Women on the altar — Yay!

altarboysRoman Catholics who believe only males should serve the Sacrament or hold the lectionary open are backward and awful and almost without reason. Or so the Washington Post‘s Caryle Murphy and Michelle Boorstein would have you believe. Yes, members of the same mainstream American media that cautiously explain why some Muslims riot over political cartoons featuring Muhammad write a whole story without explaining the historic Christian view for an all-male priesthood and altar staff.

Last week it was announced that the Arlington Diocese would introduce females at the altar. I was deeply curious about how reporters would handle this story since I belong to a church which has only male pastors. For the same reason we permit only certain males to serve as pastors, we permit only certain males to serve as deacons and acolytes. In other words, we’re even more exclusive than your run-of-the-mill sexist, backward Roman Catholics! And what about those church bodies that frown on any lay assistants period?

Anyway, I sat slack-jawed as I read the puffery which passed for a news report of the change in Arlington. I honestly wish I could just quote the entire piece to show how unbalanced it is. Beyond the populist perspective — as if all that matters is whether public opinion in the pews is tilted one way or the other — the article just completely fails to mention doctrinal arguments for male-only acolytes. Imagine, if you will, that you were writing a press release for an imaginary group called Catholics for Female Acolytes and see if you would have changed anything from this Washington Post lead:

Despite the short notice, they were more than ready to make parish history yesterday at Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Arlington.

Emily Wallis held the lectionary open while the priest read from it. Angela Barbieri brought the ceremonial vial of water to the altar. And Margaret Lister followed the priest down the aisle to shake hands with her congregation, just as she’d always seen altar boys do.

“It was fun,” Margaret, 7, said later. “I always wanted to be on the altar. I wanted to see what it was like to be helping the priest.”

This particular priest, the Rev. Leonard J. Tuozzolo, was just as excited as his female helpers in their floor-length white robes called albs.

“This is very historical,” the pastor, vested in Lent’s penitential purple, said at yesterday’s 9:30 a.m. Mass, during which female servers directly assisted in the liturgy. “We’re no longer gender-restricted.”

His assembled parishioners, including squirming children, young families and elderly couples, responded with loud applause and “Yays!”

The authors say the diocese is divided between “conservative and liberal Catholics” — which means absolutely nothing, at least to me. I know many Roman Catholics and I love nothing more than to ask them about their views of their church and no matter how well I think I understand them, I would be loathe to describe them as conservative or liberal. The authors say the Arlington bishop “seemed to be trying to please both” sides by permitting two parishes to offer a Latin Mass. Ah yes, both sides. Because we know in Roman Catholic issues, there are usually two sides — one liberal and one Tridentine-loving conservative. Let’s go back to the love-fest where we see that girls are uniquely suited to the altar tasks:

Lyn McGee, who has 11-year-old twins — a boy and a girl — said she is glad she no longer has to explain to daughter Taylor why only her brother Conor could assist the priest at St. Anthony of Padua Parish near Baileys Crossroads in Fairfax County. St. Anthony is expected to begin allowing altar girls soon.

Taylor is more engaged in the Mass than her brother, McGee said, and she notices such things as his untied shoelaces. She believes that she can help him fix such things if she’s a participant, McGee added. “She said, ‘I can finally put him together before he walks down the aisle! He always has something dragging,’” McGee recalled.

altardancersFinally the authors get to the conservative folks who they say are displeased that this is a first-step toward a female clergy. Instead of citing doctrinal opposition to female priests or female altar servers, the authors instead look at what one scholar, theologian, expert, official, commenter on a blog worries about as an effect of ending the male altar service:

A mother named “Denise” expressed her concerns on Open Book. “The nature of young boys is that when you introduce girls into the activity, it lowers the value or status of the activity in their eyes and the boys’ participation decreases,” she wrote. “From these boys come our priests and the Arlington Diocese has been blessed with abundant seminarians. Why would we jeopardize that now?”

The Rev. Brian G. Bashista, head of the diocese’s Office of Vocations, said there is no evidence of a connection between the sex of altar servers and the number of men entering the seminary. The most influential factors in men becoming priests or women becoming nuns are family and faithful priests, he said.

“This is a difficult time for some people,” he said of the introduction of female altar servers, “and we need to be prayerfully patient.”

