel guilt file keeps getting bigger.

Nevertheless, keep those news tips coming. And if you send us letters, as opposed to comments, please let us know whether we can publish them. We’re looking for all the content we can get. Believe me.

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