How reliable is a piece of rock?

stone reliefOne of the things that I have always been fascinated with is archaeology. Especially archaeology that uncovers things we did not know or could not confirm about the past. Such is the case here in an article on the China Daily Web site that describes an artifact that could be used as evidence that Christianity spread to China as earlier as 100 years after the death of Christ. The reporter Wang Shanshan has the details:

A Chinese theology professor says the first Christmas is depicted in the stone relief from the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220). In the picture above a woman and a man are sitting around what looks like a manger, with allegedly “the three wise men” approaching from the left side, holding gifts, “the shepherd” following them, and “the assassins” queued up, kneeling, on the right.

As he wandered into the dimly-lit gallery, he was stunned by what he saw. Was he standing, he asked himself, in front of the famous Gates of Paradise in Florence?

Wang Weifan, a 78-year-old scholar of early Christian history in China, said he saw images from Bible stories similar to those engraved in the doors of the Baptistry of St John. But in Florence he didn’t.

Even so, the art objects could be more precious in their own way if the early Christian clues that Wang believes he detected can ever be confirmed. They are from the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220), China’s parallel to the Roman Empire, and almost a millennium older than the gilt-bronze gates of Florence. …

Before Wang’s discovery tour to the Han Dynasty Stone Relief Museum in 2002, no one seriously believed that, merely 100 or so years after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, his teachings could have reached as far as to China.

The veracity of these types of archaeological finds from a historical basis always perplexes me. Call me a skeptic, but the discovery of a piece of stone proves something as significant as the spread Christianity? Apparently, this rock provides us with some — pardon the pun — hard evidence:

There were myths. There was legend. But hardly any evidence.

But now Wang says the early Christian connection with China no longer seems entirely groundless. “It really happened,” he said.

The reliefs were carved on the stone tablets from two tombs, discovered in 1995 at a place called Jiunudun, or “Terrace of Nine Women,” in suburban Xuzhou. Many stone reliefs were found when tombs at the site were first excavated in 1954.

Art historians have long believed that the stone carvings portray the tomb owners in their life after death in ancient China. The styles and the themes were similar to those found in Shandong Province.

GetReligion reader David Buckna, who provided us with the link to this story, said that he found it incredible that the Chinese government would even report on these stone tablets. But could this report be exclusively for Western consumption, Buckna wonders.

As I said earlier, I am no archeological expert, nor will I attempt to play one on the Internet, but I’m sure some faithful readers could provide some insight into this subject. The piece contains some good back-and-forth between sources debating exactly how established Christianity was in the first centruy and how effectively it was spreading. And you have plenty to work with. The article is 1,500-plus words long and finishes with a dramatic pronouncement:

Despite the many objections of the other scholars, Wang’s discovery will definitely arouse the interest of historians in the Chinese Christian community, who will take up the research, said Qi, of Yanjing Seminary.

“They are not going to say no to Professor Wang without making investigations, because he is the ‘flagship’ historian in the Chinese Christian community,” Qi said. “He is a master not only of the Christian history in China, but also of Chinese art and culture.

“There could be an earthquake in the world’s Christian community and probably outside it if Professor Wang is right.

“World history could be rewritten.”

Is it time to rewrite world history? Call me a skeptic on this one.

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When is religion news “religion” news?

iraqi firefighter baghdad 11704The 2005 end of the year wrap-up stories are starting to bloom. With New Year’s Day falling on a Sunday — massive newspapers — look for tons then.

You will see top 10 lists for news stories and top 10 lists for “religion” news stories. Here at GetReligion, we are interested in both and, especially, in the overlap between these lists. This was the subject of my Scripps Howard News Service column this week. Veteran GetReligion writers will, I confess, hear an echo of the blog in the main theme. Click here if you want to see that.

I started with the Palestinian suicide bomber at the sandwich stand in Hadera, Israel.

Are events such as this “religion” news?

This question matters because, week after week, journalists struggle to describe conflicts of this kind between the extremists many now call Islamists and other believers — Jews, Christians, moderate Muslims, skeptics and others. These events are haunted by religion, yet it is faith mixed with politics, history, ethnicity, economics, blood feuds and many other factors.

I am not sure it would help readers if the press called these events “religion” news. If might stir even hotter emotions. Do we need to know the religious identity of every victim or have we reached the point where journalists can assume that we know? When are rioting thugs merely rioting thugs? When are police just police?