Well, I guess if the unbiased diocesan official rebuts a negative claim from a one-named blog commenter then we’ve provided all the balance we need. But we also throw in a patronizing comment about those poor people who are slow to accept change. Because we all know that they’re just fearful sexists who don’t like any progress or equality between the sexes. To drive the point home, the reporters quote a few more parents and female acolytes who praise progress and equality between the sexes in the church.

Wow and wow. I have absolutely no doubt that it was easy to find any number of parents who were elated that Suzie got to help out at the altar. I would imagine that most everyone I know — outside of my congregation and larger church body — would think this was a non-issue. They would say that it’s not even debatable whether churches should let girls serve as acolytes and lay readers. But didn’t Caryle Murphy and Michelle Boorstein have any curiosity why the Arlington diocese made this change or why the altar servers used to be exclusively male? There are serious Roman Catholic arguments for a male-only acolyte corps. They should have been mentioned and treated respectfully.

Assuming the reporting duo isn’t trying to be biased, they should really try harder to explain complex and nuanced religious issues next time.

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Please, reporters, cover the religious left

bouncerstvI am one of those people who generally fares better economically under Democrats, but generally votes Republican due to, yes, abortion. While I have certainly voted for Dems, even pro-choice Dems, under specific circumstances, the murder of unborn children trumps my bank account in the grand scheme of things.

Posted by Ken at 10:14 am on March 26, 2006

I’m one of those people would generally fares better economically under Republicans, but my wife and I vote for Democrats because of social issues. … If you are concerned about poverty, the death penalty, just war, a foreign policy based on human rights, a humane immigration policy, and policies which promote toleance and diversity, we put our economic needs aside and vote for Democrats.

Posted by Daniel at 12:01 pm on March 26, 2006

Terry, given the responses and the rather tortured way you backed into religion here, I think this posting was entirely too political … and only slightly relevant to the GR mission. Just my opinion. …

Posted by Stephen A. at 8:00 pm on March 26, 2006

I have WiFi for a moment, so let me jump in here for a second to respond to a few readers’ comments about my gentle jab about media coverage of the GOP and “family” issues. Ken and Daniel nicely illustrate the sentiments I was writing about. Stephen A. says I tortured logic to turn this into a religion story.

Well, I disagree. Right now, the single strongest indicator of how people will vote in an American election is how often they attend worship services. The “pew gap” keeps coming up, even when you are looking at cultural groups in which the Democratic Party rules — such as African-American and Jewish voters. If you find a black voter or a Jewish voter who breaks ranks and votes for the GOP, you will almost always find moral and cultural issues at the heart of that decision. And you will find the “pew gap” in there, too. They will be hyperactive in their congregations.

Why does this favor the GOP? That’s simple. The growing segments of organized religion in America — the forms of religion with pews — are conservative. The religious left is very powerful, but, in its institutionalized forms, the religious left is aging and shrinking. The Unitarians are growing, a bit, I hear.

ucc ad1Nevertheless, the religious and secular left coalition (the so-called anti-fundamentalist voters) is, in all of its forms, a major story in American life right now. Once again, people must read that Tribal Relations story in The Atlantic Monthly. Read it now.

And there are parts of the oldline religious left that are kicking at the demographic chains that bind them. Take the United Church of Christ, for example. Remember the ads not that long ago accusing conservative churches of institutionalized racism? Those “God is still speaking” ads?

Well, the UCC is back for another round, this time arguing that the MSM is pro-religious right. As 365gay.com reports:

The 30-second commercial begins with a shot of an African-American mother trying to calm a crying baby. Sitting in a church pew, the mother fidgets anxiously, as she endures disapproving looks from fellow worshippers. Eventually, someone in the wings pushes an “ejector” button to rid the church of her — and her noisy baby. Into the air they go flying.

In similar fashion, a gay couple, an Arab-American, a person using a walker, among others, get “ejected.” Finally, when a homeless person wanders in and takes a seat, nervous parishioners — expecting she’ll get the boot for sure — scoot away from her.

Cheap shots? Probably. But this is a story, both the mainline decline and the forms of religion that take the place of the old mainline.

Meanwhile, I remain very pro-free speech so I think the networks should open up and let both sides speak. Come on, folks, run the UCC ads. And the ads for conservative religious groups, too. This is America.

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Sleep talking is dangerous to marriage

talaqA disturbing trend I’ve noticed among American newswires is the instinct to take a foreign newswire report, copy the news of the story and spin it as a circus or side/freakshow for Americans to laugh at those loonies. The articles often involve religion, and that’s especially disturbing because of the cultural intricacies and details that are often lost in translation.

