Enough of the war on calendars

December CalendarI am glad Young Master Pulliam cited the story below, which properly states that the “War on Christmas” was — and is — waged most furiously by some Calvinists. But there was a doozie of a problem with it:

Although no one knows when Jesus was born, his birth was celebrated on Dec. 25 in Rome as early as AD 336 as an ascendant Roman Catholic Church preempted the pagan celebrations. Most Eastern Orthodox churches later accepted that date too, although the Armenian church retains Jan. 6.

“It’s the way Europe got Christianized. The pope would write letters to the bishops saying let them keep doing what they are doing as long as they change the name,” said Stephen Nissenbaum, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts and author of “The Battle for Christmas,” which traces the evolution of the holiday.

I realize this is a popular notion. I realize this is a widely held belief. But it should not be inserted into stories on blind faith. The theory is only a few centuries old and widely trumpeted by those who thought the liturgical calendar was a bad thing. But the important thing is that there is another, older theory. And one that explains, unlike the Saturnalia theory, why the Eastern and Western church have similar but different dates for Christmas. Here’s the Associated Press’ Richard Ostling from last year, thankfully still online:

The New Testament Gospels say the Crucifixion happened at the Jewish Passover season. The “integral age” concept, taught by ancient Judaism though not in the Bible, held that Israel’s great prophets died the same day as their birth or conception.

Quite early on, [William] Tighe [, a church history specialist at Pennsylvania's Muhlenberg College] said, Christians applied this idea to Jesus and set the Passover period’s March 25 for the Feast of the Annunciation, marking the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would give birth. Add nine months to the conception date and we get Dec. 25.

And the reason why the Eastern church celebrated, and some still celebrate, Christ’s birth on January 6 was because they were using different calendars.

Sorry to go off on this, but this Saturnalia theory is just one of those things that belongs more in a Dan Brown novel than a news story.

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Enough of the war on Christmas

bellsWhen Bill O’Rielly makes a lot of noise about something, does that make it a story? I would hope not.

Personally, I’m sick of the “Christmas Wars” stories (click here and here for some past GetReligion analysis) and this Los Angeles Times article is a wonderful example of how it is not one of those easy to write stories with two clearly defined sides.

Essentially, the war for Christmas — a battle cry of those who believe that secularists in America are attempting to replace the term “Merry Christmas” with more religiously generic terms like “Happy Holidays” — is a battle on which both sides include sincere Christians. Here’s the gist:

Carrasco and his Christian congregation of 60 mainly Central American immigrants at the Iglesia de Dios La Nueva Jerusalem (Church of God the New Jerusalem) believe in Jesus as Lord. But they don’t keep Christmas.

“There is nothing biblical” in the yuletide celebrations, said Carrasco, 56. “And we only practice what Jesus orders us to practice.”

What’s worse, he continued, Christmas was ungodly, a time of revelry, including drunkenness and “pleasures of the flesh. They are not celebrating God,” he said.

In my church back in Indianapolis, there were several families who did not celebrate Christmas for this very reason and that was fine by the Reformed Presbyterian denomination. In most Protestant churches, Christmas is not formally celebrated and in some, it is even forbidden from mention in the worship service.

The celebration of Christmas was in fact once banned in the one of the original colonies. And it was not by some atheistic-secularist, but by the Puritans. Check out Slate’s Andrew Santella article for more details on this fascinating bit of history:

Liberal plots notwithstanding, the Americans who succeeded in banning the holiday were the Puritans of 17th-century Massachusetts. Between 1659 and 1681, Christmas celebrations were outlawed in the colony, and the law declared that anyone caught “observing, by abstinence from labor, feasting or any other way any such days as Christmas day, shall pay for every such offense five shillings.” Finding no biblical authority for celebrating Jesus’ birth on Dec. 25, the theocrats who ran Massachusetts regarded the holiday as a mere human invention, a remnant of a heathen past. They also disapproved of the rowdy celebrations that went along with it. “How few there are comparatively that spend those holidays … after an holy manner,” the Rev. Increase Mather lamented in 1687. “But they are consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Revellings, in excess of Wine, in Mad Mirth.”

After the English Restoration government reclaimed control of Massachusetts from the Puritans in the 1680s, one of the first acts of the newly appointed royal governor of the colony was to sponsor and attend Christmas religious services. Perhaps fearing a militant Puritan backlash, for the 1686 services he was flanked by redcoats. The Puritan disdain for the holiday endured: As late as 1869, public-school kids in Boston could be expelled for skipping class on Christmas Day.

Then there’s the deeper history of the Christmas Wars, which goes back to Henry Ford’s The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem. Go figure.