I asked these questions again because events related to terror, Iraq (photo), Israel, etc., were missing in the Religion Newswriters Association’s top 10 list of religion news stories in 2005. Click here to get to the RNA home page, which appears to be crashed at the moment. I will try to post the direct link to 2005 RNA list later.

Meanwhile, it is interesting to see the role that faith plays in this Peggy Noonan column about the top five news events of the year. It’s from the Wall Street Journal, of course.

Seen any other interesting Godbeat lists you want to point out?

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Moving on with the story

dungyI returned to Washington from Indianapolis this afternoon/evening and expected to be reminded that the story of the death of Colts coach Tony Dungy’s son was a local one. Sure, I thought, if Dungy retires due to this tragic event, people outside the community are going to take notice, but front-page stories on the funeral will be hard to find outside of Colts-land.

But I forgot. Dungy was a man who left a mark wherever he went that must have included journalists based on the tremendous stories that have flowed out of the Florida papers and even in Minnesota where was an assistant coach at the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Vikings.

Indianapolis Star sportswriter Phil Richards covered the event masterfully, catching Dungy’s key quotes and portraying the scene of deep family sadness:

Tony Dungy had a message for all.

“I urge you not to take your relations for granted,” Dungy told the gathering of about 1,500. “Parents, hug your kids each chance you get. Tell them you love them each chance you get. You don’t know when it’s going to be the last time.”

James Dungy, 18, died Thursday in what authorities said was an apparent suicide.

Tony Dungy last saw his son at Thanksgiving in Indianapolis. James was in a rush to return to Tampa. Goodbyes were hurried.

“I never got to hug him,” Dungy said. “I knew I was going to get to see him pretty soon, so it didn’t bother me a lot.”

The faith-theme so prevalent in earlier coverage largely disappeared from the headlines starting Monday, but sub-themes were still there with stories on Dungy’s impact on players as fathers started making their way out of Florida.

As a fill-in for Dungy, Colts assistant coach Jim Caldwell has had the tough job of balancing this team’s needs to support their coach, attending to their own family matters over the Holidays and two road games in the final two weeks of the season. Again Richards nails the spiritual element that is flowing out of this sports-related story:

It’s a reflective time and Caldwell has done much reflecting. The words that keep coming to him are those of Oswald Chambers, a Scottish minister, teacher and author who died in 1917.

“Chambers wrote that so he could serve the Lord in the best way, he would like to be broken bread and poured-out wine,” Caldwell said. “I think that’s a great description of Tony and his family: He and Lauren are broken bread and poured-out wine.”

Caldwell believes that in closing ranks around its leader and his family, an already close team has been welded even tighter.

The spiritual angle of this story is ripe for the picking for any number of Christian publications. Give Dungy and the team some time and a great God-beat story could be told by any number of journalists ready to listen and understand.

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Pope at Christmas: You write the lede

Pope BenedictGreetings from Crawford, Texas, home of my professor brother and, from time to time, of someone named George W. Bush. I wonder if I could get arrested for Christmas caroling out at the ranch tonight? After all, it is still Christmas.

But I digress. One of my favorite things to do as a journalism professor is to hand my students the full text of a speech and then ask them to write their own lead and top three or four paragraphs. Then I show them MSM leads and ask them how they think the major reporters selected the topixcs on which they decided to focus.

So here is an example, only we’ll take it in reverse.

So here is a look at the top of Los Angeles Times reporter Tracy Wilkinson’s story covering the Christmas messages of Pope Benedict XVI.

In his first Christmas message as pope, Benedict XVI called on people across the globe Sunday to open their hearts to Christ as a way to combat poverty, war and the sterility of a world obsessed with technological advance. …

Addressing an enormous Christmas Day crowd, which filled St. Peter’s Square despite the cold and rain, Benedict urged Christian unity as a way to draw upon the “life-giving power of the child of Bethlehem” to create a “new world order” that can rectify ethical and economic injustices.

“A united humanity will be able to confront the many troubling problems of the present time,” the pope said, “from the menace of terrorism to the humiliating poverty in which millions of human beings live, from the proliferation of weapons to the pandemics and the environmental destruction which threatens the future of our planet.”

Now, I realize that the pope spoke to several different audiences in the crucial Christmas appearances. Click here to see the full text of the Urbi Et Orbi message on which this lead is based. Nevertheless, I still think that it is interesting to contrast the tone of the news story, which is oriented almost totally to issue of public policy around the globe, and the text of Benedict’s actual Christmas sermon, as posted by the Holy See at its website.