The laws surrounding copyright are fairly clear. News and information cannot be copyrighted by anyone as long as the source is given credit. Only a headline is deemed exclusive (creative?) content. So while no laws are being broken, I believe the practice is a disservice to the public discourse.

Such is the case regarding this Reuters report on the apparent fact that a Muslim couple must split because the husband muttered the word for divorce, “talaq,” three times in his sleep. The story is, at the time of this post, fourth on CNN.com’s most popular rankings. I’m sure it’s now subject to the inane humor in American office cubicles, but also has drawn some clever headlines.

The story cites the Press Trust of India — the country’s largest news agency of 450 subscribing newspapers and others around the world — as its primary source (I was unable to find a link to the original article). There’s barely of scent of original reporting by the news agency:

The religious leaders ruled that if the couple wanted to remarry they would have to wait at least 100 days. Sohela [Ansari] would also have to spend a night with another man and be divorced by him in turn.

The couple, who live in the eastern state of West Bengal, have refused to obey the order and the issue has been referred to a local family counseling center.

India’s minority Muslim population is governed by Islamic personal laws on issues such as marriage, divorce and property inheritance.

triple talaqGreat story, until the end, when we find out that Zafarul-Islam Khan, the editor of a popular Indian Muslim newspaper, believes the ruling was bogus:

“This is a totally unnecessary controversy and the local ‘community leaders’ or whosoever has said it are totally ignorant of Islamic law,” said Zafarul-Islam Khan, an Islamic scholar and editor of The Milli Gazette, a popular Muslim newspaper.

“The law clearly says any action under compulsion or in a state of intoxication has no effect. The case of someone uttering something while asleep falls under this category and will have no impact whatsoever,” Khan told Reuters.

So according to Khan, what one does while drunk has no merit? At least under Muslim law? Why weren’t the local Islamic leaders involved in this story interviewed? How about an outside expert on Islamic law? Is there an inside local issue or scandal of which we are left unaware?

This story has spread to more than 50 news outlets, but I have yet to find one that tells much more than the Reuters report. Such is the power of the American newswires, whose stories are republished over and over again without regard for their lack of original reporting and research.

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Apostasy in the Muslim world

abdulrahmanAn Afghan court dismissed the case against a man facing possible execution for converting from Islam to Christianity, according to various reports. His release date has not been announced but could be very soon.

It is worth noting that Abdul Rahman’s case was not dismissed because of any sudden stated change of heart on whether the penalty for apostasy is death — at least among those who were in a place or position to do him in. It was dismissed on a technicality. An Afghan Supreme Court spokesman said there were problems with the prosecutor’s evidence. With some of Rahman’s next of kin testifying that he was mentally ill, he was deemed unfit for trial.

We began the conversation about media coverage of Rahman’s fate last week. One issue I highlighted was the need for reporters to understand that Rahman was facing death not for being a Christian but for being a Christian who once had been Muslim. In that previous discussion, Muslim reader Maryam, a.k.a. Umm (mother to) Yasmin, commented:

Actually (and I have memories of pointing this out before here) “sharia, or Islamic law” does not stipulate death for apostasy, and it would be nice if GR journos could take their peers to task for mindlessly repeating this mistake. Various scholars, jurists and thinkers (medieval and modern alike) vigourously disagree on the topic.

Radio Free Europe — which is funded by the United States government — made Maryam’s point. In an article about Rahman, it compared penalties for converting from Islam to penalties for committing treason against the United States:

The key issue for Muslim thinkers grappling with Islamic law and modernity revolves not around whether apostasy is a heinous crime, but how to deal with it. Islam Online, a Qatar-based site that attempts to explain Islamic issues, quoted the well-known Islamic scholar Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi as acknowledging that there is a difference of opinion on the issue even if most support the death penalty.

“All Muslim jurists agree that the apostate is to be punished,” al-Qaradawi said. “However, they differ regarding the punishment itself. The majority of them go for killing; meaning that an apostate is to be sentenced to death.”

The Christian Science Monitor‘s Rachel Morarjee and Dan Murphy provided more context. They highlight religious tension between Muslims and Christians in Egypt and Pakistan, the killing of Muslims who convert to Christianity by their own family members, attacks against Christian churches for alleged sympathy for America, etc. They point out that Afghanistan is 99 percent Muslim and that the 10,000 Christians who practice there do so in secret:

The issue of religious freedoms is one in which, as in Afghanistan, modern laws are clashing with ancient traditions. Rahman’s case illustrates a glaring contradiction between Afghanistan’s constitution, which upholds the right to freedom of religion on one hand but enshrines the supremacy of sharia law on the other.