As Jon Stewart said the other night, it’s “Happy Holidays” because you celebrate two holidays: Christmas and New Years. And people just don’t have the time to say “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,” because they have, um, stuff to do and don’t have the time.

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We’re not religious

Sherlock Holmes OI’m a rather disinterested party in the whole intelligent design versus evolution debate so I don’t follow it as much as I should. But there is something so bizarre about the federal judge in Pennsylvania’s ruling yesterday, and attendant coverage, that I feel forced to comment. I think we could write on various aspects of this story for weeks to come, but here’s a start.

The ruling basically says that intelligent design is religion-based and therefore false science. Why is it that people have such an easy time seeing into the hearts of intelligent design proponents and discovering nefarious religious motivations but never question the religious motivations of evolution proponents? I think I used to be more sympathetic to the view that evolutionists were religiously-disinterested scientists before I spent a portion of last year reading the excited claims of secular humanists, and others, around the fin de siecle that evolution would triumph over Christianity. That’s a theological statement, to put it mildly.

For instance, Open Court, a “fortnightly journal” around from the 1880s through 1930s (of which I read much too much) was devoted to science and a leading proponent of evolution that constantly attacked Christianity. The fact is that evolution’s proponents makes theological statements. The belief that natural events have natural causes is a theological belief. The idea that the origin of the species and the origin of the universe has a natural cause is inherently atheistic. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taught in the science classroom. But neither let us deny that religious belief swirls all around here.

David Klinghoffer over at National Review raises the question well:

“We conclude that the religious nature of Intelligent Design would be readily apparent to an objective observer, adult or child,” wrote Judge John E. Jones III in his decision, Kitzmiller v. Dover, which rules that disparaging Darwin’s theory in biology class is unconstitutional. Is it really true that only Darwinism, in contrast to ID, represents a disinterested search for the truth, unmotivated by ideology?

Judge Jones was especially impressed by the testimony of philosophy professor Barbara Forrest of Southeastern Louisiana University, author of Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design. Professor Forrest has definite beliefs about religion, evident from the fact that she serves on the board of directors of the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association, which is “an affiliate of American Atheists, and [a] member of the Atheist Alliance International,” according to the group’s website. Of course, she’s entitled to believe what she likes, but it’s worth noting.

Klinghoffer goes on to mention other prominent evolution prononents: Daniel C. Dennit (wants Christians put in zoos), Richard Dawkins (“faith is one of the world’s greatest evils”), Steven Weinberg (“science is corrosive of religion”), P.Z. Myers (believes Abraham is worse than Hitler), and on and on and on.

Would not debates about the strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory be better waged if everyone admitted that evolutionists have very serious theological beliefs, such as those mentioned by Klinghoffer? Then, as members of a civilized society, we could ask ourselves whether — and which parts of — evolutionary theory have been proved beyond a reasonable doubt and whether intelligent design provides a reasonable alternative to fit the scientific data.

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Who went to heaven with Walters?

thefiveYes, Barry Garron of the Hollywood Reporter is right — that ABC News production on heaven does sound like a TV-ratings-friendly variation on an old joke: “So a priest, a minister, a rabbi, the Dalai Lama, an atheist and Barbara Walters walk into a studio and …”

I did not see this report, because I was working on my Scripps Howard column and — speaking of alternative religions — getting my son to a Lego robotics team meeting. So I am not in a position to debate with Garron when he says that Walters and Co. did not deliver on the outrageous title for this “news” special: “Heaven. Where Is It? How Do We Get There?’”

Here is a clip from the Reporter summary:

What you are likely to learn from this ABC News production, if you didn’t know already, is that religious leaders have not only the sketchiest of notions as to what heaven is but also contradictory ideas of what goes on there. Cardinal Theodore E. McCerrick, archbishop of Washington, D.C., says there’s no sex in heaven. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, an Islamic scholar, says there’s plenty of sex there — and with virgins, no less. He’s kind of vague on where the virgins come from, though.

That there is so little agreement about heaven might suggest that most of us have been making it up as we go along. Ellen Johnson, president of the American Atheists, says as much. If we really believe heaven is that great, she says, we’d be busy hanging ourselves to get there. It’s a point the others don’t address, except for the would-be suicide bomber now serving 24 years in an Israeli prison. His goal was despicable but there’s no denying he believes in a better afterlife.

Based on the print feature posted online, this Walters “special report” does seem to offer the usual grab-bag of interviews with clerics, scholars, scientists and pop-culture stars. That is what ABC pays Walters to do.