Believe me, I understand that popes are hard to quote. Sound bites are hard to come by, when it comes time to covering a papal address or sermon. What, for example, is a mainstream journalist supposed to do with the following — which is the heart of the actual Christmas sermon and a major link to the messages of the late John Paul II?

Hang on, because this will get quite involved. That’s the point.

Wherever God’s glory appears, light spreads throughout the world. Saint John tells us that “God is light and in him is no darkness” (1 Jn 1:5). The light is a source of life.

But first, light means knowledge; it means truth, as contrasted with the darkness of falsehood and ignorance. Light gives us life, it shows us the way. But light, as a source of heat, also means love. Where there is love, light shines forth in the world; where there is hatred, the world remains in darkness. In the stable of Bethlehem there appeared the great light which the world awaits. In that Child lying in the stable, God has shown his glory — the glory of love, which gives itself away, stripping itself of all grandeur in order to guide us along the way of love. The light of Bethlehem has never been extinguished. In every age it has touched men and women, “it has shone around them.” Wherever people put their faith in that Child, charity also sprang up — charity towards others, loving concern for the weak and the suffering, the grace of forgiveness. … In that Child, God countered the violence of this world with his own goodness. He calls us to follow that Child.

So where is the lead in that sermon? If you are writing for the Los Angeles Times, do you simply HAVE to come up with a more topical, even political, lead? Is that the very definition of news?

Just asking. The pope probably thinks that the sermon was important, too. A few readers might agree with him, even in Los Angeles.

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I’m sure this refers to an editorial article and a not a news article, but this correction in the Los Angeles Times is funny.

For the record
Religion and government: A Dec. 18 article defending the separation of church and state stated that the Rev. Jerry Falwell claimed that Ellen DeGeneres played a role in the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina because she was the host of the Emmy Awards before both events. He made no such claim.

lettermanPerhaps the Los Angeles Times copyediting desk was confused. Falwell did blame David Letterman for his disastrous stint hosting the Oscars in 1998:

“I like Letterman as an interviewer, but what made him think that an extended montage of various celebrities saying ‘Would you like to buy a monkey?’ would be funny?” he asked. “No one saw, let alone remembers, Cabin Boy. A vengeful God could not restrain himself from unleashing devastation on a wicked people who tolerated such poor judgment from their second-highest-rated nighttime talk-show host.”

When asked why it took seven years for God to expres his displeasure, Falwell explained that “Seven years is but a minute in God years.”

In all seriousness, though, I like how this Times correction illuminates how we tend to see the worst in those we disagree with and find it easy to believe really extreme things about them. It’s good for reporters, editors and readers to step back and look at the real nature of disagreements and discuss them civilly. Also, high-profile figures tend to say wacky enough things on their own. The Los Angeles Times need not invent them.

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A holiday against syncretism . . . syncretized

merry menorahEven though fewer than 2 percent of the American population is Jewish, the religion ranks number two in America behind Christianity’s 77 percent of the population.

I don’t have the stats handy, but the number of Jews who marry non-Jews is a growing number, with interfaith marriages becoming more typical in the last few decades. And so every year we get stories about interfaith families — which in this case means families where one parent is Jewish and one parent is Christian. And even though presumably this poses challenges every day — of how to inculcate religious faith in children, celebrate holidays, and remain religious — the press notices it once a year. Around Christmas.

So here’s the Washington Post‘s Sue Anne Pressley with her hard-hitting coverage of the December interfaith dilemma:

The first night of Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish festival of lights, falls on Christmas for the first time since 1959 and for only the fourth time in 100 years. And [Eve] Edwards–who is Jewish, married to a Catholic and raising their two daughters in both faiths–is primed for the occasion.

“I’m packing up the menorah with the candles and taking it to my Catholic mother-in-law’s,” said Edwards, 35.

No one really equates Hanukkah, a secondary Jewish holiday, with Christmas, which hardly needs amplification. The holidays sometimes overlap; in 1997, the first night of Hanukkah was Dec. 23. But this year’s coincidence gives Dec. 25 a special luster of inclusiveness.

The only problem with these stories about religious holy days downplay the religious aspects of the dilemma. Hanukkah might be a secondary Jewish holiday, but its religious significance speaks directly to the comingling of religions.

A brief history: Under the reign of Antiochus (around 170 B.C.), Jews were forced to violate the precepts of their faith and an altar to Zeus was erected in the Temple. Mattathias, a Jewish priest, and his five sons John, Simon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah led a rebellion. Judah, who took over following his father’s death, became known as Judah Maccabee and under his leadership the Temple was liberated and rededicated.