Most mainstream schools of Islamic jurisprudence call for converts to be executed. Though the Koran promises only hellfire for apostates and also says “there should be no compunction in religion,” Islamic jurists have typically argued that execution is mandated, citing stories of comments made by the prophet Muhammad.

“The prophet Muhammad said that anyone who rejects Islam for another religion should be executed,” said Mr. Mawlavezada, the judge.

Though some liberal Islamic scholars disagree, pointing out that no such rule exists in the Koran, they have been largely silenced in Afghanistan. Last year, Afghan writer Ali Mohaqeq Nasab spent almost three months in jail last autumn for an article questioning the traditional call for execution.

So Rahman’s case has been dropped. But with so many Muslims viewing conversion from Islam to be a crime punishable by death, his future might be interesting. The issue of how Muslims deal with apostasy is not going away. Let’s hope reporters don’t forget the larger story.

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Tmatt, in Texas, with iffy WiFi (and a GOP jab)

Bluebonnets 01In a few hours, I am headed out the door on a long trip into my home state of Texas (I am a prodigal Texan) to visit several campuses in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (see a new trend story here) on behalf of the journalism program that I lead here in Washington, D.C.

The big event during the trip is the CCCU’s global forum on Christian higher education, which may or may not draw press attention.The forum will include a visit by the Soulforce Equality Ride bus, which will almost certainly draw press attention. I hope to have another chat with the Rev. Mel White.

I will spend several days on the long and flat highways of the state so I, for one, am hoping that I have my timing right for some bluebonnets (see photo). The divine Ms. M and young master Daniel (and perhaps even the Rt. Rev. LeBlanc) will, I hope, keep things buzzing during the next week or so because my Internet access may be iffy, other than during the Dallas forum.

But before I go I wanted to draw a connection between three very different stories in three very different publications that all point, in a way, to the very same theme that comes up quite frequently at this site.

So click here for the omnipresent Democratic strategist Amy Sullivan, writing in Washington Monthy about the factors that may, sooner rather than later, cause many evangelical Protestants to bolt the Republican Party.

Then click here to skip over to the Weekly Standard website to read Allan Carlson’s sobering “Social conservatives and the GOP: Can this marriage be saved?”

JesusLand2 01Wait! Before you settle in and read those two articles, read this quotation and ask yourself this question: Who wrote the following, Carlson or Sullivan?

… (All) is not well within the existing Republican coalition. Indeed, there are other indicators that the Republican party has done relatively little to help traditional families, and may in fact be contributing to their new indentured status. Certainly at the level of net incomes, the one-earner family today is worse off than it was thirty years ago, when the GOP began to claim the pro-family banner. Specifically, the median income of married-couple families, with the wife not in the paid labor force, was $40,100 in 2002, less than it had been in 1970 ($40,785) when inflation is taken into account. In contrast, the real earnings of two-income married couple families rose by 35 percent over the same years (to nearly $73,000). Put another way, families have been able to get ahead only by becoming “nontraditional” and sending mother to work or forgoing children altogether. As the Maternalists had warned, eliminating America’s “family wage” system would drive male wages down and severely handicap the one-income home. So it has happened.

Despite the economic pressures, though, such families are not extinct. They still form core social conservative constituencies such as home schooling families and families with four or more children. But again, they have little to show from the years of the Republican alliance.

Can you guess? I point this out simply to note the ongoing political irony of our age. The middle class, for the most part, continues to vote (some would say against its economic interests) for the Republican Party — primarily because of moral and social issues. Meanwhile, a rising percentage of the rich, especially along the coasts, has been voting (against its economic interests) for the Democratic Party — primarily because of moral and social issues.

No matter what some people say, these issues are not going away. To see why, click here and read Janet Hook’s “Right Is Might for GOP’s Aspirants” in the Los Angeles Times.

My question remains the same: Will editors in top-flight newsrooms allow their religion-beat specialists to help cover this story?

They should.

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The Post’s error

Balance and ProportionI wanted to share a thought that’s been bugging me amid the furor surrounding the resignation of former Washingtonpost.com blogger Ben Domenech due to evidence that he plagiarized material in his younger years.