But there is an unspoken subtext to this approach that is much more interesting. There are three basic ways to interpret what Walters serves up. (1) All of these believers are crazy and out of their minds, (2) all of them are, to one degree right and to another degree wrong, but their yearning for heaven points to some vague reality that makes them all right in the end or (3) since so many of their beliefs clash and cannot be reconciled, some of them must be wrong and, somehow, one of the many different doctrinal positions must be right.

You will not be surprised that Walters seems to have flirted with (1) and ends up with (2) as the usual MSM all-roads-lead-to-one-god (or set of gods) orthodoxy. What is her alternative?

How does it end? Once again, it is not surprising that she ends up seeking wisdom from the postmodern version of a celebrity evangelist — journalist Mitch Albom, author of “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” for his universalist benediction.

Albom tells Walters, “There’s one thing I would say about heaven. If you believe that there’s a heaven, your life here on Earth here is different. You may believe that you’re gonna see your loved ones again. So the grief that you had after they’re gone isn’t as strong. You may believe that you’ll have to answer for your actions. So the way you behave here on Earth is changed. So in a certain way, just believing in the idea of heaven is heavenly in and of itself,” he said.

I am sure that, at this point, Walters gently nodded her head.

Who can give us a report on how this played out in prime time?

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On the telephone as reporting tool

santa telephoneA few weeks ago a mini-scandal broke out surrounding Ridgeway Elementary School in Wisconsin. It seemed that some official with the school play had secularized the words to the beautiful “Silent Night” (or as we Lutherans call it: “Stille Nacht“) to “Cold in the Night.” Various groups got enraged and sent out press releases and television networks ate it up and ran breathless segments about the war on Christmas.

So Washington Post reporter Neely Tucker did something revolutionary. He picked up his telephone and called the author of the play in which “Cold in the Night” is featured. It turns out that playwright Dwight Elrich was a music director for a choir at Bel Air Presbyterian (President Reagan’s church in California) for decades. The play comes with a “Christian” page which may be inserted and includes Christian Christmas songs such as “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

On the one hand, Tucker pokes fun at Fox News’ John Gibson and Bill O’Reilly and generally gives the impression that the war on Christmas is more perception than reality, but on the other hand he does a good job of explaining why those who feel attacked do so. Tucker does this by speaking with James P. Byrd Jr., assistant dean of the Vanderbilt University Divinity School. He contrasts what Christmas in 1950 might have seemed like to a conservative Christian with the present. Here’s how Neely characterizes it:

And now you wake up and it’s 2005. You go to hear the kid’s Christmas play, except by the time it clears all the church-state hurdles the ACLU worries about, it sounds more like “Songs of Many Lands as Sung by 6-Year-Olds.” The Christmas Tree at the Capitol in Washington, they call it a “holiday tree” most years now. Even President Bush, a devout Christian, sends out a Christmas card that does not say “Merry Christmas.” Now you hear a lot about Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and “the holidays.” What is to be made of all this?

Tucker provides what so few reporters — especially those on the magic electronic box — have done with this cable-driven war on Christmas: he provides historical context, interviewing authors of various books on the American history of Christmas. He mentions the Puritan distaste for Christmas and keeps on going:

The founding fathers had no Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas, a minor European saint, did not morph into the current image of the gift-laden Santa Claus until the 1820s). There were no Christmas trees (a German import that didn’t take root until the 1840s). Dec. 25 wasn’t made a federal holiday under the first 17 American presidents (including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Abraham Lincoln). The holiday did not come until 1870, under Ulysses Grant, perhaps one of the least pious of presidents.


Thank you! My one complaint, other than the inexplicable editorial “we” the author uses, is the absolutely offensive ending to the piece. Tucker makes fun of Liberty Counsel’s Matt Staver for arguing that Christmas trees should not be renamed:

Historically speaking, academics and scholars agree, he’s right: It is a Christmas tree.

You wonder if the Deity thinks that is the point. Or, perhaps, if it misses it entirely.

No offense, but my beloved hometown paper the Washington Post is just about the last place I look for speculation on what the “Deity” thinks about, well, anything. I mean, they could at least try refraining from mocking religious adherents for a few months before tacking on this ending. But it’s still worthwhile to read.

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Scientology: 10 million strong

waroftheworldsWe’ve commented before on the caustic treatment that Scientology true believer Tom Cruise has received from media outlets. The Los Angeles Times, which has been reporting on Scientology for decades, ran a lengthy business pages look inside the Church of Scientology’s Gilman Hot Springs resort on Sunday. The package included 30 photos of the compound and focused on business and spiritual relationship of Tom Cruise and current church head David Miscavige, although the article also provides a bit of information about the religious beliefs of Scientologists:

Scientologists learn Hubbard’s secret theory of human suffering, which he traces to a galactic battle waged 75 million years ago by an evil tyrant named Xenu.