A new altar was constructed in place of the syncretistic Zeus altar and oil was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout each night. Even though there was only enough oil for one day, the menorah burned for eight crazy nights. An eight day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle.

Here’s how the Washington Post piece analyzed the religious difficulties of celebrating Hanukkah, a Jewish festival to honor the lengths which Jewish forebears went to preserve their religion from syncretism. Here’s how it discussed the difficulty of practicing this holiday with integrity in an interfaith family:

But in some households, there may be a few debates: Will it be mashed potatoes with that big meal or potato latkes?

I wish I was joking. The article was completely devoid of critical thought. Apparently the collision of Christmas and Hanukkah gave reporters equal opportunity for offensive writing, however. Take a gander at this bizarre passage from Tim Townsend, of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who I praised last week:

As the New Testament story of Christ’s birth is told in modern Christian churches throughout the world this weekend, Isaiah’s words also will be read and interpreted to support the idea that Christ’s coming was predicted several centuries before his birth.

“For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground,” wrote Isaiah. “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering …”

The prophet’s words are part of a larger passage of 15 verses about a figure Biblical scholars call “the suffering servant.”

Most scholars today acknowledge that Isaiah was not predicting the birth and death of Christ, but instead was using the suffering servant to talk about God’s relationship with Israel during the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.

That last sentence is one of the most preposterous I’ve ever read from a religion reporter. Ever. It’s one thing to attribute the claim to someone — but to substantiate it with an unidentified cabal of “most scholars” is particularly offensive. If, in fact, “most scholars” believe this, perhaps we could learn of the survey where they were asked about their views. Perhaps we could learn what type of scholars they are. Also, perhaps, someone could notify Christendom.

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Blunt headline of the day

The Christmas box office race is getting rather interesting, but I think this is taking it a little bit too far, don’t you think? Anyone else seen any good headlines or novelty leads on this one?

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Yes, some are offended by “Merry Christmas”

product 3597At last! It is finally time for old-fashioned religious fanatics like me to haul off and say the words — “Merry Christmas.”

But there is a problem, sort of. The traditional greeting among the Eastern Orthodox is to say “Christ is born!” and then the other person replies “Glorify Him!” And then there’s all kinds of hugging and multiple kisses on the sides of people’s faces and other complicated religious stuff.

But, yes, folks do say “Merry Christmas” in the circles in which I move and we will be saying that for 11 more days, since I am writing this on Dec. 26. We do not, however, do the pear trees, birds, golden rings, maids and other things.

So the Christmas Wars are over, are they? At least for this year?

An essay in the Washington Post by Penne L. Restad yearns for this to be true:

At last, Christmas morning. May we now declare a truce in the Christmas culture war? All those poor salespeople who struggled to remember whether company policy was to greet shoppers with “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas” are free to relax and settle down around their Christmas tree or holiday tree or whatever other seasonal symbol they prefer and celebrate in their own private way. For celebrate Christmas is something that almost all of us, apparently, do. A recent poll says 96 percent of Americans observe the holiday in some way or another.

But there is a problem. There are other poll numbers to consider.

Take, for example, that recent poll in which 62 percent of Americans said that generic season greetings such as “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings” represent a “change for the worse” in public life. This was music to the ears of conservative news services such as Baptist Press, which added:

In addition, 32 percent of adults say they are bothered when stores use generic holiday greetings on their displays; 68 percent say they are not bothered. By contrast, only 3 percent of adults say they are irked when stores use “Merry Christmas.” The overwhelming majority — 97 percent — says the reference to Christmas doesn’t trouble them. The poll was conducted Dec. 5-8.

“[T]he use of the generic holiday expressions does not bother most Americans in general, including most major political and religious groups examined in this survey. But substantial minorities are bothered — enough, perhaps, to cause concern among some retailers,” Gallup’s Lydia Saad wrote in an online analysis.

Now you would think that this would be good news for cultural conservatives who want to win the Christmas Wars.

But, as Saad noted, there is another way to read the Gallup numbers. For, you see, 24 percent of those polled said generic greetings are a “change for the better.” That’s a lot of people — more than the number of Democrats who vote in primaries, for example.

And then Baptist Press happily reported that only 8 percent of non-Christians told the pollsters that people saying “Merry Christmas” offends them. Now that is a small number, too. However, that is a large number of a significant number of those offended are lawyers, editors, public-school leaders, Hollywood producers and church-state activists.

So will the fighting end? No way. The numbers are absolutely perfect for fundraisers on both sides of the battle lines.

Oh joy.

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