In hiring Domenech, Washingtonpost.com was clearly looking for an alternative to Dan Froomkin, who many see as a liberal. Problem: Domenech does not have any journalism in his background and never claimed or wanted to be a journalist. At best he was a commentator who is now going to have to rebuild his career from scratch thanks to what seems to be fairly obvious and egregious cases of ripping other people’s work. But why was it that Washingtonpost.com felt it needed to go outside journalistic circles to find a conservative to counterbalance what was a fairly obvious leftward tilt of Froomkin?

The assumption that mainstream journalism could not have a conservative blogger spills into the religion arena because I believe most decision makers at the major news organizations assume that their reporters are non-religious in the same way they assume that reporters in general could not be conservative.

Ideological balance at a newspaper — particularly on opinion columns and, now that newspapers are catching up with the digital age, blogs — is critical for a media organization that wants to maintain its claim to objectivity. But if Washingtonpost.com feels it needs to go outside journalism for political balance, I wonder where the editors think they need to go if they ever feel the need for more than a handful of staffers of one religious persuasion or another. I have it on good account that it does not represent America, or the demographics of the Washington metropolitan area.

I wonder where the New York Times is looking and, most important, are religious educational institutions ready to step up and support solid journalism programs?

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Cell phones, black hats and shopping lists

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

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

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

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

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

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

So who is coming to dinner?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Da Vinci trial is a wrap

da vinci code2By April 8 we should know whether Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown is guilty of copyright infringement in Great Britain. According to reports in the Washington Post and New York Times, the judge’s questions seemed to indicate that he was not too thrilled with the plaintiffs.

Here’s the NYT:

LONDON, March 20 — The lawyer for the two men who say Dan Brown stole from their book for his novel “The Da Vinci Code” faced sharp and relentless questioning from the judge in the case during closing arguments in the High Court here on Monday.

The judge, Peter Jones, will not issue a decision for several weeks, and it is impossible to know how he will rule. But his tough questions appeared to reflect skepticism, even exasperation, toward some of the arguments put forward by the lawyer for the plaintiffs, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, two of the three authors of “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.” (The book’s other author, Henry Lincoln, is not taking part in the lawsuit.) They claim that Mr. Brown lifted the central “architecture” for his megaselling “Da Vinci Code” from their nonfiction book, published in 1982.

For instance, when the lawyer, Jonathan Rayner James, argued that Mr. Brown had “been hiding the truth” about when he and his wife, Blythe Brown, who does much of his research, had first consulted “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail,” Justice Jones stopped him short. If that were true, the judge asked, why had Mr. Brown left out “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” from the bibliography he submitted to the publisher, along with a synopsis of “The Da Vinci Code” in January 2001 — only to include a pointed reference to the book in the finished novel a year later?

“If he’s trying to hide the fact that he’s using ‘H.B.H.G.’ in the synopsis,” the judge asked, referring to “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” by its initials, “what’s the point of shouting it out from the rooftops in the book?”

Rather than focusing on the possible outcome of the trial, the Post reporter Kevin Sullivan moaned and groaned in his lead about the arcane nature of the trial. I’m not sure what your regular beat is, but not everything can be as exciting and thrilling as The Da Vinci Code, Mr. Sullivan.

booksBut aside from the lead and the author’s apparently poor attention span for things arcane, I found the article to be quite thorough and worth reading:

LONDON, March 20 — The “Da Vinci Code” copyright infringement trial, which ended in a London courtroom Monday, combined lively peeks into a celebrity author’s lifestyle and hours of legal arcana so numbing that they put a white-wigged attorney to sleep within feet of the judge.

Fans of media-shy author Dan Brown learned that his inspiration to write fiction came on a Tahitian vacation when he read Sidney Sheldon’s alien-invasion thriller “The Doomsday Conspiracy.” The next day lawyers were arguing about obscure points of religious history, such as whether and why Pepin the Fat murdered Dagobert II, and what Godefroi de Bouillon was really up to during the First Crusade.

As I pointed out earlier this month, this story matters because it could have a ripple affect on novelists’ ability to write one of my most beloved genres: historical fiction.

The same could be said for the movie industry if it is true that Brown copied huge chucks of others’ work and simply changed a few words here and there. While that may be OK legally, it is certainly not OK ethically, as Molly adeptly pointed out here.

And while I disagree with much of the purported facts in Brown’s book and found convincing arguments why his version of history lacks credibility, I think what he’s done in getting people to examine the history of Christianity is tremendous, and other attempts to popularize history through fiction should not be stymied.

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