According to court documents made public by The Times in the 1980s, Hubbard espoused the belief that Xenu captured the souls, or thetans, of enemies and electronically implanted false concepts in them to keep them confused about his dirty work. The goal of these advanced courses is to become aware of the trauma and free of its effects.

One of the difficulties of covering the Church is the group’s reticence to open up to accusations from ex-members or the prying public. Both Cruise and Miscavige declined interviews. So the article is driven by the testimony of ex-members who are then contradicted by church officials. After one ex-member says she was forced to spend all night planting a field of wildflowers for Cruise and his new love Kidman to romp through, a spokesman denounces the charge as a fabrication from apostates.

Well, there you go. The Times reporters break through a bit of this frustrating pattern of shocking accusations and pat denials when they use outside verification, as they did following the series of claims that Cruise spent much time at the Gilman Springs center where he was doted on by Miscavige:

Cruise has made no extended visits to the complex since the early 1990s and has done 95% of his religious training elsewhere, Rinder said. Miscavige, he said, spends only a fraction of his time there and divides the rest of his time among offices in Los Angeles, Clearwater and Britain. He also stays aboard the Freewinds, Scientology’s 440-foot ship based in Curacao in the Caribbean, Rinder said.

However, voter registration records list the Gilman Hot Springs complex as Miscavige’s residence since the early 1990s and as recently as the 2004 general election. Rinder said the church leader simply had not updated his registration. Miscavige’s wife, father, stepmother and siblings also have resided at the complex, according to voting records and interviews.


I have a few friends who are former Scientologists. They were heavy into it while they were working in Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s but when they left the church, they decided it was best to leave the region, ending up in Colorado where I met them. I also am acquainted with a few current Scientologists — in Hollywood, of course. And I guess what I’m trying to say is that claims like this are interesting:

More than any other celebrity, Cruise has helped fuel the growth of the church, which claims a worldwide membership of 10 million and in the last two years has opened major centers in South Africa, Russia, Britain and Venezuela. Cruise joined Miscavige last year for the opening of a church in Madrid.

It is completely true that Scientologists claim a worldwide membership of 10 million. It’s also true that, well, they don’t have much support for the claim. In the same manner the reporters checked out the voter records, they should have provided the reader with context or trusted religious data. Mormons claim a worldwide membership of about 12 million, to put the number in context. Even understanding that religious adherence data is not terribly reliable, perhaps another source would have been helpful.

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Hollywood vs. homes and cellphones

ht02Forget all those raging debates about art, truth, commerce, faith, tolerance and free speech. It turns out that Hollywood thinks its box-office woes are rooted in — cell telephones, home theaters, rude adults, on-screen ads, ticket prices and fidgety tots. At least, that is what the National Association of Theater Owners told the gatekeepers at the New York Times.

But even in this “Problems? We ain’t got no stinkin’ middle-America problems” story by reporter Sharon Waxman, there is a hint of the topics being discussed much more openly in the Los Angeles Times.

Let’s listen in on one or two conversations with customers at the movies:

“It’s gotten too expensive to go the theater,” said Lauren Schneider, 49, who was strolling along the Santa Monica pedestrian mall on a brisk evening recently with her husband, Sascha. “You need a baby sitter. Tickets are $10, the popcorn is another $10. Before you’re done it’s a $50 night out.”

When they think a movie is a must-see — like “King Kong” or “Good Night, and Good Luck” — they will go, said the couple. Otherwise, “if it’s borderline, I’ll wait to rent it on DVD,” Mrs. Schneider said. …

Among a dozen moviegoers interviewed at the Santa Monica AMC theater, almost all cited ticket prices as a major factor in deciding whether to attend a movie. Several said ads were a nuisance. Most cited the caliber of the movies as the biggest issue.

“There’s a lack of quality stories,” said Lisa Martin, 40, from Bakersfield, Calif., who was on her way to see “Syriana.” “We feel like if we’re going to spend this amount of money, we want to see something good.”

What we have here are some powerful buried and unpacked pronowns — “they” and “we” — in phrases such as “when they think a movie is a must-see” and “we feel like if we’re going to spend.”

Who are these people?

Truth is, we don’t know. And, truth is, the American public is way too complex these days to provide a simple answer.

So Dr. James Dobson and Co. are wrong when they say Hollywood is out of touch with America. But they are right when they say that Hollywood is offending millions of Americans.

