Newsweek‘s Lisa Miller wrote an article for the May 21 issue that looks at the new book on Jesus by Pope Benedict XVI. Newsweek apparently had an exclusive excerpt of the book and Miller did an article about the book’s meaning, a portion of which dealt with Jesus’ baptism:
[T]he pope explicates Jesus’ baptism by John–a story that appears in all four Gospel accounts and that modern historians believe is at least partially grounded in fact.
This is just choice, if I may borrow one of my favorite words from elementary school. So “modern historians” believe that the baptism of Jesus is “at least partially grounded in fact”? Well that is certainly noteworthy to include in a story like this! What parts are we to believe, oh holy and infallible “modern historians”? Does that sentence even mean anything? Since when could historians even come to consensus on something like this? And on what basis? Who are these historians and why aren’t we told more about them? Are these Jesus Seminar types? Are these the ones who figured out Lincoln was gay? But beyond that, it is just so weird that Miller thinks some odd partial-verification of a story by “modern historians” is really key to understanding or shedding light on Benedict’s book. As if two millennia of systematic theology are really affected by what someone in that bastion of consistency and integrity — the academy — has to say about it. Sigh.
(Benedict is notably silent, though, on the Baptist as an apocalyptic preacher and on the probability that Jesus also believed that the world was about to end in flames. In a discussion elsewhere in “Jesus of Nazareth,” Benedict goes to lengths to show that when Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” he didn’t mean the apocalypse. What he meant, the pope writes, is that “God is acting now–this is the hour when God is showing himself in history as its Lord.” This interpretation may be profound and in keeping with Benedict’s Christ-centered message; it is not, many scholars would say, historically accurate.)
Again, what? Jesus probably wasn’t referring to his own life, death and resurrection when he referred to the Kingdom of God being at hand? And Jesus probably believed the world was “about” to “end in flames”? What does that even mean? And how does she figure that Jesus believed this at all, much less say he did so with any degree of probability? And who in the heck are these “many” scholars who say that Benedict’s view — the orthodox Christian view, I might add — is historically inaccurate? And where can I find an editor who lets me use the word “many” to describe anything in any story? Much less anything of import?
What of the next part of the story? The part where Jesus rises from the water, the heavens part, the Spirit descends on his shoulders (in the shape of a dove) and God’s voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Does Benedict believe, as the fundamentalists do, that this literally happened?
Oh. No. She. Didn’t. Fundamentalists? Um, what? And yes, I hope you do see that I’m rather unable to respond to the complete lack of understanding here. When you’re talking about the Pope, is it better to compare his completely orthodox thoughts on the baptism of Christ “literally” happening to those of fundamentalists (that word! Gah!) or, say, every single one of his predecessors in the Pope seat? The presence of fundamentalists — a rather modern theological group — in this story makes no sense to me. As readers of this blog know, fundamentalist was a term used in the 1910s and 1920s to describe a specific type of religious believer in Britain and the United States who emphasized so-called “fundamentals” of the faith. The AP Stylebook says that reporters should not use the word unless they are using it to describe a group or individual that also uses the term to describe itself. But could someone explain why that group is included in a story about Benedict’s book?
Also, this snide and condescending mainstream media incredulity at the notion that Christians might actually believe that the baptism of Jesus took place as described in all four Gospels is just beyond words. I think more than a few barrels of ink have been shed over this very important moment. Unless Newsweek has only graduated to the journalistic equivalent of Chris Hitchens still expressing shock that billions of very backwards people believe in the transcendent. I mean, is that really news? That Christians believe Jesus to be divine? That Christians believe in the Triune God? For real? I mean, talk about your fundamentals!
Now what’s most disconcerting about this whole mess is that Lisa Miller is Newsweek‘s religion editor. I know that Newsweek is fond of that whole opinion-journalism-masquerading-as-regular-reportage shtick, but this piece reads like it was written by someone with disdain for orthodox Christianity and, much worse, not enough knowledge of the basic topics at hand. It reminds me of that horrible Newsweek International piece on Benedict a few weeks ago. Is that what the magazine is going for? Why?