You see, different parts of Hollywood, with differing degrees of clout, are in touch with different Americas. The lords of the PG-13 blockbuster coalition are finding ways — sometimes — to punch the buttons of Red Zip Code America and fairly large numbers of that cherished 15-40 male demographic. An emerging niche of “values” moviemakers are just starting to explore ways to tap the 10 to 40 percent of the American public that is, in some sense, practicing a fairly traditional form of Christianity. The highly, highly skilled world of edgy, progressive Hollywood artists — religious and secular — who want to send messages just as much as they want to make cash are reaching their niche and helping shape the values and public image of Hollywood as a whole.

Are they a majority? Are they a gatekeeping elite? Are they too powerful for the good of their own industry?

We can debate that forever, I guess. Meanwhile, the values wars are only ONE PART of the tsunami of change that is hitting Hollywood. The pop-culture wars are real, but they may not be as powerful as the changes in technology that are allowing ordinary Americans to see and hear the movies and shows that they love in home theaters. And those cell telephones and ticket prices matter, as well.

So there are multiple forces pulling at the “they” and “we” groups in this complex and diverse culture I call Oprah America. What I called the “Brokeback stone table” issue is real, but it is only one part of a larger story. Many on the cultural right want to say it’s the whole story. Many on the cultural left want to ignore it. Both are wrong.

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Tips for understanding the mind war

muslimFor journalists — or anyone for that matter — looking to understand the conflict in the Middle East between the West and the Islamic fundamentalism, take a look at this book review in Sunday’s Washington Post titled “The War for Muslim Minds,” and then consider picking up one or more of these books.

The review by the RAND Corporation’s Bruce Hoffman encompasses three recent books on the minds of Muslims. The heaviest of the three, Fawaz A. Gerges’s The Far Enemy, moves along the theory on “why Jihad went global.” Khaled Abou El Fadl’s Wrestling Islam From the Extremists deals with the more well-known theory that Islam has been hijacked by highly charismatic characters, while Fred Halliday’s 100 Myths About the Middle East seems to be a quick guide worthy of a Christmast-time airplane ride (it’s also only about $10). I should note that I have not read any of these books, but that is no the point of this post.

While masterfully quoting Sun Tzu, Hoffman underscores the point I’ve been trying to make about journalists, only pointing towards the United States’ counterterrorism strategy:

Today, Washington has no such program in the war on terrorism. America’s counterterrorism strategy appears predominantly weighted toward a “kill or capture” approach targeting individual bad guys. This line of attack assumes that America’s targets — be they al Qaeda or the insurgency in Iraq — have a traditional center of gravity; it also assumes that the target simply needs to be destroyed so that global terrorism or the Iraqi insurgency will end. Accordingly, the attention of the U.S. military and intelligence community is directed almost uniformly toward hunting down militant leaders or protecting U.S. forces — not toward understanding the enemy we now face.

This is a monumental failing because al Qaeda’s ability to continue this struggle is predicated on its capacity to attract new recruits and replenish its resources. The success of U.S. strategy will therefore ultimately depend on Washington’s ability to counter al Qaeda’s ideological appeal — and thereby break the cycle of recruitment and regeneration. To do so, we first need to better understand the origins of the al Qaeda movement, the animosity and arguments that underpin it and indeed the region of the world from which its struggle emanated and upon which its gaze still hungrily rests. Each of the three books reviewed here provides a good start in this essential, though lamentably belated, process.

“In my conversations with former jihadis, one of the critical lessons I have learned is that personalities, not ideas or organizations, are the drivers behind the movement,” writes Gerges in his book, implicitly removing the importance of religion in this international conflict.

Why is this important to the average journalist? Most of us are not in the Middle East covering elections and suicide bombings.

Here’s why: the Post also on Sunday carried an article title “Muslim Leader Forges Interfaith Accord” by Fredrick Kunkle of a “popular Imam,” Yahya Hendi, who is supposedly boosting Islam throughout Maryland and beyond.

It’s a fairly straightforward middle-of-the-local-section religion story except for the fact that he’s a cologne-splashing Imam who is convinced that Islam, Judaism and Christianity are more similar than different. Fair enough character, but any reporter digging past the same-day feature story written by Kunkle must pitch some serious questions at Hendi who believes he is the Arabic version of John the Baptist. And to do that one must have at least a primer in what Muslims today believe and it is about as far away from monolithic as you can get.

Then there is the international story of Muslims flocking to the polls in Iraq and the convening of Afghanistan’s first parliament in more than 30 years. What story is more important these days?

These historical moments will receive their due treatment in lengthy magazine pieces followed by thick books, but for the journalist grinding out daily news stories on these dramatic events — whether for the metro section or from the Green Zone — a background in the minds of the Muslims will be crucial for accurately understanding the story.

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